Star Trek, a moral tale

On September 8th, 1966, the first episode of Star Trek was aired on US television. It acquired cult status, but not the audiences its network wanted. They prepared to kill it as ratings dropped partway through its second season, but an unprecedented mail campaign by Trekkies (fans of the series) persuaded NBC to keep it going, but they moved it from primetime to the ill-fated Friday night slot, and pulled the plug after its third season.

It was revived as a movie franchise, and then as the highly successful Star Trek - the Next Generation, set a century after the first series. That, too, generated a movie franchise, and there were spin-offs such as Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and the less successful Enterprise. There were animated series, too, and novels based on the characters and settings.

Gene Roddenberry, its creator, modelled it on Gulliver’s Travels, Horatio Hornblower, and the Western series, Wagon Train. His aim was that each episode would tell an exciting adventure story, combined with a morality tale. It represented a future that Roddenberry hoped would come about, a future of tolerance and mutual respect, one without greed and violence.

The series was ground-breaking in several respects. It featured a mixed race and mixed species crew, including a Russian navigator, a black female comms officer, a Vulcan-human first officer, and a Japanese helmsman played by an actor later revealed to be gay. The Vulcan, Mr Spock, became a cult figure, representing a species that had put aside passion and emotion to embrace reason and logic, a future that Roddenberry clearly wanted for humanity.

The economics of Star Trek was interesting. With material wealth plentiful enough to eliminate want, and with replicators to satisfy all material desires, money became irrelevant, leading to an emphasis on talent, intelligence and status. People sought respect rather than riches. Manu Saadia, a Trekkie himself, wrote a book about "Trekonomics," describing how, in the absence of conspicuous consumption, people would look to mental enrichment via art, education and the discovery of new things.

This would all be very nice, but human beings, evolved with a desire to control their environment rather than to adapt to it, seek power over circumstance, including power over others. We have learned to control this to some extent by a combination of a morality that respects the rights of others to make their own choices, and the institutions that can restrain those who would use power to control others. In a Star Trek future that retraining morality and those institutions that inhibit the exercise of power would still be needed.

The Star Trek future might be wishful thinking, but it was positive, uplifting, and optimistic, and its words and phrases passed into everyday language and conversation. Prime Minister John Major, fighting the 1992 General Election, held up the Labour manifesto before a huge crowd and declaimed:

“These, then, are the voyages of the starship ‘Lack of Enterprise.’ It’s 5-year mission: to seek out and destroy new jobs and new opportunities; to boldly tax where none have taxed before.”

He personally had never actually heard of Star Trek, but that hardly mattered. The audience loved it, and he went on to win that election.