Creator Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Series debuted on NBC on September 8, 1966, making today the official 50th anniversary of this massively influential science fiction franchise. Through soon-to-be seven television series, 13 films, and multiple book, comic book, and video game incarnations, Star Trek has grown to be one of the most important franchises in modern entertainment. But it wasn’t always the case.
Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek took two television pilots to go to series, which is highly uncommon, only for the series to struggle through consistently low ratings and an eventual cancellation after three seasons. But the world of Star Trek was incredibly vibrant, even in its early days, leading to an endlessly devoted fanbase of Trekkies that led to a follow-up animated series and multiple films before reaching its heyday in the 1990s. While the franchise has had rough patches over the years (most recently with the alternate timeline reboot leading to little more than three films in seven years), the heart and soul of the series has kept Star Trek endlessly relevant and constantly fascinating.
Roddenberry’s vision of the future is an ultimately optimistic one. One in which the people of Earth have found permanent peace by moving beyond violence and the discriminating lines of racism and sexism. But that’s not to say that the path to a better future was an easy one or that the people of a far better Earth are perfect. The fictional timeline leading up to the world of Star Trek was marked with numerous devastating wars, including The Eugenics Wars, World War II, and multiple wars with alien races once interstellar travel was established, including battles with both the Kzinti and the Romulans. The path to true progress and a better future was a painful one, making the idealistic future of Star Trek feel all the more real. But once humanity united as a people, a greater future beyond our planet was made possible.
Out of this better future is born the idea of the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet, an interstellar organization created by humans to explore, understand, and keep the peace. The nature of Starfleet and the crew of the USS Enterprise is ultimately altruistic, with the betterment of all alien species and a respect for the vast amount of cultures encountered at the forefront of their mission. While that may seem like a boring central idea for its main characters (after all, most modern drama is propelled by interpersonal conflicts and character flaws), the situations encountered by the heroes seen throughout 50 years of Star Trek are often much more complicated.
And therein lies the consistently captivating central dynamic of all Star Trek: how do people dedicated to the greater good navigate situations that deeply challenge morals and beliefs?
The most compelling and most deeply resonating stories in all of science fiction look to reflect real world quandaries, using the heightened realities of the genre to deeply explore modern issues in ways that aren’t possible in stories directly tied to reality. And ultimately, this was what Roddenberry designed Star Trek to do in every episode of the original series. Following the crew of the USS Enterprise on a five-year mission to explore outer space, each story was designed to provide an exciting adventure while simultaneously exploring relevant issues. By doing so, the original Star Trek series was able to be far deeper than what network executives realized until this balance became a crucial aspect of the franchise. In turn, audiences immediately connected with the purpose of the series and championed it as a crucial reflection of social issues of the time.
Running from 1966 through 1969, Star Trek: The Original Series came to life at a time when The Civil Rights Movement, The Cold War, The Space Race, The Vietnam War, and many more turbulent political events were in full swing. As such, the crew of the USS Enterprise reflected far greater racial and sexual equality, a decision that Roddenberry purposefully made, even though the network protested. Star Trek’s upfront focus on the exploration of new ideas and new cultures feels just as much at home in that decade as the Technicolor designs of both costumes and sets. Just as crucial, the vibrancy of the ideas at play is strong enough to make somewhat stilted acting and fairly cheap production values just part of the charm. TOS still works today.
In the films that followed from 1979 through 1991, those same moral dilemmas and explorations played out on a far larger scale. And while not every entry was a complete success (the even numbered movie rule is most certainly true up through First Contact), the film adventures of the Starship Enterprise helped take the franchise to the next level, leading to the launch of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
From the late ‘90s through the early 2000s, TNG, Deep Space 9, and Voyager all massively expanded both the universe and storytelling possibilities of the franchise. Just as The Original Series reflected then-modern issues of the ‘60s and the films connected to the issues of the ‘80s (The Voyage Home is a spectacular blend of comedy and environmental commentary), this TV trio heavily tied into the ideas being grappled with in the ‘90s. Characters like Data explored the idea of what it means to be human while the Federation’s tumultuous new alliance with The Klingon Empire directly paralleled the real world issues of defrosting political relations after The Cold War. The wealth of Star Trek in the ‘90s meant that there was no shortage of ideas and stories to be explored. And while the franchise was still seen as a niche nerd passion, it was one of the few science fiction franchises to create a worldwide fan base at the time.
Unfortunately, it was the choice to do a prequel series in the form of Enterprise in 2001 that led to the end of a continuous run of Star Trek shows when the TV show was cancelled in 2005. Combined with the poor box office performance of Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002, the Star Trek franchise was put into disarray until the choice was made to reboot with the alternate timeline-set Star Trek feature film in 2009. While the series would quickly veer off course with the supremely misguided Star Trek Into Darkness, the course corrections and genuine understanding of the franchise’s core ideas with 2016’s Star Trek Beyond and hopefully the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery show that the meaning of Gene Roddenberry’s vision is not only alive, but still incredibly relevant at the series’ 50th anniversary.
At its best, Star Trek feels like a torchbearer for mankind. Its morality reflects the best of what people can be. Its sense of adventure inspires exploration in the real world. Its sci-fi inventions have inspired countless real world creations. It’s at this nexus of real life and science fiction that the lines blur between what we as people strive to be and what we envision for ourselves through our art. Countless science fiction stories through the years have reflected just how wrong the world could go should we give into our worst natures, just like many others have simply embraced fun and adventure without taking the time to examine far deeper issues. Star Trek is one of the rare pillars of pop culture that believes in the best of humanity and pushes the world to quite literally reach for the stars.
A sense of adventure and discovery permeates Star Trek just as much as its metaphorical battles and mysteries. Heroes like James Kirk, Jean Luc Piccard, and Kathryn Janeway embrace the exciting possibilities that interstellar travel brings, yet also shoulder their responsibility as leaders proudly. That balance between the fun and serious elements of the series informs so much of what makes the franchise enticing to countless generations and captures the drive to discover, invent, and achieve that has propelled the human race for centuries. At its heart, Star Trek deeply inspires and excites like few other franchises because it is devoted to reflecting the human condition in even the most outlandish of science fiction scenarios.
While it feels like the worst of the modern world is pushing us further and further away from what Star Trek envisions for humankind, the franchise itself still serves as a reflection of what we are truly capable of achieving. Now more than ever, the call to greatness issued by Roddenberry’s vision of a bright, exciting, and peaceful future is needed in the world. With any luck, the next 50 years can bring the world closer to the message of Star Trek and its brilliant hopes for humanity.