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Star Trek keeps up to date with science — and society

Over the course of five decades, advances in space science and exploration have changed the Star Trek saga — but it’s obvious that the sci-fi TV show has changed the course of space exploration as well.

You need look no further than Amazon’s billionaire founder Jeff Bezos, who took inspiration from Star Trek to green-light talking computers and his very own Blue Origin space effort. The same goes for SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who’s mentioned in the same breath as the Wright Brothers in a “Star Trek: Discovery” episode.

“I can’t imagine a version of the world where Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos exist, for better or worse, however you feel about them, without Star Trek,” says Ryan Britt, the author of “Phasers on Stun,” a new book chronicling the history of the Star Trek sci-fi franchise.

“I’m not saying that those guys embody all of Star Trek’s ideals, because they may not,” Britt says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. “But there is an audacity to space travel, whether it is from a government like NASA or another nation’s government that’s putting people in space, or if it’s from the private sector.”

In his book, and in the podcast, Britt traces the ups and downs of Star Trek’s evolution — from a relatively short-lived TV show that creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned as a “Wagon Train to the Stars” to a fan phenomenon that has engendered two dozen spin-offs. The latest Trek incarnation, “Strange New Worlds,” wraps up its first season on the Paramount+ streaming service this week.

Some of the concepts that Star Trek popularized — palm-sized communicators, quantum teleportation, holodecks and medical tricorders — have made the leap from fiction to fact well in advance of the 23rd century. But there’s another side to the equation: Real-life science and technology have changed Star Trek as well.

Ryan Britt
Ryan Britt is the senior entertainment editor at Fatherly and writes for Inverse, Den of Geek and other publications. (Photy by Mary Britt)

Take black holes, for instance. Gravitational singularities and their time-warping effects have been a Trek standby since 1967 (when an encounter with a “black star” threw the Enterprise into the ’60s). But Britt says Star Trek has upped its black hole game, thanks to science consultant Erin McDonald.

“The way that they’ve depicted the black holes in the contemporary Star Treks, starting in ‘Discovery’ season two, is very close to how contemporary science thinks that they would look and behave,” Britt says. “In the original series, sometimes Kirk would throw out what a quasar is, and it wasn’t quite right. But now, it’s very close in terms of the way the spatial phenomena look. In the new shows, it’s very cutting-edge.”

The same goes for communicating with aliens. Star Trek’s crew members leaned heavily on Google Translate … er, I mean their universal translator … to decipher alien languages. But there’s never been any guarantee that the aliens will look like prosthetic-wearing humanoids who communicate through speech. (Seattle-area sci-fi author Ted Chiang explored an alternate scenario in a short story that was adapted into a screenplay for the 2016 movie “Arrival.”)

Britt says Star Trek’s writers addressed the issue in a “Star Trek: Discovery” episode focusing on an alien species that the crew couldn’t figure out how to communicate with. “It ends up being pheromones — it communicates through these sorts of feelings and these emotions,” Britt says. “They can translate that back into math, and then they can go from there and create a bridge language.”

"Phasers on Stun" cover
“Phasers on Stun! How the Making (and Remaking) of Star Trek Changed the World,” by Ryan Britt. (Jacket Design by Jason Booher / Penguin Random House / Plume)

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be so surprising that Star Trek anticipated technologies such as communicators, translators and tricorders. Britt points out that Roddenberry worked with a researcher at the Rand Corporation to figure out which sorts of way-out innovations would lend authenticity as well as a gee-whiz vibe to his sci-fi show.

Arguably, Star Trek’s most valuable contribution to science and exploration came in the form of inspiration: Britt recounts the story of how Martin Luther King Jr. persuaded Nichelle Nichols to stick with the show because her Uhura character provided a rare opportunity to inspire fellow African-Americans. Nichols, in turn, took on a campaign to inspire women and minorities to apply for spots in NASA’s growing astronaut corps.

“When Nichelle started her campaign, NASA had very few Black or female applicants,” Britt quotes documentary filmmaker Todd Thompson as saying in the book. “I’m not saying zero. But Sally Ride and Ron McNair; yes, they were there as a direct result of her campaign with NASA.”

More recent Trek shows have continued to widen diversity on the final frontier: “Star Trek: Discovery,” for instance, featured a romance between a non-binary human character and a trans alien character — played, respectively, by a non-binary actor and a trans actor.

Two billionaires to beam up

One of the world’s most prominent Trekkie techies is Jeff Bezos: He was just 2 years old when the original “Star Trek” premiered, but the show inspired one of his favorite childhood games. “We’d fight over who’d get to be Captain Kirk, or Spock, and somebody used to play the computer, too,” Bezos told The Washington Post in 2016. “We’d have little cardboard phasers and cardboard tricorders.”

Decades later, Bezos acquired a more expensive prop: a model of the Starship Enterprise that was used in the early Star Trek movies and is now on display at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash. And in 2016, Bezos played Star Trek for real: He talked his way into a cameo as an alien Starfleet official in “Star Trek Beyond.”

“It was super-fun for me,” Bezos said. “It was a bucket-list item.”

Five years later, Bezos made a different sort of bucket-list item come true for Star Trek actor William Shatner. The guy who played Captain Kirk finally got his chance to fly into space for real, courtesy of Bezos and Blue Origin. “What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” Shatner told Bezos afterward.

Elon Musk has his own set of Star Trek ties. In April, when Musk declared his intention to buy Twitter, Shatner joked that the billionaire should “dump the bird” and hire him as the “face of Twitter.”

“You will always be my Captain,” Musk tweeted in reply.

Like Bezos, Musk was given a moment of Star Trek immortality: On an episode of “Star Trek: Discovery,” a character named Captain Gabriel Lorca (played by Jason Isaacs) upbraids a fellow officer by asking him if he wants to be remembered as a pioneer like the Wright Brothers and Elon Musk — or as a “failed fungus expert.”

Spoiler alert: There’s a bit of irony to the reference, in that later episodes reveal Captain Lorca to be more nefarious than he seems.

Britt says he doesn’t mind that Star Trek’s accolades for Elon Musk come from a controversial character like Lorca. In fact, he thinks the controversies in which Musk is currently enmeshed fit right in with one of Star Trek’s major themes: that we humans may be flawed, but that we are nevertheless capable of doing great things.

“These things that happen when humanity leaps forward are not always going to be without their drawbacks,” Britt says.

“I always thought that was also a secret commentary on Gene Roddenberry himself, oddly,” Britt adds. “I thought that was like a way of saying the person that created this will be sort of deified, but here they are when they’re actually in the trenches building it, and there’s messiness. I like that Star Trek is willing to do that.”

Will Star Trek continue to live long and prosper? Britt, who’s in his early 40s, says there’s a chance he’ll still be writing about the Star Trek saga when the franchise turns 100 years old in 2066.

“It will have to do a couple more radical reinventions, though, to stay relevant,” Britt says. “And I think that some of that might be a true reboot, right? Where you just completely throw it all out and you just start over, and you say, ‘We’ll do Starfleet, the Prime Directive and the Enterprise, but that’s all.’ And then everything else can be reinvented.”

20 years of Trek talk

When a sci-fi franchise has been around for more than 50 years, it can’t help but get some predictions about the future right. Star Trek has a pretty good record on that score, and we’re not just talking about communicators and tricorders.

For example, contemporary society may seem as if it’s on a path that’s running counter to the optimistic, altruistic tone that Star Trek takes. But Britt says our un-Trekkie times are actually part of the timeline.

“Star Trek oddly predicted that things were going to get bad before they got better,” he says. “It’s kind of eerie, because in the original series, it was always like, ‘Oh, in the early 21st century, the Earth just almost destroyed themselves, but then they got out of it. So in the Star Trek history, we’re still not there. We’re still in the bad period.”

The show’s scriptwriters have even touched upon the thoroughly modern dangers of disinformation. When I asked Britt whether Star Trek has ever had to deal with fake news in the 23rd (or 24th) century, he launched into a long string of episodes from shows including “Deep Space Nine,” “Discovery,” “Picard” and “Strange New Worlds.”

You’ll have to listen to the podcast to get the full rundown, plus Britt’s list of favorite Star Trek movies and episodes, plus science-fiction recommendations that range far beyond the Trek canon. As a reward for reading down this far, and for listening to the podcast, I’ll send my copy of “Phasers on Stun” to the first person to email me at alan@cosmiclog.com and tell me which Trek movie is Britt’s favorite (U.S. residents only).

And as long as we’re looking at lists, here’s a roundup of Star Trek items from the past 20 years, starting with a golden oldie from the archives: a wide-ranging Q&A with William Shatner that dates back to the first year of Cosmic Log:

Hungry for still more from Ryan Britt? Check out his home page and follow the links to his articles on Inverse, StarTrek.com, Den of Geek and other websites.

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, GoogleOvercast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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