The way we were: Poonam Saxena looks back on the magic of Star Trek
The Original Series sparked such a frenzy when it was aired on Doordarshan in 1984, that crowds gathered before public TV sets on Sunday mornings.
It was the first science-fiction show on Doordarshan. Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS; 1966-69), beamed into Indian living rooms in 1984, the same year as our first homegrown soap opera, Hum Log.
It was set in the 23rd century, with the crew of the starship USS Enterprise on an epic five-year journey to “explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before”. As this team traversed the galaxy at warp speed, they encountered hostile aliens, long-dead cultures, god-like beings. They time-travelled and fought deadly space battles. The show was like nothing we’d seen before.
September is celebrated as Star Trek month because it is when TOS aired its first episode in the US, in 1966. It ran for three seasons and enjoyed modest success, but it became the pop-culture juggernaut it is today after it was syndicated around the world.
That’s when the show’s core trio became global stars too, an unusual thing for television at the time. They were, of course, the charming, decisive, daring Captain Kirk (William Shatner), his cool and logical half-Vulcan first officer, Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and the ship’s skilled but irascible doctor, Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley).
The three men’s crackling chemistry at least partly explains why the show worked as it did. Because even when I watched it on Doordarshan, it was pretty clear that the rocks on unknown planets were made of foam. Some of the enemy aliens looked more comical than fearsome. And the shiny costumes of the otherworldly women were, well, out of this world.
But aside from the lead trio’s chemistry, there was the sheer novelty of this imagined universe crafted by Gene Roddenberry, in which the Enterprise glided past glowing planets in the starlit void of space, with its circular Bridge an array of beeping, blinking panels. The show stood out amid the other foreign series on Doordarshan, which were typically sitcoms such as I Love Lucy (1951) and Diff’rent Strokes (1978).
I rediscovered TOS on Netflix a few years ago and have since rewatched it. It is still my favourite of all the many Star Trek series. Its central theme — of a utopian, progressive, inclusive future for mankind in the stars — remains a beacon of hope. Take the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. Or Kirk’s curt response to a display of prejudice by a crew member: “Leave any bigotry in your quarters. There’s no room for it on the Bridge.”
Communications officer Uhura was played by a black actor, Nichelle Nichols, even as the civil rights movement unfolded in the US. Actor Whoopi Goldberg would later recall seeing Uhura for the first time: “I yelled out, ‘Momma! There’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’”
Uhura and Kirk famously made history with American TV’s first inter-racial kiss, in 1968, only a year after the US Supreme Court struck down a law against inter-racial marriage. Amid the Cold War, a Russian was introduced as the Enterprise navigator.
There was an Indian element too: the charismatic antagonist and super-being Khan Noonien Singh (played, albeit, by the Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban). And there was Lieutenant Rahda in Season 3, played by Naomi Pollack (who had previously played a Native American on the show). Rahda wore a bindi, a thrilling thing to see in a mainstream global hit at the time. (The Indian actor Persis Khambatta, for all those wondering, would come later; the stunning, bald navigator featured in the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)
TOS inspired at least two homegrown sci-fi shows on Doordarshan. There was Space City Sigma (1989), in which intergalactic humans — led by a commander, a communications officer, a cyborg and an inhouse doctor — fought an alien race. And Captain Vyom (1998), set in the 22nd century, in which Milind Soman pursued 12 criminals who had escaped from a prison on one of Jupiter’s moons.
Meanwhile, back in Star Trek month, 1984, The New York Times reported that TOS had become so popular that patients in a New Delhi hospital were crowding around the building’s sole TV set on Sunday mornings, to watch it. Eventually, hospital authorities removed the set, the report went on to say, because it was all proving to be too much of a distraction for the staff.
I know I would have been one of the people standing riveted before the TV. All these years on, the love affair continues.