Fifty-four years ago today, a "starship" named the USS Enterprise fulfilled its creator's mission of boldly going where no network series had gone before. "Star Trek" made its debut.
As I noted a few years ago when writing about this groundbreaking program, the suits at NBC were lukewarm about Gene Roddenberry's project and major newspaper television critics seemed to miss the point of the show. Even the great Isaac Asimov quibbled with the science. (Taking aim in TV Guide at both "Star Trek" and "Lost in Space," Asimov complained that "nobody seems to know what a galaxy is.")
"Star Trek" had a devoted following, but was expensive to produce while generating only middling ratings, and was canceled after three seasons. It proved, however, to be that rare Hollywood creation that was perfect for its time -- and also timeless.
In truth, "Star Trek" never really went away: Its re-runs have delighted insomniacs for decades, spinoff shows keep being churned out, and feature movies starring the original cast members grossed somewhere in the vicinity of $11 billion.
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Although the first episode of "Star Trek" debuted Sept. 8, 1966, many of its most memorable features and characters were added as it went along that first season and into the next. The iconic mission statement, for example, didn't come until a November episode when viewers first heard the now-famous opening narration by Capt. James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner:
"Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before."
That phrase "to boldly go" entered the American lexicon. So did others, some of them profound, such as "the prime directive," and others whimsical, like "Beam me up, Scotty" (even though that exact phrase -- like "Elementary, my dear Watson" and "Play it again, Sam" -- were never uttered in the original).
By themselves, such catchphrases might merely be evidence that the show was well-written. But they also quickly became cultural touchstones. Why is that? I can think of three reasons:
First, the show first aired halfway between President Kennedy's assassination and the moon landing he'd committed the United States to achieving. In other words, in the years 1966 to 1969, American's hearts and heads were in the heavens -- in a good way.
Second, "Star Trek" anticipated the future, and viewers sensed it. Those cool communications devices foretold the cellular "flip phone" by decades. It anticipated social progress in even more impressive ways, most conspicuously in the person of Lt. Uhura. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the demographically diverse crew of the USS Enterprise was far ahead of what NASA was doing at that time.
Finally, the show reflected Gene Roddenberry's own irrepressible optimism about the future. This isn't uniquely American, but it is very American, and "Star Trek" depicted it as a universal trait human beings would take with them into the galaxy (sorry, Isaac Asimov) as they interacted -- and even intermarried -- with other species.
Asimov himself came to see this, and pretty quickly. In 1967, he gave an interview to Time magazine in which he said that he spent most of his time writing in his attic. When he needed a break, he relaxed by watching television. His favorite show? "Star Trek."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.