I mentioned recently that I wasn't invited to the "official" 40th anniversary celebration convention. A couple of years ago, I would have been really upset by that, but though I looked for those emotions when it became apparent that I'd been passed over, they simply aren't there. I think it's partially because there's so much more to my life now than just Star Trek, but mostly because I don't need an "official" platform or convention to celebrate and honor the legacy and memory of such a huge part of my life.
So if I were given a platform to make a speech (like, for instance, a blog) here is what I'd say to commemorate the 40th anniversary of this phenomenon:
I wasn't even a glimmer in my father's eye in 1966, but looking at Wikipedia, I can get a pretty clear picture of what things were like in that year: LBJ announced that American troops would stay in Vietnam -- already an unpopular war -- indefinitely, and increased troop levels to 250,000. Huge anti-war demonstrations exploded across the country. Racial and religious tensions were high, and bigotry was common all across America.
The House Un-American Activities Committee, lead by McCarthy, began its reign of terror. (Wikipedia is a decade off. That's a shock.) John Lennon said The Beatles were more popular than Jesus.
In other words, it doesn't seem like it was a particularly optimistic period in our national history, and there wasn't all that much going on to feel very good about. If you were a science fiction nerd, Lost In Space was airing new episodes, and though it garnered good ratings, it had a lot of fantasy elements, and by 1966, it was clearly aimed at children.
Then, on September 8th of that year, a new show, which had been sold to Desilu studios as "wagon train to the stars" debuted. Just a two commercial beaks into the show, it was clear that this was something new and different, and after new episodes aired in subsequent weeks and months, it was undeniable that this show, which was set in the future but reflected so much of the modern world, was breaking new ground each week. It was so groundbreaking, and so unique, it spawned a legacy that I got to become part of twenty-one years later, when I joined the cast of The Next Generation.
As I've written in my blog and in my books, I had a turbulent relationship with Star Trek over the years, and when I was working on the show I didn't always appreciate that I was part of history (a consequence of being a teenager, I guess) but I've always loved everything that Star Trek stands for, and when I turn on the television today and see crime drama after crime drama, after reality series after intelligence-insulting sit-com, I long for the original Star Trek, or the fourth season of The Next Generation.
Obviously, not every episode has to have a deeper meaning, and not every episode needed to seriously challenge the status quo or change the world. In fact, my favorites when I was a kid were fun episodes, like Trouble with Tribbles, or adventurous ones like Arena or The Tholian Web. As I grew older, though, I fell in love with The City on the Edge of Forever, Conscience of the King, All our Yesterdays, The Doomsday Machine, and of course, Spock's Brain.
Ha. Just checking your Trekkie credentials. You'll know if you passed or not.
As Battlestar Galactica shows us today, science fiction has a long tradition of holding up a mirror to our modern world, and reflecting it back to us in a way that doesn't beat us over the head with a message, but makes that message easy enough to find for those who want to see it. In the 1960s, Star Trek did this better than any other show except maybe the Twilight Zone, and it did it during an incredibly turbulent time when it was risky even acknowledge that mirror existed, much less hold it up. For that, alone, it deserves all the attention and accolade its been given in the last forty years.
However, there's something that just isn't said enough, some trees that are lost in Star Trek's forest of socially relevant and envelope-pushing episodes, that I want to put a very fine point on: it's just a really cool show, with characters we really care about, who find themselves in incredible situations week after week.
I know, it seems so obvious and underwhelming to say that, but think about what passes for Science Fiction these days. For every Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, or Stargate series, there's a depressingly awful action movie where the studio replaces the guns with blasters, puts the monosyllabic hero on a space station instead of a skyscraper, and sells it as Sci-Fi. When you look at how bleak the Sci-Fi landscape is right now, it puts Star Trek into some perspective, and -- at least for me -- makes me appreciate the storytelling and the characters even more.
It's not a huge secret that Next Generation took a few years to find its way, but once it did, under the guidance of Michael Piller and with writers like Ron Moore, a pre-Dark Side of the Force Brannon Braga, and Joe Menosky, it continued the complex characters and storytelling tradition created by the original series in 1966. Though I didn't appreciate it at the time (also not a big secret,) I can look back at these shows with deep gratitude; I'm very lucky, indeed, to have been part of this great legacy.
So on the 40th anniversary of Star Trek, rather than exhaustively list all its social achievements and the ways it has impacted our lives, from cell phones to PDAs to totally doing it with scantily-clad green alien women, I choose to honor Star Trek, its creator Gene Roddenberry, and all the creative people who have helped bring it to life in the last four decades as simply as possible, paraphrasing something I once said to Jonathan Frakes, which he'll never let me live down:
Even though it's forty, I can tell just by looking at it that Star Trek used to be cool.
And it still is.