Why Star Trek is as San Franciscan as Sourdough Bread

May 17, 2013 at 11am
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(San Francisco’s first appearance in the Trek universe, in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture) 

Star Trek is known for boldly going where no one has gone before, but Star Trek Into Darkness, the franchise’s latest offering, spends about 50 of its 130 minutes in a place millions of us have already been: San Francisco. In Star Trek’s fictional universe, the city is home to Starfleet Headquarters – more or less the capital of the galaxy – and Captain Kirk and his successors have found reason to return to the Bay Area again and again in Trek’s nearly 50-year history. Here are a few reasons why San Francisco’s relationship with Star Trek can be expected to live long and prosper: 

Recognizability: Like the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, the Golden Gate Bridge tacitly situates our heroes on Earth, which is important since they’re usually somewhere else. There are a handful of landmarks that could do this job – the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China, for example – but San Francisco’s distinct geography makes it recognizable from a bird’s (or a starship’s) eye view as well. Inland cities fail this test: at a certain altitude, it’s hard to distinguish Paris from Tulsa. The overhead view was used to great effect in J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot, when the villain launches a drill from space into the San Francisco Bay, just a stone’s throw off Fort Point. 

 Here’s the drill descending toward the peninsula:

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And here it is about to strike. Marin is up top; Golden Gate Park is just visible at bottom left.

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Cutting-edge technology: Silicon Valley didn’t exist when Star Trek first aired in 1966, but it’s no secret that the tech mecca has subsequently brought several Trek technologies into the real world – notably smartphones, tablets, and speech recognition software. Some programmers at Google even admitted recently that they’re consciously working to develop other specific Trek devices. 

Progressive culture: The United Nations’ founding charter was signed in San Francisco, and Star Trek's casts are famously diverse – both by the show's fictional standards (e.g., a Klingon serving alongside humans) and in the real world (where else on TV could you find a Russian, a Japanese man, an alien, a black woman, and a corn-fed white Iowan working together as equals in the 1960s?). The Bay Area is not exactly free of race- and class-based conflicts, but San Francisco’s reputation as an inclusive city fits Star Trek to a T. As it happens, the city made its first Trek appearance in 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, just a year after Harvey Milk took his seat on the Board of Supervisors. 

LGBT identity: Star Trek has encountered species with three genders, no genders, and those which swap genders over a lifetime. It has also explored male pregnancy and a society in which women are the historically dominant sex. Furthermore, in the future BART and Muni have been replaced by a mass-transit system delightfully named “Trans Francisco” – which also happens to be the name of a 2010 documentary about transgender people in the city. Here’s a train stop in the Mission:

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(Screengrab from the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Non Sequitur”

Shipbuilding: The U.S.S. Enterprise was built in a San Francisco shipyard, just like countless Navy vessels during World War II. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was well acquainted with this association, as he served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps, and crossed the Pacific in Navy vessels. (Legendary art director Matt Jefferies, who designed the original Enterprise and many of its iconic sets, was also a pilot in Europe and Africa during the war). And Star Trek's captains borrow many customs from the Navy, from their ranking system to the boatswain’s whistle ahead of ship-wide announcements to burying lost crewmen at space. 

Reasons why Starfleet should NOT be in San Francisco: Despite Star Trek’s abundant cultural ties to SF, even a non-Trekkie could think of a few reasons why Starfleet should have been built far away from the Bay. Recently I asked Alan Dean Foster, one of the writers of the first Trek movie, about this, and he had this to say: 

“Given the choice myself, I would have opted for a more geologically central and stable and more climatologically transparent location, with more room for expansion (assuming that real estate in the future will not be free for the taking). New Mexico, for example… where the Spaceship One/Virgin Galactic folks are operating from… 

 “On the other hand," he added, "the food in SF is better.”

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