What Can We Learn From Star Trek, 50 Years Later?

September 8, 2016

Fifty years ago today, Star Trek launched its first “five year mission” on televisions across the country. The Starship Enterprise’s goal, “to explore new worlds… to boldly go where no man has gone before” gave viewers the opportunity to explore new realms; space, time, and the far reaches of human condition. The future, as envisioned by creator Gene Roddenberry, was portrayed as a place of great unity and equality, progress and diversity.

According to author and nerd-culture critic Ethan Gilsdorf, that message is needed more than ever in 2016. “Cleverly, Roddenberry and his writers worked these very interesting morality tales into every episode,” Gilsdorf said in an interview with Boston Public Radio Thursday. “He’s able to talk about sexism and racism and social experimentation and all kinds of different things.”

In a recent piece for Salon, Gilsdorf writes that the goofy, earnest message of Star Trek is what the world needs, in the “age of Trump.”

“What the show has always boldly declared is this: Disregard the doomsayers, those who predict our species’ demise, those who look to disharmony,” Gilsdorf writes. “Instead, the goofy, awkward optimism of the “Star Trek” franchise suggested, Aim forward into a future of cooperation and harmony.”

The crew of the Starship Enterprise featured a Scottish engineer, a Japanese pilot, an African American Communications Officer, a Russian navigator and an alien science officer. In the famous 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren,” Uhura and Captain Kirk shared the first interracial kiss on American television. And beyond its literal multiculturalism, the show introduced parallels to real-life themes, like the spread of a deadly epidemic, introducing hope around disease in an episode that aired during the real-world AIDS crisis.

“I really think there is something very hopeful,” Gilsdorf said.  “I think if you go back and look at those ‘60s shows, the optimism is a bit clumsy and goofy to our mind today, it does seem a bit simplistic, but they really cleverly made it this fun adventure show.”

According to Gilsdorf, these fantasy parallels made difficult issues easier to digest for the Star Trek audience. “[Take] humans versus Spock… a half-human half vulcan, or these other species that they interact with, that allows people to project their own narratives on to these opposing forces,” Gilsdorf said. “If the folks on Star Trek can get along on Alpha Centauri,  maybe we can figure it out here on planet earth.”

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.” To hear his full interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.


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