Set phasers to stun: Your warp-speed guide to the Star Trek universe
Gene Roddenberry’s show is now 50 years old, and yet new remakes are in the works. What accounts for its enduring appeal?Updated: Jun 08, 2019 16:54 IST
Fifty years ago, on June 3, 1969, the Federation starship, Enterprise, set out on its last adventure in space. Captain Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Bones and the gang visited the planet Camus, where (in a shocking twist) an old girlfriend switched bodies with Kirk and tried to take control of the ship.
Our heroes triumphed, of course, and the Enterprise zipped off into the galaxy. Over four years and 79 episodes, it had already boldly gone where no men had gone before – further in space, in imagination, in popularity and in pushing social and political boundaries.
India first fell in love with Star Trek in 1984, as Doordarshan aired episodes to the country’s 40 lakh TVs on Sunday mornings; and again in 1996, via satellite TV to a middle-class aching for the world beyond.
Gene Roddenberry’s show has since spawned 13 films, six successor shows and a legacy that refuses to fizzle out. You can watch all the original episodes on Netflix. The newest spinoff Star Trek: Discovery, will soon air its third season. A popular sister series, The Next Generation, is getting its own sequel, about an ageing, ruminative Captain Jean-Luc Picard, on Amazon Prime. For the kids, Nickelodeon is sketching out an animated Star Trek. And Discovery’s devious former captain Georgiou might just helm a Starfleet ship, and a show, of her own.
What makes the original Star Trek still such engaging viewing? Look past the retro appeal - miniskirts, Eastman color palette and cardboard sets. And here’s what you’ll find…
CAST FROM A NEW MOULD
Listen again to Kirk’s opening lines, “Space, the final frontier….” The show, released in the decade of the Vietnam War, American Civil Rights protests, the second wave of the feminist movement and the threat of nuclear war, dared to imagine what peace might look like.
In Roddenberry’s 23rd-century universe, mankind had conquered conflict and catapulted into space as a unified species – men, women, Chinese, Russians, Africans.
And it seemed to work. Women weren’t intergalactic secretaries, they were full officers. Communications officer Uhura, a woman and black, is fourth in command of the Enterprise. Roddenberry’s fiercely fought casting choice had far reaching effects. Nichelle Nichols (who played Uhura) inspired several young black women to enter the workplace, even pursue the sciences. Actress Whoopi Goldberg credits Uhura’s portrayal as an Enterprise equal as an inspiration to become an actress. And when Nichols wanted to quit the show, it was Martin Luther King who urged her to stay on and continue representing the community.
In a world preoccupied by the Space Race and the Cold War, the Enterprise looked into the future and saw the Russians as allies, not bushy-browed villains. Young ensign Pavel Chekov was loyal to the crew even as he displayed his love for Russia.
Even the aliens just wanted to get along. Klingons, seemingly barbaric, were merely territorial. Romulans were open to peaceful resolution. And Vulcans, those superior, logical, point-eared chaps, could work side by side with humans, appreciating our heart and humanity (and with Spock and Kirk, developing a bromance that defined the series).
AHEAD OF ITS TIME
On board the Enterprise, the little ship that could, man was voyager not coloniser. The Enterprise and other Starfleet ships travelled on the guiding principle of the Prime Directive, which prohibit the crew from using their superior technology to interfere interfering with the internal affairs and cultures and value systems of alien civilisations. One headed into the great unknown to “explore strange new worlds” with curiosity and Utopian optimism, not fear or greed. And to broker peaceful intergalactic resolution.
If the show often seems steamy, it’s by design. Roddenberry knew he’d never get away with his controversial humanist themes, so he’d deliberately write in erotic scenes to keep critics and censors busy. That scantily clad woman in exaggerated open-mouth kiss in the episode A Private Little War? She’s a smokescreen for the anti-Vietnam War plot.
Roddenberry didn’t just believe in an inclusive world for humans, but alien civilisations too. Spock wears a unique pin on his uniform. It spells IDIC, which stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, the cornerstone of Vulcan philosophy. It celebrates that it takes, as Spock says, a “combination of a number of things to make existence worthwhile”.
Fifty years on, as racism, sexism and dying migrants make headlines, it’s easy to see how radical Roddenberry’s ideas remain.
LIGHT ON ITS FEET
Part of why the original series works is because everything is futuristic, but ultimately simple. Star Trek was made on a low budget. There wasn’t enough money to show the Enterprise landing on every new planet. So the writers came up with transporters.
Spock, the Vulcan, was meant to be a Martian. His original look included red skin, which showed up as black on black-and-white TVs of the time. He ultimately ended up with a light yellow tint, those pointy ears and five fingers that could give the Vulcan ‘Live Long and Prosper’ salute.
It also explains why most Star Trek aliens are mostly biped – there was just no money for tentacles and octopods.
Even the tech was easy to follow. Communicators are today’s flip smartphones. The phasers are just evolved guns. Scotty can beam you all over the place. Want to go faster? “Warp Factor 5, Mr Sulu.” Bones in Sick Bay will heal you. Uhura will eventually translate the alien signal. You’ll accept the magic of 3D chess and food replicators. Unfettered by physics, you’re free to focus on the camaraderie on board.
THOSE OUTLANDISH COSTUMES
Lots of officers. Lots of aliens. So lots of costumes. How did the show do it on a tight budget?
In Star Trek Costumes: Five Decades of Fashion from the Final Frontier, the producers describe how costume designer William Ware Theiss scouted fabric outlets for cheap material. He also got around union costume makers by making them cheaply in a sweatshop and having them delivered to the set secretly.
It was the 23rd century. But it was also the ’60s. Obviously the women wore miniskirts. It’s easy to think, 50 years on, that they’d been coerced by men. But the book says that from the first episode on, Grace Lee Whitney, who played Lt Yeoman Rand, preferred to wear something that showed off her legs. The miniskirt became so iconic, that Uhura wore it in the film reboots in the 2010s. Rand’s basket-weave blond beehive was a cult hit too.
- In space and in social and political boundaries, the Star Trek team boldly went further
- Star Trek was where the White Kirk could kiss Black Uhura, shaking up American viewers. The episode Plato’s Stepchildren, featured the first mainstream interracial kiss. Many local networks refused to air the episode. The cast even filed an alternate scene. But it was never released.
- One episode, Balance of Terror, fights prejudice. When a Starfleet officer criticises Spock for being only half human, Kirk retorts, “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the bridge.”
- The show even had intergalactic hippies. In The Way To Eden, a bunch of them were beamed aboard the Enterprise and put on a mini-concert.
- Look closely, the episode Mudd’s Women. The tale of male-order brides taking beauty pills is an allegory for human trafficking and shows self-confidence as a universal virtue.
- Even the Nazis are in here. In The City On the Edge of Forever, the crew heads to a 1930s style war zone fought on computer, urging the peaceniks to fight back preventing the bad guys from winning.
- There’s always room for mercy. In Arena, in a death match between Kirk and a reptilian alien, Kirk chooses not to kill. Showing them a way to have hope for humanity.
In the US, the sexual revolution was under way, but TV still prohibited the show of cleavage and belly buttons. Costumer Thiess pulled every trick he could think of to expose other body parts and turn the women’s clothes sexy in other ways. His tricks became what is now called the Theiss Titillation Theory – that a garment will appear sexier if it looks like it’s barely staying on and might fall off at any time. On a planet seemingly ruled by the Greek god Apollo, the women were draped across the shoulder and waist. The costumes were secured by double-sided tape, tearing off bits of the actors’ skin every time they were removed.
The men have worn shiny bathrobes, sashes and ponchos. Women’s costumes boldly went further. In an episode titled Space Seed, the women are in gold bikinis, overlaid from neck to toe in shiny olive mesh. On Shore Leave Planet, they’re in neon-hued furry bikinis. Each woman also has a fur snake going down one leg to create a furry bootie. One woman in Elaan of Troyus is covered in silver leaves. They’ve worn modified marching band gear, belly dance outfits, gleaming leotards, metallic swimsuits, and foil sheets.
Star Trek style has crossed galaxies and ended up on the modern’day red-carpet. Jennifer Lopez has worn those low cut necklines. Charlize Theron has rocked backless catsuits, Beyonce has shown off a bare hip and sides. And between Lady Gaga and Cher, every outrageous cutaway, beaded, cropped and embellished design has been attempted.
Meanwhile, Starfleet underlings wore red. And so many of them would die in the beginning of scenes that it birthed the term, “redshirt”, for any fiction character who dies soon after being introduced.
BLACK MIRROR’S HALF-CENTURY HOMAGE
If you’ve watched the US show Black Mirror, that dark anthology examining the consequences of our tech-dependent lives, the opening episode from Season 4 will seem very familiar. USS Callister looks like it could be a sister ship of the Enterprise, helmed by Captain Robert Daly and his fawning retro crew.
All’s not what it seems, though. Daly is not on board any ship. He’s in an elaborate simulation of his own creation, using DNA stolen from co-workers at his office to create where he’s the hero, not the ignored, rejected, bullied tech head. It’s creepy, as all Black Mirror stories tend to be. But it’s also a well-crafted look at nerd culture, our obsession with power, and how easily nobodies turn to heroes and then to villains. It’s one of the show’s most popular episodes, and picked up seven Emmy nominations (and four wins) in 2018. What happens to Daly? What happens to his trapped clones? Who takes over the bridge? No spoilers here!
HOW TO ANNOY A TREKKIE
- Insist it’s Trekker not Trekkie. Battle lines will immediately be drawn.
- William Shatner (Kirk) co-wrote several Star Trek novels, starred in award winning TV shows (Boston Legal, Sh*t My Dad Says) and films. He also had a music career with a spoken-word album and Shatner Claus, which was released last year.
- Leonard Nimoy (Spock) took up film and stage roles, playing Spock again in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness. He also covered pop songs and exhibited photos at galleries. He couldn’t escape his character. His two autobiographies are titled I Am Not Spock (1975) and I Am Spock (1995). He died in 2015.
- Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) had already sung with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton before she boarded the Enterprise. In addition to acting, she helped NASA recruit racially diverse candidates.
- George Takei (Sulu) is perhaps best known as a fierce, funny LGBTQ activist. The rebooted Star Trek films honour this with a scene acknowledging the young Sulu as gay. He also champions for better US immigration policies and US-Japan relations.
- Walter Koenig (Chekov) made a name as a scriptwriter, director and character actor in film, TV and theatre. He died last year.
- Mix it up with Star Wars: Same thing, no? Trekkies hate it when people substitute one intergalactic adventure series for another. But Star Wars creator George Lucas praised Rodenberry’s show, saying it “softened up the entertainment arena” for science fiction, paving the way for his film series.
- Wonder aloud if Kirk was the best captain of the series. Say Jean-Luc Picard of the later Next Generation series faces bigger challenges. Benjamin Sisko in Deep Space Nine is compellingly murky. Michael Burnham on the current Discovery is a badass. And Janeway on Voyager had the additional responsibility of steering the crew home.
- Say the tech is ridiculous. Spaceships would implode if they were fired at in a vacuum. Warp drive is far-fetched. The forcefield jailcells are silly. (Much of the fantasy is now reality, including microwave ovens and cellphones.)
- Question the timelines. With close to 600 hours of TV and film, the storylines overlap, loop and even split into parallel realities. Nothing lines up correctly. Say, it’s illogical, Captain.
- Be a Vulcan in the streets, and a Klingon in the sheets. The popular slogan annoys fans, who’ll tell you that Klingons must be accepted and respected for their ferociousness.
First Published: Jun 08, 2019 16:54 IST