By the time I was old enough to watch Star Trek, it had already been consigned to — and then rescued from — the dustbin of television history. Fifteen years off the air, it had been relegated to syndication while shows like Macgyver saw their ascendancy. There had only been seventy-nine episodes, three seasons in total. Oh, there were the movies, and they were doing well, but even they didn’t start until ten years after the series ended. But then came the sequel.
Arguably, The Next Generation wouldn’t have happened without people going to see the movies — The Motion Picture in 1979, The Wrath of Khan in 1982, The Search for Spock two years after that. But TNG was my first Trek, and for me it’ll always be the best Trek.
I was four years old when “Encounter at Farpoint” aired. It’s one of my earliest memories, truth be told. My father was pretty excited for the new show, having long been a fan of science fiction, and he let me stay up to what must’ve been an ungodly hour (maybe eight pm?) to watch it with him. When the flying saucer attacking Farpoint station — and the station itself! — turned out to be a pair of enormous, spacefaring aliens — well, that was it. I was hooked.
But the one thing that really held the series together for me was the relationship between Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard and John De Lancie’s near-omnipotent Q, a relationship which bracketed the show and reiterated its themes over and over. From the moment humanity was first put on trial in the initial episode, to the revelation in the final episode, “All Good Things,” that the trial had never really ended, Q pushed the crew of the Enterprise to be their most human in the worst of circumstances. As Picard says in that episode, “if we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for what we really are,” and that’s the sentiment the whole series enacts.
The real “Encounter at Farpoint” was with the limits of the human imagination, human compassion, human rationality, and human ability. In every subsequent encounter, every alien met or fought, every situation dealt with to the best of the crew’s abilities, we watched and explored with them as they learned about us, about who we could be. It’s something the Original Series did well, and which every subsequent series and film has aimed for, regardless of how well it succeeded.
Since then, I’ve seen every episode of every Star Trek — yes, even the one with the Rod Stewart-like theme song and Dr. Sam Beckett as the (still time-travelling) captain — and all but the most recent Abramsverse movie. And I can’t help but wait with hope and trepidation for “Discovery” when it airs next year.
It’s been fifty years of Star Trek, and even though I haven’t been around the whole time, I’ve lived all fifty years of it. And because the so-called “trek” isn’t just to the stars, but into humanity itself, there should be plenty of material for the future — maybe even another fifty years.
Happy birthday, Star Trek. Here’s to many more to come.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.