Friday, September 08, 2006

Happy Birthday Star Trek!!

Star Trek at 40: September 8, 1966

It was the new television season, just like any other, and NBC was about to debut their new science fiction show. That in itself wasn't a novel idea: CBS had Lost in Space, ABC had contemporary shows like The Time Tunnel and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It was pretty standard that networks had something on the air that fell into the general category of science fiction. And while these other shows had their own quaint charms, they lasted a few seasons and mostly drifted off into memory, and later syndication. (The other one-hour drama that every network had was a Western; NBC already had a bona fide hit in Bonanza and CBS, with Wild Wild West, neatly combined the Western with sci-fi.)

On the evening of the 8th of September, following Daniel Boone, this new NBC show premiered with an episode called "The Man Trap." The angle of the story was different, to say the least: It was a love story with a sci-fi twist, borne of a relationship from the doctor's past, featuring a monster that, in the end, just wanted to live. It was moving, tragic and anything but cheesy. The viewers — at least the ones who were paying attention — were hooked.

This show proved it had something different. It had a unique life that would go on to exist beyond expectation. It stood outside of time, as it tapped into universal themes and epic struggles, and put the cosmos on notice. Things have changed! Primetime on NBC eventually proved that this was no place for something so big, so broad in scope. This three-season show, after all, would go on to spawn four live-action spin-offs, an animated series, ten movies and counting, plus a licensing empire that, to this day, embraces books, videos, exhibits and assorted merchandise.

Like other cultural, artistic or philosophical phemonena (think Mozart, Van Gogh or Jesus) this new show was largely unappreciated in its own time and only later would be seen as what it is today, a world-wide, cultural juggernaut. Thanks to a form of TV recycling called syndication, the show became a hit to generations of young, impressionable kids, including many future scientists, astronauts and actors. What's ironic is that by today's ratings standards, it would have been a hit in its original run. But back then, with only three major networks, it didn't quite pull its weight. It was only with the need to syndicate TV programs, to get more than one bite out of the entertainment cherry, did this show become what it was all along. It just needed a form of resurrection; the people who had heard of it from their parents, teachers, friends or older siblings tuned in after school, prior to the dinner hour. It turned out to be the perfect time to hit this new, fresh audience and the show became lodged in the collective minds of a nation.

But why?

There have been many soundbites trying to explain its success. ("It's an optimistic vision of the future" being the most common.) Newspaper and magazine column inches, books on how the philosophy of this show has influenced people — from politicians to scientists to philosophers — and now websites and blogs have all been devoted to explaining its personal, and mass, appeal. Everyone, it seems, has their take on why one little show has lasted throughout the ages, and the beauty of it is that everyone is right. It's the infinite diversity of opinion, from an infinite combination of people, that has helped lend the show its uniqueness.

Yes, it had a crew that said discrimination was a thing of past; it had a future that said we were not all annihilated by nuclear holocaust; it had an economy that was driven by progress and achievement, not simple wealth accumulation; it had science as a guiding force, not mysticism or superstition; it had technology as a means to explore, not just make life easier; and, perhaps most importantly, it had a peaceful mission at its core, not one of conquest. The show screamed peace in a time of war. All of these reasons helped contribute to the show's success, but so did the iconic characters, the top-notch writing, the new technology and the great — for then — special effects.

The show that aired that night was called Star Trek, and today is its birthday. We would therefore like to wish a Happy Birthday to Star Trek, and a big Thank You to Gene Roddenberry for having the intelligence and foresight to see into the future — a future at least — and dream the possible dream.

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