This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Star Trek franchise. Not even creator Gene Roddenberry himself could have predicted its longevity, die-hard fan base, or the impact it would have — on both the sci-fi genre and on the world in general. From helping a long list of scientists and astronauts choose their career paths to influencing the development of real-world technologies, Star Trek has firmly cemented itself as a permanent fixture in the hearts and minds of millions of fans worldwide. As a testament to this, countless references, nods, and tributes to Star Trek can be found across virtually all entertainment and pop-culture mediums dating all the way back to the airing of the original series.
For such an iconic, billion-dollar franchise now spanning half a century, it’s hard to imagine that the original Star Trek TV series was initially viewed as a failure. From a ratings standpoint, the 1960s series was not a very successful venture, ending up cancelled after only two seasons. Only an outpouring of fan support by way of a letter-writing campaign (thank you, Bjo Trimble!) kept the show alive for another season.
What endeared this early fan base to the series? And why have the legion of Star Trek’s “Trekkie” fans grown exponentially since then? Let’s take a look at some of the things that make Star Trek so special, and what keeps fans coming back for more after all this time.
Setting the Standard for Sci-fi Television
Before the world was introduced to Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in 1966, sci-fi television was viewed as a goofy genre that didn’t get much respect outside a narrow demographic of enthusiasts. Shows were generally low budget affairs, often with questionable writing and maybe a neat looking — if poorly executed — robot or space ship.
All that changed when Star Trek began its now-iconic run on network television. Although obviously crude by today’s standards, the set pieces, and visual effects were beyond comparison at the time. More importantly, the characters had backstories, and real thought had been put into the technology powering the fiction and how it might actually work in theory.
All of these elements provided the foundation for a spaceborne sci-fi show that viewers could actually take seriously and raised the bar for future space-themed television programming. Each new series that has been produced since the original has continued to push the special effects boundaries of its time, eventually moving from physical props to the computer generated graphics that the series itself had once predicted.
Cultural and Social Issues
Fans have always had a great love for Star Trek’s willingness to address controversial subjects relevant to current events. This was especially of the original series, which aired during the seismic social and cultural changes of the late 1960s. From the start, Gene Roddenberry set out to create a platform that would embrace his own idealistic vision of Earth’s future, in which the worst aspects of humanity — war, greed, poverty, and intolerance — had been widely eliminated.
His insistence on creating a racially and culturally diverse main cast was the most obvious first step in this direction, but the show also addressed major social issues of the day, including the Civil Rights movement and the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. These concepts became the blueprint for all future Star Trek series, with the subject matter evolving to fit social issues particularly relevant to the time in which they were produced.
Perhaps the most frequently cited example Star Trek’s socially progressive approach is an episode from the original series called “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” In it, two factions of a species of (literally) half white, half black humanoids are determined to destroy each other. The catch is, the only discernible difference between the two sides is that their physical coloration is reversed. Black on the left and white on the right for one, the opposite for the other.
To the “enlightened” crew of the Enterprise, this level of senseless racial hatred is all but impossible to grasp. To the aliens, however, their seemingly minor and superficial differences are worth killing over — even after the entire population of their planet has mutually annihilated itself in a civil war.
Another prime example of this bold approach can be seen in how The Next Generation episode “The Outcast” deals with gender identity. In this story, Commander Riker becomes enamored with Soren, a member of an androgynous alien race called the J’naii. Riker is intrigued by this ambiguity, but he later comes to learn that some J’naii, including Soren, do in fact secretly identify as one gender or the other. Soren explains that they are forced to live a lie since displaying a specific gender is considered a criminal perversion. While this episode first aired in 1992, similar issues are still faced by members of the LGBT community nearly a quarter century later.
Part of what makes being a “Trekkie” such an enjoyable and rewarding experience is the vast fan base of like-minded people out there worldwide. There are numerous Star Trek fan groups on major social media platforms such as Facebook and Reddit, as well as a multitude of forums on a wide range of Trek-related topics. Conventions, cosplay, podcasts, and fan fiction are only a handful of the many activities available to fans who wish to share their love of Star Trek with others who can relate to their excitement and dedication.
And like the show, the Star Trek community is non-judgemental. Whether you’re a lifelong fan or a newcomer, and no matter if you embrace all things Trek or prefer only a specific corner of the franchise, you can celebrate your love Star Trek in your own way.
The breadth of the Star Trek universe at this point makes that easy: With five live-action series (and a sixth in production!), an animated series, thirteen films, numerous novels and video games, as well as some notable fan productions such as Star Trek: Phase II and Star Trek Continues, there really is something for everyone.
Want to know more about Star Trek? Memory Alpha has answers to just about all Trek-related questions you could possibly have — and many more you never thought to ask! You can also join our Star Trek Discussions hosted by Trek Initiative, and don’t forget to check us out on Facebook and Twitter.