When Star Trek premiered on NBC in 1966, it stood out among the other shows on broadcast TV. It was bright, colorful, exciting, and above all, deeply optimistic about the future of humanity. That was by design. Creator Gene Roddenberry set out to imagine a world where human beings had not only taken their place in the stars, but also evolved beyond hatred - a message that only got louder as the franchise expanded in the 1990s.
But as with all major franchises, Star Trek has had to evolve to remain relevant into the 21st century. From Star Trek: The Next Generation to Star Trek: Enterprise and into Discovery and Picard, Roddenberry's creation has become more mature, more action-packed, and in many cases, darker than it was in the '60s. Characters use four-letter words! On Star Trek!
Journey with us into the Final Frontier, as we figure out how Star Trek has evolved from a thoughtful morality play about a future utopia into the gritty, dystopian action drama it is now.
- Photo: Star Trek: The Original Series / CBS Television Distribution
The Original Series Era: 1966-1974
TV Series: Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969), Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974)
The three seasons of The Original Series (or TOS, for short) remain classic television, not only for the quality of the writing and acting, but also because the show was often groundbreaking. Minority characters like Sulu and Uhura were rare on TV in the '60s.
Star Trek is also famous for featuring television's first-ever interracial kiss in 1968. Stories carried heavy allegorical messages about tolerance, the futility of war, and the nature of the human condition. Star Trek was, above all else, a thoughtful show that portrayed recognizable human behavior and fascinating moral quandaries. What it didn't do was spend a significant amount of time telling audiences what life was like on Earth in the distant future.
The earliest written materials outlining Gene Roddenberry's vision of what would become Star Trek don't spend much time on the sociopolitical situation on Earth, nor do they describe any particular worldview. In the first draft of Roddenberry's initial pitch document, dated March 11, 1964, he describes the show simply and generically: "A one-hour dramatic television series. Action - Adventure - Science Fiction."
He saw Star Trek as a way to tell typical dramatic stories of the time - Westerns, historical fiction, Twilight Zone-style social commentary - with a space-age setting. There was none of the grandiosity of Star Trek's utopian idealism at that point.
In the Star Trek writer's guide from Season 2 in 1967, words like "optimistic" start getting thrown around pretty frequently. The world Kirk and Spock inhabit isn't perfect, but it is meant to be populated by evolved, clever people who more often than not try to do the right thing. The guide does go to great lengths to prevent writers from being too optimistic about humanity, though. It asks for characters with a "believable mixture of strength, weakness, and foibles."
Amusingly, staffers are also told to "avoid long philosophical exchanges or tedious explanations of equipment." Of course, both would go on to be the bread and butter of later incarnations of Star Trek, particularly The Next Generation.
- Photo: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan / Paramount Pictures
The Original Series Movie Era: 1979-1986
Films: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
A decade after it was unceremoniously canceled by NBC, Star Trek returned, graduating to the big screen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The first Star Trek film gave fans their initial extended glimpse at life on Earth, as we get reacquainted with Jim Kirk at Starfleet Headquarters in San Francisco.
The Motion Picture is the real beginning of Star Trek's preoccupation with the perfect future, both an outlier in the face of the five films that followed it and a harbinger of things to come. Roddenberry himself wrote the novelization of the film, which allowed him to expand on his unique predictions of where Earth's civilization was headed. There are references to "new humans," cranial implants, global peace and prosperity, and intellectual superiority.
All of that heady material would get junked with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Paramount marginalized Roddenberry after the underperformance of The Motion Picture and placed TV producer Harve Bennett in charge of the franchise. Along with director Nicholas Meyer, Bennett charted a course for Star Trek that was less cerebral, more action-packed, and closer to the tone of The Original Series. The Wrath of Khan was a massive success, both critically and financially. It was melodramatic and occasionally quite dark, pushing thoughts of utopia aside to tell a swashbuckling adventure story. This would be the dominant form of Star Trek storytelling for another decade.
As popular as The Wrath of Khan was, it wasn't until the fourth Trek movie, The Voyage Home, that the series fully hit the mainstream pop-culture consciousness. The Voyage Home was the first (and only) Star Trek film to be an outright comedy, as the crew of the Enterprise become fish out of water when they travel back in time to 1984.
Voyage Home was a box-office smash, becoming the highest-grossing Trek film ever until 2009's reboot. Much of the humor of that movie came out of our crew from the future bumping up against a cruder, more volatile society. This served to further underline the popular impression of Star Trek's characters being "better than" those of us living in reality in the barbaric present day. The success of The Voyage Home changed Star Trek yet again, convincing Paramount Pictures to bring its erstwhile creator back into the fold.
- Photo: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine / CBS Television Distribution
The Next Generation Era: 1987-2005
TV Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001), Star Trek: Enterprise (2001-2005)
Films: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Star Trek: Generations (1994), Star Trek: First Contact (1996), Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
With Star Trek once again a hot commodity in the wake of The Voyage Home, it made all the sense in the world to capitalize on that popularity with a television spinoff series to run parallel to the Original Series movies. Paramount Pictures enlisted an aging Gene Roddenberry to create and guide this new show, which became Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The writers' bible for The Next Generation is preoccupied with something The Original Series only hinted at: everyday life in the future. The Next Generation answered questions about what people did with their free time, how they dressed, what kinds of food were popular, and what sort of economic system existed in the 24th century. The Star Trek future did away with money and traditional means of exchanging goods and services. Earth enjoyed full equality of class, nationality, and ethnicity.
With Roddenberry back at the helm of Star Trek on television, he could more fully explore his vision for humanity's growth and maturity. The Enterprise-D's mission is not as simple as the original ship's mandate of defense, diplomacy, and exploration. Now, Starfleet is tasked with answering the ultimate question of the meaning of life.
To quote the writers' guide directly, Roddenberry says the Enterprise-D will "provide further understanding of the universe and humanity's place in it." This kind of philosophical curiosity wasn't common on TV in the '80s and '90s. Roddenberry even says the crew of the ship were selected for their ability to "transcend their human failings" to become "the kind of people we aspire to be ourselves."
That's the positive perspective on the issue. You could also say Star Trek became overly moralistic and preachy in The Next Generation and its spinoffs: Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. The TNG Season 1 finale, "The Neutral Zone," sees the Enterprise encountering a 300-year-old sleeper ship with passengers shocked at the future they've woken up to. Captain Picard lays out all the ways society has improved in the 24th century to these gobsmacked guest stars, one of the first and most explicit descriptions of Roddenberry's utopia on screen.
Meanwhile, the movies featuring the Original Series crew retained their bleaker, more morally ambiguous tone. That led to one final conflict between Roddenberry's idealism and Nicholas Meyer's more grounded approach. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Captain Kirk admits to Spock that he is deeply prejudiced toward Klingons for the demise of his son, David, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.
Roddenberry reportedly despised this plot point and believed that prejudice toward Klingons had no place in Star Trek's enlightened future. Roddenberry and Meyer's long-running disagreement over how to depict humanity in the future came to a head with a shouting match that Meyer has since said he regrets. But Meyer remains steadfast in his belief that the utopianism of Star Trek was misplaced. Meyer told the Los Angeles Times in 2011, "Mr. Roddenberry really believed in the perfectability of man, of humans, and I have yet to see the evidence for this.”
When Roddenberry passed, stewardship of the franchise, both on TV and in film, fell to executive producer Rick Berman, who went to great lengths to preserve the spirit of the creator's vision while making Star Trek palatable for mainstream audiences hungry for epic space entanglements. Deep Space Nine would challenge this utopian vision with a dose of cynicism, and the Next Generation movies had more in common with '90s action films than the TV show they were based on, but Star Trek's human future had now fully embraced the idea that Earth had banished prejudice, poverty, hunger, and disease on a near-universal scale.
- Photo: Star Trek: Into Darkness / Paramount Pictures
The Reboot Era: 2009-Present
TV Series: Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present), Star Trek: Short Treks (2018-present) Star Trek: Picard (2020-present), Star Trek: Lower Decks (2020-present)
Films: Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Star Trek Beyond (2016)
The cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005 signaled the end of 18 years straight with a Star Trek series on television. It was also the end for Rick Berman, who had overseen a massive expansion of the Star Trek franchise into a coherent cinematic universe long before Marvel took over cinemas.
After four years on the shelf, Star Trek returned (again) with J.J. Abrams's feature film reboot. A new Kirk, Spock, and McCoy took flight in a redesigned Enterprise. A franchise that had developed a reputation for being stodgy was given an injection of fun, excitement, and youth. The optimism and intellectual curiosity of the TNG era were stripped away to make Star Trek more accessible to general audiences. It worked like a charm, and Star Trek '09 became the biggest box-office grosser of the series without factoring for inflation.
And just like with the previous cinematic record-holder, The Voyage Home, Star Trek '09 eventually led to a resurrection of Star Trek on television. Star Trek: Discovery launched on the CBS All-Access platform in 2017 and quickly defined itself as the most "adult" Trek in terms of mature content like curse words and other more salacious material not usually associated with the franchise. Discovery embraced melodrama rather than the heady stuff of Roddenberry or Berman. As a prequel to the original Star Trek, Discovery's emphasis on grandiose interpersonal conflict and a galactic skirmish with the Klingon Empire could be explained away as elements of a less enlightened era.
But when Star Trek: Picard, a direct sequel to the events of the Next Generation era, debuted in 2020, those changes weren't as logical. Characters on Picard often reference money, either having it or needing it. The character Raffi Musiker is a substance user living a life of quiet desperation in a modest trailer in the middle of the desert. This runs counter to previous depictions of 24th-century Earth as an idyllic paradise where humans spend their free time attempting to "better themselves," as Picard says to Ruby in Star Trek: First Contact. The only Starfleet officers we meet are isolationist. Whatever nobility there was in the aims of Starfleet isn't easily identifiable on screen.
The state of the real world as these Star Trek films and TV shows come out is far different from what it was in the '60s or the '90s. Star Trek adapted to the times, but it's also following the lead of what worked in the movie series. The second J.J. Abrams film is literally called Star Trek Into Darkness.
Another reason for the change in tone is Star Trek's actors and creatives, like Nicholas Meyer, have long advocated for a grittier depiction of humanity than the one advocated by Roddenberry. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter about a pivotal scene between Picard and former Borg Seven of Nine, Commander Riker actor (and Star Trek: Picard director) Jonathan Frakes is quoted as saying the Next Generation cast "never could have done a scene like this" on their show, because Roddenberry never would have allowed interpersonal conflict.
He also might have taken umbrage with the Federation abandoning the Romulans during a near-extinction-level event like the destruction of their sun, or some of the more gory acts the series has depicted. The frustration with the utopian message of Star Trek colored the development of Star Trek VI, the Next Generation writers' room, and the eventual development of Deep Space Nine, which centered on a grim galactic conflict between the Federation and the Dominion.
Of course, saying the humans of Star Trek were "perfect" and therefore underdeveloped characters is a bit of an oversimplification of what Star Trek evolved into. The Next Generation writers' guide even said plainly that the 24th-century characters still had "human faults and weaknesses," which is the basis of most good drama. Star Trek's characters were never perfect, but they were, as Roddenberry said, "the kind of people we aspire to be ourselves." They were always highly competent, curious, compassionate, thoughtful, and dedicated to standing up for the values of equality and justice.
Star Trek was not the sole creation of Gene Roddenberry. Writers like D.C. Fontana, David Gerrold, Michael Piller, and others guided the franchise forward through the decades. The one constant was the humanist point of view that we are capable of greatness and heroism. It remains to be seen if that part of Star Trek survives the 21st century.