The impact of Star Trek on the entertainment industry and popular culture is obvious: a fifty-year run including five different TV shows (with a sixth starting next January), 13 feature films, countless books, and, quite literally, the mother of all fan followings.
Less obvious—though no less important—is the show’s influence on the scientific world. It’s a fascinating subject, engagingly told in Discovery’s Building Star Trek, premiering Sunday (September 4).
“It’s mind-blowing,” says executive producer (and Discovery’s VP of Programming) Ken MacDonald, “when you look at how much of our current technology, like cellphones and Bluetooth wireless, were actually envisioned, and in some cases inspired by, this little tight-budgeted show in 1966. It’s had an incredible influence on science.”
While Star Trek may have given us many tech products that we now take for granted, it also popularized a number of science-fiction concepts which are really being explored for the first time. As the documentary details, Lockheed-Martin has built a defensive laser; NASA’s Jet Propulsion laboratory is working on the teleportation of photons; the University of Rochester is developing a cloaking device; and the joint M.I.T./Caltech LIGO Observatory has been exploring gravitational waves and the fundamentals of warp drive.
“Gene Roddenberry was adamant that what was portrayed kind of had to be possible, or at least realistic given what they knew back then,” MacDonald continues, “but at the same time, the writers will also tell you that some of the inventions on the show were really created out of necessity, because of budgets. They didn’t have a lot of money to show a transport shuttle or use animation, so they invented a teleportation system as an easy way to get from A to B.”
With this week marking the 50th anniversary of Star Trek’s debut, the documentary—which features commentary from scientists and stars like Nichelle Nichols, Simon Pegg, and Karl Urban—also looks at the show’s importance in popular culture, and its underlying social context
“Many of the episodes can be metaphorically applied to the geopolitical issues of the time,” explains MacDonald, noting that Star Trek managed to roll the Cold War and the struggle for civil rights into its plotlines, even going as far as to broadcast TV’s first interracial kiss.
But for all of Star Trek’s forward-thinking and keen social commentary, this documentary proves that, for fans, there are few things more affecting than footage of the U.S.S. Enterprise studio model being lovingly preserved and restored at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
“It was really quite an incredible experience,” recalls MacDonald, “seeing the enthusiasm of the Smithsonian folks working on it, and the care they took to maintain the authenticity of the piece. The people who are restoring that model are the same people that restored the actual Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules for the museum, so that shows you how much importance they attach to it.”
“Star Trek has a lot of meaning for people,” he reflects. “There’s a respect for what the show did, especially among scientists and those interested in science. It was profoundly more impactful than shows that followed.”