It was on Thursday 8 September 1966 that the beloved and enduring television series Star Trek first premiered. Though we now know Star Trek as one of the most lasting elements of the popular culture of the 1960s, when it first debuted, the reviews were decidedly mixed. As reported in The Sandusky Register the day after the first episode aired, the show was nothing much to write home about: “Another hour-long NBC-TV series, ‘Star Trek,’ a science fiction opus centering around a mammoth space ship, is so absurd that it is almost entertaining, what with a playboy bunny-type waitress. The premiere was a futuristic twist on the old vampire films. The villain, a creature able to change itself into any human form, required salt to survive, and got it by helping itself to the body content of other people, leaving them very deceased. Tune in next week. Whee!”
The original series ran for just three seasons totalling 79 episodes. Yet the impact of that original series continues to this day. The original series is listed by The Guiness Book of Records as having spawned the most spin-offs of any television franchise, and it inspired several theatrical films. Recently, a new Star Trek movie was one of the top box office draws of 2009, and it became the first of the Star Trek films to win an Oscar (for makeup.)
There have been many attempts to explain the widespread popular appeal of Star Trek. Explanations range from the humorous and fanciful to the serious and academic. Part of the appeal may have been the great variety within the show’s frame. The original series avoided formulaic stagnation by its wide range of episode styles. The show included episodes that were dramatic and serious, such as the much acclaimed City On The Edge Of Forever, to the farcically funny Trouble With Tribbles.
I have always favored the explanation offered by Rosalind Harper, my high school Latin teacher. She noted that Star Trek offered a view of humanity that was consistently hopeful and positive at a time when television and movies were growing increasingly grim and cynical as the traumas of the 1960s rent the nation. As epitomized by Captain Kirk’s famous, “I will not kill – today!” the show offered a perspective that acknowledged mankind’s brutal potential, but which tempered it with civilized restraint. Add to that way-cool technological fantasies such as hand-held computerized communication devices and the as-yet-unrealized transporter, Star Trek provided relief from the realities of the daily headlines of the era.
For whatever reason, Star Trek remains a vivid presence in our contemporary culture, and with a new generation of young actors portraying Kirk, and Spock, and company, it seems likely to remain so for a very long time.
Flower Mound, Texas
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
— Captain James Tiberius Kirk