Star Trek's 40th Anniversary

Captain's Log, Stardate: Sept. 8, 2006 -- It's now 40 years after the debut of the original "Star Trek" TV series, the "wagon train to the stars" which offered "space as the final frontier."

While the original TV series was cancelled after just three seasons, it spawned four spinoff series, 10 -- and soon to be 11 -- feature films, and a multitude of video games, books, and action figures

It's become a $4 billion franchise with millions of fans all over the world. They are celebrating the anniversary of the pioneer TV show's debut on Sept. 8, 1966, with parties in locales from the Space Needle in Seattle to glitzy Las Vegas. "Trekkies" sporting pointy ears or dressed as Klingons are out in force.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I don't consider myself a Trekkie. I've seen some of the countless reruns of the TV show, and I've enjoyed the movies, but I would argue that the phenomenon that is "Star Trek" extends beyond its base of die-hard fans. It has become a cultural icon that represents a kinder, gentler version of the future.

The show, which promised "to boldy go where no man has gone before," did just that -- breaking racial and gender stereotypes.

At the helm of the starship Enterprise was Japanese-American actor George Takei. Just 20 years before he made his debut as an actor, he and his family had been sent to a U.S.-run detention camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

And before woman's liberation had hit full stride, "Star Trek" had, as its technical officer, a woman, Lt. Uhura, who, despite her very short skirts, could be considered TV's first feminist. Her role as a communications expert was a stark contrast from most of the female characters portrayed on TV at that time -- the perky wife as embodied in Mary Tyler Moore, or the perfect mother found in June Cleaver.

Nichelle Nichols, an African American, played Lt. Uhura. Nichols shared television's first interracial kiss with "Star Trek's" brash Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner.

It turns out Lt. Uhura was an inspiration to NASA's first female African American astronaut to go into space, Mae Jemison.

Jemison recalls watching "Star Trek" while growing up in Chicago.

"Here was this wonderful crew, that was composed of people from all over the world," Jemison says on her website. "Different kinds of genders and ethnicity: and so it affirmed what I always believed in, that I was going to go into space."

So Jemison was "thrilled" when she was asked to play a small speaking part on "Star Trek: the Next Generation," on an episode called "Second Chances." She will be a featured guest at one of this weekend's anniversary celebrations.

One month after the original "Star Trek's" final episode aired in June 1969, NASA's Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.

"'Star Trek' fans helped raise the idea of going into space," says Adam Malin, who along with his friend, Gary Berman, started the first Star Trek fan club in 1971. Over the years, they've gone on to produce some of the biggest Trekkie conventions.

To "Star Trek" fans, astronauts are "the real life science fiction heroes," says Malin, who,remembers watching the first episode with his dad when he was just 10 years old. "I've been a fan all my life."

Malin says the franchise is stronger than ever and thinks he knows why.

"It goes back to Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future -- a society where there are no divisions based on ethnicity, gender, and religion...where everybody exists in harmony," he says, referring to the executive producer of the original series.

Malin says the TV show was way ahead of its time, not just socially, but also technologically. The crew communicated with a flip-style device that cell phone developers say influenced their design.

"'Star Trek' showed where technology might be in 200 years from now," says Malin. "But it extrapolated much faster than what was in 'Star Trek' and cell phone technology came 30 years later, not 300 years later."

While that is very cool, indeed, I still think the show's lasting legacy is what Malin refers to as Roddenberry's "vision of the human condition."

As Captain Kirk, and those captains who followed in his footsteps, traveled through a myriad of galaxies, they showed respect: Respect for their different shipmates, who often were not humans, for their environment, and for many of the creatures they encountered. (Except of course, the aliens they thought might harm them. Those, they blasted to eternity with their phaser guns.)

But for "Star Trek's" pioneering spirit, which has endured for 40 years, exploring unknown frontiers, and knocking down racial and gender barriers along the way, I say, "Live long and prosper."