The first STAR TREK television series in more than a decade, STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, premieres on September 24. To celebrate, we here at ComicsVerse are bringing you all things TREK all month long. Today, we contemplate the way that STAR TREK changed the face of science fiction as we know it.

My first true exposure to the STAR TREK universe was J.J. Abrams 2009 film. I had seen episodes of the original series. I knew what a Klingon was, but it wasn’t until I saw this modern remake that I found myself fully invested in the STAR TREK universe. Abrams summed up three decades of lore (television and literature) in one 1.5 hour film. Imagine my surprise, then, when I sat down to watch the original series. Gone were the intense phaser battles and dazzling space races. The quarrels between Spock and James T. Kirk had faded from the screen. For the first time, STAR TREK treated me to a space fare that felt slow, almost introspective.

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STAR TREK has left a legacy on pop culture. While a modern perspective might not fully understand the corniness (and they are quite cornball), the original series helped define a new sect of science fiction. It wasn’t just about dazzling technology or depraved views of a futuristic world a la Huxley or Orwell. STAR TREK represented a tale that spanned an entire universe in pursuit of knowledge, of exploration. Taking a look at 1984 or even the granddaddy STAR WARS, these differing senses of the phrase “science fiction” don’t mesh. STAR TREK, while not necessarily the first of its kind, inspired through its popularity an entire subgenre of the science fiction genre that delved into themes found in both fantasy and grounded science realism. At the end of the day, it provided something that had never existed before, and that drew fans like moths to a flame.

STAR TREK as Science Fantasy

Science Fiction
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Now, many might believe that comparing STAR TREK to the fantasy genre is ludicrous. Obviously the giant space ships that fill the screens signal that this is a science fiction tale. And you would be right. However, something feels lacking in that description. Science fiction doesn’t quite fit the bill. Looking at the STAR TREK television series, something intrinsic separates it from the tropes of other science fiction narratives.

Let’s take a look at STAR WARS, as an example. In the STAR WARS film franchises, the breadth of the universe is fairly well known. Luke Skywalker and the rest of the Rebels understand the finer details of their galaxy far far away. You can see it in the Mos Eisley bar scene in A NEW HOPE, when Luke and Obi-Wan hire Han Solo. Everything there feels commonplace. The human beings of the planet have grown accustomed to being a part of a larger galactic group, to being only a small fraction of the population. The worlds of STAR WARS are incredibly diverse in the species and ways of life, but nobody bats an eye.

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Meanwhile, STAR TREK’s entire purpose is to inspire wonder. The tagline for the series is “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Digging into the lore of the STAR TREK universe, the galactic federation is a scientific enterprise, to observe planets from a distance and only interfere when absolutely necessary. While this still adds the scientific edge to things, to observe and report, this purposefully inspires a sense of discovery, one that I have only felt in the throes of fantasy’s greatest properties.

The Unknowing Observer

Science Fiction
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

There is a concept in fantasy writing known as the unknowing observer. While you have your John Constantines, Gandalfs, Grangers, and your Spocks, there are characters in nearly every fantasy story that is meant to stand in for the reader. These characters typically know very little about the world. There sole purpose is to ask questions about the world, to experience blindly alongside the reader. This typically turns fantasy novels into a genre of discovery, of delving deep into the shadows. Both LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER act as interesting examples as their unknowing observers turn out to be the protagonists.

Neither Frodo Baggins nor Harry Potter knew anything of the magical world they were going to be exploring. They had a strong hand on their back that almost literally pushes them over the cliff’s edge into the dangerous worlds outside of the Shire and Little Whinging. Both of these characters were dogged by their boring, simple lives. They wanted something grander. Neither were content just whiling away their lives in normality. From then on, every page sees them learning something new about the world around them. It is necessary to the plot. Doesn’t do much good fighting Ring Wraiths or Dementors if you don’t know how to fight them.

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In the same way, STAR TREK plays on this unknowing observer trope by basing the entire series around the element. While the crew at large knows quite a bit about the universe at large, they don’t know everything. They are scientists or adventurers that aren’t content with simply exploring Earth. No, they need to escape it. They need to pick up their swords (phasers), take the hand of a wise old elder (Spock), and ride out on their horses (the Enterprise) to find adventure. One of my favorite scenes from the entire franchise comes from the opening of STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS. The crew of the Enterprise is seen running through Nibiru, an alien planet covered in trees with blood red leaves and ancient temples. This scene is filled with the same sense of wonder and awe that defines Harry’s first witness of Diagon Alley or Frodo’s awakening in Rivendell.

Much of this fantasy element personally stems from Tabletop roleplaying games like DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS. As the game master is describing the world, it is the players’ job to ask for specifics. The world becomes fleshed out and real by the very fact of the player experiencing it. In the same way, STAR TREK’s cast knows the basic landscape of the universe at large, but they yearn for the specifics. The same goes for the fans of the series, who see this world and want to live in it. Science fiction, in a way, acts as a sort of solution to a long dealt with problem. Luke joins the Rebellion and defeats Darth Vader, for example. But fantasy’s premise always starts by asking that question. What is this magical mystical world? What secrets does it hold? STAR TREK represents that asking within itself.

STAR TREK as Science “Realism”

science fiction
Courtesy of Paramount Television

Despite these allusions to the fantasy genre, STAR TREK is still most obviously a science fiction narrative. Their technology is millennia more advanced than our own, and their desire to explore the universe stems from a complete knowledge and understanding of their world at large. However, even from this perspective, STAR TREK went leaps and bounds beyond its predecessors in its attention to detail. Not to run the STAR WARS allusions dry, but a certain loveable ridiculousness and faux science-y terminology arises in that universe. When Han Solo says that he completed the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, you can immediately call B.S. because parsecs are a unit of distance. STAR TREK doesn’t make “mistakes” like that in its world. Its goals are fundamentally different.

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STAR TREK arose at a time when the Silver Age of Comics was beginning its death knells. Writers began turning to darker storylines. This was personified in the retirement of Robin, the Boy Wonder, from BATMAN comics as a means to address adult stories. However, the ideals of that period still held tight. The Silver Age of Comics was defined by a scientific zeal inspired by Kennedy’s Space Race. Thanks to the Comics Code Authority, writers felt that comics needed an educational edge. Comics from the early fifties all the way to the late seventies carried hundreds of faux scientific terminology as a means to class up the superhero universe. STAR TREK was born a byproduct of this time period, but from more well-meaning sources.

The writers of the original STAR TREK television series turned to real science to “fund” the realism of their sci-fi world. To make a vast universe believable, the mechanics have to be clear. The scientists on board the Enterprise actually had to sound like they had earned those PhDs. The end goal, then, was to continue that scientific trend. It was to teach viewers that anything was possible as long as you had a zeal for learning. You could one day build an Enterprise of your own if you studied your science and ate your Wheaties. STAR TREK was set apart from its other science fiction counterparts because, at the end of the day, it felt real.

The War of the Worlds 

science fiction
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Prior to STAR TREK, only one science fiction story seems to mimic this inherent binding to true science. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells inspired world-wide fame when, in 1938, a dramatic radio retelling of the story caused the nation to believe that Martians were truly invading Earth. Now, personally, I found it difficult to get past page three of Well’s classic. In the space of those pages, Wells goes into great detail on the shape and function of the cold virus. While quite dry, The War of the Worlds signalled a trend in science fiction that only gained steam when STAR TREK hit the screens.

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Much like my previous point, science fiction is not necessarily about inspiring a sense of wonder or awe. The world at large has already been established for years, and people have accepted it as normal. But in those worlds, they don’t necessarily inspire any sense of scientific ingenuity either. In those worlds, commonplace has become dirty and rusty. BLADE RUNNER saw a world filled with hightech viewing screens but with homeless on every corner. At the heart of many science fiction narratives, there is something deeply wrong about the way science has changed the world. They are warnings to be careful with exploration, and while these messages are important, they can stifle scientific minds.

STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES points at possibility. It uses real science to show that these achievements, these grand designs, can be possible to those willing to work hard enough to get there. Science isn’t a bad thing in this universe. There is no great wrong to fix. Several small wrongs exist, but the crew can fix those with a little bit of brain power in about twenty to thirty minutes. In this way, it steps past H.G. Wells’ icon. It sets itself apart because it uses this real science to inspire, not to dissuade. The Martians in Wells’ world use science as a weapon against humanity, and no matter how well it is understood, it is nature that eventually destroys these creatures. But in STAR TREK, nature and science work together. One drives the other, making scientific thought something to strive toward.

Final Thoughts: STAR TREK: The Series vs. the Films

science Fiction
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

As I said, 2009’s STAR TREK was my first entrance into the franchise, and they are perfectly fine movies. They feel accessible, allowing hesitant viewers like myself to experience the world. But in that accessibility, something is lost. To long time fans saying that these films aren’t worth your time, you are entitled to your opinion. There is nothing mechanically wrong about the films. The cast did a wonderful job portraying their characters, and the film was a wonder of visual artistry. More importantly, it was wholly entertaining. However, I’d argue that it wasn’t wholly STAR TREK. It felt like a STAR WARS offshoot.

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I will be honest here. STAR WARS is my true geeky property, as can be seen in my many allusions to that series. However, STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES does something for the science fiction genre that very little else does. STAR WARS may have popularized nerddom across the globe, but STAR TREK took steps to ensure that viewers felt something. They felt the wonder and awe at discovering a new civilization, of trying to understand their language. They experienced the scientific triumph when the team stopped a sun from exploding with science that, to the laymen, sounded plausible. It didn’t treat its viewers as if they were stupid, but inspired them to aspire to reach for the stars.

2009’s STAR TREK was about spectacle, about high intensity, space-science action. But the original concept for the series had nothing to do with that. While both approaches have definite merit, the STAR TREK television series was the first of its kind to truly embrace the possibilities of science fiction. It did so by teaching its viewers the extents of human possibility. While I will always defend my love for the movies and STAR WARS, we should all be grateful for what the OG STAR TREK did for the science fiction genre.

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