In fact, a good way to learn about the preoccupations of a culture at a certain point in time is not by reading a history book, but by looking at its popular fiction.
Let's take 1966 for example. We all know it was a time of great change and unrest in North America. Starch, conservative Western values were slowly giving way to more progressive thought. Workers were striking. Civil rights activists were being attacked. The war was raging in Vietnam. And amidst all the chaos, a show about a crew aboard a starship called Enterprise was released.
The original Star Trek series pushed boundaries that other television shows of the time wouldn't get near. Because it was science fiction and set in a distant future and an unfamiliar setting, it gave the story freedom to examine social issues. People would watch and suspend their disbelief. They'd let go of their preconceived notions of the way things "should be done." It was fiction, so they had permission to.
I have no belief that STAR TREK depicts the actual future, it depicts us, now, things we need to understand about that.
Creator Gene Roddenberry leveraged this freedom by letting the show boldly go further than any had before. It examined the hottest topics preoccupying the minds of North Americans: feminism, civil rights, personal autonomy, class warfare, racism, and religion (to name a few). As Roddenbury himself said, "I have no belief that STAR TREK depicts the actual future, it depicts us, now, things we need to understand about that."
In honour of Star Trek's 50th anniversary today, we're taking a look back at 5 ways the show challenged the status quo.
It's number one for a reason.
Today we watch that clip and think, "So?" But in the 1960s, racism was still very much acceptable. Often cited as the first televised interracial kiss, the lip-lock between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura remains one of tv's most important moments.
Besides being part of one of tv's most famous interracial kisses, Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura) was breaking all kinds of conventions. In a time when television rarely showcased women of colour at all (never mind in a prominent role) Star Trek's Lt. Uhura was powerfully leading communications on the Enterprise.
It's hard to imagine Star Trek without the vivacious George Takei. But under another producer, the role would likely have been filled by a Caucasian. Roddenbury pushed the boundaries by choosing a Japanese-American actor instead. Lucky for us, because George Takei fits the role perfectly. Can you tell we're fans? Join us at the Dark Sky Festival on October 21 to see Takei speak live and you'll understand why.
In the world of Star Trek, humanity is united, and there are no issues of race relations. In expertly crafted satire, Star Trek exposes Western prejudices by using Mr. Spock as a metaphor. Spock is often mocked by characters on the show for his Vulcan heritage (usually by Dr. McCoy) and in the clip above we realize his mother is actually human. In a time when biracial children were ostracized, Spock was a clever representation of this marginalized group.
Star Trek often provided social commentary on the ethics of war and peace. None was so obvious as "A Private Little War" (aired February 2, 1968), which was a metaphor for the Vietnam War. While the episode doesn't make a strong statement on whether the war is just or not, it allows viewers to come to their own conclusions.