It has been over 50 years since the first time Captain James Kirk proclaimed the mission of the Enterprise and its goal to “boldly go where no man has gone before.” Despite being a niche television show by that era’s standards, “Star Trek” has managed not only to endure but become more popular then ever. “Star Trek” memes proliferate the internet and similar sci-fi shows, like “Farscape” and “Battlestar Galactica” have all tried to emulate the original premise of the show.
The original series and its sequels and spin-off are also now available on streaming sites, delighting new audiences with its campy aesthetics and compelling plots.
But why is “Star Trek” so popular?
What makes it so enduring that “Star Trek” memes, like Picard facepalming are still widely circulated years after the show and its sequels have gone of the air?
Take a deep dive into what made “Star Trek,” so enduring as well as its effects on popular culture and the internet.
The Ideals of Star Trek
Before there were Star Trek memes, there was the opening monologue.
Long before there were sarcastically surprised Kirk memes and massive conventions for “Trekkies,” there were only a handful of visionaries. But the main driving force behind it all was Gene Roddenberry, a writer and producer. Roddenberry had a long running love of science fiction and how could he not?
The 1960s was the height of the Space Race, the technological conflict between the United States and the U.S.S.R. Lunar landings, interstellar flight and astronauts seized the public imagination. Roddenberry and his contemporaries were eager for a bright future, ushered in by science and understanding.
The cultural zeitgeist of the era was optimistic, brazenly moving forward from the shadows of World War II. Fiction of the time was equally positive, patriotic and idealistic. The concept of such an appalling and satirical villain, such as Homelander, would have been unthinkable at the time.
Roddenberry, and eventually other writers such as the legendary D.C. Fontana, wanted to build a world of positivity, science and enlightenment, but also one of danger, risks and conflict. Some of the central tenets of “Star Trek” include the following concepts.
The Wonder of Exploration
“Star Trek” was so appealing because it explored new worlds. At a time when society was eager for new information about the cosmos, the show provided audiences with a glimpse of what could be waiting out there among the stars. Roddenberry’s background as a writer for television Westerns highlighted the wonders of pioneering, exploration and discovery.
The crew of the Enterprise weren’t soldiers out for conquest; they were cosmic pioneers, expanding the horizons of humanity. Much of the plot of the original series revolves around not only exploring new planets, but also exploring new technologies, new peoples and challenging the limits of what is known.
Exploration in the series did not necessarily mean subjugation, colonization or violence. Quite the opposite in fact. The show could be argued to showcase that true exploration wasn’t just about uncovering new places and peoples but also about discovering better aspects of the self.
The Confluence of Logic and Emotion
Although Captain Kirk is an invaluable and important main character, there’s no denying that the show would not have been as memorable without Science Officer Spock. The Vulcan member of the Enterprise crew may not be the subject of many popular “Star Trek” memes, but his inclusion highlighted the importance of logic and reasoning. Spock’s cold deliberation often helped the crew avoid confrontation and approach problems with rational solutions.
However, Spock’s devotion to logic, while important, also needed to be tempered by compassion and empathy. The show was not shy about showcasing that although there are scenarios that require one more than the other, a truly progressive and effective team needed both to excel. During a time when science was starting to become mainstream, “Star Trek” helped popularize the notion that logic and reasoning were excellent tools to one’s life, so long as it was combined with decency and kindness.
A Bright Future for All
“Star Trek” was visionary in more than one facet. Yes, the writers dared to imagine alien worlds and advanced civilizations with awesome technology, but they also commented on what human society could and should be. The world of “Star Trek” showcased an egalitarian society, where anyone could rise to greatness no matter their race or creed.
The character of Lieutenant Nyota Uhura was groundbreaking for a plethora of reasons. She was a Black woman who was not a servant but an invaluable member of the crew. Nichelle Nichols, the amazing actor who portrayed Uhura on screen once expressed a desire to leave the cast. She rethought the decision when Martin Luther King Jr. explained the importance of the role. Uhura served as a role model for Black women everywhere and represented them on television. Nichols and Shatner, who played Kirk, also ensured that they portray the first interracial kiss on national television.
The same could be said of Hikaru Sulu, the helmsman of the Enterprise of Japanese descent, portrayed by an actor with similar heritage. The show was decades ahead of its time, fitting for a series set in the far future.
These ideals are eternal and enduring, representing positive wishes for the future of humanity. It’s no wonder the show is still highly regarded decades after it stopped airing. These ideals are part of the reason the show endured cancellation.
How Did Star Trek Endure?
Despite all these groundbreaking and inspiring ideals espoused by the show, “Star Trek” was still a niche television show. At a time when there were only three major television networks, getting less than a third of the country’s entire viewership was a death sentence. The fans of the show during its original run helmed a massive letter writing campaign just to save it. Although the letter writing campaign persuaded the studio to make a third season, it was moved to the Friday night slot, ensuring its cancellation.
So if the original show ended after only three seasons, how did it become so popular as to launch at least five related television shows? The show even has six feature films and an animated series, the latter of which is the source for the surprised Kirk meme.
From a distribution standpoint, “Star Trek” endured because the original series made it to three seasons. This was the minimum requirement for shows to become eligible for syndication. Even though the main studio no longer made new episodes, countless local studios around the country began broadcasting “Star Trek” episodes. It helped that these episodes were broadcast during the day, ensuring that young children coming home from school and others could watch. This helped the show remain in the public’s eye and get a new crop of fans.
By the time these fans grew up, there was enough buzz and hype for the studio to revisit the show with a sequel series. “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was an instant success, with a stellar cast and better looking effects. Unlike the original series, this show was beloved by the network and audiences, going on for 7 seasons. Various episodes promoted the ideals espoused by the original series along with other more modern concepts. It even gave people the much-shared frustrated Captain Picard meme and another still of Picard facepalming.
The sequel series was so beloved, it launched two spin-offs in the 90s while it was still on air. Although the original series had already done much to cement itself as a science-fiction icon and television landmark, these additional series helped cultivate broader audiences for the show and enabled the franchise to expand into the 21st century.
Star Trek Memes and the Internet
Even if you somehow didn’t watch the shows or the three very successful film reboots, you’ve probably still encountered concepts and images from the show in the form of memes. “Star Trek” memes have been used as reactions and jokes for years.
Aside form image stills, other recognizable instances and details from the show are used for different things on the internet. It is a testament to the shows enduring powers that they remain relevant to digital cultures to this day. Some of the most popular “Star Trek” memes include the following.
The surprised Kirk meme is used to indicate or hint that the person posting isn’t actually shocked by the information or revelation provided. The image comes from an episode of the “Star Trek” animated series released in 1974. The stills come from Kirk’s reaction to another one of Bone’s and Spock’s many arguments.
One of the earliest “Star Trek” memes to gain popularity, the image first gained widespread use in 2012. It used as a way to express exasperation, frustration or anger towards a subject. It features Captain Jean-Luc Picard, portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart, angrily gesturing. The image comes from an episode of the prequel series in which the captain is reciting poetry.
No one seems to exude frustration like Captain Jean-Luc Picard. The image of Picard facepalming rose to popularity in 2007, only two years after the term “facepalm” hit the mainstream. As with most memes, the image still doesn’t come from a scene where Picard is actually frustrated. It comes from the episode “Deja Qu” during a scene where a character tells Picard that he is the closest thing they have to a friend.
Why is it important that there are “Star Trek” memes? How do they contribute to the show’s legacy? The fact is, memes, no matter how denigrated by others, are a blooming for of communication, a digital rendering of hieroglyphs. Each image is only meaningful because of communally decided meaning and specific backgrounds. The notion of such a language would have doubtless been intriguing for Spock.
They’re also evidence of the enduring power not just of the concept of “Star Trek,” but also of the lofty ideals espoused by the original show. Yes, “Star Trek” memes may be removed from their original contexts. But so long as they are relevant, there is every hope that those who view them will also be appreciative of the concepts and dreams first espoused by the show more than 50 years ago.