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“Space; the final frontier.
These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.
Her five-year mission:
To explore strange, new worlds;
To seek out life, new civilizations.
To boldly go where no man has gone before.”
With those stirring words, on September 8, 1966, Star Trek was born. Conceived by Gene Roddenberry, it was intended to be a “wagon train to the stars,” using space, a ship, and the people aboard her to tell the story of the future.
It was a hopeful future. War, poverty, racism, hunger all were things of the dim, distant past. Earth had come together in a global government and formed an interstellar Federation of Planets peacefully uniting newly-discovered civilizations. Warp drive powered faster-than-light ships, making interstellar exploration and commerce possible. The transporter made possible instantaneous transportation over thousands of miles; tricorders provided explorers all manner of information about the environment. Cancer was eradicated, along with most other terrible diseases. Broken bones, torn blood vessels, and damaged organs, all could be healed without surgery.
But conflict hadn’t become extinct. The Federation fought regularly with the Klingons and Romuluns.
The ship, called a “starship” rather than a space ship, was named “Enterprise,” a name familiar to Americans. The original aircraft carrier was the most decorated ship in World War II. Enterprise was the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in 1960 and the Navy is under considerable pressure to bestow that name on the lead ship of the new CVN-21-class carriers.
Space of the 23rd century was a multi-cultural environment. There was an Asian navigator, a Russian helmsman, an extra-terrestrial second-in-command, and an African-American communicator (a woman, no less), officers all. It was a daring approach to prime-time television.
Star Trek dealt up front with issues of racism and war, freedom and slavery. Kirk and Uhura gave television its first inter-racial kiss.
But even with all its qualities, it was probably a bit too smart for its time. The show lasted only three seasons.
Then, something amazing happened.
In 1969 the show went into syndication. Running in time slots more amenable to its target audience, Star Trek found its resonance with a younger generation of fans. The series’ inherent optimism played well against the backdrop of the dreary, cynical post-Vietnam era, giving young people a vision of hope. Fan conventions emerged. The first one was a small affair organized by the Newark, NJ Public library in March 1969. A much larger one in New York City in 1972 drew 3,000 fans. The next year, 6,000 showed up, and in 1974, 15,000 people attended the convention, most in costume. Cast members from the show began to appear, albeit befuddled by all this attention for a canceled TV show. By 1979, the first of 11 Star Trek-themed movies was released. On television, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987, followed by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise.
Currently, there is no first-run Star Trek series on television, the first time that has happened in almost three decades. But the series is far from dead. All five series are in syndication and film number 12 is due out in 2012.
Star Trek has become a cultural icon, with many of its catch phrases in common use. NASA named the first space shuttle Enterprise, although it never flew in space. A probe utilizing a revolutionary ion propulsion engine was named “Deep Space 1.” People who don’t know Adams, Jefferson, and Madison do know Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. And I know business folks who go into difficult meetings with the muttered phrase, “shields up.”
No material object can attain the speed of light, much less go beyond. A transporter could only work if the object is heated to a thousand degrees. Artificial gravity? Nobody yet knows how real gravity works. Shields, tractor beams, all the technology which is part of parcel of the Star Trek universe exists only as fiction, beyond the laws of physics as we understand them.
But we still have hope that humankind is capable of astounding achievements, given enough time. And while we are still at each other’s throats, we still have hope that at some point all our hatred will end and humans will share this planet, not as separate nations, but as one single species.
It is the one thing that underpins everything Star Trek.
And as long as we have hope, is anything really impossible?