Today is the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Star Trek, which is a good time to ask a basic question: What is Star Trek?
As humans, we haven’t even been able to venture beyond our own moon in our hundreds of thousands of years of existence. Our human brains are limited- there are sounds that we can’t hear, colors we can’t see, sensations we can’t feel, flavors we can’t taste. We experience a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the universe exists beyond our ability to perceive it fully. There are phenomena and planets and exotic matter that we simply cannot comprehend. We’ll never reach the other side of the universe; it’s too vast, too dangerous.
But it’s okay that we can’t see the other side of our universe, because we can imagine it. The greatest gift we have as humans, next to our capacity to love, is the ability to use our brains to create realities which don’t exist. We create and share meaning with each other based on the scribbles we see on a sheet of paper or the arrangement of sounds and colors. We can tell stories about what we think is under the poisonous clouds of Venus, or at the crushing center of a black hole. In some ways, our ability to make up the answer to our questions is more important than knowing the answer. The universe is a giant canvass which we can fill in with our imaginations.
Star Trek is our most noble attempt to paint that canvass. It is the realization of the greatest human drive- to push ourselves further than we thought possible. The Enterprise brought humanity into the heavens- not just white men, but women and people of color too. Star Trek is a successful attempt to represent the best of us. It isn’t perfect, and it hasn’t given voice to everyone yet. But it strives, it reaches; it lights the fire of imagination by suggesting that when we come together and value people in spite of their differences, we can actually reach the stars. It imagines both the wonders of the universe and the wonders of humanity.
Star Trek didn’t just light my imagination though. It set it ablaze. I wrote hundreds of pages of Star Trek fanfiction when I was a kid. My stories were heavily influenced by Deep Space Nine, my favorite of the Star Trek series. I was the captain of the USS Defiant, and Worf and Dax and Chief O’Brien carried out my orders as we battled enemy fleets and protected the Federation. I wrote the stories on my school issued laptop computer at first. After I’d written long chapters of my stories, the computers were collected at the end of the school year and their hard drives were formatted. I was devastated, but I wouldn’t be deterred. I began carrying around a notebook and a pen with me at all times, and as the stories stretched across weeks and months, my progress was marked by abruptly switching the color of my pen in the middle of a tale. Black, blue, even green and purple ink- whatever pen I could get my hands on was the one I used to continue my adventures.
At the time, I didn’t realize I was writing fanfiction. It was just something I loved doing. I wanted to be in that world, exploring the galaxy and battling the Dominion. Star Trek had been a part of me since I was five years old, when I watched the final seasons of The Next Generation. Picard was cool, but Star Trek became my religion when Deep Space Nine premiered. I called my favorite chair in the house my captain’s chair; I would make cardboard versions of the Defiant out of greasy pizza boxes, because the stains from the grease in the cardboard simulated battle damage. I bought every Star Trek toy I could, pleading with my grandfather to give me $30 to get the Romulan warbird that lit up. I dreamed of one day being beamed away from my life and onto a starship, to live out my life in space.
Deep Space Nine remains my favorite Star Trek series to this day. When I was younger, I liked it because I enjoyed the Dominion War and watching ships blow up. I didn’t appreciate how important the main character, Captain Benjamin Sisko, was to me until I tried to write fantasy for the first time in college. I had elaborate ideas about warring nations and magical swords, and all of my characters were white. It was impossible for me to conceptualize a nonwhite character in a fantasy setting. I could imagine dragons soaring through the sky, but I couldn’t imagine a black person as the hero of the story I wanted to tell.
That’s one of the many reasons that representation matters. As a child, I never consciously thought about how awesome it was that Sisko was black, or how detrimental it was that all of my exposure to fantasy was through white characters. But when the time came for me to creatively contribute to the world, those subliminal messages poured out of me. It felt natural for me to be the captain of a starship, because of course I could be. Ben Sisko was the hero that I grew up with, the hero that I rushed home to see on Saturday afternoons. I could be Ben Sisko, and in my stories, I WAS Ben Sisko. The opposite was true for fantasy stories. There was no one who looked like me in the stories I read and the television I saw. It felt wrong, I mean actually physically uncomfortable, when I tried to make a black character in fantasy. That wasn’t what I knew. There was a long process of grappling with internalized racism and feelings of inferiority when I tried to write fantasy. Star Trek spared me of that, and showed me that I could travel the stars as a black person.
What is Star Trek? It is imagination put to film. It is the spirit of Gene Roddenberry, the belief that humanity can be better than it is today. That spirit has motivated the writers and showrunners who carried forward his vision through the years until today. We’ve had a black captain, a woman captain, and soon, we’re going to get our first woman of color as the protagonist of a series. That matters too, and I hope that it’s a black woman so that black girls growing up today can feel the same way I felt when I saw Captain Sisko in Deep Space Nine. Of course, how I feel about Benjamin Sisko is not unique to me. Whoopi Goldberg cites Nichelle Nichols and her character Uhura as a major influence in her life. Visit Tumblr or any Star Trek fan site and you’ll see the stories of women who were inspired by Captain Kathryn Janeway to study math and science. Star Trek has encouraged so many people to believe in themselves and their hopes. That might sound corny, but it’s also completely true.
Star Trek, you are the dreamer, and the dream. Thank you for fifty years of the final frontier.