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Fifty years ago today, the world woke up on The Day After Star Trek.
At first, it didn't seem different, but five decades on, the world has completely changed because of it. There are few other pop culture phenomena that can claim such a profound effect on society, from the broadest to the finest stroke.
And yes, I am a TREKKIE, not a TREKKER. Trekkers came later, but those of us who started with the original series during the original broadcasts were Trekkies.
It was purely coincidence that I happened to see the premier. I was 5 years old and a huge fan of anything space. At the time, the Gemini program was winding down and the Apollo series winding up. The future was "out there" and anything having to do with space had captured the imaginations of kids like me.
My heroes were astronauts and I had a rather remarkable collection of autographed photos I had obtained through the NASA and Martin-Marietta PR departments. Because of my dad's political position, I had met several of the Mercury Seven and even more of the Gemini/Apollo class, including Neil Armstrong himself.
On Saturday afternoons, after mowing the lawn and attending my chores, I would settle in front of the black-and-white console TeeVee with my cookies and milk for the Saturday sci-fi movie matinee. Back then, all spaceships were pointy-nosed rockets with legs that left smoke trails in outer space. The interiors looked sterile and the characters rarely interacted with any of the machinery. It just worked.
Also popular at the time was a show called Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. It was a sci-fi thriller/drama set aboard a fantastic futuristic submarine. It premiered in 1964, and if you watch it now, you will find the kernel, the primary elements of Star Trek. Trek,though, was the first to combine these elements with outer space, and throw in the unlimited vistas of the Universe. After all, the oceans could only take you in a circle.
On the Thursday night, fifty years ago, something magical happened. My parents had gone out for some event and the babysitter was a dear old woman, nine years older than God. She plunked us down in front of the tube with a bag of M&Ms and by amazing chance we were watching NBC at 7p, when it happened.
First, it was that narration that got my attention: "Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise, it's five-year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. to boldly go where no man has gone before!"
I was instantly riveted. Boldly going into the Universe was what all us kids were dreaming of in those days of the nascent manned space program. But what really got me hooked was the ship.
That ship! This wasn't the same old aerodynamic point cylinder with smoke and flame pouring out of the back. It looked like someone had taken a submarine, stuck a huge radar dish on the front, added a flying saucer, then attached two strange-looking pods on the back. And it moved like lightning!
Immediately, I set about building a model Enterprise out of cardboard, sticks and other items around the house. I whizzed around the house at break-neck speeds, stopping to orbit the occasional planets and exploring my small corner of the Universe, which had just gotten a lot bigger.
Here was a crew of humans and aliens, working together. One of them was even a dreaded Russian! There was a black woman and an Asian, a miracle-working Scotsman, and an irascible country doctor who belonged in The Virginian, except he seemed to know so much about all these weird lifeforms and doubled as a psychiatrist.
And what about all that cool technology?
The doctor had an entire hospital in a box. Phaser pistols that actually looked like they worked. Handheld communicators. Self-opening doors. Wireless smart devices. Warp speed. Talking computers. View screens with 2-way video. And beaming.
It was all so cool and amazing and sparked so many fantasies of traveling the galaxy, making friends with some aliens, fighting others. In fact, there was politics in outer space. There were cities, and wars, and they dealt with all the same problems we were dealing with here at home.
Star Trek was, in fact, a revelation. It made even the amazing Apollo technology and machinery seem ancient. It made the future someplace we all wanted to get to quickly. It all seemed so far away, out there in the 23rd century.
But then it started appearing in daily life. Doors that opened when you approached them. Handheld wireless phones, first just in the house, but then anywhere. Bluetooth devices like the earpieces used by Spock and Uhura. It was coming to life before my eyes. We even have transparent aluminum!
The biggest disappointment for that 5-year-old who grew up on Apollo and Star Trek has been that in the same 50 years, our space exploration has gone nowhere. We send robots to have the adventures that the future once promised us humans. We have government agencies that hide amazing information from us, rather than letting us share the adventure and discovery that we paid for. We have not found a way to end war, but rather new and more lethal ways to wage it. Almost as fast as my generation was seeded with the dream, it was snatched away from us, but for a few trinkets and gee-gaws.
I want the future I was promised as a child!
Star Trek was already in reruns by the time I first saw it in color. I had just graduated high school when the first movie came out. I was in university when The Next Generation premiered and us geeks gathered for drinking games while watching the show. Star Trek has been a part of my entire life. It has always been the dream factory for me, the subconscious background chatter of inspiration.
Yet, for all the iterations, variations and integrations, the original series has been there, never aging, while my body sags and creaks into middle age and beyond. It is a piece of my personal history and the inspiration for a thousand wishes. The world of Star Trek is where I have secretly wanted to live for as long as I could envision a future.