To explore Strange New Worlds. To seek out life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before. Coming from the early 1960’s, these words still inspire many of us today, I certainly still get a chill when I think on their meaning.
I have a love for the original series that is very different than other television series that I care about, which is something I want to unravel today. For this episode, I want to break down what I see are five really important ideals from Star Trek that we can use as creative artists today. This is the first time I’m doing a deep dive like this into a show, so I’m excited to talk about this today.
I’ve been rewatching the Original Series to get ready for this. It has been a huge nostalgia trip for me, even though I only first saw the original series a few years ago. Despite its age, there are some episodes that are still relevant and engaging. Episodes that are still some of the best in the whole Star Trek cannon. Keep in mind that this series has launched to date: 8 other television shows, with a 9th on the way. 3 of which Discovery, Picard and Lower Decks are currently being made today. There are also 13 feature length movies and I’m not even going to get into all of the video games, books, conferences, merchandise, etc. etc. etc.
While there is a lot of material here, the focus of today is very specifically going to be focused on The Original Series, made in the late 1960’s.
So of my favorite science fiction stories come from TOS. The Corbomite Maneuver , The Menagerie, Miri, and City on the Edge of Forever are some of those special episodes that make just capture my imagination.
And let’s not forget the music, which has some amazing cues and really fun orchestral writing.
Usually talking about plot points and the music would be my bread and butter. But I really want to focus on what we can learn from TOS in the practice of being creative.
So if you haven’t seen it, that’s okay. SPOILER ALERT I’m doing a very broad overview of this show and how it relates to what we do as creators today. I definitely recommend checking it out, especially if you like older movies and television.
PART I: Seeing the limits of our reality
Star Trek, like everything else that is made, is a product of its time. Even though it is set in the future, a future where technology has advanced, we are still seeing the future through the lens of the 1960’s. This version of the future where humanity has broken away from earth, flies through the stars in spaceships with technology beyond our means even today in 2021, is still just that. A version of the future. A projection of the future. A future wholly defined by the time it was made in. One of the things I love about Star Trek is that there is a supreme optimism of our humanity and our future. This vision of the future is encouraging and hopeful. Yet ultimately, what we are seeing Star Trek is the future, but through the eyes of the 1960’s. And this can be good and bad.
Let’s take a look at the idea of technology in our stories.
There is a lot to be excited about in the original series. The Enterprise (that’s the name of ship) is capable of traveling at incredibly fast speeds through space, something that is simply beyond what we are capable of today. Crew members are able to beam themselves down on to planets they visit through the use of a transporter. This breaks a person or thing down to the molecular level and sends the data to the desired location where they are reassembled by the transporter. (This is actually a pretty terrifying idea, even though it is convenient, it opens the debate of does the machine kill you?
The communication device is pretty savvy, though it works less like a cell phone and more of a walkie-talkie, but over great distances. The phasers are far more advanced than guns and can be used to stun an enemy. The Tri-chorder is a mini computer to collect data on various subjects. So far, we are checking off a lot of helpful technology that can make our science fiction stories pretty juicy. Nothing that I’ve brought up so far was really truly possible in the 60’s and certainly not today, (with the exception of the communicator). Which actually leads to me to my next point.
To us in the 21st century, we are surrounded touch screens and smartphones. Laptops, desktops, tablets, social media, texts, email, apps.
Keep in mind that an Apple iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy made this year would, if taken back to the 60’s, be the most powerful computing device on the surface of the planet. The thing in your pocket, thing you are using to listen to this episode right now? Yup, more powerful than any other computer on Earth at that time. And we see our reflection connected in the way the technology our imagined future technology has changed.
When we think of the future, it is easy to imagine the things that we can’t fathom actually happening today. The flying car for instance It is kind of comical now to look at Back to the Future 2, which is set isn the year 2015. There are flying cars, highways in the sky and hoverboards instead of skateboards.
In the 80’s it probably made little sense to be excited about what the future of the phone would be. Phones at that time were not mobile and they were not small, they only had one focus. To make calls. Today, our phones have many purposes: they take pictures, videos, we share those to social media, we send messages, we can send money, we have an interactive map in our phone that tells us where to go, we can listen to music, we can watch videos and tv, we can SEE our loved ones, not just hear them, we can play games, and it can a flashlight.
That was simply an inconceivable idea if you asked someone back then, not to mention going back even farther to the 60’s, where technology wasn’t even close to what was available in the 80’s, a mere 20 years later.
In the 60’s it made sense for a starship to have lots of flashing buttons and to have important documents printed out. The color design of the uniforms are big bright colors, red, yellow, and light blue. The status of each rank is shown through the color of your shirt. Bold and in your face. Just like the design of the bridge of the Enterprise, bright basic colors. Now, of course, part of this is to create a set that feels alive and the buttons and the flashing lights help give it that aura. It is all very physical in that regard. Where, if we jump all the way to the current day, the screen itself has become far more important, where we can just reach out and touch it, We can draw, create, type, stretch shrink, you name it. It is all possible on the touchscreen.
But that was very much out of sight for 1960’s Star Trek. Now, I want to be clear, I’m not criticizing the show for not figuring out that smartphones would be a thing. Not at all! But isn’t it interesting that we can imagine spaceships and lasers, transporters and aliens, but a phone that works without a cable is missed.
So what does this mean for us? Why am I talking about flying cars, smartphones and Star Trek.
I think there is a greater notion here that can be missed.
Two things. 1, Our Art is a platform for the future. And 2, we can be limited in our reality. In other words, we can’t see all of the possibilities of what will happen, only part of it.
There is only so much that we can see into the future, be it thinking about the art that we want to make or the career that we want to have. And even more practically, envisioning the types of technology that we will be able to interface with that can change what we are able to do and how we work.
We simply cannot know what will be possible tomorrow that is impossible today.
Regardless of this, we can still project a vision or hope for the future that has the power to bring us closer to the world we want to live in.
And we can show the world this through what we make. And this is true in visual art, in filmmaking, in game development, in music, theater. Even in business.
One of the things that Star Trek does remarkably well (especially considering the time it was made in) is upholding its commitment to racial diversity. Nyota Uhura is one of the greatest examples of this, being one of the very first African American actors to not be placed in a menial role or background role. She contributes to each story and isn’t just a side character. In fact she is the 4th highest ranking officer on the Bridge. Helmsman Hikaru Sulu is Japanese. Chekhov was a Russian character who served as navigator, which was a risky pick, especially considering during the 60’s , the US was isn the Cold War with the USSR, and humanizing a Russian was a risky move to say the least.
One of the greatest and revered characters, the villain Khan Noonien Singh is portrayed by Mexican actor, Ricardo Montalban. who truthfully steals the show despite only appearing in a single episode of the original series and having a major role Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is widely believed to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest Star Trek feature film to date.
In the unaired pilot The Cage, Number One, who is the First Officer (or second in command of the crew) is a smart and powerful woman. She is second in command to Captain Pike. When they first showed the The Cage to film executives, they rejected the pilot partially because they were uncomfortable with a woman serving in a leadership role. Something that was an unfortunate part of the that time. This particular character is having a bit of a renaissance as the newest Trek show will feature Number One as a lead character in ST SNW
And even outside of the main characters of TOS, there are some interesting background characters.
In the episode, The Alternative Factor, a Lieutenant Masters is in charge of engineering. She is the only other black woman, and serves as a substitute Chief Engineer when Scotty (the regular engineer is busy) She is a lieutenant who is command an unnamed Ensign, who is a White Man, how she gives orders to, which remember this is 1967, is a RARE thing to say the least.
The Ugandan Doctor M’Benga, served as a Chief Medical Officer when the main Medical Officer Bones, was unavailable. He almost was a main character in a Trek spinoff that never came to be that would have focused on the Medical wing. (A black lead as doctor in the 60’s??)
This is a great example of seeing beyond your present. It could have been very easy in 1960 for Gene Roddenberry to have not worried about diversity, to take the easy road, only use white actors and avoid the emotional labor of dealing with a very real problem. But, instead he chose to deal with this problem THROUGH the work of creating this show. The show’s vision of the future is not defined by the present it was made in, but by the future it seeks to create!
It could be easy to watch this and not appreciate all of the the subtle but important choices being made.
This leads me to the next part of our deep dive:
When we create, be it a show, a play or a piece of music, we have the opportunity to infuse our beliefs. That what is core to our identity is naturally a part of the work that we create. It can be subtle or it can be overt, but I think it is pretty easy to see one’s personality in their work.
This can manifest in many different ways, from the genres we choose to create in, to the decisions we make in our storytelling. Which voices we amplify, which perspectives we return to.
Our work is a microphone for our beliefs. To that end, the content that you wish you could consume, is the content you need to make. While others may articulate what they want to see, only you can bring your vision/project/beliefs to life with your work.
If we look at Star Trek, even after a few episodes we can see the beliefs on display. The future of humanity is a positive one, it is one of teamwork, it is one of scientific exploration, it is one of diversity, it seeks to show humanity in the brightest light possible, to show us what is possible and give us an idea of the future that we want to have. And for that it is beautiful.
But so can your work! Now look, I’m not saying you need to super charge your creations with your politics and join the noise. What I am saying is that it is worth really thinking about what you WISH you could see more of in the world and then realize that THAT is what you should make! And it doesn’t have to be anything huge. A blog, a song, a story. Anything can make a difference.
If you look at any great artist, be it an author, or a filmmaker, or a composer. If you look close enough, you can see more than what is just the art happening before. You can start to see the DNA of the artist INSIDE the work.
Artist’s work change as the grow and create more, but there are ( I think anyway) fundamental signs of an artist (the DNA) that just sticks throughout time.
Igor Stravinsky, famed Russian composer, who shocked the world with the premiere of his ballet The Rite Of Spring, which you might recognize part of if you have ever seen Fantasia. Stravinsky has three periods of artistic creation, with different overriding techniques that he uses to create his music. Despite having an early nationalistic period, and then being the dean of neoclassicism in music, to then finally breaking ranks writing in the dreaded twelve tone technique at the end of his career, there is still something in all of his works that sounds like Stravinsky. (Don’t worry, I’m going to elaborate on this in a future episode with examples.).
I see the same thing with Miles Davis, who is one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time. He starts out playing Bebop, a fast, virtuosic form of jazz, before leaning into Cool Jazz, with music in a completely different vein. During that time he made Kind of Blue, one of the most revered albums of jazz of all time. But, after this Davis switches it all up and leans into the newer electric instruments and starts dabbling in fusion. But despite all of this, Miles still sounds like Miles.
So it is worth thinking about what are the things you believe in and how do they appear in your art? When you consume art in your field, what is it exactly that resonates with you? And be specific. Every detail that is important to you matters. And you might not be able to articulate at first. That’s okay. Wrestle with it!
And then it is worth thinking about how what you believe, fits in your art. (And again, I’m not saying change everything and make it overt, if anything I’m saying the opposite).
For me in the podcast world, there are certain things that really resonate and speak to me. And I’ve learned from them and I try to use them in a positive way.
I love how speaking in second -person feels to me. I love when shows get really intimate and vulnerable and talk about something that is important, like leadership or doing creative work. I like shows where someone speaks directly to me: like Seth Godin’s Akimbo, or when Brene Brown gives her specific thoughts on issues.
I know that resonates with me, therefore that is form I want to be involved in.
In music, I love storytelling. I love hearing how themes grow and change during a story, how they represent characters. I love hearing little musical ideas evolve into huge pieces of music. So this understanding helps guide me in how I create and what kind of audience I want to serve.
Gene Roddenberry’s belief in the future of humanity was one of positivity, on of diversity, and one of cooperation. We don’t know this because he just outright said, he SHOWED us this through the storytelling, through the casting, through the little decisions. Not all microphones are connected to loudspeakers.
The content you wish to see is the content you should make. The film you want to see is the film you should make. The music you want to hear is the music you should write. Whatever discipline you re in, bring what you care about to it, even if it doesn’t find the popular style. Especially when it doesn’t fit the trends of the day.
Our work is a microphone for our beliefs.
But as we are creating our work, there is another ideal I want to think about:
When we are creative people, filmmakers, painters or even entrepreneurs, we are often times creating opportunities for others (even though we may not think about it that way.)
To me, writing a brass quintet is a lot of fun and is an opportunity to express myself and my beliefs as a composer. But to trumpet player, a brass quintet is many things. A community, a space to perform, and a place to show the world and their audience their skills.
A role we write for our TV series is brought to life by the actor and director.
And who gets to perform in whatever capacity is vital and important to the success of the work.
In this way, creators can often be GATEKEEPERS. Now often we think about Gatekeepers as these Iron-clad, brick and mortar people who have the crucial access to the things we need, like funding in our field, creative opportunities and access to resources. Letters of recommendation, application requirement, application fees.
GATEKEEPERS have a lot of names.
But when I m talking about us creatives as GATEKEEPERS, what I mean to do is bring to light the idea of the power that we have in OUR hands.
Who we pick and who include in our art is important. Who include and who we exclude is important, because you never know what a role you’ve made will mean to someone or to the community it is associated with.
Nothing hits this point harder for me than the story of Uhura. I had mentioned earlier in the show that Uhura is a significant character in Star Trek because she is the only woman on the bridge crew, and she is the only black main character.
Keep in mind the time isn which this is occurring, late 1960’s, so this is significant.
At the end of the first season, Nichelle Nichols, the actor who portrays Uhura, made the decision to leave Star Trek. She spoke with Gene Roddenberry, who of course was not pleased with her decision, but it is her decision to make. He told her to take the weekend and think on it.
That weekend she did a fundraiser for the NAACP. At the fundraiser, she was told that someone would like to meet her.
That man, was Martin Luther King. Who as it turns out was a fan of Star Trek.
I am going to read a quote from NPR an interview with Nichelle Nichols: (The link is included in the show notes)
And I was speechless. He complimented me on the manner in which I'd created the character. I thanked him, and I think I said something like, Dr. King, I wish I could be out there marching with you. He said, no, no, no. No, you don't understand. We don't need you on the - to march. You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for. So, I said to him, thank you so much. And I'm going to miss my co-stars.
And his face got very, very serious. And he said, what are you talking about? And I said, well, I told Gene just yesterday that I'm going to leave the show after the first year because I've been offered - and he stopped me and said: You cannot do that. And I was stunned. He said, don't you understand what this man has achieved? For the first time, we are being seen the world over as we should be seen. He says, do you understand that this is the only show that my wife Coretta and I will allow our little children to stay up and watch. I was speechless.
And so she stayed on. And she became part of the important history of Trek. She became an icon. One who inspired so many. She was there for the. Full three season run of the Original series, the Animated Series, and the first 6 Trek Motion Pictures. She was a role model and inspiration for many including: Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, and even other actresses in the Star Trek Universe like Whoopi Goldberg who played Guinan in the Next Generation and Sonequa Martin-Green who is the lead of ST DISCO. That is such a powerful story. Even though the part was created by Gene Roddenberry, it was HER work in the role that became part of the culture. The power of being seen.
So, never underestimate the power we have as creatives, what we make has the ability to make make opportunities for the others and also what they can do with them.
Speaking of changing the culture, one of the things that we haven’t talked about yet, is this important question. Who is Star Trek for? Who was it made for?
And I think the simple answer is: Star Trek is made for Trekkies.
But, some people might not know that they are a Trekkie. I certainly didn’t. I grew devouring Star Wars, LOTR, The Matrox Trilogy, Indiana Jones and all kinds of other movies.
I never saw anything of Star Trek until I lived in Boston, where my room mate, trumpeter and Alexander Technique Teacher Kevin Natoli, shared Star Trek the Next Generation with me. And I was hooked.
I, without knowing it, was a Trekkie.
And this is how fans work. Fans, before they are self-identified, don’t know that they are fans. They aren’t invested, because they haven’t been given a reason to be invested.
Because when you make your art, you are making it for someone, not everyone. It isn’t going to work for everyone. And that is great. Because you aren’t here to serve everyone, you are here to serve someone, someone who might believe in things the way you do, someone who shares the same interest.
Even the most popular things in the world are disliked by some people. And that is okay.
So make your art for your Trekkies, and really commit to it. Just because someone doesn’t yet know they are a fan of yours doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go ahead and do the work for them and show up.
Be specific and serve your audience, your Trekkies. Not everyone is going to love it, or they might not love it right away. Regardless, keep showing up and put the work out there and it will find its way to who needs it.
Trek is unashamedly Trek. And you are either a Trekkie or not. But regardless, it is here and it is being made and there are just more and more opportunities for people to engage with it, if they so desire.
Which leads me to my last point:
The Long Game is something that most people don’t understand. This idea runs counter to how much of our r life is shaped right now. We live in a world of immediacy. Want to reach out to someone? Instant message. FaceTime. Want to buy anything in the world? A few clicks on your phone and it will be on its way. This is the world of the Netflix binge, no commercials. Turn the tap on and let it flow. Now.
And this creates a culture that is greatly defined by the short term. By what is happening today.
Now I want to be very clear with what I’m saying here. I am in no way downcutting the importance of TODAY. Today is not a sacrificial lamb for tomorrow. TODAY is the most important day of your life. I firmly believe that.
But TODAY is powerful because TODAY leads to TOMORROW. Some people live like there is no TOMORROW. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but when we are in the business of creating, understanding the power of the long game can make a big difference.
So what is the long game? Essentially, it is the understanding that what I am building today, how I am spending my time today is going somewhere.
Life is like a chess match- and each day is one movement. The decisions you make today, while they may not have much ramification for you TODAY, can mean EVERYTHING to you TOMORROW.
Playing the long game means that you are HERE TODAY, working, building, exploring and creating for TOMORROW. It enriches you TODAY as well as TOMORROW.
So how does this connect with Star Trek? Well, at the beginning of the episode I asked the question, is Star Trek really just a tv show? OR is it something more?
On a creative standpoint, the choices that were made during the creation of Star Trek still have ramifications for today. One of the newest shows ST DISCO is set as a prequel before the original series, and I believe the newest show Strange New Worlds is a spinoff of the unaired pilot set technically during the same time as the original series.
But in a larger cultural sense, the long game is still at play. Star Trek has doubled down on its original commitment to diversity, including having real actual gay characters, having a non-binary character. That original spark is still alive.
The Long Tail that is created is just more stuff for the TREKKIE to enjoy. Consider that every episode that is made of a show is the first episode someone ever sees, and is also the last episode someone may ever see. If it resonates, if thee person watching connects with it, if they are part of the same tribe, then they have all of this stuff to interact with.
The work that you make is so important now! It is the most important that you will ever make TODAY. Even if it is absolute garbage. And believe me, I’ve made plenty of garbage pieces of music. But we need to make what we are making TODAY, because with out TODAY there is no tomorrow.
It is so easy to think that everything happens. That the gods just Thanos-snap their fingers and you get to have a career or not. But, it always comes down to putting in the work.
Because for every hit, there is always a work that came before.
Consider the film music giant, John Williams. Many of you know him, even if you don’t know his name. He’s provided the music to The Sugarland express, The Towering Inferno, and The Poseidon Adventure.
Now you probably don’t recognize any of those movies. But you probably recognize:
Harry Potter, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Home Alone, Superman and ET. the list is unbelievably long.
Now we just think John Williams has been around for a long time writing music for movies.
With the first feature film 1958 Dday-O-all the way to his real break out score to the blockbuster Jaws in 1974, there is a lot of time in between. 16 years.
And over 40 movies. Think about that! It took 40 movies before he made something that really grabbed the culture. 40. How many things have you made?
Consider the MCU. At on point in time, it was just a single movie.
Consider Star Wars. At one point in time, it was just a single movie.
Every artist you’ve ever loved or learned from had only one credit to their name. At one point in time, they were just a beginner.
The long game serves two purposes: to give you the practice to make your best work, the work you couldn’t make without the practice. And it creates work that will resonate with the others, even if they are few and far between. Because if you show up in a way that excites and transforms an audience member, then they may want more. And if you are playing the long game, you’ve got plenty of more for them play with.
The 1st Pilot to Star Trek was rejected, and sat for a few years before it was finally picked up. Think about what I just said. This goldmine of a franchise was rejected at one point in time, and it was a backburner project for Gene Roddenberry. It took a few more years before it could take flight. And even then, they had to go to the trouble of making a new Pilot before they got picked up. And they only ran for three seasons. But look at all of the things that came from that work.
So what does it all mean for you?
-Appreciate that you may not be able to SEE the true vision of what it is you are creating-just like they couldn’t see the real future in the 60’s
-Instead, try to see the future that you wish to be a part of IN your work (the things you resonate with)
-You don’t know WHERE it will take you or where it will lead you!
-The content you wish to see is the content you should make
-Appreciate that your art or project is a microphone for what you believe!!! That it is greater the sum of its parts
-Put your humanity in your art, and remember that you are a GATEKEEPER
-Even the smallest role has the potential to mean something. Who you pick matters.
-Make everything for your Trekkies especially if they don’t know they are Trekkies
-Your work is not going to please everyone. Good. Focus on who it is really for
-Play the long game. Use TODAY to do the work that allows you to do your BEST WORK TOMORROW
At Bridgewater State University, where I am very lucky to be teaching right now, I always end my semesters with a quote from Star Trek.
Live long and Prosper