To talk about present-day science fiction realms and the impact fictional stories had on popular culture or the way people imagined a better future without touching on Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek is hardly possible. When the first episodes of the show were broadcast in 1966, they were immediately recognized as basically an action and entertainment show, plus something else.
The show was very different from the common escapism and action science fiction shows of the day. As the series was preceded by The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, audience were mostly aware that this TV show offered a lot of critique and highly political content by placing a story in an extraterrestrial setting that would either take place in the past on Earth, on a very Earth-like planet, in a parallel universe, a fairy-tale environment or in a dream state.
Too many were the allusion to the Vietnam War, the Cold War, brutal imperialism, reflections on 9/11 (in later series), or the battle for freedom in dictatorships.
Luckily, Captain Kirk and fellow Starfleet Captains came along to teach numerous societies, life forms, on various planets, actually the entire galaxy the ‘good’ way to live, i.e. to do things the ‘right’ (American) way. Or rather: to have Federation order and control installed wherever necessary, sometimes just like US troops did in reality.
Star Trek and Us (a book title that provokes a reading such as Star Trek and (the) US) lists countless occasions and plots, that illustrate how the show – probably – has influenced politics and approaches to life, environment, different forms of coexistence and the organization of life in free societies. And how vice versa contemporary developments in real life (also considering the agenda of the respective American presidents) initiated, declared, or left their marks on certain episodes of various generations of the show, from Star Trek: The Original Series to Star Trek: Discovery.
The show turned into a most successful franchise that is present anywhere from comic books, video games, novels, fan fiction, to motion pictures and several reincarnations. The Next Generation, Enterprise, Voyager and Deep Space Nine successfully enlarged the Star Trek universe and revealed a complex and yet sometimes plausible future in which several of today’s issues still play a huge role, be they environmental, concern questions of gender, human-alien contacts, or multi-ethnic and multi-national societies.
The many mixed crews on the prominent Starfleet ships and Deep Space Nine anticipate current and future forms of peaceful cohabitation where even cross-ethnic, i.e. Human-alien, love and relationships grow and endure. However, as never the entire galaxy is at peace, naturally Starfleet will engage into battle and defend the Federation; but it will answer aggression with violence only as a last resort.
In four chapters, A.J. Black, a writer on popular culture from Wiltshire, England, reflects on the various forms of the franchise and their distinct major themes and political directions. He does so by looking at the decades of their individual production, and how Roddenberry’s vision was altered in the different generations of the franchise that all can clearly be identified as products of their time, reflecting the zeitgeist.
“Over the last half century, Star Trek has always maintained, throughout many iterations and incarnations, the same mission statement: to use the futuristic utopian ideal of the United Federation of Planets and Star Trek’s mission of discover as a way for us to understand who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going.”
Even though all chapters reveal interesting parallels between life on Earth and life in the franchise, chapter three, “The 1990s,” stands out. That decade by the majority of the fans is considered Star Trek’s “Golden Age.” As in no other period were there so many different shows on air: Deep Space Nine, Voyager and The Next Generation all were available, and four feature films were completed, sometimes shot simultaneously at the location, just next door.
Black’s title sets out to “… explore the span of how Star Trek reflects the world we live in by examining how it has engaged with history and culture across the latter half of the 20th century; from how Roddenberry’s experiences serving in World War II fuelled his aspirations as a storyteller and futurist, through to beyond his death.”
Looking back on the various Roddenberry original ideas and interpretations, especially on the comparatively dark Enterprise and Discovery series, it becomes obvious, that not all Star Trek eras were basically optimistic, or as bright, prosperous and positive as the future the (American) Federation of Planets and Starfleet promised in The Next Generation or Voyager.
Even though Roddenberry and the many story writers put various Starfleet crews in impossible situations, the ‘learning curve’ millions of watchers experienced when witnessing that a peaceful and humanistic approach to life was still the best solution did not reach everybody. Often it seemed that the respective presidents and leaders of the world did not watch the series at all. But then, there are limits of what a science fiction franchise can do.
Star Trek and Us then is best understood as a parallel history of two realities/parallel universes that partially influenced each other; as Black list hundreds of series plots that were, in one way or another, coined by contemporary huge or smaller events in American political history or informed by highly current discussions on anything from gender equality, the role of ethnic minorities, wars, or the war on terror or how terror attacks stunned and changed entire nations.
When in an early movie the first contact with the Vulcans is clarified, it illustrates “… Star Trek’s obsession, across every single one of its series, with coming to terms with the scars and legacies of World War II, the paradigm that sprang from it.”
With such a focus, Star Trek always was a popcultural (and even political) force, and anybody who seriously argues that the world would be exactly as it is today without Kirk, Archer, Sisko, Picard or Janeway is most likely wrong. And just as in the Star Wars franchise, the concept of “hope” and “change” is probably the most powerful treasure Roddenberry’s vision contained.
“Yet all of these shows believe in the same thing: we, as a species, will endure. History may end, and begin again, and then end once more, but Star Trek believes another beginning is always just around the corner.”
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2021
A.J. Black. Star Trek, History and Us: Reflections of the Present and Past Throughout the Franchise. McFarland, 2021, 202 p.