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The world (and the universe) according to ‘Star Trek’

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By Rob Witwer

I didn’t watch much television as a kid, but I was a big fan of “Sesame Street.” When “Street” came on at 4 o’clock, I’d hold my breath waiting for Ernie and Bert. Then, at about age 5, I turned on the TV, and who should grace the screen but William Shatner, in all his over-the-top glory, starring as Captain Kirk? From that moment on, “Sesame Street” was a thing of the past.

Love it or hate it, there can be no denying the cultural impact of “Star Trek” since it first debuted in 1966. Its creator, Gene Roddenberry (whose name is famous enough that Microsoft Word recognizes it), pitched it as a Western set in outer space. But it was much more than that.

The original “Star Trek” was as much about morality as adventure. It explored difficult political issues, like the futility of nuclear war. It featured television’s first interracial kiss. And as only science fiction can do, the show played out hypothetical stories about the role and responsibilities of humanity in a greater universe.

But at its core, like James Bond or “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” is about action and adventure. The crew hurtles off into space with no apparent agenda other than to encounter aliens and fight, befriend or, in Kirk’s case, seduce them. The special effects, even for the time, weren’t especially spectacular, and the choreography of the fight scenes was often laughable. But something held it all together.

I think we all yearn for something beyond our immediate experience, and “Star Trek” appeals to that. When there were still blank spaces on the map, that void was filled by exploration — tales of people like Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson, Christopher Columbus. But as the world filled in, people began to look skyward to satisfy their desire for mystery. Set against the backdrop of Sputnik and the space program, “Star Trek” imagined what the future might hold.

Whatever we do, it’s good to give a little of our mind over to the unfamiliar. It keeps us fresh and interested in the world around us. And it can be fun, too.

I think I’ll catch the new “Star Trek” movie this weekend.

Rob Witwer, who grew up in Evergreen and currently lives in Genesee, is a former member of the state House of Representatives. May he live long and prosper.