Simon Griffee Visual design, photography, writing, illustration

Star Trek: 50 Years

Published 2016 September 8

I watched the entire Original Series of Star Trek during a hot summer in Tunisia in 1993. From those days onward my friends Mo and Will became Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk and I assumed the alter-ego identity of Doctor “Bones” McCoy. I don’t know why we identified with the characters, perhaps in part from a sense of optimistic people — friends — working together towards a common goal, in exploration of the cosmos and a vision of a universe where we have left the divisions of our planet behind.


Shortly Before the Alien Apocahoppalypse Party, Playground Cooperative House, Oakland, California, February 2007. Photograph by Margo or Kim.

Star Trek’s cultural impact for our species is extensive:

Star Trek and its spin-offs have proven highly popular in syndication and are shown on TV stations worldwide. The show’s cultural impact goes far beyond its longevity and profitability.

The franchise inspired some designers of technologies, the Palm PDA and the handheld mobile phone. Michael Jones, Chief technologist of Google Earth, has cited the tricorder’s mapping capability as one inspiration in the development of Keyhole/Google Earth. The Tricorder X Prize, a contest to build a medical tricorder device was announced in 2012. Ten finalists have been selected in 2014, and the winner will be selected in January 2016. Star Trek also brought teleportation to popular attention with its depiction of “matter-energy transport”, with the famously misquoted phrase “Beam me up, Scotty” entering the vernacular. The Star Trek replicator is credited in the scientific literature with inspiring the field of diatom nanotechnology. In 1976, following a letter-writing campaign, NASA named its prototype space shuttle Enterprise, after the fictional starship. Later, the introductory sequence to Star Trek: Enterprise included footage of this shuttle which, along with images of a naval sailing vessel called the Enterprise, depicted the advancement of human transportation technology.

Beyond Star Trek’s fictional innovations, its contributions to TV history included a multicultural and multiracial cast. While more common in subsequent years, in the 1960s it was controversial to feature an Enterprise crew that included a Japanese helmsman, a Russian navigator, a black female communications officer, and a Vulcan-Human first officer. Captain Kirk’s and Lt. Uhura’s kiss, in the episode “Plato’s Stepchildren”, was also daring, and is often mis-cited as being American television’s first scripted, interracial kiss, even though several other interracial kisses predated this one. In an interview Nichelle Nichols, who played the black female communications officer, said that the day after she told Roddenberry she planned to leave the show, she was at a fund-raiser at the NAACP and was told there was a big fan who wanted to meet her. Nichols said,

I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch. [She told King about her plans to leave the series.] I never got to tell him why, because he said, ‘You can’t. You’re part of history.’

When she told Roddenberry what King had said, he cried.

Last year, I cried, too.

The Next Generation

I watched most of the episodes of The Next Generation, probably my favorite television series, with a Shakespearean Captain Picard leading a cast and crew in at times playful and at others intense episodes, one of the best being The Measure of a Man.

I’m looking forward to living in a world closer to the one depicted in the series, so here’s to another 50 years. I’m on my way to Leonard Nimoy station orbiting Vulcan in the LHS 3006 system of the Elite simulation, to celebrate virtually, and tomorrow I’ll continue with some Earth IPA ales from a physical tap in a contemporary version of Ten Forward somewhere close by. Maybe I’ll meet Whoopi there!

McCoy to Riker: I’m a doctor, not a politician!


PS. If you like Star Trek or science fiction I recommend Iain M. Banks' Culture novels. So far I’ve read Consider Phlebas and it is excellent.