The Genius of Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek"

On the 45th anniversary of the last episode of 'Star Trek,' we take a look back at how the original series boldly went where no other had gone before...
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On the 45th anniversary of the last episode of 'Star Trek,' we take a look back at how the original series boldly went where no other had gone before...
Star Trek Photo

A scene from 'Star Trek' the original series, which aired from 1966 to 1969. 

I discovered the original Star Trek series in reruns when I was 10, and got hooked for life. The greatest thing about the show, for me, was creator Gene Roddenberry’s revolutionary idea that one day, being smart would finally become valuable. What better news is there for a 10-year-old than the idea that those who were smart and disliked conformity actually had a place in the future?

Star Trek boasted aspirational ideals, racial unity, and a destiny for humanity that included peace, hope, and bold adventure. It also had space travel, cool devices, plus sexy cast members and guest stars to keep it fun along the way.

While that’s what I saw, others viewed the show as a wacky 1960s throwback, full of day-glo colors, over-the-top costumes, crazy-looking aliens, and people flinging themselves from one side of the bridge to the other in every battle.

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"Bones" McCoy (DeForest Kelley) escorts some feathered friends.

Ahead of its time? Trapped in its time? I say both. Let’s compare and contrast, like we used to do in English class. It’ll be fun.

TECHNOLOGY

Was Star Trek technology ahead of its time? Ask Martin Cooper, the inventor of the “non-vehicular” cell phone, whose inspiration came from watching Captain Kirk (William Shatner) use his communicator.

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Martin Cooper, inventor of the “non-vehicular” cell phone, was inspired by Captain Kirk's communicator. 

Want more?

Dr. McCoy’s hyposprays, check. MIT even has one that’s programmable. When they finally get this in common use, all of us who are terrified of getting needles will dance for joy. (I’ve been waiting, you know.)

Scanners, check. Played your X-Box Kinect lately?

Phasers, check. A taser is more or less a phaser set to stun.

Speaking directly to the computer? Check. Siri! Google’s answer to Siri, by the way, was initially code-named “Majel” as a tribute to Gene Roddenberry’s wife, who also played Nurse Chapel and has been the voice of the computer in multiple Star Trek series.

Universal Translator, check. Try the Google Translate app, or wait for Microsoft’s real-time version, coming at the end of this year.

But for a ship that can cross galaxies, they sure rely heavily on toggle switches, knobs, blinking lights, and analog displays, all staples of the 60s. And oh my, all that whirring and beeping! Who could possibly think straight with all that racket? The bridge blinked and buzzed relentlessly, like some infernal hold music reminding you it’s still there.

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Engineer Scotty (James Doohan) flips the switches and other electronic doodads on the Starship Enterprise. 

Despite their advanced communications equipment, calls still have to be patched through on an individual basis by Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), like she’s in Mayberry.

But my favorite example is in this sequence. While an android that looks and acts like a human is a remarkable (if not unique) sci-fi concept, there’s something very 1960s about this particular method for making one. Think of it as the Timothy Leary formula.

1.

Mold figure out of plaster and place on turntable.

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2.

Place person to be duplicated on other side of turntable. Naked. Place the restraining arm accordingly. Use your shadows well.



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3.

Turn some big colored knobs. 



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4.

Spin the turntable really really fast, and have the lights change colors.


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5.

Voilà! An android Captain Kirk has been created.

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WOMEN

The good news: women weren’t just on the crew, they were on the bridge. Lt. Uhura not only ran communications, she also jumped in to take over either navigation or helm whenever needed.

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Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura. 

Star Trek’s women included doctors, religious leaders, and rebels who fought for their cause.

The bad news: the women on the crew all wore miniskirts, and many shrieked for help when push came to shove. Most of them were relegated to serving coffee or holding clipboards. Sometimes, the bridge of the Enterprise looked more like an office than a starship.

The men on the Enterprise frequently refer to women as “girls,” even though these “girls” were fellow members of the crew, and sometimes leered at them, too.

But the truth is, Captain Kirk was just as much of a sex object as any of the women. In the spirit of the sexual revolution that was just beginning, his shirt was ripped at every available opportunity, and he whored himself out constantly to save the ship.

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Shirtless Captain Kirk was as much if a sex object as the women of "Star trek."

Captain Kirk got laid -- sometimes for fun, and sometimes to get what he wanted. He was a full decade ahead of Charlie’s Angels, and they didn’t even put out.


DIVERSITY

It’s hard to grasp how momentous a thing it was in 1966 to see people of different ethnicities on the bridge of a starship. The very idea of having a Russian, an Asian, and a black African woman in positions of responsibility was unheard of at the time. NASA – a forward-thinking organization by its nature – was so inspired by the character of Uhura that they hired Nichelle Nichols to help them recruit both women and minorities to the space program.

And yes, the show featured American television’s first “interracial” kiss. Although we don’t even blink at it now, back then it was a very big deal. In 1968, the sponsors of a prime time special hosted by Petula Clark panicked when Clark touched Harry Belafonte’s arm during a song. They tried to cut the segment, and failed only because Clark refused to let the show air without it. It’s hard to believe that a mere arm-touching was so controversial, isn’t it?

African-American Firsts: Film & TV: Although she lived in a galaxy far, far away, Nichelle Nichols still made history in the U.S. for locking lips with William Shatner on the series Star Trek, taking part in the first interracial kiss on TV on November 22, 1968. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

On November 22, 1968, Lt. Uhura and Captain Kirk locked lips in the first interracial kiss on American television.

Another third season episode showcased racism’s -- ahem -- true colors. Bele and Lokai brought their fight to the Enterprise, a conflict based on something the crew didn’t even notice: Bele’s people were black on the right side and white on the left, and Lokai’s were the opposite.

Their planet destroyed by war, the two continued their fighting, unable to see beyond their own prejudice. The episode aired less than a year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

So what did the show get wrong? Ask Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Half Vulcan and half human, and superior in physical strength, longevity, vision and hearing, he had a fine-tuned brain that operated on logic instead of emotion. He also had the Vulcan neck pinch, the mind meld, and the shiniest hair in the galaxy.

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Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. 

Also, he could talk to hippies.

He was like this amazing hybrid of Michael Jordan, Gary Kasparov, and Jimmy Carter. What did this get him? A lot of mockery. This is how he was spoken to on a regular basis:

“Don’t give me any Vulcan details, Spock.”

“Are you out of your Vulcan mind?”

“I’m trying to thank you, you pointed-eared hobgoblin!”

“You bet your pointed ears, I am.”

SPOCK: “Trick or treat, Captain?” 


KIRK: “Yes, Mister Spock. You'd be a natural.”

Despite a few missteps, Star Trek stood firm in Gene Roddenberry’s message that in the future, we really have worked it all out, and the concept of racism is both foreign and distasteful.

LIVE LONG AND PROSPER

The show tackled race, the Vietnam War, aging, extinction, power that corrupts, mental illness, personal sacrifice, pacifism, and dozens of other issues, all by telling exciting, action-packed stories with cerebral, fun dialogue. Ahead of its time? Compare it to some of the other hit shows of the same era: Bewitched, Bonanza, Green Acres, and The Beverly Hillbillies.

Then again, they did have that hippie episode:

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Make love, not intergalactic war: a scene from the space-hippie episode of 'Star Trek.'

The space-hippies say things like, "Why do you wear all those clothes?” and then sing a lot of really terrible songs. Apparently hippies don't evolve that much.

It doesn’t matter, though. Star Trek was ahead of its time, aired when the country was in the middle of a struggle between rigid tradition and new ideas, and did indeed boldly go where no one had gone before. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, a Vulcan philosophy, spoke volumes, especially to this little kid (and millions of others) who went along for the ride. Some of the inspired have gone on to some pretty major accomplishments. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, was such a fan that she used to begin her shift each day by informing Houston that “hailing frequencies were open”, and she eventually appeared in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. She’s also friends with Nichelle Nichols. 

The other famous fan who appeared in a Next Generation episode: theoretical physicist and genius Stephen Hawking. Additional high-caliber fans include Nobel Peace Prize winners Barack Obama and Al Gore, the former commander of the International Space Station Chris Hadfield, and Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group which is now working on getting commercial space flights up and running by the end of 2014.

Forty-five years sure goes quickly, doesn’t it?