Star Trek: how sci-fi predicted the future

Beam me up: From the left — Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine.

It has been half a century since the USS Enterprise first took flight. Since then, Star Trek has shown that sci-fi can have uncanny predictive powers and fiction can be truer than fact.

September 8th 1966. The United States of America. In the last two weeks, the Beatles have played their final concert, violence has broken out at a civil rights march in Chicago — and NASA has released the first ever photograph of the Earth from the moon’s surface.

At 8:30pm, history is made again: NBC airs the first ever episode of its newest television series. ‘Star Trek, a science fiction opus centering around a mammoth space ship, is so absurd that it is almost entertaining,’ observed one critic.

Fifty years later, it is one of the most popular franchises of all time — at the current count, there are six TV shows and 13 films, all based on pioneering space explorations a few centuries in the future. The original series, set in the 2260s, saw Captain Kirk lead the USS Enterprise through the Milky Way in search of ‘new life and new civilisations’ with the logical Vulcan, Spock, by his side.

The show had a rigorous team of scientific advisers, though a few errors did slip past them. Its alien species were fictional, but the exploding supernovas and mysterious nebulas were based on a genuine knowledge of the stars.

And the show’s technology was amazingly prophetic. The once-futuristic ‘communicators’ appeared as flip phones in 1996, and now seem quaintly old fashioned. Captain Picard’s Personal Access Display Device (PADD) arrived as Apple’s almost identical iPad. Google Glass is yet to take off — but the augmented reality eyepiece looks a lot like Captain Sisko’s Virtual Display Device.

Yet Star Trek is more than a hopeful vision of incredible scientific achievements. It also shows a peaceful, progressive society where planets work together in harmony. It had a diverse cast and American TV’s first interracial kiss. In the Star Trek world, humanity’s habit of violence and oppression was replaced with an insatiable thirst for discovery.

Should we believe in this optimistic vision of United Earth’s future?

Live long and prosper

Of course, say Trekkies! As the Borg would say, ‘resistance is futile’. Star Trek managed to predict trends in technology, and we are already ahead of schedule when it comes to exploring the galaxies — all we really need are warp drives and teleportation. So why not believe that we are also making our way towards a more peaceful, equal society down on Earth?

Ha! Science is the easy part, say pessimists. It is far harder to stop people killing each other than it is to boldly go where no man has gone before. The 1960s was a time of idealism. But in a world of terrorism, climate change and Donald Trump, the rosy-eyed politics of Star Trek looks increasingly dated. Our modern dystopian sci-fi is far more likely to be accurate.

You Decide

  1. Is Star Trek the best science fiction franchise of all time?
  2. Do you think that Earth will one day see the peaceful, egalitarian society of the Star Trek universe?

Activities

  1. Choose a piece of technology from your favourite science fiction story. Then research how it could be — or has been — achieved in real life. Present your findings to the class.
  2. Among its many achievements, Star Trek is also credited with inspiring the first fan fiction. Write your own story about Kirk, Spock and the USS Enterprise to mark their anniversary.

Some People Say...

“What we leave behind is not as important as how we have lived.”

Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek

What do you think?

Q & A

Um, Star Trek is clearly fictional — why would it come true?
Of course it wouldn’t come true exactly. But the stories we tell reflect the society we live in now, even if they are set in the future. In this case, that meant a hopeful worldview which prized knowledge and cooperation far above money and war. Does that ideal still reflect our priorities 50 years on?
I have never watched it. Where should I start?
The current films will be an easy and accessible way to get to know the universe, with the added bonus of stunning special effects. But to really understand the heart of the show, watch the original two series, which give a fascinating glimpse of the hopes and anxieties of 1960s America. For example, the episode ‘A Private Little War’ is an allegory for US involvement in Vietnam.

Word Watch

Photograph
This blurry black and white shot was taken by the Lunar Orbiter I space craft which circled the moon between August and October 1966.
Errors
For example: space is a vacuum, so that once a starship is moving at a certain speed, it continues at that speed indefinitely. If its engines explode, it will not slow down like a car would. Star Trek IV ignored this.
Supernovas
A supernova is one of the final phases of a star’s life, when it explodes spectacularly. Star Trek ships would occasionally have to outrun such events.
Nebulas
A nebula is a cloud of gas and dust in outer space, often used by Star Trek crews as places to hide during conflict.
Augmented reality
Layering digital information on top your natural vision.
Diverse cast
Men and women of all races worked alongside each other, including Uhura (a black woman), Sulu (an Asian man), and Chekov (a Russian — a bold choice during the Cold War).
Warp drives
Technology which bends the space-time continuum to help ships travel faster than light.
Teleportation
As far as we know, ‘transporters’ (beam me up!) are still impossible.

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