Friday, September 09, 2011

Star Trek Turns 45

It has been 45 years since Star Trek made its debut on American television.

The series lasted only three seasons, but I've always felt that its cancellation in 1969 accelerated its elevation to the iconic status it has enjoyed for nearly half a century.

Star Trek aired its last episode only a short time before Americans walked on the moon for the first time — arguably the peak of public fascination with space exploration. But the fascination with the series' concept (which creator Gene Roddenberry once described as a " 'Wagon Train' to the stars") never seemed to wear off.

It spawned popular movies and new TV series with new characters, even after Roddenberry's death in 1991. By that time, it was known within the industry simply as "the franchise," a sure moneymaker and ratings grabber.

Since the mid–20th century, there have been many TV series that have been good, but relatively few have influenced the culture to the extent that Star Trek has.

Who, for example, has never spoken of "boldly go[ing] where no man has gone before?" But how many people know that line was taken from a White House booklet on space exploration that was written during the Eisenhower administration almost a decade before the show's inaugural episode aired on Sept. 8, 1966?

Or, for that matter, who has not urged a friend or relative to "live long and prosper" while flashing Spock's Vulcan hand signal?

And phrases like "Beam me up" became part of the popular language.

I was quite young when the show was on the air. In fact, my family had just acquired its first television, and, as small children are wont to do, I suppose, I gravitated to cartoons and sitcoms during those days.

I was really too young when Star Trek was on the air to appreciate its deeper meanings, but, since the original series was canceled, I have often wondered if, perhaps, the influence of Star Trek was as great as it was because it was so inclusive.

The 1960s are often remembered as a time of societal awakening to racial and sexual injustice, but it was rare when television truly mirrored society. If you go back and look at the series that were on the air at the time, there were relatively few that had episodes that addressed such sensitive topics, let alone had regular casts that were as diverse as the one on Star Trek.

In 2011, people are accustomed to the idea of seeing programs with predominantly black or Spanish–speaking casts or programs in which women are the lead characters, but in the mid–1960s, significant roles for performers who weren't white and male were few and far between.

They were so rare, in fact, that, when a show featured a lead character who wasn't white and/or male (i.e., Julia or I Spy) it drew attention not for the talents of the writers and the stars but for presenting the reality of an evolving and changing society.

In a way, I guess, the 45th birthday of Star Trek is really the 45th birthday of the arrival of more ethnically diverse entertainment in America. That seems to have been part of Roddenberry's vision. He told network executives that he wanted an adventure series set in space, but he told friends he was going to seek another level — one of providing some kind of a morality tale in every episode.

And, to a great extent, he succeeded.

He did so well, in fact, that he may have inspired not only an enormously successful line of movies and TV series but also, perhaps, the greatest number of parodies in entertainment history.

I've always suspected that the writers for Frasier were Star Trek fans. They often found ways to work in Star Trek references — including in the passion of supporting character and "Trekkie" Noel, who was fluent in Klingon even though it is a fictional language from a fictional civilization.

In a truly memorable episode of Frasier, Noel (who was revealed at the time to be both Jewish and fluent in Hebrew) agreed to help Frasier recite a blessing in Hebrew for his half–Jewish son's bar mitzvah but decided instead to make the translation in Klingon when he felt Frasier had failed to uphold his end of their deal.

Perhaps the best parody came in the early days of Saturday Night Live, when John Belushi played Capt. Kirk and Chevy Chase played Spock.

I suppose Star Trek's unique role in entertainment history made it an open target for parodies.

But it also made many things possible.