Wednesday, January 27, 2016

50 Years of Exploring "The Final Frontier"

1966. It was an interesting year. The Viet Nam war raged on. The first controlled rocket-assisted landing on the Moon occurred. The Sound of Music won the Oscar for Best Picture. Daylight Savings Time is first observed in many parts of North America. It's A Small World opens in Disneyland. Groundbreaking for the World Trading Center occurs in New York City. Martin Luther King Jr. is leading the Civil Rights movement across the United States. The Doors record their first LP and the Beatles record "Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". The Doctor on "Dr. Who" regenerates for the first time. Mike Tyson, Halle Berry, Janet Jackson, John Cusak, and Cindy Crawford are born, while the world mourns the losses of Buster Keaton and Walt Disney. Mini-skirts hem lines moved up and support for the war moved down. 

Amidst all this a small, relatively unheralded little science fiction show debuted on September 8 on NBC. It was called "Star Trek", and the episode was entitled "Man Trap". Show creator Gene Roddenberry described it as "Wagon Train to the Stars". He envisioned a show that made commentary on social issues of the day while depicting a positive outlook of the future of humanity. For three seasons Captain James T. Kirk, vulcan science officer Spock, and down-to-earth Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy traveled the galaxy on the USS Enterprise. With them was an interracial crew (a first for American television) that brought diversity in appearances and perspectives to the future. For three years, they sought out new life and new civilization, boldly going where no man had gone before. For the first time in American science fiction, viewers were able to see current and former enemies in positive and productive roles as Chekov and Sulu were literally at the front of the bridge. The show touched the minds and souls of many notable figures, including Martin Luther King who was happy to see people of color not only in the future but as equals and important. Gene was witnessing the realization of his vision, and then, like so many good things, it was cancelled. Despite an unprecedented letter writing campaign, NBC decided to pull the plug on this revolutionary program.

And like so many other good things that seem to end too soon, it was not easily forgotten. As Star Trek became syndicated, its popularity grew in leaps and bounds. Fans, often referred to as "Trekkies" or "Trekkers", started coming together and bringing the world of Star Trek more and more into the public eye. Conventions started, an animated series reunited much of the original cast, and by the late 1970s Star Trek was brought to the big screen. I like to think that Star Trek became one of those moments of regret for the NBC execs who couldn't or wouldn't see the potential that they had with Star Trek, and after seeing how popular and profitable it became thought "maybe there was something to this Roddenberry guy after all". 

By the late 1990s the phenomenon known as Star Trek hit its glory years. Interest in Star Trek reached a new generation with the Next Generation. The movies were proving to be a dependable source of revenue (despite the fifth installment), TNG was earning fans and praise at a rate never before experienced, and being a Trekkie had never been cooler or more fun. Deep Space Nine and Voyager added to the mythos, and Spock, Picard, Klingon, and "Beam me up" were becoming common in our vernacular. Central to all of the glamour and celebrity that Star Trek was gaining was the continued vision of hope for humanity while making social commentary through good story telling. And while we lost Gene Roddenberry in 1991, Star Trek grew and grew.

Sure, there were downsides. Nothing stays on top forever. Many thought that Gene's vision was lost with his successors. Having so many Trek series started to dilute to quality in the eyes of some. The world continued to change as well. Cynicism started to show itself more and more. Audiences have seemed to become more receptive of dystopian stories, and darker themes became the norm in pop culture. While J J Abrams brought a much needed shot of energy and respect into the franchise with his 2009 reboot, his second showing, "Into Darkness" seemed to take Trek a bit down the darker path. 

Even with the critiques of the show and the franchise, Star Trek is still here. We are looking forward to a third movie, and CBS is developing a new live action series. Trek is far from done, and we are happy to celebrate this momentous milestone. There will be a huge convention in Las Vegas this August where they are expanding the event to five days. All over the world this internationally relevant show will have countless showings and parties. There will be somber moments as we remember the many talents that contributed to this show that are sadly no longer with us. It won't seem right without Michael Piller, Grace Lee Whitney, James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, Jerry Goldsmith, Majel Barrett, Leonard Nimoy, or Gene Roddenberry to celebrate with us (although the idea of a big convention on the other side of this life is comforting).There will be countless look-backs and hopeful look-forwards. One thing is certain, it will be a fun ride.

Nobody could have accurately predicted that we would be here 50 years later, and it is futile to predict where it will be 50 years from now. New generations will have to be taught. We may find the day when Star Trek is simply a footnote in pop culture, but it is already one of the most culturally influential shows of all time. Technology and science advanced because of it. People were inspired because of it. The world is a better place because of it. On the 50th anniversary of this franchise, after 12 (soon to be 13) feature films, 28 seasons of episodic television, 5 live action series, one animated series, hundreds of novels and comics, and countless fans, I think I have a new understanding about the show. The Final Frontier, in my eyes, is not the exploration of space, but rather of humanity. Nobody has done it better than Star Trek.

Thank you Gene, wherever you are.

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