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happy 42nd birthday, star trek!
how the wagon train to the stars became the best-beloved sci-fi cash cow of all time
by cheryl l
9.8.08
pop culture

Gene Roddenberry had originally pitched the idea as "Wagon Train to the stars" and as "Horatio Hornblower in space". In regards to his work, he said he pictured Star Trek as "a new world with new rules, I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics and intercontinental missiles. Indeed, we did make them on Star Trek: we were sending messages and fortunately they all got by the network."

Star Trek: The Original Series ("TOS") ran from September 8, 1966, through June 3, 1969 (although it lives on through syndication and of course, DVDs). It introduced a peacefully integrated crew who were on a five-year mission "to boldly go where no man has gone before". Here was the memorable first crew: cocky Captain James T. Kirk, the logical alien Mr. Spock, Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy, Montgomery Scott (a.k.a. "Scotty"), the beautifully exotic Uhura, Hikaru Sulu, and Pavel Chekov. As Roddenberry noted, the series was heavy with obvious parallels to national and world issues: class warfare, economics, racism, human rights, feminism, war and peace, authoritarianism, and sexism, to name a few. It introduced a world where humans had learned to get along with one another - not only to get along, but to explore deeply into space, where they had forged new alliances - and new enemies.

Star Trek struck a chord with people. It sought to break ground and to tell stories that could change your point of view, such as "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (ep. #70), a show with powerful lessons about racism and slavery.

The show so moved people, that a letter-writing campaign to NBC, organized by Bjo and John Trimble, helped keep the show on the air long enough to have three seasons. The first Trek convention was held in New York City in 1972, also organized by fans. Eventually, fan interest helped inspire the animated series (1973-74) and there was discussion of a "phase II" series, which never came to fruition. Demand and interest was strong enough, however, for a motion picture to be created, released in late 1979.

Between the original series re-runs and the success of the movie, enough interest was generated that more movies followed - the successful Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and the popular Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. There was enough new interest in Star Trek at this point to inspire a new series: The Next Generation (TNG).

TNG ran for seven seasons (1987-1994), during which two final TOS movies and the first of four TNG movies made it to the big screen.TNG was joined by Deep Space Nine (DS9, 1993-1999), and Voyager (VOY, 1995-2001). No other series on television could claim to have three series running in new, simultaneous episodes. These new series created depth and history to the Trek franchaise, presenting three very different crews in three very different situations. A few months after VOY ended, a "pre-series", Enterprise launched, running from 2001-2005; no new series are currently under development.

As the series developed, you could see the special effects and makeup improve. For example, the Klingons seen in the TOS episode "The Trouble With Tribbles" are very different looking from their counterparts in the TOS movies/TNG-and-later-era series, with far less pronounced facial ridges or body bulk. During the DS9 episode "Trials and Tribble-ations", the DS9 crew travel back in time to that point in time, and one of the crew challenges Worf (a Klingon) about the differences in physiology, Worf covers up the discrepancy by saying, "We do not discuss it with outsiders."

Along the way, real-world technology also caught up with much of the technology that had been inspired by Star Trek and its movies/series. Look at the communicators from TOS and their resemblance to today's flip-open mobile phones; or the earpiece Uhura wore to today's Bluetooth earpieces. Trek's PADDs (personal access display device) was the forerunner to Palm and Blackberries. MRI machines were inspired by Dr. McCoy's non-invasive diagnostic table. And what Trek geek didn't set up their computer at one time or another to be full of .WAVs that mimic the sounds of their favorite Trek show?

Star Trek inspired inventors, but it also inspired other fields. Dr. Mae Jemison, an African-American former astronaut, said that seeing Nichelle Nichols' portrayal of Lt. Uhura was what inspired her to be an astronaut. It should be noted as well that Nichols herself worked as a volunteer on a special for NASA after the TOS series ended, to help recruit women and minorities to the space program. You can also see clear influences of Trek in people working in science, engineering, anthropology and more. Following another letter-writing campaign, NASA named its prototype space shuttle the Enterprise

Even people who don't watch Trek recognize "Trekisms" - "Beam me up, Scotty"; "Live long, and prosper"; "Make it so." The Vulcan hand salute, the Vulcan neck pinch, the "red shirt curse" - all recognized parts of the fabric of our society - they transcend television and have an unconcious impact on our daily lives.

Star Trek is probably also one of the most widely-parodied shows in television - it does, after all, have 42 years of history to draw from. Many of the most popular animated shows (i.e. The Simpsons, Beavis & Butthead, Family Guy, Futurama) have done parody or tribute episodes. Trek is so pervasive and influential that even other science fiction shows and movies, such as Battlestar Gallatica, Farscape and Heroes have tipped their hat to Trek. The funny movie Free Enterprise not only poked gentle humor at Trekkies, but helped build Shatner some new fans as he showed off his more comic talents.

And perhaps in one of the most infamous moments, William Shatner - Captain Kirk himself - was guest-starring on Saturday Night Live and did a skit where he was featured as the guest of honor at a Trek convention. After the audience barrages him with questions about the minutae of the show, he finally loses his temper and rants at the fans, telling them to "Get a life!" He then gets reminded of his contractual obligations and quickly manages to improvise, telling the stunned fans that he was doing a re-enactment of the "evil" Kirk in the TOS episode "The Enemy Within".

Currently, there are no active shows, but Cryptic Studios' Star Trek Online MMORPG is eagerly awaited by legions of fans. The newest Star Trek movie is also due out in May 2009; like Enterprise, it is a "prequel" - a view of Kirk, Spock and Co. as younger Starfleet officers. Both are eagerly awaited by Trek fans.

So, turn on the DVD player and pop in your favorite Trek movie or show tonight, and pour yourself a glass of Romulan Ale or Aldebaran whiskey in salute. Here's lookin' at you, Star Trek.











ABOUT CHERYL L

Photographer. Writer. World traveler. Gamer. Avid reader. Computer enthusiast. Connecticut yankee-turned-Chicagoan. Hockey fan. Drives American. Eats organically and locally. Supports no-kill animal shelters and children's charities. Likes intelligent debate.

more about cheryl l

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COMMENTS

russ carr
9.14.08 @ 1:35p

I'm an evangelist for Battlestar Galactica -- the current version, not the original, which contained more cheese than a Swiss Colony catalog. The political machinations, the theological and metaphysical questions and the warts-and-all characters all tucked into a crunchy scifi shell -- it's simply amazing how great this show is.

But before I was a BSG fan, I was a Trek fan. I don't want to say that Trek is an entirely different show from BSG, because I don't think that's true. There are differences in tone and style and delivery, to be sure. But both have done what has always been paramount to science fiction: examining current culture through a lens of fantasy. Star Trek may have always been more blatant in its allegory -- preferring to drop anvils, relatively speaking -- but perhaps it's also easier to see those allegories through hindsight. Are we smarter audiences than those back in '67? More discerning? Tough to say.

Nevertheless, Trek prospered where none had before, and none have since. No other TV franchise has enjoyed Star Trek's kind of success: the ubiquity of its concepts, the recognition of its characters, or the wealth of its properties. Galactica will never enjoy that level of familiarity, but that's okay. That Trek paved the way for BSG is something that Ron Moore and countless fans will surely agree upon. So if we Galactica fans look upon yet another Trek anniversary -- and perhaps in a few months, the reinvigoration and reinvention of the franchise -- with a bit of envy, who can blame us? But with the impending end of our own show, perhaps we can look upon Star Trek: The Next Iteration with a bit of anticipation as well.



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