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April 08, 2009

Why is Star Trek Significant to Contemporary American Pop-Culture?

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Recently, because I teach a Science-fiction literature course, I was asked by the public relations department of Saint Leo University to provide some commentary for Ted Anthony, a noted Associated Press journalist writing a news story on the upcoming Star Trek film and why Star Trek, as a pop-culture phenomenon, seems to resonate on an almost folkloric level with certain elements of American society. I was happy to oblige but I had to admit that it was a solid question and one that would warrant some reflection first. Since its debut, Gene Roddenberry’s famous series from the 1960s has certainly proven influential in many ways. For example, concepts from this speculative fiction about Earth’s distant future have found their way into the English vernacular and in technological innovations.

Even those who have never watched a single episode may be familiar with . . .

. . . now dated clichés such as “Beam me up, Scotty” (an expression that was never actually spoken in the show in that configuration), “Set phasers to stun,” “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor,” or “Live long and prosper.” They seem to show up everywhere in the monitors of the American popular culture heartbeat from Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons.

Did the series affect only the interests of science-fiction aficionados or was there a discernible influence on genuine rocket scientists, inventors, and engineers? In 1976, the actual U.S. space shuttle prototype was dubbed Enterprise, the name of the famous starship operated by Captain James (T)iberius Kirk, the stoic first-officer, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, ship physician Dr. “Bones” McCoy, communications officer Lt. Uhura, pilots Mr. Sulu and Mr. Chekov, and chief engineer Mr. Scott, a.k.a. “Scotty.” Recently, the cremated ashes of the late Roddenberry and his wife—who played Nurse Chapel in the original series—were launched into space. What about the growing area of pop-psychology? I have overheard twelve-steppers refer to reflexive self-defense mechanisms as the process of putting their “shields up,” a clear reference to the U.S.S Enterprise’s ability to create an energy-created force-field to wield off attacks. Have you ever seen a cellular phone that fits in the palm of your hand and “flips” upward to operate? More than one observer has noted the obvious similarity to a telecommunications device that was popularized in the 1990s (the mobile phone) to a portable, flip top “communicator” used by the crew of the fictional 1960s serial.

We know about the Sci-Fi conventions and cultural references to Star Trek in later works. Even George Lucas and the creators of Star Wars—a “science fantasy” rather than a “science fiction”—used terminology in the scripts of his films borrowed from Roddenberry’s Star Trek such as “shields,” “stun,” and “warp speed.” Why use new words when the audience would be expected to be familiar with certain concepts already canonized by the older television show? Ultimately, this little low-budget series which only ran for three seasons, found a larger audience in reruns and spawned an entire series of big-budget Hollywood film sequels and television spin-off series, e.g. Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Enterprise (one of my personal favorites).

There is little dispute about “how” Star Trek and its vast universe of characters and storylines have resonated in American culture. A more compelling question is why. Science fiction, as a genre or literary category, has many subcategories. Dystopias, for example, are popular texts often presented to us as required reading in high school or college. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 present a rather bleak portrayal of humanity’s future. They do not contain futures many of us would be comfortable living in. However prophetic or insightful, they still resonate in pessimism. Utopias, on the other hand, present a more idealistic and optimistic vision of the future. The subversive message of Star Trek is that such a world may be possible. Unlike fascist regimes suggested by Plato in his Republic (where poetry—and presumably literature—would be banned), religious fantasies like Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, a secret island, or unrealizable dreams of a global utopia as postulated by economic theorists such as Karl Marx’s socialist utopia, Star Trek presents an intergalactic utopia where the planet Earth, along with other planets, has gotten its act together, eliminated war with itself, and united with other solar systems of similar persuasions to form a peaceful “federation.” As articulated in an episode of Futurama, Star Trek reminds us of the “think globally and act locally” slogan of recent years by thinking on an intergalactic level while acting on an interplanetary one. The universe of Star Trek still isn’t perfect, but the rock we call “Earth,” at least, is much closer to the mark than it is now.

In the world of Star Trek, it seems that equality on Earth has finally been achieved on the levels of gender, ethnicity, nationality, culture, age, and sexual orientation. Except for the military rankings, it would seem classless as well. Money isn’t often shown and people seem to be working because they want to work not because they need to in order to survive. All of Maslow’s lower hierarchy of needs have been handled. Technologies that can manipulate and reform molecules create food, oxygen, and transportation systems (teleportation) on a spaceship so big it’s a home away from home. Earth is truly post-racial. There is now but one race, the human race, and even that race extends its hand of friendship and respect for equality to extraterrestrial races: Vulcan, Romulan, Klingon, and so on. Yes, humans in Star Trek do have conflicts with other worlds but the writers seem to use the opportunity to preach what is wrong with present-day Earth by projecting class struggle, greed, chauvinism, bigotry, racism, ageism, prejudice and discrimination on “other” planets so that we can sit back, as viewers, and think about how inappropriate those things are. It’s a world of relative peace that many would like to live in today. Like John Lennon, Star Trek fans don't believe that they are the only ones.

An avid interest in or desire for exploration and discovery also seems to be a stereotypical characteristic of American culture as represented in literature and film. The historical imploration to "go West young man!" was always reflected in the "Western" genre and later in the Golden-Age "Space-Western" (Stephen Hawkings preferred term for Science Fiction), the ashes of which Star Trek emerged. But the need to explore and discover certainly wasn’t invented by Americans. It’s a tradition that harkens back to the beginnings of civilization. On a folkloric level, mythological experts such as Joseph Campbell would explain the backstory of Star Trek as one of the collective “hero’s journey, or, the “monomyth.”

Remember Odysseus, who traveled with his shipmates to different islands (where each island can be thought of as a different “sub-story within the larger frame narrative), discovering strange new worlds and civilizations with technologies and races different from their own, e.g. sirens, Cyclopses, sorceresses, etc.? Have we seen this same pattern in other great epics and heroes of old? Jason and the Argonauts, Sinbad the Sailor, and Hebrews in the vast wilderness all come to mind. In historical fact, as well, children of Eurocentric cultures have been routinely indoctrinated in the relative benefits—and, sometimes consequences—of discovering new frontiers in the documentation of explorers such as Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Captain James Cook (A name "too" similar to Captain James Kirk?). For Americans, explorers such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Admiral Robert Peary, and Astronaut Neil Armstrong carry the same weight. The imaginary world of Star Trek does nothing more than to continue this tradition. In Star Trek, there are no more frontiers for Earthlings other than outer space.

The five-year mission of the starship Enterprise: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no [person] has gone before” is a reflection of those who want to know what else is out there. Myth-making didn’t end with dark age tales of Arthur and grail legendry. It continues to this day and the “hero’s journey,” according to Campbell, is a “dance” the human race seems to be innately compelled to repeat over and over again. That peculiar “dance” can be achieved through story-telling and the acquisition of a good narrative.

But why would discovery depend on technology? Sure, we now have the World Wide Web, an all-digital network of data at our disposal (much like the “Ship’s Computer” or the fleet’s databases available to Spock and other crewmembers on the Enterprise) but does this wealth of information really take us anywhere outside of our minds? Imagine a nation of American millenials, the descendents of famous explorers and a pioneering tradition, now relegated to the likes of Facebook, sitting behind a PC all day at work in their cubicle and at home or at Starbuck’s on their notebooks when they get home. As in the 2008 Pixar film Wall-E, those addicted to such programs remain stationery, going nowhere while incessantly connecting and reconnecting (with witty sound bites or useless “updates” about their current status) with people they already know or old friends they’ve lost touch with instead of actually venturing out into the real world to see new things and meet new people. Maybe the world is just too scary or too expensive to do that for many. Maybe too many of us just don’t have the time anymore to spend our precious moments of leisure in that way. If this is true and if that is what we’ve been reduced to, then it’s no wonder that so many American cinemagoers find comfort in the escapist world of the Star Trek universe.

Star Trek evokes a world of “hope” and in our most recent U.S. presidential election the ubiquitous theme of hope certainly explains the zeitgeist of today’s generation, one on the virtual brink of financial ruin. But was there ever a time when hope wasn’t desired or needed? The 1960s presented the U.S. with its fair share of hopeless turmoil: civil rights struggles, political assassinations, cultural revolution, a draft, an unpopular war in Vietnam, and Watergate. But, it also gave us Star Trek. Then, and for years since, hopeful fans have turned to Star Trek to witness an imagined vision of life where hope had triumphed.

If nothing else, that famous recitation in the opening sequence to the Star Trek serial has given English teachers everywhere a grammatical lesson their students will likely remember (if presented by a professor as nerdy as me!). That is, the expression “to boldy go” is a split infinitive, a syntactical "no-no" for many old school writing instrutors. Let us go boldly then into an optimistic future where materialistic luxuries are free of charge, travel takes microseconds, everyone has cutting-edge, universal health-care, illness and early death is the exception to the rule, and happiness is harvested from the activity of learning new things. Engage!

Dr. B. Lee Hobbs is an Assistant Professor of English at Saint Leo University and welcomes constructive criticism of his articles (he will correct erroneous information accordingly). When he is not pondering Star Trek, he is thinking about the insights expressed in Battlestar Galactica. So say we all!

AFTERWARD: Ted Anthony's post-interview articles on Star Trek can be found here:

Salt Lake Tribune. "Capt. Kirk, American icon? New Frontier Renewed."

Salt Lake Tribune. "'Star Trek': Are the Hardcore Fans onto Something?"

Montgomery County Herald. "'Star Trek' Rebooted."

Posted by lhobbs at April 8, 2009 10:35 PM

Readers' Comments:

Nice article and good hunting. It's funny, out of so many genres science fiction gets the most knocked about. I honestly believe science fiction has the most to say about culture, and society, and obviously technology. The influence of people like Rodenberry, and Asimov is all around us. You just have to look, as you mentioned, at something as simple and everyday as the cellphone (which really isn't so simple).

Posted by: BigRedGonzo at April 10, 2009 01:19 AM


Thanks for your remarks BigRedGonzo. You are right. Don't forget also that sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke predicted the space sattelite too. Cell phones won't work without them.


Posted by: Dr. B. Lee Hobbs at April 10, 2009 11:36 AM

Hi Lee -

I thought you and your vast audience would want to see this. Quite a fascinating program.


PEACE TALKS RADIO, the series on peacemaking and nonviolent conflict
resolution, explores the peace message in the hugely popular original
1960's TV series - STAR TREK.

A new Star Trek movie comes out this spring that revisits the stories
of Capt. Kirk, Spock, Bones and the characters from the original
series. This month Peace Talks Radio notes how many stories in the
original series thoughtfully explored the themes of war and peace,
tolerance, friendship and compassion. When originally released in
the turbulent late 1960's, Star Trek stories tackled complex issues
that mirrored both the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Civil
Rights Struggle. Host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Judith Barad,
author of The Ethics of Star Trek and David Gerrold, author of The
World of Star Trek and the popular episode "The Trouble With
Tribbles." Also, Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura,
the communications officer, in the original series.

Peace Talks Radio: http://www.goodradioshows.org/


Posted by: Morf at April 22, 2009 11:45 AM


Thanks for that info Morf.

Yes that does look interesting and VERY relevant to this topic. I will check it out.


Posted by: Dr. Hobbs at April 22, 2009 03:55 PM

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