On 8 September 1966, the sci-fi television show Star Trek aired its first episode, setting into motion a chain of events that would leave no aspect of pop culture unchanged. What began as a single low-budget show, the brainchild of creator/director Gene Roddenberry has, over the last 50 years, expanded into a veritable institution. As of this year, the Star Trek franchise is comprised of 726 television episodes distributed across seven different series, 13 feature films, and innumerable merchandise tie-ins, novelizations, comics, games and magazines, and this doesn’t even take into account those texts produced by the show’s prolific, organized fandom.
However, Star Trek‘s outsize influence on pop culture cannot be measured solely by the number of media objects it has generated. The show is also responsible for a number of political, cultural, and technological developments. Some of these developments have been the result of the show’s content. Beginning only three years after the formal end of America’s Jim Crow laws, Star Trek consistently challenged midcentury representational norms by placing women and people of color in central roles.
In particular, the character of Lieutenant Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, gestured toward a utopian future in which racial oppression had given way to a global ethos of knowledge, peace, and unity. The revolutionary nature of this character and its impact on American culture cannot be underestimated. There is, of course, the matter of the kiss, but there’s also a lot more, too. In an interview with the Emmy Foundation in 2010, Nichols recounted how civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. persuaded her of the importance of the role, citing the positive influence it would have on future generations.
He was, of course, absolutely correct. It was the character of Uhura and, importantly, Nichols’ own tireless activism that pushed NASA to admit people of color to its astronaut program. One of those who benefited from Nichols’ efforts was Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to enter outer space. Jemison, who has long been vocal about Nichols’ influence on her, eventually had her own Star Trek moment, appearing for a cameo in an episode called “Second Chances” in The Next Generation.
There have, of course, been a number of other important contributions. In 1976, the show’s fans (a group of folks not to be trifled with) successfully petitioned NASA to name one of its space shuttles after the iconic starship Enterprise, a fitting tribute given the show’s tendency to drive technological innovation here on Earth. It’s unlikely that we can attribute any one particular technological development to the show; influence is a tricky thing to track. However, there are a number of Star Trek technologies that have moved from fiction to fact: food replicator, universal translator, tablet computers, tricorder, holodeck.
We’re happy to honor the 50th anniversary of this incredible institution by bringing together a collection of essays that cover a variety of topics related to the films, the fans, the televisions shows, the parodies, and the political influence of Star Trek. Make it so!
Associate Film Editor
Montage @copy; by Stormy94 of Deviant Art.