Star Trek celebrates its 50th birthday today, standing as one of the most beloved (and profitable) science fiction properties of all time. Its 50-year run is a pretty incredible achievement — especially considering the fact that, by all rights, this franchise shouldn’t still exist. Canceled after just 3 seasons, the original series (TOS) could have easily gone the way of dozens of other sci-fi stories of its time that had great ambitions, yet just didn’t find the right fit for its audience.
But Star Trek didn’t die. In fact, you might argue that the franchise is as strong and vibrant today as it ever was. The original show has spawned 13 films and 726 episodes of space exploring television so far, along with troves of related media, conventions, fan art, and more. With a new series in the works in Star Trek: Discovery, a blockbuster movie still in theaters, and the promise of another film in the near future, the sci-fi institution is showing no signs of stopping.
Today, on its 50th anniversary, we look back on one of the greatest sci-fi franchises ever created and attempt to examine why, still to this day, we all want to keep boldly going where no one has gone before.
Diversity and inclusivity
Star Trek fans span generations, encompassing a wide swath of demographics, and a big part of that is due to the franchise’s ability to show a unified culture on earth as not only a grand ambition, but also a plausible one. The original series especially, which premiered in 1966 during the height of the civil rights movement, was popular among all types of Americans. Civil Rights leader Dr. martin Luther King Jr. was a fan of the original series and praised it for it’s inclusive representations. The series featured an African American woman, an Asian American man, a Jewish man playing the role of an alien, and a Russian teenager as integral main characters.
Gene Roddenberry’s vision of such a diverse future was an important message at the time, and remains so today, especially considering how people tend to view the world given current events. This emphasis on diversity and inclusion has endured throughout the franchise’s 50-year span. The most recent film, Star Trek: Beyond, and the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery series both feature openly gay characters, women, and people of color in important roles, and every other series features similar diversity, including examples like Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko in Deep Space Nine, and Kate Mulgrew as Captain Jane Mulgrew in Star Trek: Voyager.
These qualities were not only important to creator Gene Roddenberry, but to past and present cast members, writers, and showrunners, as well. Most notably, Sir Patrick Stewart, aka Captain Jean Luc Picard in The Next Generation series and films, has been a vocal advocate for women’s rights, especially with regards to stopping abuse and violence towards women. While there have been a few examples of storylines trivializing issues concerning race, sexuality, and gender, they’re largely the exception. Star Trek is special for its subtlety in normalizing equality and spreading its humanist ideals over the past five decades.
A focus on problem solving
A lot of sci-fi tends to be dystopian and mired in conflict. Star Trek is the opposite. It puts writing and acting at the forefront, and makes the philosophical argument that solutions and compromises can be reached without resorting to violence. In fact, many episodes from the numerous series, and many of the films, feature long sequences of the crew engaged in debate and discussion with another species in an attempt to find a compromise or peaceful solution to a problem.
That’s not to say that the series trades entirely in diplomacy. Many of Star Trek’s stories feature plenty of bombastic sci-fi action (the franchise did give birth to the ‘Photon Torpedo’, after all). But even when combat does become necessary, more often than not the phasers are set to “stun,” not kill. We’ve looked up to these characters for their ingenuity and courage, not their weaponry or call to battle.
The franchise often sees its characters coming face-to-face with fascinating cosmic beings — such as the strange Komar-energy being in Star Trek: Voyager, the god-like being in Star Trek: The Final Frontier, or Q from The Next Generation. It also asks complex questions about the universe, humanity, and life itself. Mainstream franchises far too often trend towards the lowest common denominator of storytelling and entertainment. Star Trek is different; since the beginning, it challenged audiences to think, question, and explore along with the different crews, while still bringing in massive audiences.
A vision of a sustainable future
Star Trek’s spirit of curiosity and pursuit of knowledge isn’t just confined to its fictional stories. The series affected the real world in tangible ways, influencing the evolution of science and technology, especially with regards to space travel and sustainable energy. Star Trek shows humans comfortably exploring space, and coexisting on a healthy Earth — peacefully and sustainably. Much like the way the franchise expresses a peaceful vision of the future, it also shows how humanity can live in harmony with nature, and still achieve fantastical scientific feats. While the overwhelming majority of Star Trek takes place far from the home planet, Earth is where some of the most interesting aspects of Star trek’s universe exist.
The United Federation of Planets is headquartered in San Francisco, on an Earth that has peacefully unified under a singular government, overcome climate change, and even installed a weather modification network to monitor and adjust the climate as needed. Due to an emphasis on sustainable resources humans are able to live comfortably and peacefully, while technological advancements have removed the need for currency, or the possibility of war. It’s a surprisingly utopian, even socialist vision of the future that has been gleefully embraced by fans.
A spark for discovery and innovation
Star Trek (TOS) debuted just four years after the American human space program began, and three years before the first lunar landing. America and the then-Soviet Union were embroiled in the Cold War, and the space race was one of the most important fronts. The state of affairs in the late ’60s was deeply influenced by America’s obsession with space, and Star Trek was a major part of bringing that idea to living rooms. Since then, the entire franchise has had a hand in shaping the evolution of spaceflight and exploration. For example, actress Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Uhura in the original series, helped NASA recruit new trainees to their astronaut program.
Not only did the series help ignite interest in space exploration, it also became a touchstone for science and technology in the proceeding decades. Classic Star Trek devices like voice-controlled computers, AI, and communicators are all echoed in real-world tech, helping to inspire the modern PC, voice assistants like Siri and Cortana, and even the cellphone itself — the recognized inventor of the first personal cellphone cited Capt. Kirk’s communicator as his inspiration. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Holodeck, a massive environment that produces life-like virtual surroundings, has taken its first steps to actualization thanks to sophisticated VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. Other theoretical tech such as the EmDrive owe at least some inspirational credit to Star Trek’s warp drives and other innovations.
The birth of fan communities
We’d be remiss if we didn’t discuss the biggest contribution Star Trek has made to entertainment culture at large: fandom and fan communities. Star Trek has spawned an entire world of fan expos and conventions where Trekkies gather to share their love and interest in their favorite sci-fi franchise. Today, conventions exist for all manner of comic books, video games, anime, film, and cosplay. Even websites like YouTube, Twitch, and RoosterTeeth have their own conventions, thanks in part to the passion of the early Star Trek fans.
The franchise has also expanded beyond TV and film to include everything from video games, novels, comics, podcasts, and even fan films — Walter Koenig, who played Chekov in the original series has appeared in several fan-made films and internet series.
Still, despite the bevy of content within the transmedia franchise of Star Trek, it’s still the films and TV series that hold the most importance in pop culture. The adoration of characters like Spock and Data are rivaled by few fictional characters in recent history. And iconic lines like “Live long and Prosper,” or “Make it so,” have dug their way so deep into our cultural identity, they may as well have been said by political leaders. It’s arguable that even iconic franchises like Star Wars wouldn’t exist without Star Trek. The franchise spawned the world of niche and geeky fandom, and helped bring the genres of sci-fi and fantasy into the mainstream, so that all of us, no matter what creed or culture, could get in on the fun.
Happy birthday, Star Trek. Here’s to 50 more years of a better vision for humanity.