50 years after it began, ‘Star Trek’ continues to parallel real life

“Star Trek Beyond,” in its quieter moments, is a fitting celebration of the 50th anniversary of the original show.
“Star Trek Beyond,” in its quieter moments, is a fitting celebration of the 50th anniversary of the original show. Kimberley French, Paramount Pict

The new movie “Star Trek Beyond” is like most summer blockbusters – full of energy and motion, crashes and explosions. But in its quieter moments, it is also a fitting celebration of the 50th anniversary of the original show created by Gene Roddenberry.

Even people who have never watched “Star Trek” know the main characters – Kirk, McCoy, and Spock, a trio who individually represent the courage, intellect, and heart of humanity. Along with the rest of the crew of the starship Enterprise, they prove time and again that strength lies in unity, that working for the common good is our highest calling.

When the movie opens, those ideals are in question. The Enterprise is halfway through a deep space mission more tedious than exciting, leading some of the crew to consider leaving.

Soon enough, however, a crisis strands them separately on a hostile planet and they struggle to reunite and overcome the threat of a weapon of mass destruction.

McCoy and Spock, the son of an alien father and human mother, are stranded together. McCoy is all bluster, an affectionate crank who enjoys needling the deliberately stoic Spock.

Their verbal spars have always been the source of much of the show’s humor, though the movie also gives them a serious moment when they discuss mortality and heartbreak.

Usually reserved about his personal life and determined to follow Vulcan traditions of emotional detachment, Spock reveals information that makes McCoy drop his ordinary shtick and say, “I’m so sorry, Spock. I can’t imagine what that must feel like.”

His choice of the word feel is deliberate, both an acknowledgement of Spock’s humanity and an act of empathy. The message is clear: There is no other that is not also a reflection of ourselves.

That’s the kind of message that has given “Star Trek” a loyal fanbase for half a century.

I was 10 years old growing up in the segregated South when “Star Trek” first aired in 1966. On the same television that broadcast nightly news of race riots and Vietnam, I watched Captain Kirk and his crew face danger and adventure together, more family than colleagues.

What set “Star Trek” apart from other fare such as “Batman,” also debuting that year, was its intentional relevance to the world of 1966. “Star Trek” lifted up issues of racism, sexism, and power and set them in a not-so-distant world where the United Federation of Planets offered a guide for peaceful coexistence.

That relevance is still there. In an election year when unity of party and country can be hard to find, the movie offers an upbeat counterpoint.

A pilot who flew combat missions in WWII and a policeman in Los Angeles, Roddenberry was an unapologetic progressive who wanted to show a future where inclusiveness was the norm, where war and poverty and disease were rare, where exploration was a worthy, even celebrated, endeavor.

The villain of the new movie has the opposite views. At the climactic moment of the movie, he longs for a return to the past.

“We change,” Kirk tells him. “We have to. Otherwise we keep fighting the same battles.” It’s a fitting callback to Roddenberry’s pragmatic, optimistic vision.

I’m a big believer in the power of fiction to teach important lessons about how we should live. That “Star Trek” continues to do so half a century after the Enterprise first zoomed across our TV screens is a testament to the enduring power of hope.

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: