By Keith McLendon
Retro Blog 

Half a century on a wagon train

 


Fifty years ago a spacecraft was launched at the National Broadcasting Company.

It was not a literal vessel but an idealized one sprung from the brain of a WWII pilot who, along with other distinctions, won the Distinguished Flying Cross.

It was a craft that came to be backed and promoted by comic genius Lucille Ball and her Desilu Studios.

The forward-looking Ms. Ball even managed to get the rerun rights to the show (along with “I Love Lucy”) from studio executives before the concept of reruns was fully grasped by network executives who had, up to that point, mostly produced shows live with no thought of showing them again.

All the same, you already know the name of the ship.

A ship whose virtual existence came to change life as we know it.

A ship which exists in an optimistic, if up to this point–fictional, future.

That ship is the U.S.S. Enterprise.

The show was “Wagon Train to the Stars” … a name which was changed to the more recognizable “Star Trek” before it ever debuted on television.

Yeah, I know I wasn’t hiding anything with the buildup. But hey … drama.

Engineering

the Future

Some of you are still questioning the “change life as we know it” comment.

The original Motorola flip phone was designed to look like the “Star Trek” communicator. The iPad was patterned after those seen on the show (even though some will say it was patterned more after the version used in “Star Trek’s” spinoff; “Star Trek: The Next Generation”).


The Hypospray used on the show for injections has become the Jet Injector used for mass inoculations today.

A slew of engineers got ideas from the show.

Some of those concepts from the show are still being explored today.

There is even a million dollar X-Prize out there for anyone who can make a medical Tricorder (the name for a medical scanning device from “Star Trek”) a reality.

There are an array of ideas from that series that inspired engineers, designers and the like.

But that wasn’t the only way “Star Trek” changed things.

Helping with

Diversity

“Star Trek” was the first American live action series to feature an interracial cast and the crew was diverse in a time when diversity was still a wild concept.

The navigator was a Russian in a time when America was still trying to grasp how to even communicate with its Cold War adversary.

The helmsman was of Japanese descent (make an asian driver joke if you like, but I don’t remember the Enterprise ever crashing).

The communications officer was a black woman. If you think that wasn’t important, it should be noted that when the actress who played the part let it be known that she was thinking of leaving the show Martin Luther King Jr. himself told her not to because she was such an inspiration to black youth and a part of history.

The first officer was an alien with a logic-based viewpoint that let the viewing public consider a different perspective to the problems presented.

The chief engineer prided himself on his Scots lineage.

They were all treated as “just crewmen” and important cogs to the ship’s operation by the ship’s charismatic, Iowa-born captain.

As a child watching the show it never even occurred to me that anything was amiss with any of that. I think the attitude that we are all “just people” was birthed and nurtured in a lot of people by this space drama. I know “Star Trek” helped form some of my more tolerant opinions.

But that uplifting viewpoint was not always readily accepted during the turbulent 60s.

Several television stations in the south boycotted or threatened to boycott the episode which featured the first televised interracial kiss.

The show’s executive producer would have none of it.

Today we find these kinds of thing commonplace and unremarkable–but a fight had to be fought to get us here–and “Star Trek” was a tool in that fight.

Morality and issues of the day

The plots in the show were often morality tales that tackled issues no (or few) other shows would get involved in.

“Star Trek” pointed out the stupidity of hating someone because of physical or philosophical differences. It dramatized the consequences of overpopulation at a time when even discussing birth control was taboo. It touched obliquely on the America’s war in Vietnam and offered an optimistic vision of the future where mankind had learned to avoid its own destruction and peacefully use nuclear power to explore the cosmos.

Though there were some points in the show that we would regard as sexist today, women were most often portrayed as strong and intelligent characters—even if they were regularly costumed in skimpy attire (It should be noted that “Star Trek” popularized the mini skirt in America just as they began to become popular in Britain).

Some of the episodes were downright hokey and the acting was occasionally over the top, but the points being made were (and still are) valid.

Spinoffs and films

“Star Trek” first aired on Sept. 8, 1966 and the show ran for two seasons before being canceled by NBC. In what was then an unheard of letter writing campaign, fans of the show deluged the network with pleas to keep “Star Trek” on the air. As a result, “Star Trek” was renewed for a third season but was canceled again after the network moved the show to a time slot with very low viewership.

In 1973, an animated version of “Star Trek” appeared and ran for 22 episodes.

In 1979, “Star Trek” leapt onto the big screen with “Star Trek: the Motion Picture.”

Since that time various Enterprise crews have appeared in over a dozen films–and that number is still growing.

The show also spawned multiple television spinoffs. To date there have been five “Star Trek” incarnations (including the animated series) and the latest owners of “Star Trek’s” television rights have recently announced a new series to premier on network television and appear thereafter on a paid digital streaming service. Okay, so the future isn’t always as rosy as “Star Trek” hoped it would be.

Wrapping it up

I have seen “Star Trek” listed in several places as one of the (if not the) most influential television series of all time. I am going to credit that to it’s optimistic viewpoint, social vision, excellent writing, engaging characters and creative direction.

Pretty good for an unpretentious science fiction series with high aspirations and a low budget.

How many other fifty-year-old shows are still relevant and watchable?

 

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