Star Trek At 50: Echo Base Reflects On A Pop Culture Touchstone
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.
Fifty years ago today, these words introduced us to the ongoing exploits of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, Chekov, and countless Red Shirts who gave their all in the line of duty. Audiences back then didn’t know what to expect, but they knew it was different. A multi-ethnic crew. Deep ideas masked in a TV melodrama. And there were definitely new worlds and civilizations to explore: Klingons, Romulans, and dozens of other fantastic species appearing over three seasons.
Some were good; some were bad. But they were definitely memorable.
The show also influenced our society across the board. We got to see the first interracial kiss in primetime TV and the world didn’t come to an end. We made friends with the Russians and lived to tell about it. And the gadgets! We can thank Star Trek for PCs, mobile phones, iPads, eReaders, and so many other marvels of modern society. Yes, even the automatically opening doors we know and love.
To celebrate 50 years of Star Trek, a few of the Echo Base crew shared their memories and took a look back at how this show impacted their lives.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t a fan of Star Trek... and by “Star Trek,” I mean the original series, TOS, 1966-69, Shatner and Nimoy, velour shirts and styrofoam rocks, the first and still, in my opinion, the best of all the Trek properties.
The show actually ended three months before I was born, but it continued to air in syndicated re-runs more or less constantly during my childhood and early teens. According to my mother, she liked watching it while she did the household chores and I just soaked it in from my playpen. But while I may have begun as a captive audience, I was a full-blown convert by the time I reached school age. Consider:
- I remember telling a little girl in my kindergarten class all about this cool “cat” named Spock. (Weirdly enough, we’re still friends…)
- Our kitchen floor was covered in ancient linoleum that featured large circles in the pattern. I used to stand on those circles, make a buzzing noise, and then run to a different part of the house, like I was being beamed there by Scotty.
- Of course I played with the Mego action figures of the day, but my favorite Trek toy was a little tin case that held tiny files for cleaning my dad’s acetylene torch. He spotted me flipping the case open and shut while saying, “Kirk to Enterprise,” so he took the cleaners out and gave me the case. I carried it in my back pocket for years.
- On Saturday mornings, I’d prepare to watch the animated Star Trek—voiced by the original live-action cast, so it felt “real” to me—by setting up Legos on a TV tray to create my own “helm console,” which I “operated” all during the show.
This was all during the early ’70s. My focus changed a bit with the coming of that other notable space franchise in 1977, and Star Trek itself changed a lot when the crew went to the big screen, and then again when The Next Generation turned the whole thing into a franchise. I loved those, too, but my first love, the touchstone that I have returned to again and again throughout my life, has always been TOS.
When I was a kid, I was simply drawn to the action and the swashbuckling characters. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize how much TOS shaped my personal morality, as well as my understanding of what we ought to be striving for. Not some perfect utopia where there is no conflict (cough-TNG-cough), but a better society than the one we have now, in which human beings are as flawed and fragile as ever, but they’re at least trying to improve. That vision is as relevant and as necessary now as it was in the 1960s, and it still gives me hope when I need it most.
Loving Star Trek isn’t just nostalgia for me; it’s my gospel.
It’s hard to narrow my Star Trek memories to just one moment. Whenever anyone does, my “go-to” memory is always when Kirk beat the shit out of Finnegan while he was on the amusement park planet during the “Shore Leave” episode. Why? Because we all have that moment. We all have that moment when we’re face to face with the bully who is taunting us and everything we hear from him gets translated to “punch me in the face.”
There are few things more satisfying than a well-placed punch in the face to someone who is desperately asking for it, or as Oscar Wilde would put it, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”
The problem is that life isn’t always like that. Life, in general, gives us several peak moments and Star Trek tackled a lot of them. How many of us have had to say good-bye to a friend, lover, or pet when what we really wanted was for them to stay with us forever? How many moments in our lives have we felt the pain of letting go of someone like Kirk let go of Edith Keeler from Harlan Ellison’s episode “City on the Edge of Forever”? How many of us know the truth in the words, “I have been and ever shall be your friend”?
We rarely see stories written like Star Trek anymore. Can you think of any that actually use characters like Spock and McCoy to be the Greek chorus to Kirk? Note that whenever the Captain has to make a decision, Spock explains the logical side of it and McCoy voices the emotional/moral concerns. This is storytelling told in a classical tradition.
Star Trek for me and for most geeks represents a necessary pre-requisite course for geek bonding. If you’re a Sci-Fi geek, you have to know Star Trek. You need to know how a dilithium crystal fits into the matter-antimatter mix of a warp drive. You need to know what treaty keeps the Klingons and Federation from engaging in total warfare. You need to know the chain of command and why it’s important when Bones says to Spock, “I’m a little worried about the Captain.”
This was IT water-cooler talk which led some geeks to make real technological advances like teleconferencing, cell phones, voice-recognition software, and hospital diagnostic beds.
More than anything, there were lessons to be learned. “Space Seed” taught us that superior ability breeds superior ambition. Throughout the series, we also learned that Tribbles hate Klingons and Klingons hate Tribbles. We learned that we can’t change the laws of physics and that if you’re going to be part of a landing party, don’t wear a red shirt.
And, most importantly, if something can’t be fixed, you need to ask Scotty.
I was barely over a year old when Star Trek went off the air in 1969, making me feel partly responsible for its cancellation since I wasn’t old enough to measure a blip on the Nielsen ratings. Instead, I discovered it later in syndication. I’d just barely started school and had some affinity for science fiction, due to my exposure to the Planet of the Apes series and The Six Million Dollar Man, but I wasn’t entirely hooked just yet. Near the end of the school year, that all changed.
In the real world, the U.S. space program was in flux; the Apollo program had wound down, but Skylab was well underway. For a class event, we got to watch a live launch of a Skylab mission, while our teacher explained what was going on. I was blown away, literally and figuratively! Watching that huge rocket lift off into space blew my little six-year-old mind. I had to learn more about this space business, what these astronauts were up to, and just what might be going on up in the sky.
We got cable sometime between first and second grade, and while exploring the new channels, I came across a Star Trek re-run. I had no idea at the time what it was, but hey, there was a spaceship. And stars. And aliens. That’s all I needed. I don’t remember the exact episode I saw or what happened, but I was hooked. Each day, I’d come home from school and watch another episode. And another. Spock was quickly my favorite; his logic and analytical thinking matched my own, even at such an early age.
Watching the show made me feel like I could have my own adventures. My swingset quickly became my Enterprise and my sandbox a “strange new world.” I tracked down a model kit that had a phaser, communicator, and a tricorder all in the same kit, so I too could beam down to explore new planets. (As an aside, I accidentally glued the lid of my tricorder in the “up” position, so I was always taking sensor readings!) I played with the Mego dolls and had a Colorforms set of the Enterprise bridge, all of which helped develop my imagination and creativity. I lived and breathed Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew all throughout elementary school and beyond.
Meanwhile, in the real world, there was a lull in the space program. The shuttle program was underway, but we’d not gone back to the moon or headed to Mars. We’ve had unmanned survey missions finding cool stuff throughout our solar system and beyond, but lacked the drive “to seek new worlds” in person. Lately, though, there seems to be a tiny spark to move forward again, with the success of the Mars Curiosity rover and the recent survey of Pluto.
Star Trek pointed the direction toward what was possible. Who’s to say where we’ll go as a species and what will take us there over the next few centuries. Given the current state of NASA and the space program, it sometimes feels like a long shot.
But as Spock would say “there are always possibilities.” If we’re willing to risk it.