In case you've been living under a rock, yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the debut of Star Trek on American television, and as fans used to say back in the day, "Star Trek Lives!" A few weeks ago, I got contacted by Charlie Jane Anders from Wired, who asked me to contribute my thoughts for an article she was writing that asked the question, "What if Star Trek Had Never Existed?" I thought of it as a chance to do some speculative fiction about the alternative history of speculative fiction. Since her article has now appeared, I thought it would be interesting to share my full response with my readers. One always says more to reporters than ends up in the article, but in this case, I got more than a little carried away in true Trekker fashion. First, I may be one of the few people who has seen multiple episodes of The Lieutenant, the television series which Gene Roddenberry made prior to Star Trek, and this series gives us some clue of what would have happened in his career if he did not produce Star Trek. Roddenberry always claimed that Star Trek was a way to inject serious ideas into network television and reflected his frustrations with what he couldn't do in a more realistic format. But in fact, The Lieutenant dealt consistently with the social issues of the time in the context of a serviceman drama in a more direct, less allegorical fashion. Roddenberry first worked with several members of the Star Trek cast on this series.Nichelle Nichols, for example, was the guest star on an episode which dealt with racial discrimination and black frustration, getting more lines in that one episode than she got in Star Trek as a whole, and developing a much more complex character than Uhura.
So, we can imagine a cop series by Roddenberry as continuing along that same line, dealing with some of the controversial topics of his times, in much the same way that slightly later series such as Police Story and The Bold Ones did. I see Roddenberry as someone who took the "ideas" focused television drama of the 1950s anthology series (represented by someone like Rod Serling) and integrated them into genre television formulas at a time when the episodic series was becoming the dominant format on the medium. To me, this suggests that he might have been a significant television author even in the absence of Star Trek, where-as Roddenberry spent the rest of his career trying out other science fiction formats, trying to reinvent Star Trek. As much as I love Trek, it would have been interesting to see what Roddenberry was able to do in other genres.
Think about the state of science fiction as a genre in the 1960s. You are right that the Space Race was intensifying across this period, and there was a growing interest in science and technology, which would have been expressed via popular culture one way or another. Without Trek, these impulses were entering television in three ways. First, through the fantastic sitcoms -- ranging from the justly obscure It's About Time to the ever-rerun I Dream of Jeannie (both of which have astronaut protagonists) and extending out to things like The Munsters, The Adams Family, My Mother the Car, My Favorite Martian, etc. Second, through the Irwin Allen series -- which were also campy and spectacle-focused rather than ideas-focused: Lost in Space but also Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. And third, through anthology based series, such as Outer Limits and later Night Gallery, both of which are off-shoots of the ground-breaking Twilight Zone. None of these take us where Star Trek took science fiction on television -- adventures involving recurring characters which take us to new worlds that become vehicles for asking core questions about the nature of humanity.
We might also think about what science fiction in literature was during this period. Painting with broad strokes, the decade saw the emergence of social science fiction as a dominant subgenre (moving away from hard SF's focus on technological change) and with this shift, we are seeing a large number of works by feminist science fiction writers like Joanna Russ and Ursula LeGuin. More women are pouring into Science Fiction fandom which is why Star Trek fandom drew so many women in its foundational years (more on this in a moment). Part of what drew them was the social focus of many of the best Star Trek episodes, including recurring interests in accepting difference and some half-hearted representations of women in professional roles.
A second major trend in science fiction is represented by Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology -- a generation of writers experimenting with the language of science fiction in highly reflexive ways, pushing for more literary respectability, and often exploring themes of alien sexuality. If we look at the science fiction writers Gene Roddenberry drew upon to write Star Trek, many of them come from this second group, including Ellison himself ("City on the Edge of Forever") but also Theodore Sturgeon ("Amok Time," "Shore Leave") and Norman Spinrad ("The Doomsday Machine "). So part of what Trek did was bring these developments in SF literature onto television and it is not clear which other producer of that period would have been able to bridge between these realms. Part of what made this work, though, was Roddenberry was also keeping the peace with older SF conventions -- especially a kind of technological utopianism, where improvements in communication, transportation, and manufacturing technologies have helped to resolve many of Earth's current problems. We can think about the communicator, the transporter, and the Replicator as magic devices which embody the possibility of technological enhancement as overcoming scarcity.
The 1960s is a more fertile period for science fiction in the cinema than many people recall, suggesting that we would have gotten to Star Wars and the improvements of special effects one way or another. But the trend there was towards a darker vision of the future, one which sees Earth's problems as deepening rather than being resolved through technological change. Some touchpoints here would include Panic in Year Zero, The Last Man on Earth, Crack in the World, Fairenheit 451, Fantastic Voyage, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Marooned, and especially The Planet of the Apes franchise. Extend this list just a few more years into the 1970s and you get The Adromeda Strain, A Clockwork Orange, The Omega Man, THX 1138, Silent Running, Soylent Green, and West World. Of these, Planet of the Apes was the most commercially successful and one that has only recently been relaunched to some critical or commercial success.
So, what if Planet of the Apes would have been the template for future SF rather than Star Trek? It would have been a bit goofy and larger-than-life though much less campy than Lost in Space at its worst Carrot people moments; it would still have dealt with core social issues, including racism and nuclear war, in an allegorical manner; it would have been a darker vision of what humans had become (including apocalyptic destruction) rather than the promise of a better world that Star Trek offered us. It seems a bit more far fetched but what if 2001: A Space Odyssey had become the template -- we might have ended up with something closer to Space: 1999, which was television's attempt to duplicate Kubrick's critical success without his artistic vision. It is cold, lifeless, and ponderous.
A final line of thought. Star Trek proved to be a watershed event in the development of modern fandom. Star Trek was the first media property to get a critical mass of fans, and thus, became the platform around which fan fiction and fan vidding developed. Star Trek drew in significant number of female fans who developed a distinctively different relationship to the genre than could be found in male-centered literary SF fandom. A particular set of ideas about gender and sexuality emerge there which were shaped both by feminist SF and Roddenberry's particular mix of genre elements and social causes. Roddenberry worked closely with those fans from the start -- previewing the pilot at World-Con and collaborating with them to develop the letter writing campaign that helped promote the visibility of the series and keep it on the air. In many ways, we can see this as the very start of the media industry's current fascination with "fan engagement." So, for both fans and producers, Star Trek shaped what fandom looks like. The other series which generate this intense fan following during the late 1960s was Man From UNCLE. What would San Diego Comic-Con look like today if it had been organized around spies, cops, and detectives, as opposed to space operas and super-heroes? That really would have been an alternative universe.
Would most of these trends have developed one way or another? Sure, I don't think one series determines the evolution of popular media, but we would have a branching effect. Science fiction emerges as a popular genre, but perhaps with a different mix of genre elements, perhaps with a more pessimistic world view or a more campy tone, perhaps with a less active and creative fan community.