How Star Trek conquered the universe

The 11th Star Trek movie is out. What accounts for the longevity of the kitschy 43-year-old franchise?

With the 11th Star Trek movie opening this week to a lot of buzz, the kitschy 43-year-old franchise is as strong as ever. What accounts for the longevity of a series that NBC canceled in 1969?

How popular is Star Trek?

As a multimedia, pop-culture phenomenon, it’s in the rarefied company of such mega-franchises as Superman, James Bond, and Star Wars. There have been 726 episodes of Star Trek’s various TV incarnations, along with 10 feature-length movies that have grossed some $1.2 billion. Merchandising—including home videos, action figures, games, toy phasers, and other interstellar tchotchkes—has pulled in more than $4 billion; somewhere on Earth, a Star Trek book is sold every six seconds. Star Trek has spawned an entire Klingon language and more websites than the federal government, and many of the series’ catchphrases—“Resistance is futile” and “Live long and prosper” among them—are part of the American idiom.

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Why the enduring fascination?

Star Trek’s simple but thought-provoking premise has proved to be irresistible. In virtually every version of Star Trek, a crew of humans and aliens sets off in a giant spaceship to explore strange new worlds and advance the frontiers of knowledge, while getting in and out of trouble. Devotees say the flexible format offers a convenient vehicle for delving into such universal themes as war, prejudice, power, and, yes, love. It’s also a lot of fun, with state-of-the-art special effects used to create a galaxy in which earthlings, having invented such useful tools as teleporting and warp drive, interact with the cybernetic Borg, telepathic Betazoids, and countless other exotic species.

Who likes this stuff?

Forty-year-old nerds who still live in their parents’ basement, for starters. But it obviously goes way beyond that iconic cohort. The ranks of Trekkies (or “Trekkers,” as many prefer to be called) include the Dalai Lama, New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., Bill Gates, and King Abdullah of Jordan, who made a guest appearance on a segment of Star Trek: Voyager. People who love Star Trek, says Washington Post writer Frank Ahrens, are “perhaps the oddest, smartest, and most intense” on the planet. The most devoted of them are compelled to decorate their homes in Star Trek motifs, dress up in exact replicas of Starfleet uniforms, attempt to reconcile inconsistencies between episodes, and assimilate gigabytes of trivia questions, e.g., What is the Vulcan time of mating called? (Pon farr, of course.)

Was Star Trek always this big?

Hardly. The original series, which ran from 1966 to 1969 on NBC, was a money-loser that never finished in the top 20. While some critics liked it, many didn’t; Variety called it a “dreary mess of confusion.” After the series was canceled, creator Gene Roddenberry made ends meet by touring the college circuit and selling Star Trek scripts, film clips, and other memorabilia. William Shatner, who played the heroic Capt. James T. Kirk, was reduced to living out of a camper and appearing in such clunker films as Kingdom of the Spiders.

So what turned it around?

Reruns. Syndicated to local markets in the early 1970s, Star Trek gradually accumulated a following of geeky viewers who virtually committed its 79 episodes to memory. By January 1972, they had cohered enough to gather for a full-fledged Star Trek convention in New York, complete with panel discussions, costume show, and a huckster’s room. Conventions proliferated and fan interest built throughout the decade; the explosive success of Star Wars, in 1977, jump-started efforts to revive the series, which had by then proved its commercial viability. In 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released to so-so reviews; some called it Star Trek: The Motion Sickness. But the critical and box-office success of its sequel, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), assured the future of the franchise. Between 1987 and 2005 an original Trek spinoff series was always on the air. With the release this week of a movie prequel to the original show—called, simply, Star Trek—the saga has come full circle.

Is Star Trek good science fiction?

Many purists don’t think so. Detractors, says London Daily Mail science editor Michael Hanlon, deride its “improbable technologies and implausible plots, held together with shaky gimmicks such as time travel, faster-than-light warp drives, and bad jokes.” Star Trek is “the McDonald’s of science fiction; it’s fast-food storytelling,” says author David Gerrold, himself a former Star Trek writer. “Every problem is like every other problem.”

So why hasn’t the series faded?

Once you get past the sometimes cheesy dialogue and moralizing, Star Trek offers a utopian and immensely comforting view of the future: One distant day, after war, disease, and other scourges have been conquered by benevolent science, mankind will unite and go forth to carry its collective destiny into the final frontier of space. Combined with the promise of adventure, this optimistic vision has imbued the show with a life of its own. Not that anyone planned it that way. “Star Trek was not created or developed as a critical study of truth, life’s fundamental principles, or concepts of reasoned doctrines,” said Herbert Solow, the Desilu Studios vice president who developed and sold Roddenberry’s brainchild to NBC. “We just wanted a hit series.”

A window into the future

Much of Star Trek’s futuristic technology—faster-than-light travel, the transporter room, and so forth—is purely speculative and may be impossible, scientists say. But the show has often been uncannily prescient about the development of other high-tech gizmos. Martin Cooper, the Motorola engineer who is considered the father of the cell phone, has said that the original series’ flip-top “communicators” planted the germ of his idea. Long before Mac users were slipping 3.5-inch diskettes into their machines, the USS Enterprise crew relied on similarly sized parcels to store electronic data. The “library-computer” used by Mr. Spock to extract information about everything from personal histories to dead civilizations is a precursor to the Internet; the earpiece worn by Lt. Uhura to monitor deep-space communications is mirrored in today’s Bluetooth wireless headsets. And the “Holodeck” of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which could be programmed to conjure up entire worlds within the confines of a room, offered an early glimpse of virtual reality.

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