All of this—plus non-fiction books, articles and TV documentaries about hydrogen bombs and guided missiles, the arms race and radiation—along with elements in the real world from the duck & cover drills in schools of the 50s to the fallout shelters of the early 60s-- all added up to a pretty pervasive view that the earth was doomed. It was not an unreasonable fear, either. Any moment of any day could bring the beginning of massive death and destruction from a thermonuclear exchange. Much of human civilization could be destroyed in hours and days.
Every international crisis brought the threat to mind—especially the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the world really seemed to be on the brink of thermonuclear war. But more than anything it was a mood—that much of the world could die in little more than an instant, at any moment—that permeated everyday life in the early 1960s.
Nuclear destruction wasn’t the only kind of apocalypse people worried about. By the late 60s, environmental destruction, pollution and overpopulation were becoming doomsday concerns. Vietnam brought new turmoil. But nuclear war was still pretty high on the list. In 1966, Star Trek's first season, the U.S. alone had some 32,000 thermonuclear bombs--enough to destroy humankind and much of the Earth many times over.
That’s how it was when Star Trek began. My favorite summary of what Star Trek meant in this historical context came from a 2004 interview I did with Michael Malotte, Commander of Starfleet (or president of the non-profit organization, the International Star Trek Fan Association, Inc.)
"I think the biggest appeal of Star Trek is that back in the 60s, when Gene did this," Malotte said, "most science fiction was about people who weren't on earth because they were escaping it, it was so overpopulated and polluted that people couldn't live on it, or it was a charred cinder because we'd screwed ourselves over. Gene's Star Trek was really the first science fiction of its time to show a future where we actually learn from our mistakes. We bettered ourselves and we banded together, and we headed out for the stars. "