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Happy Birthday Star Trek

"Fifty years ago, on 8 September 1966, NBC broadcast the first programme in a new series. The concept had been pitched two years earlier by Gene Roddenberry as a kind of “Wagon Train to the stars”.

"Science fiction on TV wasn’t entirely unprecedented. The Flash Gordon comic strip had been adapted for television in 1954. The BBC’s Doctor Who started in 1963. But Star Trek appeared on one of the three major US networks, and initially attracted big audiences. It was nearly cancelled during its second series but the fans protested and rescued it. After three series totalling 79 programmes, NBC did cancel it, but it went from strength to strength in movies and new series.

"The pilot was made on a limited budget, which led to many of the show’s distinctive features: simple uniforms, gadgets like the tricorder, and — in an age without computer graphics — aliens that were either humanoid and played by actors with a few bits of makeup, or disembodied force-fields.

"Star Trek made use of standard SF tropes — an interstellar federation, hostile aliens, matter-transmission — with an allegorical dimension. Episodes with apparently trite story lines often examined some cultural issue: racism, sexism, economics, technological advance, imperialism. The programme’s cultural values were those of intellectual America; pacifist, progressive, racially diverse. That didn’t stop it being criticised for sometimes trying to impose Starfleet values on alien worlds.

"The stories were diverse. One of my favourites is episode 44, “The Trouble with Tribbles”, written by SF author David Gerrold. Lieutenant Uhura is given a cute, cuddly purring ball of fluff called a tribble. Everyone wants one as a pet. They reproduce very fast and soon the starship Enterprise is knee-deep in tribbles. But when tribbles start dying by the thousand Kirk discovers that the cargo of grain has been poisoned...

"It’s about ecology, overpopulation, war, and betrayal. And I can’t help feeling that Gremlins owes it a certain amount. “Paying homage”, they call it.

"One unfortunate side effect of the success of Star Trek is that it has convinced many of the literati that they know what science fiction is. They call it ‘sci-fi’ and think all of it is like the one episode of Star Trek they happened to watch. If anyone points to Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, or J.G. Ballard, the response is ‘oh, that’s not science fiction’. Oh yes it is: just look at the lists of winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards. The science fiction world recognised the abilities of these authors long before the literati knew they existed.

"Star Trek has millions of devoted fans, who hold regular conventions. They become deeply involved in the Star Trek universe, and know a lot about the background and the characters. Many fans dress up as specific characters for the duration of the con. They’re well aware that it’s fiction; they just enjoy being immersed in an imaginary world with like-minded people. The lovely parody Galaxy Quest (in which aliens re-create the Star Trek world and seek the help of the starship’s crew, not realising they’re actors and it’s all fake, but their stuff really works) pokes gentle fun at both the series and its fans, but captures them both perfectly.

"I’ve never been to a Star Trek con, but the Discworld convention is similar, and I’ve been to most of those. It does take a little getting used to when the hotel is full of witches, wizards, people painted blue, and there’s a baby wearing a black baby-gro with a skeleton on it. What’s less obvious is that the rest of the year these people are doctors, lawyers, journalists, bankers, computer programmers... They’re intelligent and well-educated, and they sing in choirs, write poetry, paint, hill-walk, climb mountains, hang-glide...

"Just like real people."

Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, Ian Stewart,

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