I was approached by the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine to share my thoughts on one of the greatest debates in geek culture- Star Wars versus Star Trek. It was an easy piece for me to write because Star Trek had such a tremendous influence on me as a child. From its technology to its characters to its diversity to its concepts and story-telling, Star Trek had a deep and lasting impact on me.
The opening monologue for Star Trek still gives me goose bumps. As a kid, I remember waiting with breathless anticipation at each episode for what would follow. Although the show is nearly 50 years old and has spawned countless TV spinoffs, movies and books, the original series still holds a special place in the hearts and minds of devotees such as myself. What is it about this iconic science-fiction drama that captivated people like me? Let me try to narrow it down to a few major reasons.
The Technology: No self-proclaimed geek could resist the allure of the futuristic technical advances on display in nearly every Star Trek episode. The list is impressive: faster-than-light space travel, tractor beams, force fields, teleportation, universal translators, tricorders, phasers and androids were just a handful of these wonders.
Some of these devices later became the inspiration for real-life innovations to come—including the desktop computer, voice activation and the cellular flip phone. In many ways, the technology I saw on display in Star Trek was a motivating factor in my decision to pursue an engineering career.
The Characters: Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy. The interaction of this troika was so seamless that at times they almost seemed like a single person (ego, superego and id, if you will). They each were simultaneously archetypical and complex. Kirk was the heroic playboy/cowboy, but he was also a master improvisational strategist who cared deeply for his crew and his ship. McCoy was the angry, but brilliant and supremely talented physician with a heart of gold.
Spock, the stoic and logical alien outsider, is arguably the greatest fictional character ever created (and definitely the greatest alien). Every episode revealed something new and interesting about him. His mother was human? He has to mate every seven years or he’ll die? He has an inner eyelid?
The supporting characters—Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov—all had their moments as well and were fascinating to watch. As Kirk would say, they were the best crew in the fleet.
The Diversity: Speaking of that crew, its diversity was like nothing ever seen before in popular media. The bridge team consisted of an alien, an Asian, a Russian, a Scotsman and an African woman—all with specific expertise and command level responsibilities. For a young black male like myself, the stunning presence of Lt. Uhura was particularly irresistible. Nichelle Nichols became a boyhood crush whose autographed picture still hangs in my office today. Beyond the characters, the episodes themselves also challenged conventional stereotypes and norms. “Plato’s Stepchildren” portrayed the first interracial kiss in the history of television (Kirk and Uhura). In “The Ultimate Computer,” the Federation’s most brilliant computer scientist was a black man. In “Devil in the Dark,” what was thought to be a monstrous and murderous creature was revealed to be a mother merely trying to protect her offspring.
The Concepts: The most compelling aspect of Star Trek was, without a doubt, the stories—the awe they inspired and how they made us think about the human condition. A few personal favorites: “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “Who Mourns for Adonais?” “Return to Tomorrow” and “A Requiem for Methuselah.” These stories used concepts such as alien life, artificial intelligence, immortality and time travel to pose deep philosophical questions: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one? Should advanced cultures aid the development of more primitive ones, or does such well-intended assistance actually do more harm than good? Is there a higher power with a purpose and plan for mankind? Ultimately, what these stories did was illustrate universal human themes like friendship, loyalty, love, sacrifice and our underlying connectedness.
The original Star Trek series consisted of only 79 episodes over three seasons. Rarely has a show of such a relatively brief duration had such a lasting impact on pop culture. However, I, and many others owe that show a great debt. It is what has inspired us “ … to boldly go where no man has gone before.”