Star Trek at 50: Are We Any Closer to Its Utopian Future?

Fifty years on, are we closer to the peaceful future of Star Trek? We ask Zachary Quinto, Chris Pine, Karl Urban, John Cho & Justin Lin.

On the 8th September 1966, Star Trek made its debut on US television. Introducing the crew of the USS Enterprise on their exploratory voyage across the galaxy, it provided the jumping-off point for a franchise that has endured for 50 years.

Series creator Gene Roddenberry may have taken inspiration from a number of sources when he came up with Star Trek – AE Van Vogt’s novel Voyage Of The Space Beagle, MGM’s movie Forbidden Planet, to name two – but American television hadn’t seen a genre show quite like this before. Employing some of the best sci-fi writers of the era, Star Trek was a space opera which dared to tackle big themes: xenophobia, equality, social change, all in the context of an adventure series with plenty of color, humor, and more than a touch of ’60s kitsch.

At a turbulent moment in American history, Star Trek offered the possibility that humanity could evolve beyond conflict and xenophobia. Discussing the legacy of the series in 1988, Roddenberry described the themes he’d tried to explore up to that point.

Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs,” Roddenberry said. “That there is a tomorrow – it’s not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them, because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.”

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Star Trek imagined a future where the human race had spread out all over the galaxy – not as conquerors, but as peaceful explorers. Tensions sometimes developed among the Enterprise’s diverse crew, but Star Trek otherwise showed characters from different races and nations – or, in Spock’s case, other planets – working in harmony.

Fifty years later, Star Treks still going strong, with Star Trek Beyond in cinemas this month and a new television series set to air in early 2017. The 23rd century of the series may seem a long way off, but it’s also fair to say that much has changed in our planet’s history since September 1966. So are we any closer to the utopian vision imagined by Gene Roddenberry, or is it still centuries away? What relevance does Star Trek have in the present?

Those are questions we recently put to the cast of Star Trek Beyond – Karl Urban, Zachary Quinto, John Cho, Chris Pine – as well as its director, Justin Lin. The result was a range of responses resulting from pessimism to a brighter sentiment that, yes,  we are moving closer to a more peaceful, enlightened and equal future. Opinions varied, but what was striking was just how thoughtful and considered the stars (and director) of Star Trek Beyond’s responses were. Here’s what they had to say.

Karl Urban – Leonard “Bones” McCoy

“There’s the Brexit that’s just gone on, the rise of extremism. The constant outbreaks of violence in the States. Star Trek represents a vision of hope, hope for humanity, that we can move beyond these times. We can work together and that we will no longer persecute each other and destroy each other and kill each other. That we will be unified, and I think that’s why Star Trek resonates – I think that’s why it’s important, culturally.”

John Cho – Hikaru Sulu

[Star Trek] came about at a similarly tumultuous time in America. It was a time of great optimism, but also marred by great tragedy as well, so it was an interesting portrait of the hope of modernist America. Sadly, there are some parallels that are happening right now. We’re dealing with some… [trails off] incidents that are striking at the very heart of what we believe right now, at least in America. And it’s testing our values as a society.

Not to read too deeply into it, but I just feel like Star Trek is a nice answer culturally speaking. It’s not a political answer, it’s just a cultural answer. The theme of this one is that family bends but doesn’t break, you know? There’s something beautiful about it. I hope people have an appetite for that message.

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Karl Urban

Personally, no – I don’t believe we are [closer to the future depicted in Star Trek]. It’s pretty disheartening to see what’s going on in the world, not only the way we treat each other as human beings, but also the way we treat this planet. We were flying over here, and we passed over a country and it was pointed out to us that they were burning the forests. It’s sad, but I think that’s part of why Star Treks important. It’s a beacon, it’s a lighthouse, as it were, a vision of humanity. It shows how we can operate at the highest level and be the best that we can be. And in some ways, because it is about earthlings, it resonates more on that level than say, something like Star Wars.

John Cho

I don’t know. I think I disagree. I think the Earth may be in bad shape, [but] it does seem like there’s an assumption… we’re more in agreement that there should be equality amongst genders. That’s an assumption. In the ’60s, there was not a consensus on that. There was a debate about the superiority of the races or something, but that was still a debate. Now, at least, maybe culturally we’re policing that more. There are dissenters, but generally, there seems to be an agreement that one life is worth one life. Now, in practice, that’s not happening, but at least there’s not that debate. I don’t know. 

Karl Urban

Alright, look… the ideology’s always been there. It was present in the ’60s, that’s why Star Trek was created. But you asked whether we’re closer to this utopian vision? I just don’t think we are.

John Cho

George [Takei] was saying that he had a discussion with Gene Roddenberry about Sulu’s sexuality back then, and Roddenberry was frank and said, “You can’t do that. Not at this time.” But now we can. And ironically, George is the one who’s objecting, but that doesn’t seem to be the case worldwide. So it seems there is some marker…

Karl Urban

I know what you’re saying. There is some progression, yeah. In terms of certain microcosmic changes in society, for sure. But still, globally? We’re a mess. [pauses]  What a downer.

Justin Lin – director

[Star Treks idyllic future] was the first thing I thought about when the potential to take over came up. It became very interesting to me to try to deconstruct that. It’s been around for 50 years and you see this crew, and you see the Federation – utopia. And sometimes that’s assumed, you know? So I really wanted to deconstruct it, and hopefully at the end of the movie we can reaffirm why people have been passionate for so long.

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I grew up watching the original series on reruns, and it was very unique. I saw people from very diverse backgrounds together on a shared journey. That was my first sense that family doesn’t have to be by blood; it’s about a shared journey. I think that is very important, and that was part of the goal when I got together with Doug [Jung] and Simon [Pegg] was to really honour that, and challenge it with a new philosophy brought in by Krall [Idris Elba’s villain]. Hopefully, again, it reaffirms [Star Trek] and propels it for another 50 years. 

Zachary Quinto – Mr. Spock

We’re living in an increasingly nationalistic, xenophobic time, and you can see it reflected in societies all over the world – whether it’s here in the UK with the whole Brexit debacle, or in Australia where we just came from, where their most recent elections were too close to call. The razor-sharp line of division that exists between political ideologies in our own country in the United States, I think it’s clear that these movements are forming – and one is more forward thinking and more embracing and more inclusive. The other is less tolerant and more judgemental and more fear-driven and fear-based. I think, you know, over the next generation, we’re going to see which way we turn as a civilisation.

While this remains a summer blockbuster, popcorn film, I think underneath that are some more resonant themes that are reflective of the times we’re living in.

Chris Pine – James T. Kirk

I like this film because there’s a simplicity to the theme. It’s essentially – the question that it asks – is, “Is the Federation good?” The good guys think it is and the bad guy does not, and the bad guy ends up alone, and the good guys end up with their family. Not to be super reductive about, that’s what it feels like it’s about, to me. Working together always works together better… it also appeals to a primal, animal thing, which is that humans are social creatures. No one can survive on their own. Thinking you can is ridiculous, especially going into the middle half of the 21st century. To think you can do it alone is just ridiculous.  

Zachary Quinto

The advancement of technology has probably guided us more than anything else in one direction or another. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. We’re so much more connected, but we’ve never been more fractured as a culture. I don’t know. I feel like we’re living in really precarious times, and I don’t think we’re any further along toward a utopian view of our culture than we were then.

If anything, I think we’re a little bit more astray, more far afield from true integration and true acceptance. I think the next 50 years are going to present the human race with challenges that so far exceed the limitations of geopolitical boundaries or nationalist identity. We’re going to be up against challenges that we can barely fathom at this point. So how we embrace them and deal with them will define a great many things about where we go, but, you know, it’s hard to say. We’re teetering on the edge, I would say. 

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Chris Pine

I think about Reagan’s idea of the shining city on the hill… this idea of “We were once great when…” I think the human race has always been pretty fucking abysmal to one another. We’ve always killed one another, tried to destroy each other. So maybe in the human…I feel so dumb for talking about these big ideas, but you know, maybe the realization of the full human potential is the utopian thing.

Maybe that is our collective struggle, is to find a way to get there. But right now it seems like we’re duplicating what was written in the Bible, a millennium ago, which is “An eye for an eye.” Revenge policy; “If you hit me, we’ll hit you back worse”; ad infinitum.

Justin Lin

Great sci-fi, great Trek is always an allegory for something that’s happening to us as a society. On every level, on every scene, we’re conscious that we’re exploring those things. Sometimes they’re so subtle that you might not notice it, but hopefully you’ll feel something.

I think we’re closer than we were in 1966. But there are always going to be growing pains. Especially now, there’s always stuff that’s happening, but you have to have hope. I think that’s what Star Trek has – at the end of the day, with all the adventures and all the conflict, what I love is the sense of hope.

The fact that we’re human beings, and we’re flawed. But at the end of the day, we have to believe that we’ll eventually make the right choices.