On this day, 50 years ago, the public watched as the first episode of Star Trek aired on the small screen. This series wasn’t just cheesy science fiction though, at times, it did get pretty cheesy. The original Star Trek series and the franchise installments afterward had no problem discussing themes like racism, tolerance, poverty, and – ultimately – war and its aftermath. This was one of the first series I watched that taught me each action we make has importance behind it. It is up to us to determine that importance.
Star Trek has had many incarnations over the years, three of them appearing in my lifetime alone. In recent years, we’ve experienced the rebirth of the Star Trek franchise through its reappearance on the big screen. It’s had six different television shows as well as 13 movies. It’s influence, however, on our society has been far reaching. It’s inspired countless science fiction writers everywhere. It’s inspired scientists to try to replicate the technology that was seen on television. It’s also inspired the naming of an actual spacecraft to be dubbed Enterprise.
The most important influence I think it has had is on those of us who have sought diversity in pop culture. For those who saw Uhura, played famously by Nichelle Nichols, she has proven to be an inspiration for actors of colors everywhere. Whoopi Goldberg has spoken out about what impression Nichelle Nichols had made on her as a young child watching Star Trek:
“I looked at it and I went screaming through the house. Come here, mom, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
via Star Trek Database
The influence it had on me was being able to see a character that acted like me. As an autistic individual, more specifically a female autistic individual, there is little to no representation of people who act like us unless it’s someone representative of the worst case scenario. When I first saw Spock as a child, played by Leonard Nimoy, I was spellbound. Here was a character who was neither fully human or fully Vulcan, a character who strived to be as Vulcan as he could be while rejecting the part of him self that was ostracized by the society in which he lived in. For a ten year old child who was barely coming to grips with the fact that her diagnosis made her different, I could relate to his struggle and saw what being half human did to Spock emotionally. For me, Spock’s existence in the show helped me see someone like myself and provided me with a role model to aspire to become.
Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if we did not have Star Trek. There was a moment when that could have been a reality. The original Star Trek barely made the cut, having two pilots and having the whole cast swapped around before being approved to air on television. If it hadn’t been for the loyal fanbase that had grown over the years, the Star Trek franchise would have ceased to exist after the original series was cancelled after the third season.
Over the course of 50 years, the fanbase and copious amounts of re-runs have kept the franchise alive. I expect it’ll continue for many more decades to come. We’ll be seeing it return to the small screen next year with the majorly anticipated Star Trek: Discovery, continuing a tradition of Star Trek returning to TV.
I hope in another 50 years when I am old and surrounded by fifty-odd some cats, I can raise my glass to the 100th anniversary of Star Trek’s existence. Happy Birthday, Star Trek!