The Technology Was Really Secondary in Star Trek

Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash

Star Trek, the original series that ran for only three seasons from 1966 to 1969, has had an undisputed impact on the modern American zeitgeist. Series creator Gene Roddenberry is one of the visionary thinkers of our time. I admit to being heavily influenced by his vision. Frankly, our society as a whole has been less influenced by it than most understand. There is no question the Star Trek universe and its technology had a HUGE influence on how technology has evolved in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

At the time the series was canceled, few could have guessed how broadly and deeply the series would penetrate our culture. It is one of the legacies of a time when we had ubiquitous visions being pumped into our living rooms by the Big Three television networks. Despite the original series’ short run, plenty of Star Trek has found its way into our technological world. Engineers cite the show as inspiration for their ideas, celebrating its ability to show them what’s possible. However, there was more in that television series that should have made it into America’s idea commons.

There is a greater deeper message to the series which has gone unfulfilled. In fact, these central ideas to the series are largely ignored in the post-9/11 era. There have been books and TV episodes dedicated to tracking the origins of gadget after gadget to a particular Roddenberry-inspired device. The idea that a ready chess opponent could be so easily at hand seemed like a dream. Today it is just a basic function of smartphones, themselves the descendants of Star Trek communicators. Touch interfaces and tablet computers were often present on the bridge of the Enterprise.

There was a time it seemed almost unbelievable for a crew member to simply say, “Computer,” followed by a question, natural language interfaces are a reality with Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google Assistant and Watson now part of mainstream life. Star Trek’s technological legacy has been documented in detail and significantly fulfilled. However, the more important social messages have been forgotten or ignored.

My passion for the original Star Trek TV show runs deep. Maybe it was because I was born in 1962, so I was just at the right age to be heavily impacted by Star Trek’s sci-fi-packaged human dramas. As a child of the 1960s, the technology was easy to accept as real or just around the corner. After all, the United States was headed to the moon, and network news daily reported new achievements in the Apollo program. The country was immersed in the technology of space travel.

Socially the series was just as far advanced as it was technically. Martin Luther King Jr. actually implored Nichelle Nichols to stay on the show when she told him that she was planning to abandon the Uhuru role. King convinced her of the import of a black woman playing a prominent character worthy of respect. He recognized the powerful statements being made by Star Trek.

A particularly poignant episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” portrays the last two members of an alien race who are consumed by their hatred. Costuming each character half-black on one side and half-white on the other proved powerful when they explain the difference between themselves is the color of their skin on the right side versus the left. The ignorance of racism seems so clear in that moment of dialogue.

Much of this social legacy is what is unfulfilled today, and yet that was what was so great about the series. The whiz-bang tech stuff was fantastic, but by setting things far in the future, Roddenberry could tackle difficult social issues from an objective distance, and he did so with a phaser-like focus. There was a Russian on the bridge of the Enterprise during the height of the Cold War. Would there be a Muslim there today, or are we just too full of negative emotions to include a follower of Islam on the bridge? Even today’s latest iteration, Star Trek: Discovery, lauded for its diversity, shows no signs of the Islamic boogeyman.

My ideas on foreign policy are influenced by the imagined future devolution of nationalism implied in Star Trek. For me, a future united planet Earth was a given. Indeed, what seemed more like fantasy was continued conflict, such as the escalating violence of world wars. The show even derided nuclear weapons, such as in the second season’s finale, “Assignment: Earth,” whose time-traveling plot to the 20th century involves preventing an accidental nuclear exchange between the superpowers.

Earth joining a United Federation of Planets, as it had on the show, was just a logical extension of the United Nations. A united planetary federation was where we thought 1960s America was leading the globe and eventually the universe. In the 23rd century setting of the original series, war had largely been abolished, save for the occasional interstellar skirmish. Peace reigned on Earth.

The all-powerful Federation was always forced to respect dignity, not only of the common man but also common sentient life, no matter their technological acumen. Could the Prime Directive, a maxim prohibiting interference with alien civilization’s advancement, stand up to today’s torturous logic? Or would it be considered quaint like the Geneva Conventions? Compare the Prime Directive’s underlying ideology with the United States’ habit of trying to “export democracy” around the world at the point of a gun, with little success.

Can you imagine what Dr. McCoy would have said were Spock to advise the captain to torture a captive to obtain information? (Torture is actually addressed in the episodes “The Empath” and “Dagger of the Mind” — both worth watching.) In episode after episode, these basic ideas about humanity and the value of the individual are there, loudly proclaimed.

James T. Kirk’s long speeches about our longing to be free rather than safe ring hollow in today’s society. The dignity of the common man and the desire to let guilty men go free rather than imprison an innocent person would become time-honored beliefs, Star Trek prognosticated. These plot lines taught us despite their flaws, freedom and individual liberty were the best way to go, even in the 23rd century.

Liberty would withstand hundreds of years of technological advancement. Through it all, these guiding principles never dimmed, or so predicted Gene Roddenberry of our future. True fans of this series should embrace its deeper social messages: Shared humanity saves civilizations; inhumanity holds them back. We need those ideals today to improve our nation’s trajectory.

More than anything else, I believe that a world motivated by optimism rather than fear and pessimism is what we have really lost. Science fiction today, even the recent reboot of the Star Trek movies, sets the future as dark, dangerous, and filled with evil. Somehow, we must find hope and stride into the future confidently the way we did when we were young. The fearmongers will say we have to let the government turn technology onto us to keep us safe, and as long as we live in fear it is hard to push back. In Roddenberry’s vision are the words, the ideas, and the courage to push back.

This vision of freedom is the great legacy of Star Trek. It is what Roddenberry would most want to stand the test of time. Eventually, all the technological predictions will be far surpassed, and the interplay of the characters is all that is left. What Roddenberry was saying about the world, about the universe, was that no matter how the landscape changes, there are certain guiding principles of humanity that will help get us through and will set us apart in the greater universe. We appear to have forgotten them.

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