Earlier today, Joel showcased the ways Star Trek has influenced technology in the last 50 years, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg for what Star Trek has done for pop culture. Star Trek is so much more than just science fiction; from its campy beginnings onwards, it was an examination of humanity and culture, all wrapped in a big trojan starship.
First, the most obvious one is that Star Trek aired the first interracial kiss on American television. This was a big deal in and of itself, but what I really love about the story is that the cast themselves were gung-ho to do it…supposedly, William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols purposely flubbed all the non-kiss alternative scenes filmed, forcing NBC’s hand and creating history in the process. This was the most obvious bucking of cultural norms at the time, but even the cast themselves were seen as being purely science fiction. A Russian man working alongside Americans? A Japanese officer? A black woman on the bridge of the ship? None of these were normal for television or for a culture still working through issues of racism and a fear of the cold war. Star Trek was as much a science fiction for offering up a future utopia as it was for the phasers and tricorders.
The Next Generation tackled a number of similar storylines and issues, especially around the idea of peacefully ending conflicts, getting along better, etc. And they gave us the most skin-crawling enemies in the form of the Borg, because it taps into a very primal fear. The Borg don’t just kill you, they kill who you are and assimilate you into a collective, and that’s a far more terrifying living death than just being blown up by a torpedo. TNG also gave us episodes like “Chain of Command“, which really went all in on the effects of psychological torture, and “Darmok“, where the captain has to learn to communicate with an alien race whose linguistics are so different they cannot be translated.
But Deep Space Nine really dove headfirst into political commentary, from airing a same-sex kiss to their underlying themes of religion, technology, war, and finding peace after years of oppression and horror. Deep Space Nine takes place after the occupation of an entire planet, Bajor, and it focuses in large part on how that planet and culture will rebuild themselves after being subjugated for so long. It also handles an alien religion with respect, and showcases how an advanced culture can have religion and technology exist side by side. Not to mention, a black man is a captain, and a strong, opinionated woman is his second in command.
Finally, DS9 also shows the world of Trek before the Federation came to be (“Past Tense“), and it doesn’t shy away from showing how harsh it is, with clear differences based on socioeconomic class. Instead of their trip back in time being a silly “oh look how primitive we used to be, with our landlines and slow computers”, DS9 chooses to highlight the worst of our culture, showing how easy it is for an underclass to slip between the cracks. It’s not a fun, happy time, it’s a gut-punch because you can easily see how a few bad decisions could lead us into that dystopian future.
I’ll admit, I didn’t watch much of Voyager or Enterprise, so I can’t comment on either of those, but when I look back on my childhood, I can see the ways Star Trek shaped who I am. First of all, I firmly believe I chose to major in philosophy because of Star Trek; when you strip away the science fiction, Star Trek is at its heart a series looking to explore what it is to be an enlightened culture, a good person, and when and how to make difficult decisions. It is inherently deeply philosophical, because it is examining where we might be headed, and how our choices will shape what it means when and if we get there. Star Trek also used the filter of science fiction to work through the philosophy of personal identity.
DS9 featured Jadzia Dax, a woman who was both in her 20s/30s and also several hundred years old, because her race partnered with a symbiont that lived a lifetime in one host before moving on to the next one. In one episode, an alien race attempted to place Dax on trial for crimes that they claimed the prior host had perpetrated, and it led to an important question: was Jadzia Dax the current host responsible for the actions of Curzon Dax the prior host? Where did that line get drawn?
I would also be remiss if I didn’t discuss one of the greatest episodes of television ever, “Duet” from DS9’s first season. Without giving too much away, most of the episode centers around a prisoner and the officer questioning him. The prisoner is Cardassian, the race of aliens who enslaved Bajor, and the questioner is the first officer of the station, Kira Nerys. They engage in debate throughout the episode, and much of it centers on the morality of taking no action; if you know there are atrocities happening around you, but you choose to simply do your job and leave, are you as responsible as the people committing the crimes? Can guilt and shame from inaction be channeled into a positive change? And is it possible, or even right, to forgive an oppressor? These are questions that can be applied to anything, from large scale global conflicts to interpersonal relationships. The science fiction is the filter, but the questions and conflict are universal.
Here’s a clip from “Duet”, but be warned it is spoilery (background for those who are willing to be spoiled, written in white, so highlight it: Maritza was a file clerk at a Cardassian prison camp where there were severe atrocities committed against the Bajorans. He disguises himself as the head of the prison and arrives on Deep Space 9 so that he will be caught and punished, because he feels he deserves to be held responsible for the horrors he witnessed but couldn’t stop):
Granted, I had plenty of shallow reasons for loving Star Trek as well. I’ll never forget my childhood crushes on Major Kira and Doctor Crusher (and real-life Doctor Crusher and I share a real-life alma mater!), and yea, I loved the science fiction silliness too. But when I watch Star Trek today, I don’t just see a hokey show I used to love, I see a show with a universal message that cut past social taboos by wrapping them in a shiny science fiction wrapper. There’s very few franchises that can claim that level of depth, and I think it’s part of why this 50th anniversary has such resonance for so many people.