Thursday, May 7, 2009

What Star Trek Meant the First Time Around

With J. J. Abrams bringing his reboot of the Star Trek franchise to the movies on Friday nationwide, I and other fans in their fifties and beyond find ourselves reminiscing about what the original Star Trek television series meant to us in the late 1960s.

We Would Have a Future

First of all, Star Trek told us that we would have a future. This was a shaky proposition at the time. The principal of my parochial elementary school interrupted my first-grade classes one day in October 1962, as the Cuban missile crisis broke into the news, to tell us that we were dangerously close to war with the Soviet Union--and to lead us all in prayer. We held drills in school for years, climbing under our desks to prepare for nuclear attack. However, with our school less than three miles from the Empire State Building--likely ground zero in any attack on New York City--we knew that, in a nuclear war, we would all be vaporized before the plaster loosened from the classroom ceiling by a bomb blast even reached our desk tops. We wondered whether we would make it alive to high school, let alone adulthood.

In the midst of all this atomic anxiety, Star Trek gave us the mythology of a future, the assurance that humanity would not immolate itself in a nuclear orgy of destruction, but rather would survive to encounter marvelous wonders and do great things: we would go to the very stars themselves.

Somehow that all translated into the idea that we, the fifth graders who watched the debut of the series on September 8, 1966, would survive--not a totally logical inference, but it worked for us. Oh, and about logic ....

Math and Science Are Cool

Second, Star Trek taught us that science and math were cool. This was certainly not anything that we learned on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where the adults with the most secure jobs worked either for the City or the Mob. (No, I'm not going there.) Science and math, beyond what was necessary to make change, or calculate the odds on the ponies, seemed irrelevant in our parents' world.

Spock however, made science cool: he had the scientific answers to the seemingly impossible challenges that the crew faced weekly. Scotty, with his lightning-quick mental calculations of what the engines could do, and how long the Starship Enterprise could endure before the stresses of that night's adventure tore her to pieces--Scotty made math cool.

Sure, the science in Star Trek was largely made up, but a fair amount of it was based in reality, however tenuously. We heard about light speed, antimatter, genetic mutations, neurosurgery, artificial intelligence, and computers--all real scientific and technological concepts, even in 1966.

Star Trek got some of us to thinking that perhaps we could do something in science and math. As I grew up, my interests shifted towards social science, but I started out as a grade-school physicist and astronaut-wannabe, who was never scared by math--and I have Star Trek to thank for that, at least in part.

(In passing, I think that Star Trek really has exerted some influence on scientific and technological progress, by provoking questioning and thinking about even the seemingly wildest of its conjectures. For example, according to a recent article at, some scientists are working on the theoretical underpinnings of a faster-than-light propulsion system.)

A Future of Racial and Ethnic Equality

Third, Star Trek gave us hope that the time would come when ethnic and racial differences would mean nothing. This was certainly not the world that I inhabited. As a Polish-Puerto Rican biethnic child on the Lower East Side during the Sixties, I was beaten up now and again by bigger kids for whom someone like me was simply a biological and moral abomination.

Racial division broke out in open conflict in the larger world, as well. During the summer between second and third grades, we watched TV reports of the July 1964 Harlem riot. In subsequent years during our elementary school career, we watched TV reports of riots in Watts (August 1965), and Newark, NJ and Detroit (July 1967). As sixth graders, we witnessed the nation convulse in rioting during the spring of 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in April. A month earlier, a U.S. presidential commission issued the Kerner report, famous for stating that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal."

But not on Star Trek. Look at that bridge crew! Sure, Captain Kirk was your standard White North American leading man-type, such as viewers would see on most TV programs of that era. However, Uhura the communications officer was African, Sulu the helmsman and tactical officer was East Asian, Chekov the navigator was Russian, Scotty the chief engineer was Scottish, and Spock the science officer wasn't even entirely human. One of the most important scientists in the Federation was an African American, Dr. Richard Daystrom, reputedly the Einstein of the 23rd century, maven of artificial intelligence. Several Starfleet officers and enlisted personnel had Hispanic names, such as Commodore Jose Mendez. Characters of multiple heritages were not uncommon on the series, the most notable being Spock himself, half-Human, half-Vulcan.

And, for the most part, the different ethnic groups and races got along, at least within the Federation. Oh, sure, there were skirmishes and even open warfare now and again between the multicultural United Federation of Planets, the Romulan Star Empire, and the Klingons, but these conflicts were primarily drawn along astro-political lines, rather than along racial or ethnic differences. Where there was racial conflict, the series bluntly condemned it. (Best example: the episode where Commander Bele--refrigerator white on the left side of his body, but coal black on the right--hunted down Lokai, who had the opposite coloring. After a long pursuit, they discover that racial hatred had utterly destroyed all life on their home planet.)

I do not know where the Star Trek franchise will go from here. I do hope, though, that in our world--where ethnic hatreds kill thousands annually, where religious conflicts threaten global peace, where American children lag behind other nations in their understanding of science and technology, even as environmental catastrophe looms--perhaps something like the original Star Trek series will help to inspire the youth of the 21st century, with new tales of possible futures. That would truly be On The Mark.

Mark Koltko-Rivera is the Director for Research at Professional Services Group, Inc., where he has responsibility for the professional futurism practice.
The picture, the official 40th anniversary logo for Star Trek, is Copyright 2007 by Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios Inc.; it is described on Wikipedia as being available for fair use.


  1. Just so you're aware, they were equally powerful to the grade school kids watching reruns with Mom and Dad on Sunday evenings. As a result of the original, I watched (and can quote) almost every episode of The Next Generation, where a Klingon was a crew member and the ship's engineer was a blind black man...but the best part (aside from the fact that I had a terrible crush on him) was that one of the flight crew - responsible for some pretty heavy stuff, as far as a 12 year-old girl was concerned - was a 16 year-old boy. Awesome stuff, that.

    Going to see the movie with my Dad next week! Thanks for this entry, Mark! :)

  2. Jessica, Thank you for your comment. I did indeed enjoy Star Trek: The Next Generation, but by then I was in my third job out of college, and dad to three (out of four eventual) kids. As good as the show was, it was not forming my character or dreams in the same way as the original series did. I'm glad that it had a good effect on you. I did very much appreciate the way they had bi-(interstellar)-racial characters in ST:TNG.

    So, a big Wesley fan, huh? Good for you.

    Enjoy the movie with your Dad next week.


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