Beam Me Up: Tech Imagination and Representative Fandom in Star Trek

Sean Thompson

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic television series of the American cultural landscape, and the science fiction genre as a whole. Originally airing in 1966, Star Trek has gone on to spawn a number of sequels and spin-off series as well as a series of movies that are still being released today, Star Trek: The Original Series is a cultural institution. The effects of this institution are still being felt today. Beyond the revival of the television series, Star Trek has had lasting implications in people’s conceptions of technology and its development as well as crafting a narrative universe that enabled people to engage with their world and the people around them in a new light and with new understanding. The technology of Star Trek in particular, holds a certain interest to me. The original series, across its 3 seasons, technology that was fantastical in its utility but nonetheless made sense to viewers at the time.  The communicator, an early imagining of the first cellular phones, the phasers, non-lethal weapons favoured by the crew of the Enterprise, and the transporter, with its ability to bend space and move people great distances, all hold a certain place in conceptualizing how our technology continues to develop in the future. Star Trek has in no small part, influenced the way that people think and dream about what a possible future could look like; and production has begun on those dreams. All around the world, and through a variety of means, people are working towards making those science fiction dreams become a scientific reality. An example of this is the QualComm Tricorder XPrize, a contest where a $1 Million prize has been offered to anyone who can best replicate the Tricorder. The Tricorder is a medical device in Star Trek that allows the user to scan a person to discover maladies, administer medication, and recommend treatment. As of this writing, the top entries in this contest have entered into public for consumption and testing.

The far horizon of science fiction that Star Trek presented when it was first airing is inching closer and closer. The tricorder is not the only fictional technology that has found a parallel in the real world. NASA claimed that it is aiming to achieve interstellar travel and space exploration by the end of this century. The development of artificial intelligence (AI), which admittedly plays a larger role in Star Trek: The Next Generation with its android character Data, is mirrored by our own movement towards AI. IBM’s Watson technology, a computer system that has the ability to learn and think to answer user questions and sort unstructured data, certainly seems to be moving in the direction of completely autonomous artificial intelligence.

Each of these technologies, while wonderful to think about incorporating into our daily lives in order to move us closer to technological utopia, are not without their issues. No technology is inherently beneficial without its drawbacks, and this would be poor FIMS writing if I did not at least address some of these concerns.  Beginning with the Tricorder, someone is ultimately producing this possibly life-saving technology to be sold as a commodity; using its status as an item in cultural memory in order to exploit that memory for profit. As we move towards interstellar travel, a question arises; this is a question that Star Trek itself asks in a number of episodes and stories: whether or not humanity has any right to the cosmos. We see the effects of our own imperialism and colonialism from the 18th and 19th century. Parcelling up solar systems to be sold to corporations that are able to continually exploit and drain a planet of its resources and move on to the next target is an extension of the way many corporations view our current planet. In Star Trek, the United Federation of Planets has a Prime Directive, which means that no matter what, they are to be observers in the cosmos and should never interfere with a planet. The characters of Star Trek interpret this in their own way, Captain Kirk of The Original Series is famous for his desire to intervene if he perceives an injustice. However I would argue that if humanity is on a path towards the stars and beyond, then I think we could benefit from a perspective similar to the Prime Directive. We have no right to impose our will onto the rest of the universe.

Star Trek had an integral role in shaping the way people thought about technology for many years to come, but it also played a part in shaping alternative ways of thinking. It is important to recognize how Star Trek opened up the dream of science fiction and space exploration to so many people. In The Original Series, characters like Lt. Uhura, Captain Sulu, and Ensign Chekov, welcomed a new demographic into the fold of fandom. For one of the first times in history, people were able to look at the television and see not only people that looked like they did, but were a valued and successful member of an elite team. Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols, was one of the first examples of positive representation of black women on television. She was a role model to people who otherwise would have found none on television at the time. Lt. Uthura was not portrayed in a subservient role, she was a master of her station, and as such was an inspiration. Beyond just the character’s proficiency, in an episode airing in 1968, Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura share a kiss which is widely regarded as the first interracial on-screen kiss; this was not by any means an accident. The episode was reportedly to be shot both with the kiss and without, so that the network could decide if they wanted to keep it or not. However, Shatner and Nichols made that decision for the network when they purposefully made mistakes on every take that did not include the kiss, forcing the network’s hand.

Cpt. Sulu, as a Japanese man, shares a similar space. He was a positive representation of Asian-American people in a time when veterans from the Second World War were still alive. Going beyond just the memory of WW2, the show was airing and in syndication during the Vietnam War as well. When it would have been easy to make him a caricature in order to demonize the enemy that they were fighting against, Star Trek was above that kind of pandering to racism. Ensign Chekov is also an interesting character because he is Russian in a series that aired during the height of the Cold War, and also deals directly with Cold War themes. Star Trek grappled with the problem of interventionism that plagued American foreign policy and eventually landed the United States in a war in Vietnam. Again, Chekov was not a Russian stereotype played up for popular appeal, but a valued member of the team whose identity was present but not mocked. I believe that these representations are part of the reason why the show attracted such a large and dedicated following from its fans. People who were previously denied entry into engaging with fandom found refuge on the Enterprise.

The legacy of Star Trek in the 50 years since its initial airing is difficult to pin down. It was and is still is one of the most foundational science fiction texts in our cultural canon and the way it examined our relationship with technology, ourselves, and each other, informs the way we think about these aspects of our lives. I believe that the self-reflection the series offers is its true legacy. Star Trek inspired a tradition of close analysis and taking nothing for granted. As a FIMS student, I hold these values close to me and believe that Star Trek, and other great media alike, had an integral role in fostering these values.

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