If there is one thing that could be taken away from Star Trek’s fifty year history, it’s that Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic view of a peaceful and unified existence among humans (and their allies in the Federation) was pretty fantastic. Roddenberry imagined a utopian society where war, famine, disease and general conflict had extinguished itself under the unified banner of self improvement as we explored the farthest reaches of the galaxy and, by extension, the farthest reaches that we can go as a species.
Roddenberry’s Fount Of Optimism
In a time plagued by war, political subterfuge, racism, sexism, antisemitism (and pretty much every other kind of ism), Roddenberry — a former fighter pilot turned writer — dared to be a shining beacon of hope that things could get better. While NBC (the network to originally air Star Trek) would decline the first pilot (“The Cage”) for being “too cerebral,” Roddenberry would come back with a second pilot that appeased the reluctant network but didn’t completely sacrifice the vision that he had.
When Gene Roddenberry made the original series in the late 1960s, he tackled the social issues of the time head on. The bridge of the Enterprise not only featured different ethnicities (African American, Japanese American, Scottish and Russian to name a few) in roles of authority, but both genders as well. Star Trek showed audiences, at a time of social upheaval, that equality could and would be reality. When Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) wanted to leave the show after the second season, she was very famously coerced by one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to remain because, for the first time, a woman of color was in a respectable role and could be that beacon of hope that he believed others needed.
The season three episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” brought the issue of racism to the forefront as it featured the crew encountering a species of half black/half white (and, alternately, half white/half black) aliens who were bigots against each other for their physical differences. Captain Kirk’s confusion over the matter is directly explained by humanity’s dismissal of such differences within an individual. A powerful statement of acceptance at a time when people needed it most to help move society forward.
An Optimism We Need In Our Current Star Trek
When J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise in 2009 he made a “Star Trek for non-Star Trek fans.” He took the peace, exploration and self examination out of the material and just made balls-to-the-wall action and space adventure. However entertaining that was to watch, was it really Star Trek?
While making the interview rounds for this summer’s new addition, Star Trek Beyond, Captain Kirk actor Chris Pine infamously said that “You can’t make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016.” It’s true that today’s audience has been over-saturated by the Michael Bay-ish explosive box office offerings of Transformers and the like, but have we completely lost respect for a deeper sense of meaning within a story? Are we, as an audience, turning into an entertainment-driven NBC boardroom, one only interested in watching things go boom?
2009’s Star Trek and its sequel Star Trek Into Darkness were by all rights fun, entertaining movies. There were a lot of throwbacks to the original series and some fairly obvious appreciation for the material, but they were both lacking the true heart of the franchise. Special effects and two hours worth of high-paced action were given preeminence and all of the hope, optimism and topical issues were subdued, if not eliminated all together. Star Trek Beyond, as fun as it looks, is likely to not be any different. Especially if Pine’s recent comments are to be taken as any kind of foreshadowing.
So why do we need a “cerebral” Star Trek again, now more than ever?
The original Star Trek tackled the issues of the time period at a time when they needed to be tackled in a mainstream media that audiences would acknowledge. Likewise, Star Trek: The Next Generation would do the same with issues of its time (AIDS and drug addiction especially). Sure, Star Trek may be fictional, science fiction even, but its imagined universe has always been an allegorical middle ground for viewers to absorb important messages of our time.
In this day and age of terrorism, political upheaval, mass shootings, anti-gay sentiments and extreme religious differences, people need the distraction of a world where all of that hate has been set aside and where people live in harmony. True, a world without conflict is an obstacle for the people working on the show. In point of fact, it was a heavy issue for writer Brannon Braga to overcome when working on The Next Generation. However, he welcomed the challenge and the importance of hope and optimism cannot be overlooked.
Let the Medium Take the Wheel
Television plays an important part in people’s lives. So much attention and admiration are put on the likes of the Kardashians and Caitlyn Jenner these days being “role models” to today’s youthful audiences. Millions of viewers tune in to see what they are doing in their lives, follow them (and other celebrities) on social media and hang on their every trend-setting action. So, why shouldn’t Star Trek fill a role today’s television feels lacking in?
Although Star Trek Beyond is set — — to introduce the franchise’s first openly gay character (in the form of Jon Cho’s Lt. Sulu), there isn’t much else indicating that the current incarnation of the films are trying to bring the franchise back to Roddenberry’s original vision. But with CBS All Access launching a new Star Trek TV series in 2017, the time is right for Roddenberry’s views of a peaceful human race to once again fill our screens and capture our imaginations, teaching a new generation that hate and distrust can be overcome and that, one day, we can boldly go where no one has gone before.
Do you think Star Trek should return focus to hope and optimism?
Writer, Graphic Designer, Husband, Father, Geek and Aspiring Scripter of Moving Pictures