Star Trek was groovier than Austin Powers back in the day. In charge of it all was head hippy: Gene Roddenberry. The most popular TV sci-fi franchise in history was born of the 1960’s. We’d all do well to remember that fact.
The Groovy 1960’s
Despite psychedelic colors, fashionable go-go boots and Lt. Uhura’s groovy mini skirt; we may forget the most beloved science fiction television show ever debuted in 1966. It’s pilot was filmed the year before. Star Trek’s core values remain firmly rooted in that turbulent age of peace, love and hippie sensibilities.
Captain Kirk may have commanded the Enterprise, but Gene Roddenberry was head hippy in charge of everything else.
Star Trek isn’t the only sci-fi game now or back in the day. Landmark shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, even Lost In Space made space travel intriguing, if not somewhat bizarre. However when Roddenberry’s “Wagon train to the stars.” warped along, that game rose a level or two. As hyperactive chef Emeril Lagasse might yell, “Bam! Kick it up a notch, Spock!”
I wince when South Park hellion Eric Cartman screams “Die Hippy!” Cartman as one of the cuddly, curse belching, video game obsessed nerdy kids of Comedy Central’s funniest show worships Star Trek. If this acerbic kid born of the 90’s, knew Roddenberry was a hippy, he’d change his mind.
“Live Long & Prosper, Hippy Creator! Screw you other omnipotent deities! I’m going home!”
Trek’s Intellectual Science Fiction
Why care that Star Trek is a product of the 1960’s? What does it matter that the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam war or that civil rights protests raged across America? It’s science fiction. It’s about the future, and exploring strange new worlds, cool gizmos – all that speculative stuff. Yeah, but not entirely.
Like all intellectual sci-fi, Star Trek addresses more. Alien races substitute for ethnic groups or special interest groups. Those alien worlds stand in for other parts of our world or other times where slavery was never abolished, or animals are still slaughtered for sport.
Take the Klingons. Many think they’re based on Samurai of ancient Japan or American Indians. The truth is they were envisioned as Communists. Roddenberry and his writing staff pinned real life historic qualities on aliens. China may be a burgeoning superpower now – friendly, newly democratic or not – but back in the sixties they were seen as mysterious, possibly warlike and obviously the Russian Iron Curtain was still drawn over the USSR. Here again parallels to Romulans and other enemies were written into plot lines.
Star Trek encompasses a galaxy of issues. It doesn’t just examine politics, science, ethics or conflict that humanity never seems to grow out of despite incredibly powerful technology. Most importantly because it shows highly advanced races utilizing highly advanced technology STILL embroiled in the most basic interpersonal conflicts, it clearly illustrates that science isn’t the answer.
Wagon Trains Of Optimism
Roddenberry’s optimistic universe of high energy, peaceful humans who have thrown away racism, sexism, ageism and other primitive mindsets is criticized for being Utopian minded. Some sci-fi writers go out of their way to mock its place in entertainment history or as pop culture icon. They bash Trek for being simplistic, artificial or even irrelevant. To each their own. However, these critics lose sight of what it has accomplished.
Perhaps more than any sci-fi entity it compels audiences to think higher thoughts, to expect more from sci-fi than simple lightsaber fights or flashy starships. It’s graphically illustrated the horrors of war time and again. It’s shown us the waste and illogical hatred because of skin color or preferences in mating or religion. Star Trek can’t be everything to everyone. What accomplishes that magic trick? But it sure rises to the challenge.
During a recent sci-fi convention, a statement was read aloud to fans by long time Gene Roddenberry assistant Arnold. The message came from JJ Abrams, director of the forthcoming Star Trek film. Someone told JJ that a former Paramount executive bashed his own longtime source of vast income for being too “Pollyanna.” Abram’s reply statement said simply: “I think we can all do with some Pollyanna.”
Note: This essay was first published in Associated Content on September 28, 2007.