To many people Star Trek is just a cerebral sci-fi series, existing in the shadow of that other iconic franchise with "Star" in the title. But, whether people realize it or not, Star Trek is nothing short of an 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 (yes, you have Trek to thank for "sex pollen").
Star Trek was by no means the first iconic sci-fi franchise, but it is perhaps the most influential. The world was introduced to Gene Roddenberry's optimistic view of humanity's future on September 8th, 1966, when the second pilot hit the airwaves, courtesy of NBC and Lucille Ball's Desilu Studios.
The show's journey to release had already been a rocky one, with Roddenberry forced to cut characters after the first pilot was shot down by NBC. Saved by some serious campaigning and financing on the part of Lucille Ball, Star Trek was reformulated from philosophical thought experiments to more of a space western. But the intellectualism of the show endured, and Roddenberry eventually struck the perfect balance of entertaining action and thought-provoking plots.
51 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 after Star Trek: Beyond sailed out of the cinemas in 2016, we have Star Trek: Discovery to look forward to in September 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 sci-fi 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 sci-fi of the time was either fanciful and silly 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.
This was a huge step forward for representation in media. Uhura especially became a beacon of hope for many young women of color — both the Academy Award-winning Whoopi Goldberg, and the astronaut Mae Jemison (the first African-American woman in space) credit Uhura as a huge source of inspiration, as seeing a black woman in space spurred both Goldberg and Jemison on to succeed in their respective careers. In fact, the two women were so enamored with Star Trek that they both wound up portraying characters on The Next Generation, with Whoopi Goldberg as the beloved Guinan, and Jemison as the one-episode wonder Lt Palmer.
And this story is not over: Bryan Fuller, ex-showrunner of #StarTrekDiscovery, wanted to continue this story of representation and inspiration, with a lead character who was inspired by both Uhura and Mae Jemison. Thus, he pushed for Sonequa Martin-Green's casting as Michael Burnham. Although Fuller eventually parted ways with Discovery, CBS took his advice and ensured Martin-Green was cast.
Of course, Star Trek isn't just inspirational in regards to representation: 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 there's Trek's impact on television. The Next Generation was hugely influential in many ways, with many of the episode concepts repeated and re-envisioned in later television shows. Even how episodes are structured comes from The Next Generation, as the writers came up with a system of balancing an A plot that involved the entire ensemble cast, and a B plot focusing on just one character (that tied into the A plot). This is a format that has been subsequently used in almost all episodic show. And we even have The Next Generation to thank for season cliffhangers: The Season 3 finale, "Best Of Both Worlds", was the very first time a television season concluded with 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, as the 90s saw two Trek shows on TV and a movie series in cinemas. However, this was also the beginning of the end, and the franchise went into hibernation in 2005 when Enterprise was prematurely cancelled.
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 the franchise, as they flocked to Netflix to discover the TV shows. This renewed interest caused CBS to greenlight Discovery, a new chapter in Star Trek history.
Once again, we will have Star Trek in cinemas and in our living rooms — assuming the proposed Star Trek 4 does get made — with Discovery, a Khan origin show, and even a Trek spoof in the form of The Orville. This may well be a new golden era for Star Trek, as Discovery challenges old viewers with a darker retrospective on TOS era, while keeping pace with high-budget prestige shows like HBO's Game Of Thrones and Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. Expectations are high for Discovery, with a decade of fan hopes riding on it, and so far it seems to be exactly what the fandom needs.
With its new designs, serialized plot, and emotional conflicts that break one of Roddenberry's cardinal rules, Discovery is not your dad's Star Trek — but the showrunners have promised that the new series will tie into The Original Series in an interesting and satisfying way. And if there's any proof of Trek's legacy, it's in Discovery's writers' room, as the show is penned by veteran writers who have contributed to every aspect of the franchise, from its shows to its extended canon novels.
More than anything else, Discovery has proven 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?