Thursday’s milestone birthday of the beginnings of Star Trek reminds me of the influence pop culture has on all our lives. Star Trek simultaneously showed us the future as well as holding a mirror up to ourselves and our society of the time. I’m not sure that was recognized as much at that time. Like many things, we don’t realize its value until it’s gone. Another lesson of Star Trek is to aim high and keep trying. The pilot was rejected as too cerebral, and they came back as cowboys in space while keeping its special-ness. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a not-very-good-movie, but they forged ahead and the second one is remembered by everyone, reuniting the original guest star Ricardo Montalban as Khan Noonian Singh. The original show was cancelled after seventy-nine episodes, but has been and continues to be well-loved on the convention circuit and in movies, spawning spin-offs, fan fiction, and is known for its very cerebral fans.
In the reboot/non-reboot, Kelvin timeline, the first thing that fans said were how well the new cast held up visually and in temperament to the original cast. I recently saw Star Trek Beyond without knowing it was co-written by Simon Pegg and I loved the references to original moments of Star Trek from McCoy’s claims to be a doctor to the subtle looks between him and Mr. Spock and the underlying respect each has for the other despite McCoy reaching past his unconscious bias of the green-blooded, unemotional Vulcan, something prevalent [racial bias] in the world of the 1960s, sadly as much as it is today. Star Trek speaks a universal language that we understand regardless of our native spoken language.
The idea of communicators that can translate our native tongues into a universally understood language to communicate better led to the birth of apps and computer programs that foster the same thing – allowing us to discover where we are all alike rather than unalike.
Tricorders became modern tablets, and communicators our smartphones. The tapped Starfleet symbols worn on their uniforms became our bluetooths.
The seemingly impossible is our reality as we strive to think up new ideas to take into the next fifty years.
When the US was just beginning to desegregate counters and water fountains, bathrooms and schools, Star Trek gave us a vision of not only multi-ethnic, multi-racial, but international cooperation, something our 1950s/early 1960s isolationist policy wouldn’t dream of as we competed with the Russians on everything but especially the space race. Gene Roddenberry took John Kennedy’s inspirational Man on the Moon speech and showed us how it could be; now it was up to us to make it be.
It explored racism profoundly in Let That Be Your Last Battlefield in asking which was the superior race: the man with the white skin on his left side or his right, but really commenting how that tiny difference was so insignificant why were they fighting in the first place.
Even more profound was the visual makeup of the crew as we watched them going about their business. Lt. Uhura, in charge of communications, an officer, a leader, and a strong Black woman; standing up to sexism, giving orders and having them obeyed. Milestone after milestone beginning with the casting and continuing with the first interracial kiss on television. Representation.
A cast which included George Takei, a Japanese-American who barely more than two decades earlier was living in a Japanese internment camp.
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Walter Koenig, all three Jewish, not two decades after the close of WWII when the Nazis would have exterminated them and did so to six million of their people.
Acknowledging the Scots’ contributions to our society’s engines and engineering.
Adding the character of Chekhov to the crew at a time when Russians were suspect, but in the future would not only be our allies, but our friends.
DeForrest Kelley as the oldest actor, the grouchy epitome of ‘get off my lawn’ illustrating for us our own leaps from the 1950s into this new world of new people, showing us that we all have unconscious biases and in knowing the person on a personal level, we can overcome them. They don’t disappear but McCoy’s learning curve is our own.
And for the last fifty years, Star Trek continued growing, continued predicting the future, and helped bring some of it about. The first NASA space shuttle was the Enterprise. Nichelle Nichols was instrumental in recruiting women astronauts as well as minorities.
Pop culture’s influence only begins with Star Trek.
Chris Robinson of General Hospital’s tagline on an ad of “I’m not a doctor, but I play on on TV.” I just saw a recent ad from Cigna utilizing famous television doctors from Alan Alda to Noah Wylie and Donald Faison.
Throwbacks and cameos are somewhat commonplace now and help us adjust to the new, to the changes. John Wesley Shipp plays Barry Allen’s father on the new Flash series. He was the original television Flash. Helen Slater and Dean Cain play Kara Danver’s parents on the new Supergirl. Helen was the original Supergirl and Dean Cain, of course, was Superman on TV’s The New Adventures of Lois and Clark. Linda Blair was a guest on Supernatural; Dean made reference to pea soup, which of course is from her famous scene in The Exorcist. Supernatural is the king of pop culture references, though. We love the new ones because we love the old ones.
Seinfeld. There are things my kids say as part of everyday language that are directly from Seinfeld. We’ve absorbed their language into our own without even realizing it. It was a show about nothing, but it turned out it was about everything.
As with Star Trek, All in the Family spoke to the modern family through the lens of the older family members. We all knew an Archie Bunker. He didn’t mean to be offensive, but he didn’t know any better. He said what many of our parents and grandparents were saying, and Mike and Gloria told our story. Edith was the more innocent, somewhat naive, why can’t we all just get along peacemaker between the generations. It spawned more spin-offs than I can count including an African-American centered show called The Jeffersons which included the first interracial couple to be shown on prime-time television. I should note that art imitates life and Roxie Roker, one half of that interracial couple was one half of an interracial couple in her off-screen life and is the mother of Lenny Kravitz.
MASH spoke to the war in Vietnam without once mentioning Vietnam by showing the horrors of that war through the long over Korean War.
Today, there is a new show coming to ABC called Speechless that tackles disabilities and abilities and family. It is the first major network show that I’m looking forward to seeing in about three years.
The world isn’t perfect. It may never be, but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying to make it better. Our love of pop culture throws our ideas out there, and sometimes they stick. Sometimes, we make them better. And sometimes, it lets us see what we’ve really got, and what’s important in our lives for the future of our children and their children.
Ultimately, that’s what Star Trek did with its positiveness and encouragement and hope. It led us in a direction away from what we were seeing in the outside world of war, and the space race, and civil rights and Jim Crow as well as the beginnings of the ERA, and showed us where we could be if we all just tried a little harder to be one.
In all the pop culture I admire and follow, and try to emulate, it is the hope and the wonder; the exploration not only of our plants and the stars, but of ourselves. We’re the ones to make the world better, and we should start, or continue now. I’ll paraphrase what William Shatner said at a recent convention: We’ve already created it, all of it in our minds and our stories, now we need to make them reality. We can do this. Let’s see where we are when Star Trek turns 100. I wold hope to be there. Time is a funny thing, so who knows. Maybe.