Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Star Trek in Historical Context

With the upcoming release of a new Star Trek movie it might be informative to examine the opus in light of its wider historical context.

As a 1960's television feature Star Trek was, like other shows of its day, a reinterpretation of a movie from several years earlier. Just as Bewitched was based on Bell, Book and Candle (1958), and I Dream of Jeannie took its cue from The Brass Bottle (1964), Star Trek drew its inspiration from 1956's Forbidden Planet (and also from earlier TV shows like Tom Corbett and Space Patrol). That MGM blockbuster dressed the basic story of Shakespeare's The Tempest up in a space opera costume that would be familiar to any fan of the sf books and magazines of the day.

It drew on a set of informal genre conventions going back at least to the 1920's and the days of Hugo Gernsback. The basic elements of this sub-genre are a group of adventurers representing a federation of planets (usually called the United Planets) exploring strange worlds, contacting alien species, and facing down terrible menaces. Typical of these stories were Edmond Hamilton's Interstellar Patrol and Sewell P. Wright's Commander John Hanson series, in which a retired space captain recounts his adventures aboard the spaceship Ertak in the service of the Special Patrol of the Interplanetary Alliance.

These tropes had continued right through to the 1960's recurring in the popular stories of Murray Leinster, Andre Norton, Christopher Anvil, and many others. When Gene Roddenberry brought this sub-genre to the small screen he turned to many of these same professional science fiction writers. Mainstays like Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, Jerome Bixby, Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, and Richard Matheson all penned scripts for the show. Familiar elements from the pages of magazines like Galaxy and Analog found their way onto the TV screen. The starship Enterprise (taking it's name from the space ship in H. Beam Piper's 1963 novel Space Viking) was launched into space in 1966 powered by warpdrive (found in stories such as Harry Harrison's 1960 tale "The Misplaced Battleship") and guided by a Prime Directive that resembled an amplified version of the prohibition against introducing new technology to primitive cultures from L. Sprague DeCamp's classic Rogue Queen (1951). For many science fiction fans it was an opportunity to watch familiar stories enacted on the screen, while viewers unfamiliar with the genre were introduced to a new and exciting world for the first time.

Very soon Star Trek became part of the cultural discourse and came to typify in an immediate and visual way the entire sub-genre from which it had emerged. And its popularity shows no signs of abating, with devoted fans maintaining websites, playing videogames, boardgames, role-playing games (often involving detailed campaigns), attending conventions, and even making their own Star Trek fan films.

So while the milieu from which Star Trek sprang may long remain obscure and even forgotten it continues to touch our imaginations through a show that seems sure to "Live long and prosper."

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