Now that Star Trek is officially 50 years old (having celebrated its actual birthday a few days ago), it’s a good time for a die hard Trekker to reflect on his or her love of that particular universe – and why it continues to mean something to them years after their first exposure to it.
I’ve been in the middle of that process for a few months now, ever since the announcement of Star Trek: Discovery. The recent release of Star Trek Beyond intensified it for me, and I decided to start talking to other Trekkers to see if I could find a common theme around what makes so many of us love Star Trek and keep loving it.
What I learned was Star Trek does two things really well, and both of those things resonate strongly with long-term fans:
- Star Trek shows us a future that’s worth fighting for, that’s worth dreaming about, and that’s worth wanting to help shape, and;
- Star Trek is a really intimate and personal experience for every single person who loves it, and that, possibly, is it’s greatest magic.
That second point is a frustrating one if you’re a show runner. Star Trek does have a formula of sorts, but it’s a really hard one to get right. Without exception, fans want challenging storylines that are provocative and insightful – which is scary for a show that needs to make money because, as Gene Roddenberry learned the hard way, you’re bound to piss someone off and risk alienating a segment of your audience. Fans want a meaningful relationship with the characters which means you must get two things right straight off the bat – the writers room and the casting process. Fans want it a little dark without losing the hopeful future Star Trek promises us… and despite craving intelligent science fiction we want that science fiction all wrapped up with pretty action set pieces that are full of amazing (and expensive) visual effects.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people about Star Trek these last few months, and for every single person there was always a deeply personal story attached to their love… “Star Trek was my ‘safe space’ when I broke up with my husband…” “Star Trek got me through bullying when I was a kid…” “Star Trek is what got me into the military…” “Star Trek was the thing that helped me set my moral compass…”
Those often amazing conversations showed me that while all of the above about challenging storylines and great VFX is true, the actual core ingredients are the characters and their dynamic.
Star Trek has a ‘secret sauce’, and that ‘sauce’ is its characters who are our conduit into that universe and it’s vision for tomorrow.
What I loved most, while talking to fellow fans, was that the characters who resonated with them weren’t always the obvious ones. Yes, I heard a lot of Kirk love, Spock love, McCoy love, Picard love, Data love, Siski, Kira, Janeway, Seven, Archer, T’Pol and Trip love, but I also heard a lot of Sulu, Uhura, Chekov, Scotty, Geordi, Beverly, Deanna, Wesley, Quark, Jake, Odo, Dax, Chakotay, the Doctor, B’Elanna, Kes, Neelix, Harry, Hoshi, Malcolm, Phlox and Mayweather love.
In the original series, some of those characters never got the chance to say more than “Aye sir,” and “Hailing frequencies open, Captain,” yet they still effected people – and more often than not, deeply. Why? Because they were representative. Sometimes in obvious ways – Uhura was a woman in a position of power and a black woman at that, Sulu was an Asian who wasn’t a normal 1960s stereotype, and Chekov was a Russian at a time when the US and Russia didn’t have a lot of love for each other… but they weren’t just representative in that way. Uhura was an expert and a woman in command who could come out and honestly say “Captain, I’m frightened.” Chekov was a whiz kid whose emotions were always written clearly on his face. Sulu had a cheeky and sometimes sardonic sense of humour that now and again seemed to say “you’re a complete dick, Captain.” Watch some of the original episodes and listen to Sulu’s responses to Kirk or Scotty when they give a command that seems to defy common sense. Both Uhura and Chekov do that at times also. These characters were representative of real emotion, sometimes overtly expressed, sometimes subtlety conveyed, and we fell in love with them because of that.
Those human moments in a show that was so different to anything else on television, delivered by personalities we could relate to, gave us an ‘in’ to Gene Roddenberry’s universe.
For me, it was McCoy, Uhura and Spock. They were my pathway into the original Star Trek. Beverly, Deanna, Wesley and Geordi my conduits into Next Gen. Jadzia and Bashir my way into DS9. Janeway, Kes, Chakotay and the Doctor my door into Voyager, and T’Pol, Phlox and Malcolm my way into Enterprise. Each of those characters had qualities I possessed or aspired to possess and they resonated with me and still do today.
John Billingsley as Dr. Phlox stars in STARTREK: ENTERPRISE on UPN. Photo:James Sorenson/Paramount Pictures. ©2003 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
I grew up in the sort of neighbourhood where every week someone was stabbed, bashed, and in someway victimised, and as a child I needed something that showed me a future full of intelligent, compassionate people who fought to get rid of those horrific things from people’s lives.
When I was bullied at school, Star Trek was my retreat. I could lose myself in that world and dream of a future that was brighter than the one I saw for myself.
As I hit my teenage years and then adult years, Star Trek started to shape my morals as a person and many of the idealistic concepts in Star Trek still guide me today – particularly IDIC and the idea that we are stronger together.
I became an actor in my late teens because I wanted to go to Los Angeles and get cast in Star Trek. I did make it to Los Angeles, but never got the chance to be in Star Trek because I made it there a year or two after Enterprise went off the air.
I became a professional Counsellor because of Deanna Troi. Even though I’m a guy, Deanna and her profession spoke to me and though we barely ever got to see her do any real work as a psychologist, I still invoke her preternatural calm and warmth when working with clients.
I’ve always known that Star Trek was one of the most important influences in my life, but I’d never really spent a great deal of time wondering why.
This year seemed to demand it, and I’m glad I spent a little time exploring and reflecting on what Star Trek means to me and why it’s still the world I retreat into when I need to recharge.
There are so many quotes and examples I could provide to illustrate all the ways in which Star Trek has affected me, too many actually, so instead I’ll just choose a few…
Kirk’s statement in The Final Frontier, that he needs his pain. That speech still effects me to this day. Our pain, our failures, and how we deal with them all, defines us. There are so many experiences in my life that I wish had never happened to me, but I cannot deny their impact and how they have strengthened and shaped me.
Kira’s dedication to her spiritual life mirrored my own journey to understand some of the indefinable but poignant experiences we all encounter in life.
It was something similar with Chakotay. His spiritual life and journey, though often mired in stereotype, was beautiful and I loved that it was included, but the fact he was a physically strong and imposing, but deeply spiritual and sensitive man was what hit me like a sledgehammer. It hit me deeply, in the same way the startlingly beautiful and noble Uhura did and in the same way the generous, calm and gracious Deanna did. As a 6’2″ guy who’s been described as physically intimidating, but who is softly spoken and by nature a pretty caring bloke, it was fantastic to see a man on TV who was also all of those things, and who chose to use his presence not to constantly threaten and intimidate but to nurture and support. It was what I needed to see and it came at a time in my life where I was in danger of going off the rails.
You might be thinking… “hold on, what about Riker?”
Will was always a little too ‘big’ a personality for me to connect with.
Star Trek is unique in its ability to craft characters that are universal but speak to each individual viewer. If there’s one thing the creative teams behind each show and movie did really well, it was creating characters we can relate to. I don’t know if they consciously tried to do that, but that’s what they did.
Each series and each film had its ups and downs story wise, but the characters were always exceptional. Yes, Kes didn’t have a lot of room to grow and Neelix had the odd issue and could be pretty damn annoying, but by and large the characters are the thing that makes Star Trek shine. At least in my opinion.
As we look forward to Star Trek: Discovery, with each of us no doubt carrying a small wish list around in our minds, I personally hope that the creative team behind the new series get the fact that no matter what, the characters are our way into this new version of the universe, and that Star Trek really is an important and intimate experience for each of us and that needs to be respected.
Yes, we want great stories and we want allegory and we want brilliant special effects, but if Star Trek is to succeed it needs incredible characters and it needs a way to inspire hope in us and allow us to link with the show in a way that is meaningful. It needs to be something that mirrors all of us, in some way, and tries hard to be relevant to this generation of young people as they look around for heroes to aspire to be like.
Star Trek is important. It’s important to me, it’s no doubt important to you if you’re reading this, and it’s important to the world.
What do we have on television now? Zombie hunters who are now borderline sociopaths, families warring over a stupid iron throne and committing atrocious acts in their quest for power, families backstabbing each other over musical empires or political ambitions… there’s not a lot of hope, and there aren’t many shows demonstrating a different, better way to be.
Star Trek did that, and it can do it again.
The neck and deflector dish of the USS Discovery.
Close up of the Discovery preparing to launch.
I hope Bryan and Alex and everyone else involved with Star Trek: Discovery truly appreciate just how important Star Trek is at both that personal, intimate level, and that much bigger, aspirational level.
Bryan has said the world needs Star Trek now more than it ever has, so I think he does get it. I hope he is able to realise his vision with the amazing creative team he’s assembled.
So thank you, Star Trek. Thank you for shaping me, and for shaping so many amazing people I’ve met, and thank you for not being frightened of shining a light in the darkness – even when shining that light hasn’t been popular.
I’ve had enough of the depressing, sarcastic, angst-filled shows on television these days. So many are so devoid of hope it’s depressing. I need and I want something that challenges me intellectually, and I need and I want something that reminds me of just how amazing we are as a species.
The bright future Star Trek describes is the future I want, and it’s a future worth believing in.