Friday, May 08, 2009

Star Trek's view of the future

If you didn't live in the 1960s then it is hard to imagine the impact of the space race. When Star Trek premiered in 1966, we had gone from sub-orbital space flights to reaching for the moon in five years. It seemed obvious that this rush to space would continue. Star Trek offered an optimistic view of the future. Just as technology had progressed over the last couple of centuries, it would continue to progress. The world of star Trek was the world of the 1960s advanced into the future.

First, there was Star Fleet. Like the modern (in 1966) Navy, some of the most important ships were years or decades old. The name the Enterprise was a nod at the nuclear aircraft carrier, one of the most advanced and powerful ships ever built.

In 1966, the United Nations was a lot newer and there was a lot more optimism about it. It seemed like an obvious progression - individual states to United States to United Nations to a Federation of Planets. Star Fleet and the Federation of Planets seemed like the United States and/or the UN writ on an interplanetary scale. Unfortunately the Cold War still existed too with the Klingons and Romulans standing in for the USSR and China.

In 1966 we had American exceptionalism. In Star Trek we had Human exceptionalism. Every few months some ancient, wise alien would tell us that we were better than other species, especially Klingons.

Most people discovered the show after it was cancelled. It got poor ratings but it was popular in syndication. By the  early 1970s, it was the most-watched program in the country, possibly the world. One of its attractions was its 1960s optimism. In-between we had constant predictions of environmental meltdowns that make the global warming forecasts seem like happy talk. A future in which humanity not only survived but prospered had a lot of appeal.

Strangely, a lot of the sophisticated technology was done for budgetary reasons. It was cheaper to teleport people than to put them on a shuttle craft. Space suits were also expensive and hard to move in so only a couple of episodes required them. Warp drive was a necessity in order to drive the plot.

I've seen several rundowns of the show's technology and how modern technology has advanced to match it but there is one piece that no one even mentions - the doors. In 1966, the only automatic doors had pressure pads in the floor. The doors in Star Trek had stage hands opening them off-screen (the blooper reel shows them not opening). Doors that use sonic motion detectors are so common today that no one even thinks about them.

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