Fifty years ago, “Star Trek” pushed the frontiers of technology with 23rd-century smartphones – also known as communicators – but the TV show pushed social and political frontiers as well.
“While the original premise of the show may have been, ‘Let’s just have some adventures with a spaceship,’ very quickly it became social commentary as well,” screenwriter David Gerrold observes in “Building Star Trek,” a Smithsonian Channel documentary about the show and its legacy.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the “Star Trek” premiere, here are five ways in which the show’s scripts – and its creator, Gene Roddenberry – went where few 1960s-era TV sagas had gone before:
That interracial kiss: So maybe the kiss between a white man (Captain James Kirk, played by William Shatner) and a black woman (Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols) wasn’t technically the first desegregated smooch on TV. Nevertheless, it shook up segments of American society. “There were Southern stations that told NBC: ‘Well, we’re not going to run this show, because you have a black woman on the bridge,'” screenwriter D.C. Fontana recalled. “And Gene Roddenberry told NBC to tell them to go to hell.” Nichols said the scene struck a chord for her personally because her own “Grandpa was white, and Grandma was black.” But professionally speaking? “It was just a kissing scene,” Nichols said.
Space travelers swore off meat: Much has been written about the diet of the “Star Trek” crews, going way back to the 22nd century (as documented in the “Enterprise” spin-off). The consensus is that by the time of the original TV series, the crew members relied on synthetic meat products and other foodstuffs that came out of the starship’s food replicators. Perhaps our 21st-century efforts to produce lab-grown meat from stem cells bore fruit, so to speak. For more on the evolution of the “Star Trek” vegan diet, check out this analysis from Red Hot Vegans.
The Russian was a good guy: Ensign Chekov was added to the cast for the second season of the original series, during the depths of the Cold War. His presence was Roddenberry’s way of signaling that Washington and Moscow had somehow found a way out of their superpower standoff. Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty in the “Star Trek” reboot, said Chekov stood out even back then as a pop-star Russian. “To see this character who was extremely attractive, and loyal, and not at all a bushy-eyebrowed communist … he was a part of the team,” Pegg said.
Captain Kirk headed off Cold Wars: The TV series’ scripts repeatedly echoed Cold War themes. “A Taste of Armageddon” focused on a planet where two foes wage war by computer, and kill off their own citizens to match the assigned casualty count. Kirk finds a way to stop the madness. He also bluffs his way out of mutually assured destruction in “The Corbomite Maneuver” – and discovers that his adversary isn’t such a bad egg after all. Another classic episode, titled “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” combines allusions to racism and nuclear holocaust: Two implacable foes loathe each other’s appearance, even though their only difference is that one is black-and-white, while the other is white-and-black.
Even the monsters just want to get along: The crew on the Enterprise usually finds a way to resolve conflicts with aliens peacefully, even when Kirk goes mano a claw-o with the Gorn, one of the cheesiest lizard monsters ever devised, in “Arena.” (The Gorn costume is on display in the EMP Museum’s “Star Trek” exhibit.) in another episode, “The Devil in the Dark,” an acid-spewing, silicon-based life form etches an enigmatic message in the rock: “NO KILL I.” Is it a plea, or a promise? Suffice it to say that the killing stops, and Spock picks up a new admirer. Would humans act as humanely toward aliens in real life? Perhaps the most charitable view comes from the alien overlord at the end of the “Arena” episode: “We feel that there may be hope for your kind. Therefore you will not be destroyed.”
“Building Star Trek” airs on the Smithsonian Channel on Thursday and Saturday; check local TV listings for times. You can also watch the entire episode online. The documentary also will be shown at 3:30 p.m. PT Thursday at Seattle’s EMP Museum to mark the show’s 50th anniversary.
The museum’s “Star Trek 50” observances also include a panel discussion about the show’s influence on science and technology, starting at 5 p.m. Check back on GeekWire on Thursday for reminiscences about the show from EMP curator Brooks Peck and other Seattle luminaries.