In 2009, director J.J. Abrams transformed Star Trek into a true mainstream hit with his blockbuster movie reboot, earning $385 in worldwide box office and shattered the opening weekend IMAX record; with Star Trek Into Darkness about to hit theaters this Friday, he seems poised to do it again.
But long before the 47-year-old franchise was breaking box office records, it was breaking ground as one of the most forward-thinking franchises in television and film history. Thanks largely to the (at the time) radical philosophy of creator Gene Roddenberry, the show attracted audiences with its adventure stories, but it kept them with its utopian optimism: the idea that the raging intolerance of the day would someday become a thing of the past, and anyone could explore the stars if they wanted.
In the future, Roddenberry envisioned race and gender as non-issues. He put Japanese-American George Takei, as Lt. Hikaru Sulu, at the helm; African-American Nichelle Nichols, as Lt. Nyota Uhura, in the communications chair; and even attempted to make the Enterprise’s first officer a woman (studio executives rejected that unsavory idea, so the alien Spock took the job). The equality on the U.S.S. Enterprise’s bridge was a watershed moment, both in television history and in Americans’ understanding of social equality.
“Most television shows, at best, follow cultural trends. Star Trek had clear-cut ideals of its own,” wrote Joan Winston, Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Sondra Marshak in their 1975 book Star Trek Lives!, the first and most definitive chronicle of the early years of Trek fandom. “No one would claim that Star Trek was the cause of all the improvement [we’ve made with problems like racism and sexism]. But it is still harder to believe that it had no effect, when twenty million people tuned in to Star Trek and saw Mr. Spock being treated as friend and brother by Captain Kirk, saw the black and the Russian and the Oriental [sic] and the Southerner and the others treating each other with respect and love.”
This heritage makes it all the more unfortunate that the progressive values of the original series seem to have faltered—and even begun trailing the mainstream—with the increasingly pointed absence of LGBT members in later iterations of the franchise, and their failure to treat sexual orientation like the same sort of non-issue that Roddenberry once envisioned for race and gender on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations
Star Trek‘s passionate fan community has kept it afloat for nearly half a century, contrary to the stereotypical nerdy white dude image many associate with the Star Trek fandom, some of the most instrumental Trek fans have belonged to marginalized groups who found empowerment and possibility in a futuristic utopian television show when they could not find it in the real world.
“[Star Trek’s inclusivity] is the only thing that kept it alive,” Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, CEO of Roddenberry Entertainment and son of Star Trek‘s late creator Gene Roddenberry, told Wired. In 2010, Rod released Trek Nation, a documentary that explored his father’s egalitarian vision and the power it gave the Trek fan community. “It appealed to people who were thinking differently, whether it was college students who were protesting the war, or mixed-race couples, or just people with different ideas. The whole geek/nerd/dork fan movement was a bunch of people who look at life differently. They’re the ones who are leading the charge today, not just with Star Trek, but also, frankly, the world.” Read more…