When Star Trek first hit screens in 1966, it seemed like the most unlikely hit. While there was certainly juice in creator Gene Roddenberry’s pitch to film “Wagon Train to the Stars,” and the network CBS showed enough confidence in the show to let producers shoot a second pilot, the debut episode hardly portended great things. “The Man Trap” pit Captain James T. Kirk and his crew against a salt vampire masquerading as a former flame of Doctor Leonard McCoy. But from those humble beginnings, Trek has become one of the world’s most beloved franchises, consisting of ten television series, thirteen feature films, and countless books, comics, and video games.
In a discussion with the Times of London, Star Trek‘s first lead William Shatner revealed the reason the show’s legacy has endured. One might expect the famously confident actor to point to himself or at least his character Captain Kirk, who has also been played by Chris Pine in the J.J. Abrams reboot films and more recently by Paul Wesley on Strange New Worlds. But instead, Shatner offers a more simple and humble explanation. “It’s the story,” Shatner told the paper “Here is a group of people you get to love going on an adventure that, although unusual, harkens back to things that happen on Earth.”
Surprising as his reasoning may be, it’s hard to disagree with Shatner. For all of its sometimes goofy premises, Trek, like fellow 60s sci-fi staples The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who, used its space-faring trappings to address some of the most pressing issues of its time. A standoff in the stars between Kirk’s U.S.S. Enterprise and Romulans explores the nature of war. Star Trek predated the Purge franchise with its deconstruction of civilization in “Return of the Archons.” And McCoy chased around the White Rabbit until he found a couple of scantily-clad young women. Look, they can’t all be world-changers.
But according to Shatner, even those outlandish tales helped grow the show. “The futurist stories we told were really human stories with a twist,” he argued. “People loved the stories, they loved the characters.” Indeed, it’s that love of the characters that has brought people back to Trek even as it evolves. Not only do the reboot films and Strange New Worlds offer new takes on established characters, but later series add more space-faring heroes to the fold. Fans regularly argue for their favorite Captains, debating the merits of not only Kirk, but also Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and others. Moreover, these new characters develop their own devoted fanbases, allowing series such as Picard, Prodigy, and Lower Decks, to explore the legacies of later Captains and their crews.
While the characters may be beloved, the actors don’t always inspire the same affection, least of all from Shatner himself. Shatner used the occasion of his interview to once again speak out against his co-stars, especially George Takei, who portrayed Sulu on the original series. “It’s like a sickness,” Shatner says of Takei, who criticized his co-star as recently as last year. “George has never stopped blackening my name.” As irritating as these squabbles may be, they don’t seem to slow down Star Trek‘s ability to go beyond even the egos of its stars.