Star Trek’s Impact on American Society


For many people, nothing is quite as captivating as good television. A good show has a lot of power, and there have been many good shows. In the history of television, however, few shows have been quite as influential as the Star Trek series were. Star Trek has something for everyone: accurate science for sci fi nerds, great plots and actors for traditional T. V. lovers, and hopeful ideas of a future with world peace and no poverty for optimists. However, one part of Star Trek that appeals to almost all who watch the show is the mindset of equality for all, no matter gender, race, or alien species.

Star Trek’s humanistic social commentary inspired those who watched it, especially subjugated groups, and as a result, the mentality that was developed was one of hope and breaking barriers, which in turn led to a progression in America’s societal mentality. This was able to occur because the humanistic values that are championed by Star Trek are the natural tendencies of human nature. Star Trek simpply brought these values to the forefront of the American mind.

The Star Trek franchise began around the same time as two very important equal rights political movements of the 60’s: the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement. 966, the year in which Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) first aired, was politically and socially a very chaotic time. The women’s rights movement was beginning to build momentum, and many reforms were starting to actualize, including the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Griswold v Connecticut Supreme Court case in 1965 (the right to use contraceptives), the formation of NOW (National Organization for Women) in 1966, and the extension of affirmative action to include women in 1967.

At a time when a woman holding a job outside of being a housewife or some sort of secretary was unheard of, actresses were expected to play these roles, and these roles alone. Similar restrictions and reforms had to be overcome by African Americans with the Civil Rights Movement. From the Civil Rights Act (banned discrimination in employment) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (to investigate claims of disregard for the above act) in 1964, to affirmative action in 1965, African Americans were steadily reforming their subpar status, just like the women of the Women’s Rights Movement.

But up until now, blacks were hardly ever on television; they were featured even less than women. For most minority groups and for women, this all changed with Star Trek. The Star Trek franchise has been a prominent part of American society for a very long time, and has had the time to build up to the large franchise that it is. TOS first aired in September of 1966. Although it only ran for three years, it broke a lot of barriers: the first interracial kiss on television, and the first black actress to play in an authoritative position. What’s more significant is how popular Star Trek became.

Throughout the 70’s baby boomers and their parents watched reruns on TV; apparently, the popularity was great enough to have Paramount Pictures create a movie in 1979. In 1982, the second and most popular movie, according to box office reviews, The Wrath Of Khan came out, and in 1984, The Search For Spock. TOS movies continued being made, on average, every two years until 1991 for a total of six, but in the meantime, a new TV series had started. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) ended up being such a hit that it continued for 8 years, 7 seasons, from 1987-1994.

TNG was the foundation for the next four movies that concluded with Nemesis, in 2002. Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise, the three other series, were not quite as popular, but the franchise and even the less popular series had a huge fanbase. The myriad of books, conventions, and paraphernalia that went along with the series, from action figures, to fake phasers, showed what a hold the show had over people. This was, by no means, what creator Gene Roddenberry had originally expected. Roddenberry had hoped for a good fanbase, but no one expects a religious following for a show illustrating humanist ideals.

But that was exactly what Roddenberry got with, what was in essence, his social commentary. The Star Trek franchise is famous for its social commentary in the form of motifs in the episodes. When TOS first aired in 1966, a slew of social reform movements were starting up. From the the women’s rights movements, to the continued forcefulness of the civil rights movement, the 1960’s was, socially, a very tumultuous and exciting time. A clear product of its given time, the Star Trek franchise is unique in T. V. in the extent of its commentary over an extended period of social changes.

Star Trek is also unique in the plethora of different viewer responses to and opinions of the show’s true message. According to creator Gene Roddenberry, the main theme of the show is meant to be a message of humanity as a result of our progression forward as a race,and equality as a result of humanity. Roddenberry was a humanist who wanted to get his point across using the show. He said that “ I tend to think in the future it won’t seem at all strange that women are treated as the equals of men. I remember when NBC said to me, “How many women do you have on the ship? They thought that we certainly couldn’t have a ship’s complement that was half men and half women… We argued, and finally I agreed with NBC that I would make the ship one-third women — thinking to myself, with a chuckle, that one-third of a crew complement of healthy women could certainly handle the men anyway. It did not seem strange to me that I would use different races on the ship…

I knew what proportion of people and races the world population consisted of. I had been in the Air Force and had traveled to foreign countries. Obviously, these people handled themselves mentally as well as everyone else… y parents never taught me that one race or color was at all superior. I remember in school seeking out Chinese students and Mexican students because the idea of different cultures fascinated me. So, having not been taught that there is a pecking order people, a superiority of race or culture, it was natural that my writing went that way. ”# Roddenbery not only considered himself a humanist and an advocate of equal rights, but also an example of a man of future ideals. His ideas about humanity and its nature of equality were a part of the attraction of the show.

The Star Trek franchise lends the concept of humanity a big role in the show: not only is the concept to do the job of bringing us back in touch with our humanity, but it is also meant to show us the equality that is inherently human. The Star Trek franchise very purposefully made this the underlying theme of the show; at a time when a majority of the population was fighting for equal rights, blatant, repetitive dialogue combined with the creator’s quotes of no individual life being worth any less can hardly be taken in any way other than a direct commentary.

But as a result of the commenting quality of this show, further responses, reactions, and interpretations of the show, of course, arose. # Even among fans, for a majority a dichotomy developed of opinions of the show’s true message. While most everyone agrees on the intended message of equality, some wonder whether the show’s true colors shine through with certain actions and choices. At a time when both women and African Americans were fighting for certain rights, a female African American playing Lt. Uhura, the bridge communications officer, certainly seems to be a decision with a message of equality; Professor Daniel L.

Bernardi, however, does not agree. According to Bernardi the “white”# Captain Kirk of TOS was first, the most important, and the diverse crew members always came second, especially characters like Lt. Uhura and the Asian Commander Sulu, who received minimal dialogue, and appeared in far fewer episodes than the rest of the white bridge crew. In TNG, he claims, despite the “multicultural makeup”#, racist beliefs still shone through in members like Lt. Commander Worf, who was the antithesis of the “white”#, controlled, diplomatic Captain Picard.

Although intelligent, Worf was a member of the Klingon race, a race that was very tribal and warlike, in spite of the fact that they were technologically advanced; they also “happened”# to have the same skin tone as and were played exclusively by African Americans, which is, in Bernardi’s opinion, a clearer message than the plotlines themselves. Bernardi believes the show’s true intentions come through quite strongly, and whether or not they are said explicitly, traditional messages of gender and race come through forcefully. Bernardi and similar scholars, are not, however, the only commentators on the series. While the argument for an unequal Star Trek world is possible, the arguments for a progressive Star Trek world are much stronger.

Many of the pro-equality analysts do concede to the possible presence of racism, however, they reason that the ideas that are clearly communicated through the plots overshadow the racism that will of course exist in a show that started in the 1960’s. In fact, the racism is considered to be a necessity; to communicate to an audience with one belief, one cannot only share one’s own dissenting view, rather one must recognize the disagreement and meet those disagreeing halfway.

In Professor Anne Cranny-Francis’s review of Jean Lorrah’s Star Trek novels, she finds Lorrah maintains that although it is, at first glance, a sexist series, a humanity of full equality is what the Star Trek franchise espouses, and the patriarchy that appears dominant is the antithesis of the humanity that is the foundation of the show. Although the traditional stereotypes are present, Francis insists they are against the very basis of the series and, as a result, are only an unfortunate necessity. Francis is, indeed, correct.

Although she acknowledges counter-arguments such as Bernardi’s, she also has an awareness of the time period, and realize that the progressiveness is relative to the time period. Because the airing period of the original show was the late 1960’s, having an African American female on the bridge was progressive. African American women had never really had a commanding role on mainstream television before Nichelle Nichols opened up the playing field. And Lt. Uhura was of course not the only “diverse” crew member.

The fact of the Star Trek franchise’s progressiveness is further supported by the hold the Star Trek franchise has over people, and the resulting change in mindset for many, whether they were minorities or not. # Throughout history, media has played a huge role in public perception of current events, and the Star Trek franchise is no exception. According to the US Centennial of Flight Commission (USCFC), the Star Trek series are some of the most culturally influential shows of all time.

Indications of the show’s popularity include the naming of the first Space Shuttle Orbiter Enterprise or the only presence of a fictional artifact, the original Enterprise model used for filming, in a non-fictional area of the Smithsonian. But the USCFC claims on the testimony of women there were also more discrete, though not hidden, influences. Many women said they were very positively influenced by seeing women on the Enterprise working as scientists, doctors, and in other esteemed positions beside their male counterparts. A great deal of scientists and engineers were inspired to go into science because of the show.

Whoopi Goldberg believed in her abilities to be an African American “actress with a real role” when she saw Lt. Uhura on the bridge, and Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to fly in space, said she was motivated by the show’s positive image of powerful women. Those listed above are some of the people influenced from the United States, let alone the nameless thousands who did not receive inspiration because they were members of subjugated groups, but rather, because they saw that every human being deserves equality.

The Star Trek franchise reached, and continues to reach, a wide spectrum of people, of all races, colors, and creeds. The ideas of equality and progression did not reach deaf ears, and neither did they reach indolent hands. # Many who were inspired by the Star Trek franchise chose to take action, in some form or another, to fight for the progressive world that the Star Trek franchise depicted. Those inspired by Star Trek, whether men, women, black, white, or of any other gender or race, did not sit idly with that inspiration.

In Star Trek: Visions of Law and Justice, Doctors Robert Chaires and Bradley Chilton not only lay out the reasons the Star Trek “phenomenon” has developed into what it has, but also how it has influenced the American legal system through influencing the American attitude. According to the authors, watching the Star Trek series triggers in many what is called the Quixote Complex, in the sense that the watcher gets a “sometimes irrational desire to see things not as they are, but as they could be if we humans were just a little bit better”(266)#.

The authors do not argue that the Star Trek franchise is the sole cause for the sensitizing of society to certain issues, but rather, the largest and most widespread vehicle for delivering the message. These men argue that the Star Trek franchise has not only sensitized society to these issues, but also have presented possible utopian ideals, ideals that people are sure not to immediately condemn and ideals that people can use as a model. This utopian option has spurred people to act, to fight for what they believe is good and true, even if they are not fighting directly for themselves.

Whether they protested, wrote letters, taught others, or even simply gave their children this model, these people fought for a future that was better; that future, according to them, was like the world of Star Trek. According to Chaires and Chilton, although we cannot predict what America would have been like without them, we can predict that the depth and breadth of the reform we have today in regards to equality would not exist. # The question now becomes “why”? The mentality Star Trek espouses and teaches has been accepted and influential because of the fundamentality the ideas hold within human nature.

Francis, in her novel separate from Lorrah’s, argues that gender, for example (but differences between people in general), in the sense that we perceive them, are totally human constructs. They are created not by birth but rather, by choice. Americans, and really all humans, have developed this societal construct that categorize and stereotype people into male/female, white/black, when really, it is only our own constructs that truly differentiate people outside of physical differences. Francis also argues that we are constantly progressing towards further equality, or at least trying to, because that is our nature.

In proving her thesis, and by saying that in our human nature we are equal, Francis really proves the converse, that it is against human nature to be unequal. Star Trek is a proponent of humanistic values, meaning it is working with human nature by working towards the same ideals; this also means Star Trek’s values became very adaptable, and simply need to be shown to the audience to be understood and eventually accepted. Star Trek’s ideals of equality have become a very influential part of American society as a result of the nature of humanity. #

Star Trek’s humanistic values have had a very influential role on American society. The show has been able to inspire subjugated groups because of the nature of the values of equality that the show promotes; that is, the human nature. The values Star Trek upholds are in line with human nature, ergo, they resonate with the people and are adopted into practice because Star Trek has boldly gone where no show has gone before.