To many people Star Trek is just a cerebral scifi series, existing in the shadow of that other iconic franchise with "Star" in the title. But in truth Star Trek is nothing short of a cultural icon, and its impact on pop culture really can't be overstated — without Star Trek there would be no Star Wars, there would be no cliffhangers at the end of TV show seasons, and there would be far far fewer tropes for writers to employ.
Star Trek was by no means the first iconic scifi franchise, but it is perhaps the most influential. The world was introduced to this optimistic view of humanity's future in 1966, when the second pilot penned by Gene Roddenberry hit the airwaves, courtesy of NBC and Desilu Studios.
Already, the path to the show's release had been a rocky one, with Roddenberry forced to cut characters after the first pilot got shot down by NBC, reformulating Star Trek from philosophical thought experiments to more of a space western. But the intellectualism of the show endured, and Roddenberry struck the perfect balance of entertaining action and thought-provoking plots.
Fifty years on, Trek has changed the world as we know it, not just in entertainment but in scientific innovation too. It's fitting then, that we seem to be heading into a new golden age of Star Trek — even as Star Trek: Beyond sails out of the cinemas, we have Star Trek: Discovery to look forward to in January of 2017.
Set Phasers To Stun: Trek's Impact On Modern Culture
When The Original Series was first created, the landscape of science fiction was very different. The "space opera" sub-genre was just beginning — after shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits featured stories contained within one episode, Lost In Space was the first scifi TV series to continue one story across many episodes. Star Trek followed suit, mirroring the socio-political situation of the real world and holding up the Federation as an example of how things could, and should, be better.
This was something new, as the scifi of the time was either fanciful or dystopian. By fighting to include characters like the Russian Chekov, the Japanese American Sulu, and the African American Uhura, Roddenberry invited the viewer to see the future as a place for everyone.
The impact of this is talked about a lot, and Uhura especially is a symbol of representation. Both the Academy Award winning Whoopi Goldberg, and the astronaut Mae Jemison (the first African American woman in space) have talked about how seeing Uhura on television spurred them on to succeed in their respective careers. Interestingly, Bryan Fuller — showrunner of Discovery — has commented that the female protagonist of the new show was inspired by Mae Jemison, completing the cycle.
But Trek isn't just inspirational on a social level: Many modern scientific inventions appeared in The Next Generation long before the real world, such as computer tablets, medical hyposprays, and even Google glasses.
And then of course there's Trek's impact on television and entertainment media. The Next Generation was hugely influential in many ways, with many of the episode concepts repeated and re-envisioned in later television shows. In fact, the finale of Season 3 — "Best of Both Worlds" — was the first time a television season had ended on a cliffhanger. This terrified CBS, but the episode was a huge success, changing TV forever.
Deep Space Nine was similarly influential, pioneering a serialised narrative and balancing overarching plots with the tried-and-tested episodic structure. This show was also atypical for Star Trek, pushing the story into a much darker territory. But the core principles remained — despite corruption and war, the future that Trek represents is an optimistic one, and this is why the franchise has endured.
A New Frontier: Star Trek Is Flourishing Again
Star Trek has gone through many phases, from the fledgling days of The Original Series, to the golden age kickstarted by The Next Generation — in the late 90s, there were two Star Trek shows on television (Deep Space Nine and Voyager), while the TNG movies were released in cinemas.
But this was the beginning of a gradual decline, as Voyager's end heralded the premiere of Enterprise — the most criticized Trek show, and the only one to be prematurely cancelled by CBS in 2005.
The age of Star Trek seemed to have come to an end, until JJ Abrams stirred up the fanbase with his blockbuster movie Star Trek in 2009. This film, although divisive, introduced the next generation of viewers to Star Trek. Eager for more, these fans sought out the older shows, which were waiting for them on Netflix (or slightly less legal streaming services, if those fans weren't based in the United States).
The renewed interest in Star Trek only flourished for the next few years, and finally, after more than ten years off the air, Discovery will bring Trek back to small screens in 2017.
Once again, we will have Star Trek in cinemas and in our living rooms — assuming the proposed Star Trek 4 does get made. Expectations are high for Discovery, with a decade of fan hopes riding on it, but everything Bryan Fuller has said so far fills us with confidence.
More than anything else, Discovery has proved that Star Trek will never truly die. Fans may debate which iteration of the franchise is the best, but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter — Roddenberry's vision of a better future for humanity is still something to strive for, and with any luck Star Trek will live long and prosper for many years to come.
Tell us in the comments: Which is your favorite Star Trek show?