Why Star Trek? Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura & Sulu's Endless Appeal, Explained

Entertainment | September 8, 2020

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock in the STAR TREK episode, "A Piece of the Action." Original air date, January 12, 1968. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

Whether you're a Trekkie, Trekker, or just along for the ride with the crew of the USS Enterprise, Gene Roddenberry's vision of a harmonious future has made an impact on you. Decades after its premiere in 1966, Star Trek continues to offer an optimistic look into the future even when it's overrun with Romulans, Tribbles, and Klingons.

Unlike so much of the science fiction of the 20th century, Star Trek is exceedingly idealistic and that's what keeps audiences coming back. With only three seasons and 79 episodes, TOS continues to provide a utopian vision of tomorrow, something that feels all the more important as the current era becomes more volatile.

Star Trek is an optimistic version of the future

source: Paramount Domestic Television

Setting aside red shirts and William Shatner's intriguing use of syllables, the one constant in each episode of Star Trek is the optimism with which its cast goes into every situation. Set in a utopian future where Earth no longer cares about race, gender, or nationality, the series explores contemporary problems through a different alien race nearly every week.

Star Trek offers the possibility of progress. It says that no matter how chaotic life is at the moment that some day humanity will be able to put everything aside and move forward as one group of people. It's rare to see such a hopeful view of the future in a genre that's often filled with gloomy, dystopian prospectives.

Categorizing Star Trek as "feel good TV" may be a bit hyperbolic, but its offer of a future without the chaos of the current era (be it the 1960s or the 2010s) is a welcome addition to any television.

On the Enterprise it's cool to be smart

source: Paramount Domestic Television

Anyone who's ever felt different from the rest of society has a home on the Enterprise. Star Trek doesn't just show a world where cool looking space-people warp off to various planets for a weekly adventure, it shows cool looking space-people who are really good at their jobs. For all their differences the crew of the Enterprise has one thing in common - they're all smart.

It's not just that everyone on the crew is a brainiac, they're not. But they do each possess their own quality of intelligence that helps create a well rounded group of people. Each member of the crew - Captain Kirk, Commander Spock, and on down to security officers - possess qualities that when put together form a nearly perfect machine.

The Original Series and each of its following iterations present a world where people are celebrated for their brilliance regardless of whether they have the emotional intelligence of a Captain Kirk or the technical know how of Scotty, the ship's engineer.

Memorable Characters Make The Show Worth Rewatching

source: Paramount Domestic Television

A TV show is nothing without its characters and Star Trek has them in spades. The diversity on Star Trek was mind boggling for the '60s, an era where social change was spilling into every facet of American life save for television. This is a show where you can see yourself no matter what color or gender you are, but aside from the way the series deals with prejudice and the social upheaval of the era, the characters were just fun to watch.

No matter who you are there's someone in the main cast that you identify with or pump your fist a little when they walk onscreen. Sure, Kirk is the lead of the show but the real magic happens when Doctor McCoy and Mr. Spock are trading barbs, or is that just a personal preference?

Characters who are portrayed by minorities like Sulu and Uhura aren't just onscreen to add diversity to the ensemble, they actually play a part in the series and move the action forward. They have wants, needs, and interior lives. It doesn't sound revolutionary today, but in 1966 this was a cultural breakthrough.

Star Trek looks really cool

source: Paramount Domestic Television

Aesthetics are an important factor for why some shows survive and some disappear. Even if you're not a Trekkie, you know what Star Trek looks like. You can't say the same thing about shows that were coming out around the same time like The Rifleman or That Girl.

The style of Star Trek was integral to the series. There's a look to the show that leaves an impression on the viewer, not just in the sense that you think it looks cool, but in the sense that it builds an entire world that sticks with the audience once the credits roll. The sound of Star Trek puts the audience in a distinctly futuristic world: the hum of the engines, the pinging sound of the bridge, and the ear splitting "red alert" signal all create a distinct aesthetic that was unique then and remains unique now.

The way the Enterprise looks, the phasers, even the teleporter pads all have a kind of minimalist retro-futurism that's remarkable to take in even today. This attention to detail down to the very sound of the show is like a puzzle that begs to be solved with each viewing.

Star Trek's vision of the future is extremely camp

source: Paramount Domestic Television

For all of the diversity in its cast and social and political commentary, the overwhelming camp element of Star Trek is what makes it such an inherently watchable series. Most shows with less than 100 episodes from the early days of television don't manage to penetrate society in the same way that Star Trek has, but the campiness of the series takes the edge off of whatever message the series is sending.

The Original Series shares pieces of genetic makeup with the films of Roger Corman and Adam West's run on Batman. There are bright colors, sassy robots, and green slave women - all elements that keep the series from becoming maudlin. But it's the main cast that really ups the kitsch factor. Everyone on the show is doing something. William Shatner chews up the scenery in every shot in which he appears, and he's only rivaled by Walter Koenig's unhinged take on the Russian accent.

With all of its over the top, dramatic flair, Star Trek was irreverent without becoming a parody of itself, and its inherently kitschy qualities allow the series to explore important themes without being too obvious.

Star Trek allows us to dream

source: Paramount Domestic Television

We can pontificate about the endless appeal of Star Trek all day, but William Shatner has the best response as to why the series continues to endure for more than 50 years after its inception, it allows us to keep our childlike wonder about the unknown. In 2018 he told Parade:

Star Trek is science-fiction, and science-fiction, to a large group of people, is part of the awe and wonder of the universe. We speculate about what’s out there, and since we have no way of knowing, anyone’s speculation is as valid as anybody else’s. But it is of interest to people who look at the stars at night and wonder what’s out there and whether little green men are flying this way. Could we possibly see life? That brings up the question of death and all the stuff that we have no answers for. Science-fiction speculates an answer, and that, I think, is the fascination.

Tags: Leonard Nimoy | Science Fiction | Star Trek | TV In The 1960s | William Shatner

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.