Few would have predicted that September 8, 1966 would mark a defining moment in popular culture, but that is exactly what happened when Gene Roddenberry's television show Star Trek premiered on that day. This program about the Starship Enterprise and her crew would go on to inspire other television programs, add new phrases like "live long and prosper" and "beam me up, Scotty" to everyday English, and also both reflect and impact the broader culture through its stories.
Ironically, the original Star Trek series did not do all that well in the ratings. Although it launched the career of William Shatner, Star Trek lasted only three seasons on first-run broadcasting, probably because it was most unlike anything that ever came before it. Unlike other shows and movies, aliens were not regarded as enemies in every case in this new space drama. The racial diversity of the cast was also notable, including the African-American Lt. Uhura and the Asian Mr. Sulu. Star Trek notably used its cast and stories to address racism, featuring the first interracial kiss on network television (between Uhura and Captain Kirk). Due to the racial turbulence of the mid-1960s, such scenes may have also been a reason for its slow start.
The network cancellation of Star Trek may have spelled the end for Roddenberry's creation at the time, but repeat airings of the show in syndication helped secure its cult following. Over twenty years later, the program would return in a new form and become more popular than ever. In the interim, various movies based on the Star Trek television program kept the series and its stories alive in the popular culture.
Two Foundational Series
The very first Star Trek series of the 1960s has also been the most important. It introduced such concepts as Starfleet, the Prime Directive, the alien Klingons, and much more. Its characters have become known even to those who have never watched Star Trek, and a ton of merchandise including action figures, t-shirts, and more has been created featuring the likenesses of characters like Dr. McCoy, Lt. Chekhov, Captain Kirk, and Mr. Sulu. Star Trek also included a generally humanistic view of human nature and religion, a tradition that would continue on into other series.
The height of the popularity of the Star Trek television franchise thus far was reached between 1987 and 1994 while the show Star Trek: The Next Generation was in first-run syndication. With a format largely the same as the original show, Star Trek: The Next Generation featured the USS Enterprise of a succeeding generation carrying out the directive to search out and learn about new civilizations without altering them. Captain Jean-Luc Picard led a crew including an android named Data and a Klingon, who was part of an alien race that was once the enemy of peace throughout the galaxy. The name of this Klingon was Lt. Worf. Star Trek: The Next Generation received the highest ratings of any Star Trek series ever produced.
Various other Star Trek franchise television series followed Star Trek: The Next Generation, but none of them have had the impact, popularity, or influence of the first two series. Commander and later Captain Benjamin Sisko was the leader on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a program that ran from 1993 through 1997. This show was unlike some of the other programs in that it was centered on a space station and not a starship. Sisko, incidentally, was the first African-American captain in a Star Trek series.
Star Trek: Voyager had its initial run from 1995 through 2001, and it featured a lost starship trying to make its way home from a great distance away. What is most notable about this program is that its Captain Janeway was the first female captain to lead a starship in a Star Trek franchise television program. From 2001 through 2005, Star Trek: Enterprise told the story of the Enterprise starship and its crew in a period that takes place ten years prior to the first Star Trek of the 1960s.
This basic guide to the Star Trek franchise has been designed to help readers get an overall view of the series. Since its stories have been captivating and its characters compelling, there is little doubt that Star Trek television shows, movies, and merchandise will continue to be prominent in the culture for many years to come.