So "Star Trek" has been around for half a century.
What if we're celebrating just because boomers grew up with it, and anything the boomers loved as kids has to be celebrated as the apex of human civilization? A space-opera melodrama is one thing, but when you add occasional flashes of social relevance to "Buck Rogers," you get the sort of thing the boomers would congratulate themselves for liking.
What if you pointed out that the progressive topics the original show covered were handled with superficial skill? Oh, this planet is split by two competing political and economic agendas — just like us! Whoa. Here's an episode in which humans don't understand something strange, but eventually come to respect it! The show even features one of TV's first interracial kisses? That's brave, even if Kirk and Uhura were forced.
What if it's really one of the most overrated TV series in the history of the medium?
Well, it's not.
It was a great show. (Mostly.) The sequel series were great. (Mostly.) The movies were great. (Well, except "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.") You can say that its cultural impact is overestimated, but when you saw "Kirk and Uhura" above, there's a 92 percent chance you recognized the names. And even if you weren't a fan, if I cocked an eyebrow and said, "A 91.742 chance, to be precise," you'd know I was impersonating Spock.
So yes, "Star Trek" turning 50 matters. And, yes, it's important. Cultural historians will pay more attention to "Star Trek" than "Star Wars," simply because the latter is a space opera, and the former is a space opera that reflected the eras it inhabited.
But if "Star Trek" made explicit, constant references to the parallels in our time, the episodes would be dated and unwatchable today. The franchise succeeded because it reflected the zeitgeist, dressed it up in different garments, added monsters and space battles, and came up with something that assured us that our current troubles, whatever they might be, won't be the end of the story. Human nature won't change, but our stock of wisdom will be greater. We'll get it right next time. We'll win, and we'll deserve it.
That's the takeaway from "Star Trek," but it's just part of the story. We watched "Star Trek" because it's fun. It's exciting. We love the characters, and there are so many to love.
When the big 50th anniversary convention rolls into town on Aug. 12, the roster of actors attending shows you how many stories the series has told over five decades. If you're watching a movie from the 1940s, say, "The Blue Dahlia," and that one guy looks familiar, it's because he was Bela Okmyx on "A Piece of the Action." If you're listening to a voice in a "Voyager" and think, "Have I heard him before?" check imdb.com and you'll learn it's Parley Baer, the original Chester on the '50s radio version of "Gunsmoke." Heck, even Christian Slater has a cameo in the sixth movie. While we remember the stars made famous in the series, "Star Trek" also was a résumé helper, throwing roles large and small to a vast, underutilized pool of Hollywood talent.
When "Star Trek" first went off the air in 1969, fans were disconsolate. If someone had said, "Hey, I'll bet there will be four more shows with a combined span of 25 years' worth of seasons. And when the 50th anniversary rolls around, they'll be teasing the fifth show around the same time the 13th movie comes out." Well, fans would have said, "What planet are you from?"
Earth, of course. As "Star Trek" shows us, it's a pretty good place. But, in the end, it's not enough. You have to explore. If we do the whole "boldly going" thing, it'll be nothing like "Star Trek." But it'll be due, in part, to a half-century of urging from a show that made more than TV history: It made scientists and astronauts of its fans.
NASA is working on a warp drive, you know. If it works, there's no question what they'll have to call the ship. Your grandkids may grow up with "Star Trek," like you did. In fact, they may be on hand to watch the Enterprise finally take flight.