Keeping On Trek
September 8th, 1966
Science fiction TV show Star Trek debuts on NBC.
It did not come out of the gates a blockbuster success. It would take two network cancellations, an epic run in syndication, a series of theatrical motion pictures, and a slow burn build in popularity to make this pop cult favorite the renown global entertainment franchise it is today.
A great deal has been written about the rise of Star Trek, so much so that there is nothing I could add that hasn’t been written before. Rather than rehashing this familiar information, I’d like to take a minute to discuss the show in terms of what it has meant to me personally, and to a notable degree, professionally.
I grew up watching Star Trek during its syndication run on channel 50 in the Detroit metropolitan area. As a kid I enjoyed the sci-fi world it presented. The low budget, often cheesy special effects didn’t bother me. I was intrigued by the stories. Each week the starship Enterprise would encounter a strange new world or go up against an incredibly mind-blowing threat. I mean, a gigantic single cell amoeba thousands of miles wide threatening to split and multiply to the point it would take over outer space, and that we would be considered an invading organism. What? Or an ancient planet-killing drone running amok in the universe on auto pilot after having destroyed its creators. Who comes up with this stuff?
Only the best science fiction writers of the day, that’s who. Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry wrote a lion’s share of the scripts for the first couple of seasons, many of which are considered sci-fi classics today, but he also engaged the talents of noted sci-fi authors like Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and Norman Spinrad. Together they produced a lot of stories with high-powered speculation. The writing was top notch in those early years, but with all the otherworldly shenanigans on the show Roddenberry knew he risked losing a mid-sixties TV audience who grew up watching westerns. To keep the stories relatable to the masses, Roddenberry utilized two key elements.
One, he presented the future through an optimistic lens via the United Federation of Planets, an organization of exploration structured similarly to our present-day Navy. Ranks and ships and fleets all sounded familiar to us in the Star Trek universe, and that helped to provide a grounding effect to the fantastic stories being told. Two, he kept character at the core of the stories, and frequently reflected on what it meant to be human amongst the cacophony of technology presented. As much as Star Trek is about amazing sci-fi ideas, it’s just as much about friendship and family, acceptance and empathy, compassion and understanding, honor and duty. As a kid I didn’t completely grasp these concepts, but I didn’t have to on a conscious level. Star Trek embodies these emotions and ideals through classic storytelling, not through preaching from a soap box, and that is the most effective way to do it.
The Enterprise bridge crew, for example, is comprised of a female African-American communications officer, an Asian helmsman, a Russian ensign, a Scottish engineer, a white captain, and a science officer from the planet Vulcan. Back in the ‘60s this mix of people was not at all the norm. Racial and international tensions were high, and the walls separating these divisions were forbidding, but
Roddenberry had made interracial harmony an integral part of his future.
That was a bold new idea. The true masterstroke in driving home his vision of multicultural acceptance, however, was remarkably simple. He decided not to overtly comment on the topic at all. Instead, his racially eclectic mix of characters behaved as if this kind of interaction was just the way things were in the future. That unspoken message resonated with my younger self. That’s just the way things should be.
As far as characters go, Captain James T Kirk is my favorite. William Shatner truly nails the role. As a kid, and in large part as an adult, I consider Kirk the gold standard of what a true hero should be. He is a confident leader, bold and decisive, yet intelligent and wise enough to seek council from his trusted advisers. Often the mediator between the two extremes of logic and emotion, Kirk is a reasoned and rational leader. But the aspect of Kirk’s character I admire the most is his unyielding determination. His ability to take a desperately hopeless situation and find in it a path to victory is inspiring. This trait is so associated with his character that it is riffed on in the Trek parody movie Galaxy Quest in the catch phrase of the Kirk-esque captain played by Tim Allen. “Never give up. Never surrender.” It is even vocalized by Kirk’s friend and shipmate Dr. McCoy in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. When a deadly enemy threatens to capture and kill the crew, Kirk is forced to destroy a heavily damaged Enterprise in order to escape. As they watch the beloved starship burning up in the atmosphere of a distant planet, Kirk laments aloud about his decision. “My God, Bones, what have I done.” McCoy’s emphatic reply says it all. “What you had to do, what you always do. Take death and turn it into a fighting chance to live.”
Perhaps Kirk’s most renown moment of victory-from-defeat is found in Star Trek II. In the scene, all seems lost. Kirk and his companions are stranded inside a hollowed-out asteroid with no apparent way out, imprisoned for eternity. While his companions are distraught, Kirk remains calm and resolute. When pressed on this, Kirk responds with perhaps the most character-defining statement he has ever uttered, delivered by Shatner with all the Kirk-ian swagger he could muster. “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”
At which point he opens his lifeline to rescue aboard the Enterprise, revealing a trail of plot breadcrumbs dropped earlier in the story. Some have interpreted this line of dialog as an example of Kirk’s arrogance. I’ve always taken it as an example of his never-ending determination to survive, and that isn’t a bad lesson for a kid to learn.
As I grew up and began navigating my adult life in a professional career, the qualities of relentless determination and projecting self-confidence stayed with me. More than once I channeled Kirk as I engaged a fix for a technical problem on a job site, not 100% certain it would work, but confident enough in my abilities to throw the switch with a bit of bravado. You’d be surprised how often that worked.
And then my writing career began. When I started, I knew the stories I would tell would not be typical or mundane in nature. I like big ideas and big stakes, but I also wanted the stories to be grounded with character and emotion. Fortunately, a working template had already been established in my mind by Roddenberry. To this end I find myself frequently referring back to those classic Trek episodes. My writing genre will never be confused with hard core science fiction, but the emotional and dramatic touchstones I love so much from those beloved Trek stories are always in mind, and I try to convey a similar emotional impact on the page. In those early days of Star Trek, and on into The Next Generation era, I embraced the storytelling mix of idea and character that Gene Roddenberry presented. It still inspires and motivates me today, and I’m certain it always will.
That’s not a bad takeaway from a twice-cancelled TV show from the sixties.