On September 8, 1966, NBC premiered a science fiction series called Star Trek. Although it only lasted three seasons in its original iteration, that series has spawned hundreds of hours of television and movies, and in the process offered an inclusive and exciting vision of the future. Suffice to say, one would be hard pressed to write a cultural history of the United States since 1960 without talking about Star Trek and what it represented to the American public. The influence of Trek is also felt in the scholarly world, where numerous collections on Star Trek, and science fiction more broadly, have been a staple of cultural studies anthologies for years. And in regards to intellectual history, Star Trek is part of the zeitgeist of late twentieth century America, as much a part of it as discussion of nuclear weapons, rock and roll, or the Culture Wars (and most often than not, tied to those as well).
Publications such as Ebony talked up the show, while Life magazine used it as a comic prop in a much larger essay on the general state of television in 1969. Those are but two small examples of the popular culture role of Trek. This cannot be separated from the Space Race of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, and the Civil Rights/Black Power Movements in the United States. All of them, in some way, fed into the story of Star Trek, both on screen and behind the scenes. Some of this you probably know about, even if you’re not a fan of the Original Series: Trek’s take on racism, fear of Cold War escalation, and an overall optimism about the future of humanity permeated the show.
Of course, Trek is also known as being an inspiration for people of all ages. Whoopi Goldberg’s story of being inspired by the portrayal of Lt. Uhura by Nichelle Nichols is one example—but then so is the lesson of astronaut Ronald McNair, who claimed to have been inspired by Star Trek in the late 1960s, when there were no African American astronauts yet sent into space by NASA. And I have to admit, on a personal level, to being inspired by Star Trek when I dreamed of being an astronaut at a young age.
Scholars have also taken up thinking about Star Trek, and what the series and its various spinoffs say about American society. Taking a brief glance at the list of books and edited collections about Trek only scratches the surface. Books on Star Trek and politics, philosophy, economics, and technology are plentiful. And then there are scholarly essays on Trek—our own Mike O’Connor has a fascinating piece titled “Liberals in Space: the 1960s Politics of Star Trek” in Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics, and Culture. Popular publications such as The Federalist have read Star Trek as a symbol of modern liberalism (cross-posting an essay from The Claremont Review of Books). A popular podcast, “Meta Treks,” has even taken up how Trek has taken on history versus memory.
Here, of course, we’ve covered Star Trek more than once. And with the fiftieth anniversary of the first episode (“The Man Trap”) coming up later this week, don’t be surprised if you see more essays here at the blog about Trek this week.