Books

'The Star Trek Book': This Is Why We Still Love Star Trek

Long before society caught up by heeding calls for diversity in education and the workplace, Star Trek was preaching "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" as a strength.


The Star Trek Book

Publisher: DK
Length: 336 pages
Author: Paul Ruditis
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-06
Amazon

After 50 years, a dozen films (the newest released in July), and five live-action television shows (with a sixth due next year), Star Trek has become a cultural archive for some of recent history's most meaningful debates: all the way from Vietnam when the war was still ongoing to physician-assisted suicide and post-9/11 national security debates. It's easy to forget how much ground the franchise's various incarnations have covered.

While The Star Trek Book doesn't aim to document the real-world history of the franchise, it's comprehensive survey of the franchise's heroes and villains, planets and key events opens a panoramic view of everything that has made Star Trek so endearing and charming even as it led viewers to contemplate both their generation's biggest issues and timeless questions about what kind of species mankind might become. In a time when much of television has fallen into a cycle of ponderous nostalgia and much of sci-fi offers cynicism and cataclysm, the Star Trek Book reexamines a franchise that, for 50 years, has staked its name on an abiding faith in the promise of the future and the fundamentally good nature of mankind.

The book admits up front: Star Trek can seem unwieldy and enormous, like a soap opera which seems daunting to newcomers hoping to understand its complex in-universe history. It's a project created through the hard work of hundreds of men and women over the past 50 years, all largely hewing to the single common denominator of creator Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision for the future. The Star Trek Book sets out to help newcomers familiarize themselves with the franchise's body of work, just in time to partake in the continuing film series, television series, and other various ways of expounding upon that original vision.

It's clear from the very beginning of the book what made Roddenberry's and Star Trek's vision so attractive and capable of compelling a relatively low-budget (and prematurely canceled) '60s-era television show into the 21st century. The fictional institutions and the lives of the franchise's characters were all built upon the same utopian principles that seemed both remote, appealing, and also frighteningly in jeopardy in the '60s. The various stories told throughout the years tackled these questions in ways that made the present day's issues seem eminently solvable, presented a vision of the future in which disparate groups could find common ground, and turned television into something that could be both entertaining and edifying. Alternate realities (e.g. "mirror universe"), we are reminded, were able to show both our characters and the viewers who associated with them what might result from failing to heed the moral lessons each episode delivered. Long before society caught up by heeding calls for diversity in education and the workplace, Star Trek was preaching "infinite diversity in infinite combinations" as a strength; and favored multi-racial and multi-cultural casts.

The contributions Star Trek's imaginary science and engineering made in inspiring real-world scientists, explorers, and engineers have been well-documented and go unmentioned, given the in-world fictional narrative of the book. But it's impossible to read the passages on the franchise's early handheld communicators, holographic entertainment technology, and universal translators and not see the inspiration for yesterday's flip-phones, or today's augmented reality games, or Skype Translator (to name only a few related examples).

The inventory of alien species itself pulls back the curtain on the issues each has been used to explore from the nature of individuality (Borg) to the excesses of capitalism (Ferengi) to the definition of life itself ("Nanites, exocomps, and the meaning of life"). It's clear that oftentimes Star Trek has used certain species to represent different aspects of the human mind and what otherwise seems like an otherworldly bestiary clearly becomes another window into Star Trek's unique commentary on human nature. Each major character receives his or her own full-length profile, highlighting their personality and their history.

Ruditis, experienced at producing these kinds of books, does well to keep things moving; the book has a lot of information to convey and limited space to communicate it. The pace is kept by communicating enough information via bold, characteristic images that help exhibit the amount of care and creativity that has gone into creating everything from countless alien foreheads to complex CGI.

Star Trek is an archive of American culture emerging into what could fairly be considered its third wave. As the book reveals, we're inching closer and closer to that singular in-universe moment when mankind made contact with extraterrestrials for the first time, at least on TV, almost 50 years ago. An unavoidable takeaway is that our technological progress may be falling behind where the show's writers imagined we might be in the early 21st century, but we seem to have alternately avoided some of the imagined conflicts the franchise inserted into history (and are hopefully not hurtling toward the undated World War III).

For anyone looking to familiarize themselves with not only the bare bones history of the franchise but its depth and flavor, the Star Trek book is an excellent resource. For fans, it's a celebration of a franchise that has meant so much to so many. As it embarks on a new film, a new television series, and undoubtedly other means of delivering its message and unique story, Star Trek's creators would be served well by surveying its landscape for the landmarks that characterize its successes and its most enduring stories from a catalogue of over 700 episodes and 13 films. The Star Trek Book distills the franchise down to its most important information in an excellent demonstration of the franchise's long-lasting appeal.

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