“[By creating] a new world with new rules,” according to his assistant Susan Sackett, Roddenberry said, “I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network…If you talked about purple people on a far off planet, they (the television network) never really caught on. They were more concerned about cleavage. They actually would send a censor down to the set to measure a woman’s cleavage to make sure too much of her breast wasn’t showing.”
Of course, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov were all later additions to Star Trek. Roddenberry’s first attempt included Majel Barrett as Number One, a no-nonsense woman who was the executive officer of the Enterprise, a sad- ly-doomed Captain Pike, and Mr. Spock as a much more humanthird-in-command. When NBC rejected the pilot and recommissioned a different version (”Where No Man Has Gone Before”), they also demanded some changes. It seemed the network executives didn’t think the world was ready for a wo- man in any kind of command, with the added insult of that historical cliché about how it was also this particular woman. She was too logical, said the men in charge, too unlikeable. But given that her character involved a secret romantic fantasy for her captain, the legacy of her impact on representation for women if she continued in the series would have been complicated.
Instead, the alien Spock was promoted to executive officer and essentially given Number One’s logic-driven personality. Leonard Nimoy took that and ran with it, wrapping it up in a blanket of Tolkien obsession and cultural Judaism until he shaped the Vulcan race into what we know and love today.
Rounding out the series cast were three more white men from Earth — Captain Kirk, a Starfleet maverick from Ohio, Dr. “Bones” McCoy, a disgrunt led divorcé from Georgia, and engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott from (you guessed it) Scotland and two additional white women who appeared infrequently and rarely without controversy the Spock-infa- tuated Nurse Chapel, played by the previously ousted Majel Barrett, and Yeoman Rand, whose sole purpose seemed to be having feelings for Captain Kirk.
This trope of making sure that nearly every recurring woman on the show had a romantic interest in one of the men continued through to The Next Generation with Dr. Beverly Crusher and Counselor Troi, though with much more nuance and success. With the cast set and a viable pilot in the can, Star Trek finally aired on NBC with “The Man Trap” on September 8, 1966. It ran for three seasons, finally getting canceled a mere month before man first landed on the moon. During the three years we saw of its five-year mission, the crew of the Enterprise encountered everything from a deep v-neck on Ricardo Montalban to infestations of furry lumps (not on Ricardo Mon- talban). They traveled through time, were split in twain, fell in love, fell in lust, went into heat (and what an “Amok Time” that was!), were captured and tortured and forced to fight and/ or kiss. They caught strange diseases and encountered new species, fought injustice both within and without the Federation, and occasionally played fast and loose with the Prime Directive. Kirk developed quite a reputation for going where no (hu)man had gone before, if you know what I mean. Sometimes the strange scenarios the Enter-prise endured were allegories for all the things Roddenberry wanted to discuss with the American public. Sometimes
they were frothy episodic romps through Soundstages 9 and 10.
Gene Roddenberry presided over his writers throughout all of it, making cuts and changing scripts with a near-papal authority. His vision was firm and his edicts absolute, often to the fervent chagrin of his crew. Roddenberry was adamant in his design to show the full flower of human possibility. Though there was sometimes violence the producers and the audience always loved a good space battle or grappling match with a Gorn Roddenberry was determined that his characters, when in their right minds, would reach for physical conflict only as a last resort. He wanted Star Trek to portray a humanity beyond war, materialism, and prejudice, not as an impossibility or a final destination, but as a daily struggle to transcend our animal natures. This is reflected constantly in the choices each of the characters makes, in the ways they make amends after falling short and conducting themselves in a questionable manner, or in the ways their fellows choose to trust that anomalous behaviors come from a place of secret nobility or undiagnosed illness.
On Kirk’s Enterprise, there are arguments and squabbles over the best course of action, over the moral righteousness or precariousness of their options, over the very ways in which each character sees the universe. This is most notable in the trio of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, who respectively represent that mythological storytelling triumvirate of Id, Ego, and Super Ego the manifestations of the pursuit of pleasure, the practical demands of reality, and the conscience. Without one of the three, the character of the entire crew is unbalanced. Without Bones, the relativistic morality is missing. Without Spock, the pragmatic maturity is gone. Without Kirk, nobody’s having any fun. But the three of them can also not exist without discord between them. Many of the best moments in The Original Series come down to the sometimes reluctant friendships they’ve built over their years of service together, the respect for one another’s skills, souls, and opinions. These things did not appear magically in the first episodes; they were earned one episode at a time by the writers, the actors, the audience, and the characters themselves. It is satisfying when Spock finally has a drink with Bones and Kirk because it took us so long and so much work to get there. We weep at his sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan because he so rarely has expressed his affection for Kirk, but in that moment because we have been on this journey with them from the beginning, we feel as though we too are losing something irreplaceable when Spock promises Kirk, “I have been and always shall be your friend.”
As Gene Roddenberry once said, “To do a science fiction series and have the characters come anywhere near human is an accomplishment.” And, ah, gentle reader, that is how humans work. The Original Series ended in 1969 after 79 episodes, despite an enthusiastic letter writing campaign from the fandom, but it began running in syndication almost immediately. Its growing cult popularity led to the creation of Star Trek: The Animated Series, about that same Enterprise crew, which aired on Saturday mornings from 1973 to 1974. With every year that passed, more and more people discovered Star Trek in syndication, finally leading Paramount (formerly Desilu) to attempt a new series. It was called Star Trek: Phase II and included a mixture of returning characters from Kirk’s Enterprise and new characters to replace Kirk and Spock, whose actors were too expensive or no longer interested. After the Paramount television division folded, the project was repurposed by the head of Paramount Pictures into Star Trek: The Motion picture. The cast of The Original Series would go on to make a total of six motion pictures from 1979 to 1991. Shatner would make a seventh with the cast of The Next Generation. In the nearly 20 years that passed between the last live action episode of The Original Series and the official conception of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the world — and the United States especially had gone through a drastic transformation. After the hippies and rock and roll, after integration and assassinations, after “Tricky” Dick Nixon and second-wave feminism, the Space Race and Vietnam and recession, the late 1980s were a strangely conservative but ultimately hopeful time. Thanks in no small part to The Original Series, Americans had come to accept a certain amount of diversity in their lives and on their TV screens. No television show to come after it had been quite so progressive or inclusive, but the very existence of Nichelle Nichols and George Takei in living rooms across the country altered the fabric of society. In fact, Nichelle Nichols would go on to work with NASA to help recruit young women into STEM fields.
The Western world that existed when The Next Generation was born was slightly less oppressive of women they could more easily get divorced, apply for credit cards in their own names, serve on juries, and obtain legal abortions, for instance. There were government structures in place for people of color experiencing prejudice, even if they didn’t always work in actuality. It was finally legal for interracial couples to be married. Harvey Milk had become the first openly gay politician elected to office in California. Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Justice, and Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman Justice, were appointed to the Supreme Court. Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. In the wake of Vietnam, many Americans no longer trusted their government, but they had seen how powerful the people could be when they rose up as one for a just cause.
The Civil Rights Act, and its ban of discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, had been in place for decades. There were young adults who could not remember a time before such a thing was the law of the land. The arc of the moral universe was long, but it seemed mostly to bend toward justice. But Harvey Milk had been assassinated after only eleven months in office. The AIDS pandemic was raging through marginalized communities, decimating a generation of artists and creatives. The Reagan administration was reluctant, even negligent, in addressing the growing epidemic due mostly to a belief that it was a “gay plague”.
The LGBTQ community also experienced (and still does) a disproportionately high percentage of abuse, violence, and murder. Women and people of color were still fighting harassment and discrimination in all areas of their lives, but especially in the workplace, where pay disparity, a lack of upward mobility, and genderand racially-motivated aggressions were commonplace. In communities of color, the ravages of CIA-seeded cocaine and heroin were compounded by a racist War on Drugs that focused not on rehabilitation but mass incarceration. The USSR was in its final throes and would collapse entirely during the run of The Next Generation. The Cold War was soon to end and the Gulf War was soon to begin.
The world had evolved and sohad Gene Roddenberry. Because, ah, gentle reader, that is how humans should work.
Roddenberry was the first to admit that his understanding of the world and his stances within it were in a constant state of questioning and growth, a phenomenon he called ‘The Education of Gene Roddenberry’. He readily confessed by the end of his life that there were things he regretted about The Original Series, usually regarding choices made to appease the network and the censors. By the time Paramount approached him about taking full creative control of a new Star Trek series, he had officially declared himself a secular humanist, a philosophy which posits that human beings are capable of making ethical and moral choices without the aid or judgment of religion. No one who had seen an episode of Star Trek was surprised. In the 1991 interview in The Humanist, Roddenberry said, “[My political philosophy] would have to be similar to the philosophy of Star Trek because Star Trek is my statement to the world. Understand that Star Trek is more than just my political philosophy. It is my social philosophy, my racial philosophy, my overview on life and the human condition. I have been able to comment on so many different facets of humanity because both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation have been so wide-ranging in the are capable of making ethical and moral choices without the aid or judgment of religion. No one who had seen an episode of Star Trek was surprised.
In the 1991 interview in The Humanist, Roddenberry said, “[My political philosophy] would have to be similar to the philosophy of Star Trek because Star Trek is my statement to the world. Understand that Star Trek is more than just my political philosophy. It is my social philosophy, my racial philosophy, my overview on life and the human condition. I have been able to comment on so many different facets of humanity because both Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation have been so wide-ranging in the stars, Captain Picard — played by the classically trained Patrick Stewart — was an intergalactic Renaissance man (and the only non-American captain to lead a show so far). The Enterprise was still Starfleet’s flagship, the first and most essential cynosure of the Federation’s intentions, but its mission was focused less on the business of risk for its own sake and more on diplomacy. There were even families with children on board this new, harmonious version of the Enterprise.
The Id, Ego, and Super Ego of Kirk, Spock, and Bones existed entirely within the person of Picard, who Roddenberry described as “an explorer, philosopher, and diplomat.” Picard, in echo of Roddenberry, believed wholly in the power of humanity to transcend its baser drives and in the personal responsibility of all beings to contribute to that transcendence. If the thesis of The Original Series was a bold vision of what we could accomplish when we work together, The Next Generation posited that individual growth was the basis for species evolution, that humanity should be judged not on its worst moments, but on what we do now that we know better, and that it is on each of us to deliver. As part of this more nuanced ideal, Roddenberry had decided with all his creative stubbornness that in the century between The Original Series and The Next Generation, human beings would have outgrown their interpersonal differences and quarrelsome tendencies. It was a noble construct, and one that required the series to become a melodrama in which all the conflict came from outside the ship and its crew.
But, ah, gentle reader, that is not always how humans work. From 1986 to 1991, with Gene Roddenberry at the creative helm of Star Trek: The Next Generation, his writers many of whom were young people who had grown up watching The Original Series fought to do away with this ruling. Their reasoning was two-fold: it was detrimental to the quality of the show, but more importantly, it was unrealistic to think that even at their very best, humans wouldn’t struggle with themselves and with each other.
How else could they grow and transcend if they were never forced to compromise with or question themselves or their friends and fellows? In many ways, it was this insistence on external conflict that arguably makes the first season of The Next Generation the weakest season of the show (the other parts involve the show finding its feet and a lot of terrible sexist and racist casting/writing choices). In other ways, however, the mandate allowed for some incredibly progressive portrayals of people with different abilities, genders, needs, and backgrounds cooperating seamlessly in a high-stress workplace and socializing in a large community. Old lovers respected and supported each other for years through fleeting and sustained romantic pairings, through heartbreaks and violations and family issues. Trauma and illness were usually treated with weight and care.
The crew was overwhelmingly compassionate and considerate of one another’s shortcomings and unique difficulties. While on Kirk’s Enterprise, Bones might refer to Spock as a “green-blooded son of a bitch”, the vast majority of the crew of Picard’s Enterprise takes the time to teach and understand one another, to cater their behaviors to better serve the unity of the whole. “Star Trek,” Roddenberry once explained, “was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms.” If The Original Series was tolerance, The Next Generation was to be a special delight. This was often the case, but not always. Whereas Roddenberry once spent a good deal of his time during The Original Series fighting censorship, the network, and the producers to cast and write what he wanted, for The Next Generation, he would be one of those producers. He would have no one to blame for the final decisions and discordant notes but himself. The three highest-ranking officers on the new series, Picard included, were once again played by white men (sometimes painted green).
The second-in-command, “Number One”, was Commander William Riker, a man with Kirk’s heart under a philosophe’s mentorship. An Alaskan with an undiscriminating libido, Riker would ultimately value his time with Picard so much he would turn down command of his own ships to stay on the Enterprise. He would also grow a righteous beard. The next in line was Lieutenant Commander Data, a humanoid android and one of only three sentient synthetic beings in the known galaxy. Data, who did not experience emotions like his comrades, and his personal pursuit to better understand and emulate the humanity to which he aspired would ultimately be credited by a generation of neurodivergent fans with helping them come to terms with their own abilities and social differences. His bodily autonomy and personhood would be the subject of some of the best episodes in Star Trek canon.
There were two black men on the bridge of the new Enterprise, though Michael Dorn was playing an alien and covered in Klingon prosthetics. His Lieutenant Worf was a war orphan, adopted and raised by Eastern European humans and with a similarly complicated relationship to his native culture that Spock, a half-human half-Vulcan, had experienced in The Original Series. Though Worf began as a relief officer on the bridge, he would quickly be promoted to Chief Security Officer. Lieutenant Geordi La Forge, played by Roots actor and Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton, was the helmsman and then the Chief Engineering Officer. From the United States of Africa specifically Somalia and named after quadriplegic fan George La Forge, Geordi was blind from birth and used a VISOR attached to his optical cortex to see the electromagnetic spectrum.
The three women who originally began on the bridge were also entirely played by white actors. Although Lieutenant Tasha Yar, who was Chief Security Officer before Worf, was initially meant to be Latina and then Asian, Roddenberry’s final casting decision put the blonde Denise Crosby in the role. A survivor from a colony planet with a collapsed government, Tasha was inspired by Vasquez from Aliens and could, according to concept, defeat most of the rest of the bridge officers in martial arts. Her biggest claim to fame and one of the biggest missteps in The Next Generation’s seven seasons came in the second episode of the series, when she had sex with the “fully functional” Data to prove to audiences she was not a lesbian. The character was killed off toward the end of the first season when Denise Crosby, frustrated with her lack of development, left the show.
The remaining two women were Dr. Beverly Crusher and ship’s counselor Deanna Troi, and though they would eventually have their own stories and episodes, they were introduced in the pilot mostly as love interests of Picard and Riker, respectively. Deanna Troi was a half-human half-Betazoid, making her an empath and sometimes-telepath, and was designed to be an object of sexual desire for the audience…and the producers. She would be misand under-used for the majority of the show’s run and repeatedly subjected to those tired sci-fi/ fantasy tropes for women: rape (both physical and psychic) and mystical pregnancies.
Dr. Crusher, meanwhile, was the widow of Picard’s late best friend and mother of Gary Stu boy genius, Wesley Crusher (no offense to actor Wil Wheaton, who is lovely). She was played by Gates McFadden, who spent most of the first season behind the scenes fighting the writers about sexist content and a lack of development for the women characters, until one of the writers demanded she be fired. She was replaced during the second season with the underrated Dr. Katherine Pulaski, who was, like Bones, prejudiced against one of her crewmates and suspicious of transporter technology. However, the change was met with extreme upset by fans, and a campaign spearheaded by Patrick Stewart himself eventually brought Gates McFadden and Beverly Crusher back by the third season. The writer she clashed with left the show. And, of course, there was the eventual recurring character of Guinan as played by Whoopi Goldberg, who took quite a cut to her usual pay rates to be on the show that had once starred Nichelle Nichols. The Next Generation pilot “Encounter at Far Point” aired on CBS and in syndication on September 28, 1987, mere months after the Challenger explosion. Over the next seven seasons and 178 episodes and four movies, it would become the most financially viable and popular of any series in the Star Trek franchise, as well as the most awarded.
At its worst, the show fell back into ridiculous sexist and racial stereotypes and tropes, undervalued its women, made some of its men creeps without consequence, and missed some huge opportunities to be truly groundbreaking (e.g. the androgynous race in “The Outcast” could have been played by men, as Riker’s actor Jonathan Frakes hoped). At its best, it would spend whole episodes exploring controversial topics like torture, imperialism, gender identity and sexuality, bodily autonomy, personhood, corruption and conspiracy in government, capitalism, witch hunts, addiction, technology advancement, racial and cultural identities, post-war prejudice, gaslighting, the dichotomy between freedom fighters and terrorists, and religion, and anodyne topics like integrity, loyalty, what makes us human, mortality, family, regret, ambition, and the lingering effects of trauma…sometimes against Roddenberry’s express wishes.
In between, it took us along on daring adventures, wooed us with romance, and delighted us with character driven high jinks. The Next Generation, like The Original Series before it, changed the very landscape of television. It was, after all, one of the first shows to do a true season finale cliffhanger (”Mr. Worf—fire”), saw the beginnings of multi-episode and -season arcs, and, according to The Mary Sue, passed the Bechdel Test a progressive 44.9% of the time. Gene Roddenberry’s health was already in decline in the late 1980s as he began work on The Next Generation. After years of regular drug and alcohol use, he developed cerebral vascular disease and encephalopathy.
Though he remained at the creative helm of The Next Generation, his final co-writing credit was in the first season, and, according to producer Rick Berman, his direct influence lessened each year. He had his first stroke in 1989, leaving him wheelchair-bound, and another in early October 1991. On October 24th, 1991, at the age of 70, Eugene Wesley Roddenberry died. His wife, Majel Barrett, was by his side. In 1985, Roddenberry became the first television writer to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1992, he was one of the first humans to have their remains carried into orbit. Much of his legacy is still being written literally, now that Star Trek is back on television but the ways in which Gene Roddenberry changed our culture and how we tell stories has been undeniable for over half a century. Now, you may be thinking, Star Trek’s evolution has ended. How can an idea continue to grow when its creator is dead?
But, ah, gentle reader, that is not always how ideas work