Scott Jordan Harris on a series that inspired a fandom – and gave those fans hope
Between 1966 and 1969, American television viewers could turn on the nightly news and watch coverage of the increasing horrors of the Vietnam War; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy; the nationwide race riots that followed them; and the violence that engulfed the 1968 Democratic Convention. All of this took place in the darkening shadow of the Cold War, the nuclear arms race and Mutually Assured Destruction.
In the same years, those viewers could turn on NBC and watch a programme that presented a future in which Black people and white; Americans and Russians; and even humans and aliens worked together on a spaceship with a single, peaceful mission: “to seek out new life and new civilisations,” and – in the most famous split infinitive in the English language – “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
At a time when America seemed irrevocably divided, Star Trek promised a future in which people would be citizens not just of the United States, or of a united world, but of a United Federation of Planets. It told viewers in the 20th Century that, in the 23rd Century, Earth would have moved beyond hunger, beyond war, beyond racism and even (though it spoke this part softly) beyond religion. Its premise was the most optimistic statement of faith in humanity that had ever – and has ever – been made by mainstream entertainment. Whereas, a decade later, Star Wars would tell stories that took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, Star Trek told stories of our galaxy, in a future that could be ours, if we worked for it.
This wasn’t an idea that, initially, was heard by enormous numbers of people. Star Trek’s ratings were never spectacular. It seemed likely to be cancelled after its second season, and was cancelled after its third. But those who listened most closely to Star Trek’s message responded to it with an almost religious fervour. There have been many TV shows that were more influential on other TV shows, but I doubt there has been any TV show that was more influential on its audience.
That audience grew when Star Trek was repeated in syndication in the 1970s. And it is still growing now. Sci-fi conventions of a kind existed in the 1930s, but they exist in the form and on the scale they do today because of Star Trek. Fanfiction pre-dated Trek, but exploded because of it. The concept of science fiction franchises and their “expanded universes” – which include all the movies and TV shows and video games and books and comics spawned by properties such as Star Wars, Doctor Who and the Marvel movies – exists largely because of Star Trek.
By the time Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1979, a TV ad boasted that Trek was “a television phenomenon [that] became a part of life” and “a common experience remembered around the world”. Both claims were grandiose. Neither were untrue.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill