In the 1970s, the grip that children had on television programming was, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. The thin slice of broadcast hours that kids had a hold on was limited to Saturday mornings—about which we now realize, thirty-some years later, adults couldn’t care less—and the magical weekday afternoon span between the end of soap operas and talk shows and the beginning of the evening news. The heavyweight shows that stand out in the memories of our after-school television viewing are Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes, and the sine qua non Star Trek.
Star Trek debuted September 8, 1966, when Anna wasn’t yet a year old and Doug’s mother was anxiously awaiting the birth of her first son. The episode that aired on that Thursday night forty-four years ago was “The Man Trap.” The original pilot, “The Cage”—from which only the character of Mr. Spock went on to the series—didn’t air until 1986. After a 79-episode run, Star Trek ended on June 3, 1969. But it went into reruns almost immediately that same fall, perfect timing to shape our young brains.
For Doug, there were Star Trek model kits, phasers, tricorders, and communicators. With his friend Joey (who will write a future guest blog post here), Doug borrowed standard wire from his father and wrapped it around a set of steel rods that the two boys pounded into the ground. By connecting the wire to a 9-volt wet cell (Doug’s father would not relinquish the car battery), the boys created a force field in the backyard. For a child growing up with Apollo, Skylab, and Star Trek, it wasn’t a question of whether Doug would become a scientist (or an engineer or a pilot), but rather a question of why anyone would want to do anything that a Star Trek character didn’t do.
Anna watched Star Trek with her father. Her most memorable episode with him was “The Trouble with Tribbles.” It was if her father recognized that’s the way life really is: it’s all too easy to be distracted from our lofty ambitions by the small, soothing, seemingly harmless pleasures in life. As Captain Kirk puts it, “Too much of anything, Lieutenant, even love, isn’t necessarily a good thing.” Rather harsh wisdom. (That’s also the episode in which Scotty and Chekov debate the relative virtues of scotch and vodka.) Whatever else Star Trek offered, it certainly gave us lessons for life and was, therefore, a moral tale even more than it was an adventure story.
Its moral center, oddly, was a triangle: Dr. Leonard McCoy, Mr. Spock, and Captain James T. Kirk. But we might argue that William Shatner remains the show’s center, moral or otherwise. In fact, a recent New York Times article about him points out that another newspaper proclaimed this is William Shatner’s universe, and the rest of us just live in it. On screen, Captain Kirk does what Robert Pinsky in The Sounds of Poetry warns against: “the mistake of pronouncing the words in some special, chanting or ‘poetic’ manner.” Captain Kirk exaggerates the rhythm of his lines, creating over-the-top emphasis: KLINGon BASTard! You KILLED my SON! Who doesn’t want to talk like that in certain moments? That’s a voice thoroughly from the heart and yet so aware of itself that it must be and can’t possibly be taken seriously.
Star Trek was a campy show that way, all silliness as characters pretended to lift boulders made of painted polystyrene and Dr. McCoy saying He’s dead, Jim for the umpteenth time. (DeForest Kelly actually said a version of that line in a film before the series even began.) But the series was about big ideas that couldn’t be dismissed—about where technology and space exploration might take humankind (not just the United States), about seeing past the Cold War in which we were living then, and about how to know when our prime directives didn’t do justice to the situation at hand.
Campy or moralistic, Star Trek was important enough that NASA named its first shuttle orbiter Enterprise. Gene Rodenberry and the cast attended its dedication ceremony in 1976. That Space Shuttle performed atmospheric flight tests and was never outfitted for spaceflight. But it was the very first of its kind and is now on display at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center.
Happy 44th birthday, Star Trek! May you, of course, live long and prosper.