What makes Star Trek special? From the horse’s mouth.

As a follow-up to my last note on Star Trek, I just discovered a speech given by Gene Roddenberry around the time of the release of the first Star Trek movie. This here is the heart I was talking about.

The Star Trek Philosophy
A Speech by Gene Roddenberry

“I think probably the most often asked question about the show is: ”Why the Star Trek Phenomenon?‘ And it could be an important question because you can ask: ”How can a simple space opera with blinking lights and zap-guns and a goblin with pointy ears reach out and touch the hearts and minds of literally millions of people and become a cult in some cases?‘ Obviously, what this means is, that television has incredible power. They‘re saying that if Star Trek can do this, then perhaps another carefully calculated show could move people in other directions as to keep selfish interest to creating other cults for selfish purposes – industrial cartels, political parties, governments. Ultimate power in this world, as you know, has always been one simple thing: the control and manipulation of minds.

Fortunately, in the attempt however to manipulate people through any “so called Star Trek Formula” is doomed to failure, and I‘ll tell you why in just a moment.

First of all, our show did not reach and affect all these people because it was deep and great literature. Star Trek was not Ibsen or Shakespeare. To get a prime time show…network show…on the air and to keep it there, you must attract and hold a minimum of 18 million people every week. You have to do that in order to move people away from Gomer Pyle, Bonanza, Beverly Hill Billies and so on. And we tried to do this with entertainment, action, adventure, conflict and so on.

But once we got on the air, and within the limits of those accident ratio limits, we did not accept the myth, that the television audience has an infantile mind. We had an idea, and we had a premise, and we still believe that. As a matter of fact we decided to risk the whole show on that premise. We believed that the often ridiculed mass audience is sick of this world’s petty nationalism and all it‘s old ways and old hatreds, and that people are not only willing but anxious to think beyond most petty beliefs that have for so long kept mankind divided. So you see that the formula, the magic ingredient that many people keep seeking and many of them keep missing is really not in Star Trek. It is in the audience. There is an intelligent life form out on the other side of that television too.

The whole show was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but to take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. We tried to say that the worst possible thing that can happen to all of us is for the future to somehow press us into a common mould, where we begin to act and talk and look and think alike. If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there. And I think that this is what people responded to.

The result of that was that seven years after being dropped by the network of saying those things, there are now more people watching it than ever before. And if you ascribe those things to any mystic or scriptural brilliance in Star Trek, you miss the entire point. For Star Trek proves, as faulty as individual episodes could be, is that the much-maligned common man and common woman has an enormous hunger for brotherhood. They are ready for the 23rd century now, and they are light-years ahead of their petty governments and their visionless leaders.”

Boldly Going Where Man Has Gone Before

In 2005 Orson Scott Card wrote an opinion piece for the LA Times celebrating the overdue “death” of Star Trek. Thick with the condensation that has sadly become one of his defining character traits he lambasted the series and it’s fans.

So why did the Trekkies throw themselves into this poorly imagined, weakly written, badly acted television series with such commitment and dedication? Why did it last so long?

Here’s what I think: Most people weren’t reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren’t reading at all. So when they saw “Star Trek,” primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction. It was grade school for those who had let the whole science fiction revolution pass them by.

A new reincarnation of Star Trek is only a few days away and it seems an apt time to contemplate if Star Trek deserved to die…again?

Tentatively I would say yes.

After a magnificent run and evolution The Next Generation ended on a dull self-absorbed note.

Deep Space Nine was a wonderful series for Trekkies to follow but it didn’t capture the broad interest that The Next Generation had.

Voyager was a lackluster series which relied far too heavily on sensationalism and failed to live up to that which had come before. It was sleazy, racy, and ultimately uninspiring.

Enterprise… Does anything actually need to be said?

The last of the movies to impress me was The Voyage Home. Not all of those that followed were terrible but none of them shone.

Corporate Star Trek lost its momentum, floundered, and died. It did deserve to die. The answer was not to make the franchise darker, sexier, or even look to the past.

Not that I agree with Card in the slightest who writes off the most influential science fiction franchise in history as primitive uninspired rubbish.

In a broader sense though the heart of Star Trek has never stopped beating. It has become ingrained in who we are as a culture. Star Trek is more than a space opera series of adventures with themes touching on thought-provoking issues. Star Trek is an obtainable vision of the future. I know, transporters and warp drives are obtainable? No, the vision is a societal one. After ages of poverty and plague, of bloody war and needless waste, humanity will finally unite in the peaceful pursuit of progress and reach out into the stars.

Much of science fiction is meant to prepare us for possible threats to life as we know it. It is to arm us with the understanding necessary to protect our way of living. It prepares us for rebellions – against artificial lifeforms, aliens, mind control, genetic modification, the ultimate consequences of the patriot act, etc.

Star Trek and some others also show us another way of living. They arm us with the vision of a different society. They prepare us for revolutions – for true equality, sustainable peace, strong freedom, unified progress, etc.

Societies stagnate and decline when they fight to preserve themselves but they flourish when they struggle to achieve a greater vision.

Because it existed Star Trek has moved the future towards its ideals, as happened when young Whoopi Goldberg saw Uhura, a competent black woman, treated as an equal on television for the first time in her life. In her own words, “Momma! There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!” That fictional character inspired Goldberg to become an actress so she could pass on the validation she felt as a child. When Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Uhura, decided to leave Star Trek after the first season she was convinced to stay on by Martin Luther King Jr who stated that she was a role model for the black community.

Star Trek had remarkable characters working together in a remarkable way because of its era. Instead of looking to a future where East and West had eradicated each other with nuclear weapons, Star Trek looked to a future where all of humanity, even Russians, were united in a peaceful enterprise.

In my opinion that is a significant part of what was missing from Voyager and Enterprise. It’s also what I believe will be missing from the new Star Trek movie. The lasting appeal of Star Trek doesn’t stem from its crazy adventures, characters, or even philosophical moments but rather from its overarching vision. It’s obtainable and, in fact, we’ve already obtained a large portion of it. It’s served as a self-fulfilling prophecy and it can’t do so in the same way again. Which is what this reboot will miss – Star Trek needs a new updated vision not to continue trying to rehash Roddenberry’s old “formula”.

I believe that the world is hungry for a Star Trek, but I’m not even remotely convinced that a reboot of the old Star Trek will fill that need. We need a vision of an achievable optimistic future that gives us the hope to challenge ourselves. I think the new Star Trek will be a great movie but I’m not expecting to be challenged by it. Paramount is attempting once again to salvage its franchise by boldly going where man has gone before instead of seeking out a vision that reinvigorates the franchise. It’s not about phasers, holodecks, photon torpedoes, Kirk, or even the Enterprise. It’s about the future and boldly looking towards one that we could obtain but haven’t yet.

All that said I’ll still be watching it as soon as possible.