After twelve movies, Star Trek still flying high

To boldly go: The Starship Enterprise is an enduring symbol of humanity's thirst for knowledge.

Star Trek: Into Darkness is in cinemas this week – the latest blockbuster instalment in a story that has been running for half a century. Is Star Trek the greatest sci-fi universe of all time?

Star Trek: Into Darkness, had its premiere last week. The reviews are in. The verdict? It looks like the Star Trek franchise has spawned another blockbuster hit.

The Star Trek story began in 1964, when a former bomber pilot called Gene Roddenberry successfully pitched a new kind of TV series. It would, he explained, be like a Western, but set in outer space. A dramatic voiceover at the beginning of each episode sets the scene: ‘These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.’

The 1960s were years of incredible progress. In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. In 1969, Neil Armstrong would walk on the Moon. Star Trek captured the minds of a generation already thrilled by the promise of a bright technological future.

It was a bright social future too. The crew of the Enterprise were a model of racial harmony. Women and men worked side by side. Amazingly, for a programme made in the middle of the Cold War, there was even a Russian on board.

Network executives were terrified that the show’s progressive politics would scare off viewers, but Star Trek quickly began to gather a cult following. Then, in 1977, a new sci-fi contender appeared on the scene. Star Wars was the opposite of what Star Trek stood for.

Where Star Trek celebrated reason, Star Wars celebrated mysticism. The heroes of Star Trek were scientists, diplomats and explorers. Star Wars was about an order of warrior monks. In Star Trek, humanity is peacefully united by a sort of galactic UN. In Star Wars, it is divided between a tyrannical empire and a warlike rebel alliance. This was a very different vision of life on the ‘final frontier’.

The rivalry between the two franchises has been going ever since. Each has now spawned dozens of books and games, thousands of toys and collectible figures, millions of words of adoring ‘fan fiction’. And neither franchise shows any sign of slowing down. The director of the latest Star Trek film, JJ Abrams, has recently been hired to make a brand new film for Star Wars.

Follow your star

Once again, the two great franchises will compete for the sci-fi crown – and for the world’s box office dollars. Star Wars fans will arrive in their millions, drawn into a world of Jedi Knights, malevolent Sith Lords, unscrupulous bounty hunters, battle droids, gangsters, star destroyers and space battles.

But true ‘Trekkies’ believe that their franchise has something special that Star Wars does not: an optimistic belief in the best side of human civilisation – that humans really could one day live long and prosper among the stars.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather be a Jedi Knight, or an officer on the Starship Enterprise?
  2. If humans ever meet aliens, will we meet in peace or in war?

Activities

  1. If humanity could build one space exploration ship and send it off to map uncharted planets, what should the ship be called? Write down your best idea in secret, then share with the class. You could vote to choose a winner.
  2. Science-fiction franchises are often inspired by history. Choose a period of history, then write a sci-fi short story, transposing the spirit of your chosen period into a space saga.

Some People Say...

“Humans will destroy each other before they ever reach the stars.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Science fiction is for nerds.
You could say that I suppose. Remember though, some of the ‘nerds’ of today are the scientists and engineers of tomorrow. That makes science fiction more important than you might think.
Oh really?
Yes. Like everyone else, scientists are often driven by what they think is exciting, or ‘cool’. That often comes from watching sci-fi. Generations ofStar Trek-inspired scientists have poured thousands of hours into trying to recreate the technologies they saw on screen.
Any success?
Mixed. Teleportation, time travel and space exploration are still way behind sci-fi. But we do now have devices like the oldStar Trek communicators, which people used to marvel at: mobile phones.

Word Watch

Western
The ‘Western’ genre in films and novels describes stories set in the wild lands of the American West, a frontier setting where central authority was weak, allowing individuals to settle their own scores in suitably dramatic fashion. Star Trek was to be a set of stories taking place on ‘the final frontier’ – the lawless expanse of outer space.
To boldly go
This phrase from the Star Trek intro sequence is famous as an example of the split infinitive, where the infinitive (’to go’) is split by an adverb (’boldly’). Strict grammarians regard the split infinitive as incorrect in proper English, although the rule is not much followed today.
Racial harmony
Star Trek is famous for having shown the first ever interracial kiss on American TV, an event that caused significant controversy at the time.
Trekkies
Star Trek fans are famously devoted. Some have gone so far as to learn the language of the series’ fictional alien antagonists, the Klingons. There have even been Klingon wedding ceremonies, conducted in full Starfleet regalia.

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