Amazing — it’s now been 50 years we’ve lived in an alternate universe.
Well, maybe not in an alternate universe. But with one.
“Beam me up, Scotty.”
“Ahead at warp speed.”
“I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer / magician / mechanic!”
You don’t have to be a fan of “Star Trek” the show(s) to know Star Trek the universe. Since its big-bang birth in NBC’s 1966 fall schedule, “Trek” has become as much a part of enduring pop culture — of Americana, of human-cana — as Superman, The Beatles or McDonalds.
Nobody doesn’t know “Star Trek.”
It’s Capt. Kirk, and Spock ears. It’s those alien Klingons and green dancing women. It’s space, “the final frontier.” It’s fan conventions, and “get a life” — the notorious riposte by Kirk portrayer William Shatner to obsessive Trekkies in a 1986 “Saturday Night Live” spoof.
Heck, it’s William Shatner himself — the space-cowboy TV icon with an ego so enormous, it took the big screen to hold Tim Allen’s lampoon “Galaxy Quest” (1999). John Belushi’s “SNL” parody (1976) even has its own Wikipedia page.
And “Trek” isn’t just a cultural touchstone. It’s an ever-mushrooming money machine, the gift that keeps on giving to Paramount Pictures. The production studio, which purchased the rights to writer Gene Roddenberry’s creation shortly after its NBC premiere 50 years ago this week (Sept. 8, 1966), has since grossed billions from that original Starfleet exploration adventure — not to mention five subsequent TV series. (So far: “Star Trek: Discovery” hits CBS All Access in January.) Plus, those 13 feature films. (So far: Producer J.J. Abrams is prepping his fourth “reboot” movie.)
Paramount has also authorized untold “Trek” merchandise concepts — books, comics, games, costumes, jewelry, collectibles. The studio’s shop.StarTrek.com sells Enterprise bottle openers, Uhura teddy bears, captain’s chair pool floats, even dog hoodies with Spock ears.
Then there’s unauthorized Trekiana. Like, reeeeally unauthorized. Trekker fan fiction famously introduced the Kirk/Spock “slash pairing” hookup (among other sexual permutations). When fans upped their knockoff game from writing to films, they created elaborate tributes like the widely seen (and original-cast-approved) web series “Star Trek: New Voyages.”
Absolutely none of this could have been imagined in 1966 when NBC launched a barely heralded outer space drama titled “Star Trek.” In a TV genre previously filled by silly fantasy antics (“My Favorite Martian,” “Lost in Space”), creator Roddenberry suddenly presented a relatable universe of cultural-scientific exploration, of alien beings with human conflicts, of a ship’s crew that was racially diverse yet united, in an advanced society where their Starfleet command acted for a federation of planets living in harmony.
Shatner’s hotblooded Capt. Kirk and co-star Leonard Nimoy’s coolly rational alien commander Spock took different yet distinctly adult approaches to their adventures in space. They made galactic contact seem as real as the American-Soviet moon race that was then filling the newspapers. After the horrors of World War II and the nuclear threat of the Cold War, here was a futuristic spaceship crew (hey, there’s a future!) that was steeped in global (galactic) cooperation. Even more inspiring, the alien encounters addressed the roiling currents of ’60s real-life society — racial conflict, the war in Vietnam, balance-of-power politics — in allegories that may have simplified both the problems and their solutions, but at least addressed them, giving “Trek” thematic weight and adult appeal. It felt like a perfect storm of culture, imagination and optimism to the show’s mostly young viewers.
There just weren’t enough of them, then. In that three-network era, the networks sought “tonnage,” or gross audience numbers, not demographics, and favored the “churn” of trying new shows if current ones seemed to be lagging. In 1969, NBC unceremoniously canceled “Star Trek,” after just three seasons, totaling 79 episodes (fewer than any of “Trek’s” live-action prequel/sequels). The staffers of the dead show simply moved on — Nimoy to CBS spy series “Mission: Impossible,” Shatner in ABC Western “Barbary Coast.” Series mastermind Roddenberry did stay in science fiction, but none of his ’70s TV pilots (“Genesis II,” “Planet Earth,” “Spectre”) went to series.
So who could have predicted “Star Trek’s” unending impact?
Well — the fans. Banding together as Trekkers (please, not the juvenile “Trekkies”), they kept “the voyages of the Starship Enterprise” alive. They tuned to ’70s daytime reruns in huge numbers, then did the same for ’80s late-night repeats. Devotees even staged grass roots “convention” gatherings, to trade Xeroxed photos or homemade phaser guns, dress as Starfleet officers or alien Klingons, debate arcane Trek trivia with fellow buffs, and share the adrenaline of fellow believers in this universe of exploration, brotherhood and noninterference (per the show’s Starfleet Prime Directive). The conventions quickly became an opportunity for the stars of a 10-years-dead show to make money from it again (TV contracts didn’t yet require actor residuals), and to bask in a fan fervor unseen since Beatlemania.
Those über-loyal fans demanded the Star Trek universe live on. And — with apologies to Patrick Stewart’s second Enterprise captain, Jean-Luc Picard — they would make it so. Their unceasing ardor pushed Paramount and Roddenberry to discuss a series revival at precisely the moment the blockbuster appeal of 1977’s “Star Wars” stunned the movie industry. That envisioned Trek series morphed into a 1979 feature film, reuniting the original TV cast. “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” would gross back its $35 million budget in two weeks of American release (on its way to grossing some $139 million worldwide). Five more original-cast films would follow. So would entirely new casts, expanding the Starfleet universe in four fresh “Star Trek” TV series, led by 1987’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” That Stewart-led crew would also make four feature films, before the current 21st century big-screen reboot cast Chris Pine as the millennial generation’s James T. Kirk.
Fifty years later, “Star Trek” is back where it all started. Young moviegoers are discovering the Starfleet universe on their own terms, just as ’60s viewers did. Will it fire their budding imaginations the same way? Scientists and engineers for decades have credited TV’s original for inspiring their STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fascinations. History channel’s Emmy-nominated 2005 special “How William Shatner Changed the World” enumerated the ways “Trek” concepts could later be seen in such real-life technologies as the cellphone, voice recognition and personal computers — never mind such still-developing goals as touchless medical tricorders and long-distance transporter travel. It’s not for nothing that an American space shuttle was named Enterprise by NASA. Astronaut Mae Jemison played a crew member on an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Physics giant Stephen Hawking played himself, materializing in the show’s virtual-reality holodeck.
Over the past half century, “Trek” has hard-earned the respect it was largely denied during its first gone-too-soon TV run. Maybe that’s because, in that simpler era of ’60s TV, Roddenberry’s complex but fully realized universe simply took flight while expecting viewers to keep up. Its human drama challenged fans not just to understand what was happening but also to consider the ideas behind it. And that brain fuel kept the show’s fans fired up long beyond cancellation.
Also, of course, as any fan will tell you: “Star Trek” is just too cool.
“Star Trek” (NBC prime time, 1966-69)
“Star Trek: The Animated Series” (NBC Saturday morning, 1973-74)
“Star Trek: The Next Generation” (syndication, 1987-94)
“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (syndication, 1993-99)
“Star Trek: Voyager” (UPN, 1995-2001)
“Enterprise” (UPN, 2001-2005)
“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979)
“Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)
“Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” (1984)
“Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986)
“Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” (1989)
“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991)
“Star Trek Generations” (Kirk/Picard handoff, 1994)
“Star Trek: First Contact” (1996)
“Star Trek: Insurrection” (1998)
“Star Trek: Nemesis” (2002)
“Star Trek” (reboot, Chris Pine as Kirk, 2009)
“Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013)
“Star Trek Beyond” (2016)
Behind-the-scenes books (partial list)
“The Making of Star Trek,” Stephen E. Whitfield, Gene Roddenberry (1968)
“The World of Star Trek,” David Gerrold (1973)
“Star Trek Memories,” William Shatner, Chris Kreski (1993)
“Inside Star Trek,” Hebert F. Solow, Robert H. Justman (1996)
‘Trek’ info/intro (partial)
“The Star Trek Book” (2016)
“The Star Trek Encyclopedia” (1994, latest update due Oct. 18)