It may be possible that I have thought of Star Trek more than half of the days I’ve been alive. Those days are also pretty skewed towards the second half of my life as well. Is this much of a feat? Sometimes I will think of people or places that have been important in my life, and I’ll take pause to wonder how many weeks or months it’s been since I last thought of them. I’m not sure I have the same issue with this TV show. Plenty of entertainment is manufactured to stick in our minds.
People who like Star Trek can seem pretty evangelical for a bunch of humanists. This comes with any fandom, but it’s a special thing to be able to look at the culture surrounding the show that is often considered the originator of the modern fandom. It might be ridiculous to say that fanzines and fanfiction, slash fiction and shipping, conventions and cosplay were all created from this one 3-season show. People published and shared stories about their favorite characters beforehand, I’m sure. I’m also sure that plenty of these were a bit sexy, played with taboo, and featured author-insertion (no pun intended). Theatrically or historically minded folks dressed up and played parts for their own sake. Interestingly, one of the first major renaissance “faires” was in 1966, the year ST debuted, at the Paramount ranch (although Paramount did own the rights to broadcast the show until 1969). But Star Trek does seem to be a major popularizer for these ideas, and set up some expectations about things like anime conventions and unwritten rules about how to write yourself doing some cool kissing with Matt Smith without receiving too much judgement.
Part of the continuing success of Star Trek is due to its popularity. It’s a franchise, and success leads to success. It’s a household name.
There must be original things that originally led to its popularity, though, and keep it going. It boils down to the following.
It drew from established genres that were underserved and added to them. Gene Roddenberry drew inspiration for Captain Kirk from the Horatio Hornblower novels. I haven’t read these, but it seems that they themselves heavily draw from the fetishized “plucky” character type and high adventure of (boys’) Victorian-era novels and subsequent pulp fiction. In addition, the space-adventure theme of the show probably drew in a lot of grown-up boys who used to read Tom Swift, Flash Gordon, and still looked fondly back on watching Captain Video. The Twilight Zone, and other “short story” format science fiction shows existed beforehand, but it seems they didn’t have the draw of a character connection.
This is the awesome benefit of having a show based on an indefinitely fast space ship. You can have an episodic format which allows for missing a broadcast and still following the story, like a sitcom, but offers a way to feature completely different premises as often as the creators want. This gives more freedom than a sitcom, which returns to the status quo at the end of every episode, and also keeps the same neighbors around.
Star Trek wasn’t really a huge hit except with a vocal minority (you could spin as an example of the Pareto principle) until in syndication, after its cancellation. The Next Generation series wasn’t exactly a hit right off the bat either. But, funnily enough, it likely benefited from a similar drought of science fiction on tv, only a couple decades later. The drop in popularity (and as many others say, quality) of Star Trek in the 90s, as Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise continued on, was likely an indirect result of TNG’s popularity: the new Star Trek spawned a new interest in the genre. We might not have seen Babylon 5, Stargates, The X-Files without it, but these might have also saturated the market.
It straddled the lines of being interesting, silly, and thoughtful. Again, Star Trek wasn’t a huge hit at first, but the new-setting-every-week bit was attractive to the science fiction short story lovers. These types are usually looking for ideas that will stick with them for some time afterwards. The ending of The Twilight Zone I’m sure left a hole that Star Trek was able to fill. These ideas were social and political commentary, either unspoken or explicitly stated, or technological and scientific. Deeper personal stories wouldn’t start until the first movie, and The Next Generation, and the political intrigue wouldn’t really pick up until later seasons of TNG (and DS9!).
Viewers at least had some characters to count on week after week. Again, this could have attracted the pulp lovers who fondly remembered reading the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew (although I’m not sure the Hardy Boys were giving the die-hard fans homoerotic suggestions in the first year of publications). These characters served as the much needed “human” connection that short stories tend to lack — having seen them week after week raises the stakes when they find themselves in peril.
The thinly veiled suggestions of a romantic or sexual relationship between Kirk and Spock brings us to the common assertion that Star Trek was intentionally camp. It’s come to my attention, after seeing Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? at our little Fancy Movie Night, that at the time the camp aesthetic was becoming more popular on television as well as in film. By the way, this might also owe itself to the popularity of Some Like it Hot, also seen at FMN, a film which served to help dismantle the Motion Picture Production Code. The effective removal of this explicitly written code made it a lot easier to play around with the potentially gay relationship, which allowed the creators to bring in other campy qualities.
The title of this section isn’t to suggest being gay is silly, but it may have appeared so to a typical viewer. In addition, the camp aesthetic definitely connected lightheartedness with homosexuality.
Finally, and maybe most obviously, the show was entertaining on a surface level. The traditionally boyish interests of seeing the ship fly around, shooting ray guns, goofy aliens, funny and sexy pajamas, and brawling action I’m sure solidified the interest of plenty of people (and not just boys).
But the thing people like to talk about the most nowadays is…
It introduced a progressive cast of skilled officers and regularly gave social commentary. This is the part that remains the most inspiring. I wonder how essential it was to the show’s initial popularity, but without these aspects, the show would certainly be a lot less interesting, and definitely not worth getting worked up over 50 years later. Having a collection of Earth’s races all working together on the same bridge, backed by Roddenberry’s vision that they have moved beyond interpersonal conflict, stands as a great source of inspiration. In addition to the obviously racial statements, the addition of the Russian Chekov in later seasons, although he was largely there for comic relief, represented a promising future (respect, as well as existence!) for what had been the United States’ chief enemy at the time. (I’ll have plenty of chance in the future to chat about the other representations of the USA’s enemies, the Klingons and the Romulans.)
Human progress was not only shown in social achievement or technological power. Spock himself was often played for laughs due to his rigidity and failure to acknowledge his (clearly present) humanity. Although loved and respected by fans, Spock often was a straw man representing the emotionally bankrupt, completely unempathetic man struggling to maintain feelings of superiority based on knowledge and critical thinking. I think if Spock were a character created today, he would be compared to “mansplainers” or Red Pill types. The fact that the other characters can explain their choices outside of Spock’s coldness, and make fun of him when he lets a bit of emotion shine through, promises a future in which people don’t have to be miserable pedants who only care about things for their academic value. The human still has a place in the 23rd century. We don’t have to replace ourselves or mimic machines as time pushes forward. People liked this idea.
I’ve been thinking about Star Trek even more than usual lately, what with the first episodes of Star Trek Discovery airing last week. I’ve got even more to say about that, but perhaps it can wait for another day.