Friday, August 07, 2009

Star Trek: Moral Compass Or Dog & Pony Show In Space?

Recently, the topic came up on TrekBBS, "Star Trek was my moral compass growing up- was it yours?" The responses were rather fascinating. Some agreed wholeheartedly with the statement, others were dismayed at the very concept of a cheesy sci-fi show being anybody's moral compass.

Apparently, a lot of how you answer this question depends on when you first saw TOS and how old you were at the time. If you were an adolescent when the show ran on NBC, you were already well on the road to being the curmudgeons you are now and probably fall into the group that views Star Trek as a better-than-average bit of entertainment, but not much more.

I, on the other hand, was 2 1/2 when the show premiered and not quite 5 when it was cancelled. When my dad watched it on NBC, I was little more than a toddler, and while I do have some memories from those years, watching Star Trek on NBC is not among them. Yet, I knew of the show and knew I liked it. When I watched the animated show in '73, even then I knew it wasn't my first exposure to this stuff. It wasn't until the show hit strip syndication in '74 that I was able to sit down and really watch it and understand it.

Now, think for a moment about what the world was like in 1974. The Vietnam War isn't quite completely over, Watergate is just starting to boil over, the Soviet Union is as big a threat as ever, racial issues are still in the forefront, and since this is now after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, things are even more tense than during Star Trek's original run, there are still protests in the streets and hippies running around (I remember many a fire drill at school because some idiot called in a bomb threat), and the space program is still chugging along, even though the momentum is starting to slow down. In other words, not all that different from 1966-69, better in some ways, worse in others.

Factor in the home situation, Dad's at work, sometimes on a business trip somewhere, Mom's working and won't be back for another hour or so by the time I hit the door just before 4, so guess what the only influence in the house is for little ol' ten year old me? A certain starship captain and his half-Vulcan science officer.

In a time where the world is still making noises about going off the deep end, at an age where you're still trying to figure out just what the hell is going on anyway, Star Trek had a profound influence on those of us in that age group. The quaint morality plays weren't yet considered all that quaint at that point in history, at least not by all the eager ten-year olds watching at the time. The messages of racial and sexual equality, of avoiding violence whenever possible, the commentaries on issues that were still as current in '74 as they were in '67, this was pretty heavy stuff, and a helluva lot more engaging than the typical Sunday School lesson (certainly more fun to memorize).

By the time TNG came along, most of the heavy cultural lifting had already been done, the heavy moral issues of TOS were pretty much taken for granted, so it's not really a surprise that those who grew up with Picard and Co. look back at TOS and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Doesn't make me any less likely to smack 'em with a cane and tell 'em to get the hell off my lawn, but it's not surprising.

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