Friday, 14 October 2016

Star Trek - The Undiscovered Future

BBC Radio 4 broadcast: 3rd September 2016

The first episode of Star Trek aired half a century ago, on 8th September 1966. Space medic and broadcaster Kevin Fong asks what happened to the progressive and optimistic vision of future that the iconic television series promised him?

In 1964, Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry repeatedly failed to convince US television studios and networks to buy his idea for a new kind of science fiction series. Eventually he sold NBC the concept of a sci-fi story in which the human race explored space, united in racial harmony and with benign global purpose.

This was the era of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the western world: mutual nuclear annihilation had almost happened in 1963. The US and USSR were engaged in the Space race.

Yet in Star Trek, American captain James Kirk had a Russian, Pavel Chekov, in charge of the Enterprise's weapon systems.

The battle for civil rights in the United States was also coming to ahead. Gene Roddenberry cast a black woman as fourth in command of the Enterprise - Lieutenant Uhura, the ship's communications officer.

The Vietnam war was ramping up and relations between Mao's China and the United States were at a low. Yet another senior figure on the Enterprise's bridge was Mr Sulu, who Roddenberry wanted as a representative of Asia.

How far have we voyaged towards Star Trek's vision of the future and what of it is likely to be fulfilled or remain undiscovered in the next 50 years?

Kevin Fong presents archive material of the likes of Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura) talking about the inception and filming of the original Star Trek series, and their thoughts about Roddenberry's vision of the future and its impact in the United States at the time.

For example, Nichols relates how she had a chance encounter with Martin Luther King the day after she had told Roddenberry that she intended to leave Star Trek after the first series. King told her he was her number fan and almost demanded that she didn't give up the role of Uhura, because she was an uniquely empowering role model on American television at the time.

For a perspective from today, Kevin also talks to George Takei who played Mr Sulu. Takei laments the ethnically divisive politics of the United States in 2016.

He meets Charles Bolden - the first African American to both command a shuttle mission and lead NASA as its chief administrator. In the age of the International Space Station, he compares himself to the 'Admiral of Star Fleet'. But the former astronaut also talks about the anger he first felt in 1994 when he was asked to fly the first Russian cosmonaut ever to board an American space shuttle.

Kevin also talk to cultural broadcaster and Star Trek fan Samira Ahmed about the sexual and racial politics of the Original series.

Rod Roddenberry, the television producer son of Gene Roddenberry, tells Kevin about his father, his father's politics and creative vision, and why Star Trek still endures, even though its future remains unattained.

Producers: Andrew Luck-Baker and Jennifer Whyntie.

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