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Answer by Robert Frost, instructor and flight controller at NASA, on Quora:
The Star Trek franchise celebrated its 50th anniversary in September. During that 50 years, more than 700 episodes and 13 movies have been made. One could watch Star Trek for more than 500 hours without seeing anything twice.
Star Trek stories are humanistic; they are founded in Gene Roddenberry’s belief in the perfectible human. They provide an optimistic vision of our future. Star Trek tells us that no matter how crazy the world may look today, it will get better. We will get better. There will be a time in which doing great things will be the norm.
Contrary to the common perception, Star Trek did not perform poorly when it aired on NBC between 1966 and 1969, but it didn’t perform strongly enough to justify its very high cost. After airing its third season during a time period in which its core audience wouldn’t be home, NBC canceled the series. Three seasons of a show used to be an important benchmark, because it made the show a valid candidate for syndication sales. During the mid-1970s, UHF stations all over America purchased the rights to re-air those three seasons. It began to air daily and found audiences that missed out the first time. The popularity of the show grew immensely, particularly amongst juveniles and young adults. Vietnam was over, and man had walked on the moon. There was a vast sea of young people who found the bright future of Star Trek inspirational.
Star Trek depicts a meritocracy. The characters were cool not because of looks, wealth, or social position, but because they were very good at their jobs. It is a rare television show that sends the message that it is cool to be smart.
Star Trek’s optimistic view of the future stands as a contrast to the bulk of science fiction. Most television and cinematic science fiction depicts varying dystopian futures. Dystopia provides writers with shortcuts to conflict; it’s easier. When just making it through the day provides conflict, writers don’t have to generate as many new ideas. Star Trek thrives on those new ideas.
Star Trek’s “Wagon Train to the stars” construct meant that each episode found the crew in a new place. Each new world enabled the writers to imagine new scenarios to challenge the crew of the Enterprise. The veil of new species and new civilizations allowed the writers to tell issues stories and create moral plays that probed our contemporary views without overtly criticizing them.
The ridiculousness of racism could be exposed through the artifice of an alien white on one side of his body and black on the other in conflict with an alien black on one side and white on the other. The Vietnam War and the Cold War could be criticized by putting the Federation and the Klingons in the position of arming less developed planets in the buffer zone between them. The roles of technology and automation could be examined in an episode that depicted a computer replacing the captain of the ship. Our very humanity could be examined by telling stories about an outworlder from the planet Vulcan or a man-made android.
Star Trek excelled in its characters and casting. The original series focused on a trinity of characters. At the center was the classic hero, Captain Kirk, a dashing and passionate adventurer burdened with the responsibilities of command. Like angels and devils on his shoulder were his advisers, Spock, the logical Vulcan viewing the world through a cerebral lens, and McCoy, the ship’s physician and the very embodiment of heart, compassion, and morality. Surrounding them was a spectrum of diversity that showed us people of different backgrounds working together, seamlessly.
Star Trek showed blacks, Asians, and women in roles of respect in a time when that was not the norm. Whoopi Goldberg has talked about freaking out when, as a child, she tuned into Star Trek and saw that black women were part of the future. Nichelle Nichols has told the story of how when she was contemplating leaving the show, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told her not to, because her character was a symbol of hope for equality.
I came to Star Trek long before I understood the concept of race. The fact that Uhura’s skin was browner than Scotty’s or that Sulu’s eyes were different than Chekov’s was shown as being no more significant than the fact that Scotty’s hair was a darker color than Captain Kirk’s hair.
Twenty-one years after Star Trek premiered on NBC, a new television series called Star Trek: The Next Generation began airing in syndication. It was a huge success and ran for seven seasons. It continued the formula of a bright future, a highly competent crew, and moral plays.
Three more television series followed, but the concept had been saturated. For 18 years, Star Trek appeared on television on a weekly basis. It lost its casual audience and was surviving off of only the die-hards. So, Star Trek took a four-year break.
The strengths of Star Trek make it best suited for television and less well suited for the cinema. It has had mixed success on the big screen. The multiplex is about spectacle. When Star Trek returned to the big screen in 2009 it was welcomed by a large audience, but it wasn’t quite Star Trek. Star Trek is more about thinking and talking than blowing things up. In 2017, Star Trek will return to its native format and hopefully that audience will be hungry, again.
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