Society & Star Trek
Jonathan C. Aguirre
The entertainment industry has always been influential on societies, from the Greeks and up through the ages. Television was a new and exciting medium in the 1950's and it's power over popular culture was about to be felt like no other mediums before it.
In the mid sixties the popular shows on television included ‘Andy and Mayberry’, ‘Twilite Zone’, ‘The Outer Limits’ and various post fifties shows, such as, ‘I Love Lucy’. Lucille Ball was the most instrumental in green-lighting a new show under the banner of her company Desilu; a new name on the block, Gene Rodenberry came to her with the idea of a show about a spaceship and it's crew, exploring the deep reaches of space. No other studio at the time was interested; however, Miss Ball had the foresight to go ahead with the idea. The series of course was Star Trek, one of the most influential shows to ever appear on television. When the series first started it wasn't understood immediately, and was very sluggish, and was almost canceled after the first two seasons. After much thought, Miss Ball decided to go with the third and final season. There was a gestation period which followed, people started to feverishly watch the show in syndication. Minority women in particular were fascinated, because for the first time an African American woman had a responsible position in what was, at the time a white male dominated society. This is probably one of the most profound influences that the show had on our culture, the word multi-culturism is one that permeates throughout civilization today. One of the strongest themes in the show was the introduction of an open-mindedness that had never been seen before, this aspect of the series is the most interesting when considering the post civil rights years, and we as a culture had just gone through. Today we take it for granted and just assume society must have always been this way, when in fact, before the airing of Star Trek much of these mores were new to us. The show in my opinion, and the opinion of many others, has had a dramatic impact on present day views we have, when dealing with the various backgrounds of people we deal with on a daily basis, at the work place, in our social lives, and in almost every other aspect of our daily lives. Many of the episodes dealt with someone of a different background, not seeing eye-to-eye with another, and the ensuing conflict almost always resulted with a successful resolution in the end. This is also interesting that most of these solutions were forced by a higher authority.
The Federation on the series was a one world government, which took it upon itself to be the voice of reason throughout the known universe. This of course, has close correlations to the one world government model of today. The theory is that, we are moving toward a world in which all governments are connected by the many similarities that we share. This is most obvious when considering the World Bank and the intertwining of the vast number of economies of the world today, of course, economies have always been related in one way or the other, but never before, have we tossed around the idea of a one world society. On the bright side, this could lead to the elimination of war, and possible world hunger, but the most exciting aspect would be to accept one another as the same, as all of us living in the same neighborhood and watching out for each others needs. This might sound like silly idealism to some, but however, you feel the argument can be made that Star Trek was the beginning of such ideas in popular culture. To support this you would have to take individual episodes and analyze the plot structure, but in doing so, I could argue that repeatedly a culture on another world is supporting a philosophy that the Federation does not agree with, such as, slavery or racial prejudice for example. The Federation takes it upon themselves to police these societies and instill their own morals into these cultures. If these cultures resist, then military might be used when diplomacy falls short. This is interesting when viewing the conflicts we presently have worldwide, there seems to be a prevailing idea, that democracy is the best idea for the world and we as a country are willing to back to it, militarily if necessary. So the argument could be made that Star Trek was at the forefront of this political school of thought.
Next I'm going to discuss the new ideas introduced by the show in regards to energy. The ship, in which they explored space in ‘The Enterprise’, was powered by a new form of energy, which allowed the crew to travel to far off galaxies. Today we are in a race to discover new forms of energy, as oil and coal are rapidly becoming outdated and seem to have outlived their usefulness. Science could be on the verge of some new and exciting form of energy, we are learning new facts about Black Holes and Atomic Physics rapidly and new ideas such as String Theory are taking us in new directions. At one time civilization was powered by steam, then gas, and finally electricity. The point being that, energy is something that has always changed the world in which people have lived. So it only makes sense that we will eventually come up with another new form of energy that will change the world all over again. If history repeats itself, this idea will play itself out over and over until the end of time. Star Trek is a strong argument for this and even during their futuristic time, were still looking for new technologies and advancing themselves into their futures. The series is the show, which discussed such ideas and I think had an influence on the popular culture and science approaches energy problems today.
The obvious technological advance which comes out from the show was the cell phone. Captain Kirk used his flip top communicator which every kid wanted, including myself. This is an apparent example of life, imitating art and the show can take direct credit for the cell phone device. Scientist and researchers, of course, had to make the thing but the idea came directly out of the show. I remember my first cell phone in 1997. It was a Motorola flip top that made me feel like Captain Kirk every time I made a phone call.
Another aspect of the show which is so close to present day society is the medical advances. In the future Dr. McCoy doesn't have all the answers, but his knowledge far exceeds ours. We, of course, are developing new medical advances at a higher and higher level year by year. The argument could be made that these discoveries would have been made anyway, but I maintain that, the series for the first time, put the idea on the table for it's audience, that in medicine anything is possible, and this idea planted in mind of average people, had opened the door for government funding in the field of research and development. Today almost fifty years after the show originally aired, medicine and society as a whole believe we are on the verge of some major breakthroughs. People now believe we will be able to prolong life by growing new organs, for example. It's mind boggling to think how far we have come and how far we will probably go in a very short time; again I think the show acted as a compass for researchers to follow.
Another obvious conclusion when looking at our culture today would be the influence on our contemporary science and space missions. The Space Shuttle has many design aspects that are similar to ‘The Enterprise’. For example, it is a ship as opposed to a capsule which was used for space exploration before the show opened. The original shuttle was named ‘The Enterprise’ and was the first space vehicle with a helm, of course, we are still powered by traditional rocket fuel but our energy advances will continue. Another mission is our Hubble Telescope which has altered our view of the universe. Star Trek was a show which gave the idea of a universe with many galaxies, and a vast distance between these galaxies. The Hubble has indeed shown for a fact that there are millions of galaxies far surpassing even scientists’ view of the universe. Star Trek advanced the idea that there are thousands of planets supporting intelligent life. This seemed like pure fantasy at the time however, in retrospect science today would argue that this is probably the truth of the universe in which we live. Again, just an idea on a television show has played out to be the prevailing thought in science today. In particular, there were episodes in which stars would supernova and civilizations would be destroyed. Well, today because of Hubble we indeed know that planetary systems are constantly being annihilated by supernovas and galaxies crashing into each other.
The entertainment industry has been directly influenced by the show. The obvious effect would be the number of movies and television shows which have spawned from the series such as Star Trek, ‘The Next Generation’, ‘Star Trek Voyager’, ‘Deep Space Nine’, ‘Enterprise’, not to mention the ten movies that were created. A franchise that has generated more than a billion dollars in revenue employing thousands of employees and creating its own economy. Even movies not related to Star Trek have been influenced by the series. One of the plots of the show pertained to the radio and television signals we send into space and that they continually travel as waves deep into the far reaches of the universe. Movies such as Contact based on the Carl Sagan novel ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ just to name a few. So again, Star Trek the series has impacted our society by its direct influence on the entertainment industry.
Then there is the ecological impact the show has had on the world today, a world, in which the environment has moved to the forefront of politics. The show on numerous occasions works with issues like a clean environment, overpopulation and the idea that we live in a dangerous universe. We are becoming very aware today that we have the power to destroy ourselves through our mishandling of industry, dumping pollutants into our water supply or releasing them into the air we breathe and even the realization of our ability to alter climate. These changes affect the ecosystem that we all depend on to sustain life on the planet. On the show Star Trek, man had the ability to make changes in order to fix problems that threatened societies and today we are coming to terms with this realization. We are as a global community working overtime to advance these ideas throughout the world, and the world seems to be responding. In the show many episodes explore the possibility of forces outside the earth that can pose threats, such as, an asteroid that could impact the earth. Science today is looking very seriously into this threat and is creating possible solutions for such a disaster. This idea of an asteroid hitting was first introduced to popular culture on an episode of Star Trek, no other show had touched on this most current issue, again another example of a series being fifty years ahead of it's time.
In the world we live today, global communication is commonplace; computers have advanced this aspect of our society exponentially. The argument can be made that this extraordinary show was again at the cutting edge of advancing the idea of an age when man was dependent on computer technology. Even today the goal, when it comes to computers is to be able to talk to them as if, they were an intelligent being. This idea was probably first introduced in the 1950's movie ‘Forbidden Planet’, in which for the first time man had a robot computer friend. However, the relationship that the crew of the Enterprise had with the ships computer is unprecedented. Today it's hard to imagine that in a precomputer world so many of our daily functions rely directly on computers. In Star Trek, Captain Kirk's communicator had access to the ship's computer. Today, anyone with a cell phone has access to almost any subject at their fingertips, and now phones have voice recognition which allows us to inquire verbally our topic of interest and the phone or computer responds to our request. We are rapidly approaching to a computer who is our companion, again a program well ahead of it's time and we as a culture feeling its influences.
The duty to country is nothing new. The wars this nation has fought have always required our men and women to feel loyalty that binds us as a nation. In Star Trek this is one of the strongest working themes on the show. Captain Kirk's loyalty to the Enterprise even supersedes his loyalty to the Federation. This perspective translates into regular society as well; someone is normally more dutiful to their own business than they are to their government. If someone is running a movie theatre for instance, they may tend to think of it as their ship, and the ship comes, this is an attitude that runs through the show. Each person is a cog in the wheel and is expected to risk life and limb in order to preserve that wheel. I think as a young person watching the show, these ideals would be ingrained in the viewer and as the person matures would take these ideals and apply them to any job situation they might find themselves in. In my opinion this sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves is what, creates a strong workforce and strengthens a country’s economy. Star Trek again reinforces these intrinsic qualities that can either drive a society to succeed, on the other hand, if this call to duty is lacking in a society, it can certainly bring a civilization down.
It can be argued that some of the advances on the show are unrealistic, for instance, light speed; there are a strong percentage of scientists who believe this to be impossible. ‘The Transporter’ is another example, being able to disassemble molecules of a solid object and reassemble them is considered by most to be impossible. Another example of the impossible would be time travel. These are three key scientific leaps the show provides that make their society possible, however, without these advances our own culture would move in different directions entirely. These three benchmarks, however, do provide science with clearly stated goals to strive for. Again, it can be argued that Star Trek the series has continually provided our present day society with a direction to move ahead.
In the world of Star Trek the culture on top is the one that is technologically superior. In the show military secrets are a priority; therefore, intelligence gathering is king. Of course the series did not create this timeworn method of advancing civilization, the Chinese had gunpowder which led to guns and eventually to rockets and jet planes. However, along the way someone was stealing secrets and using them to their advantage, having the edge on your opponent was the key. I think the show brought this to popular culture like no other show and in my mind probably influenced Ronald Regan and his idea of the Star Wars Defense Shield which was really a major bluff in my humble opinion. Another tactic that Captain Kirk used regularly was the poker bluff when dealing with an adversary, not the first to think of this, but interestingly when considering Mr. Regan watched much television and I'm sure Kirk had to be one of his favorite characters.
The last point I'm going to touch on is our cultures somewhat open mindedness when it comes to UFO phenomena. I know people have long claimed to have had these types of experiences, even long before the show. However, I think, the series has made people warm up to the idea. It's not that much of a stretch to consider the fact that other planets like ours could be much older; this would leave one to believe that an intelligent species with a million year jump on evolution could indeed have advanced technology and maybe the ability to travel from galaxy to galaxy. I don't think my thinking like this would have possible without the forward thinking of Gene Rodenberry and his television series Star Trek.
In summary, from politics to technology, religion to race, creed and culture, Star Trek is still influencing societies today, arguably the most powerful television shows to be ever aired.