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How Star Trek changed popular culture forever

The creative realm provides us with disciplines that have always had the power to transform or at least helped to shift peoples attitudes into a more modern setting. In “creative”, we mean anything that would come under the banner, be it literature, film, TV, music or art. Without them, the world would, in many ways, still be stuck in the mire of the dark ages. 

If we quickly skim over the disciplines mentioned above, it is easy to pick out one figure or figures who together have helped to aid society’s progression. In literature you could posit a George Orwell, in film Stanley Kubrick, in music The Beatles, and in art Leonardo Da Vinci. These are just the tip of the iceberg. However, all did their part to add something to the western world’s development and to drag us out of the darkness. 

Critically, all have added key things, phrases or themes into the dense canon of popular culture, which without modern western society would seem lacking. What about the realm of TV, you might add? Well, there have been many instances since the advent of television way back when that have added into popular culture. 

If you look back at any of the most popular TV shows, more frequently than not, they would have added into the modern vernacular. Game of ThronesThe SopranosDawson’s CreekThe Wire, you name it, they’ve changed popular culture in some way or another. With a lot of these shows coming via HBO and having their iconic status certified by way of a Simpsons parody, it shows the power of TV. However, there was one show that came along before the aforementioned titles, and one that we would argue has changed popular culture and society more than any other. That would be Star Trek. With legions of devoted fans who ascribe themselves the moniker of ‘Trekkies’, Star Trek‘s impact has been remarkable.

With the ‘Original Series’ first debuting back in 1966, the Star Trek universe is very much alive and kicking today. Many films, spin-off series and other different pieces of merchandise such as books, games and comics have all established a universe that can only really be discussed as a cultural phenomenon.

The ‘Trekkie’ subculture is so widespread that it has even caused a somewhat bitter rivalry with science fiction’s other set of devoted fans, the Star Wars community. However, one would argue that Star Trek‘s impact has even been more extensive than George Lucas’ iconic space opera.

On that premise, the show has actually had a defining impact on the world of modern technology, and without its contributions, popular culture and the contemporary world would not exist in the same way. The extent of this is truly mind-boggling. Owing to the fact that many of its fans are slightly nerdy, it has inspired some of the most critical modern technological feats. These include the handheld mobile phone and the ubiquitous ’90s American brand Palm PDA. Imagine all of our favourite films, TV shows and music videos without the inclusion of the mobile phone. Not possible.

It doesn’t stop there, either. In 2006, Michael Jones, the chief technologist of Google Earth, cited Star Trek‘s classic piece of equipment, ‘The Tricorder’, as an inspiration behind the development of Keyhole/Google Earth’s groundbreaking mapping technology. Furthermore, the iconic line, “Beam me up, Scotty”, which is actually a misquote, has added to the theme of teleportation becoming a familiar plot device across modern films, literature and other TV shows. 

Leonard Nimoy in the role of Spock. (Credit: Desilu Productions/NBC Television)

Without getting too technical, the Star Trek machine ‘The Replicator’ is also credited in some scientific papers as inspiring the minuscule world of diatom nanotechnology, which could become critical to science in the race to save the planet. Another mean feat for what was originally regarded as a zany ’60s show that was advocating communism. Fittingly, NASA has also been influenced by the show. In 1976, following a letter-writing campaign, the American space agency named its prototype space shuttle Enterprise after the show’s iconic spaceship. 

Culturally, the show was incredible. Considering the widespread bigotry of ’60s America and beyond, Star Trek took massive steps in breaking down gender and racial barriers. Not the first TV show by any means to have a multicultural cast, the defiant way in which it did it is made even more iconic in retrospect. 

In the ’60s, when the opinions of the old-world still abounded, the Cold War was in full swing, and the Second World War still lingered fresh in the collective memory, and it was deemed controversial to have an Enterprise crew that featured Japanese and Russian men and a Black female officer. Even Leonard Nimoy’s iconic Vulcan, Spock, was seen as an affront to normal, straight, white, human males. 

Michelle Nichols, who played Nyota Uhura in the classic series, has at numerous times since her exit from the show discussed the effect her character as a strong, black female character had on race relations in the US. One way she has proactively helped to change opinions occurred after she departed the show, opting to campaign against the exclusion of women and people of colour from the US space programme. Surprisingly, NASA reacted positively and asked her to find people for its future Space Shuttle programme, an incredible feat. Nichols brought the first people of colour and women to NASA and was hired by them to do so repeatedly from the late 1970s to the late ’80s.

In 2016, Nichols recounted an experience she had back in the ’60s, which showed the true extent of her character’s impact. She told the Detroit Free Press that when she was attending an NAACP dinner party, the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, told her a fan wanted to meet her. 

She recalled: “I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, ‘Sure.’ I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face. He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that Star Trek was the only show that he, and his wife Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch. (She told King about her plans to leave the series.) I never got to tell him why, because he said, ‘You can’t. You’re part of history.'”

There we have it. Star Trek has undoubtedly been the most groundbreaking TV show of all time, and no other has contributed to popular culture and society as it has. It’s a shame that America’s premier civil rights advocate, Dr. King, wouldn’t live long enough to witness it develop into a true cultural phenomenon and all the technological advancements it brought. 

Watch the Smithsonian discuss Uhura’s radical impact, below.