Star Trek's vision of the future

May 25, 1994

Devoted viewers of television's "Star Trek" series have become accustomed to such sci-fi marvels as "warp drive," "tachyon scans" and -- wonder of wonders! -- the "holodeck," where weary starship crews repair for R&R in virtual-reality vacation hideaways. But this week, after seven seasons on the air, Paramount finally pulled the plug on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the hugely popular spin-off of the original 1960s show.

The first "Star Trek" was yanked after only a couple of seasons, yet has triumphed in re-runs for some 30 years. When "Star Trek: The Next Generation" premiered in 1987, vintage Trekkies pooh-poohed it as a pale imitation of the original. The spin-off hooked them anyway, along with hordes of new devotees.

A few years ago, Paramount unveiled a second spin-off, "Star Trek: Deep Space 9," and next year it will premier still a third take on the original, "Star Trek: Voyager." All this on top of six feature-length movies, a TV cartoon show and a merchandising effort that produces everything from T-shirts to an official "Star Trek" dictionary. There's money in them thar galaxies.

Since "Star Trek" mania has produced a bonanza for Paramount -- the movie, TV spin-offs and merchandising have grossed some $1.3 billion -- it's only natural to wonder what viewers have gotten for their devotion. The answer seems deceptively simple: It is what the late Gene Roddenberry, who created "Star Trek," once called his vision of an "optimistic" future, or at least a tolerable one.

It was a vision inherent in the crew of the original Starship Enterprise, whose cast of characters reflected for the first time on TV America's multicultural heritage as well as the utopian hope that the nations of planet Earth might one day work cooperatively on behalf of a common human destiny.

Today it is difficult to appreciate how unlikely the idea of a black woman astronaut or U.S.-Russian cooperation in space appeared to audiences in the 1960s. Yet the alternative -- racial conflict at home and nuclear war between superpowers -- was so unacceptable that the show ultimately seduced its viewers into accepting the premise that from diversity springs possibilities far too precious to squander in service of bigotry and jingoistic myopia. "Star Trek" depicts in microcosm a future where democratic ideals on which this nation was founded are finally recognized as universal values. Stay tuned for the next installment.

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