Happy 40th Birthday, Star Trek

Why Captain Kirk's story is the story of America

The starship Enterprise began exploring space, the final frontier, 40 years ago this September. Initially (and in hindsight, mistakenly) described as a five-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations, explore strange new worlds, and boldly go where no man had gone before, the series Star Trek took its place in the National Broadcasting Company's prime time lineup on Thursday, September 8, 1966.

And it flopped.

The low-rated show lost money for the network throughout its first season, then lost money again through its second season. Despite this poor performance, NBC renewed Star Trek for a third year, thanks in part to a massive letter-writing campaign by fans. For its faith in Star Trek, the network would be forever reviled by the show's volatile creator Gene Roddenberry (who, we now know, had a secret hand in the letter-writing campaign). Through its ill-starred third season, Star Trek suffered from management turmoil and the sale of its production studio to the Gulf & Western Corporation. The new studio, Paramount, tried to shave costs, producing a ghastly hybrid: an expensive show that looked cheap, featuring radioactive bombs of episodes that focused on "Spock's Brain" and a cult of space hippies whose signature song "Steppin' Into Eden" failed to climb the 1969 charts. The show was not just a failure but an embarrassing failure: The acting was old-fashioned; the scripts were square; it was intelligent in a way nobody respected, corny in a way nobody liked anymore; the cast's only breakout star was a straight man with pointy ears. After three seasons, NBC cut its losses and put Captain Kirk and his crew out to pasture.

The real story of Star Trek begins here, for Star Trek is a story of resurrection, and after this first death there is no other. Just ask Mr. Spock, for whom we mourned at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan but who had returned to life before the end of the tellingly titled Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The risen Trek predicted the future through good guesses (and plenty of bad ones) about technology. It welcomed the future with a secular spirit that may be the closest thing America has to a national religion: confidence in what lies ahead. And it created the future by building an environment where multimedia conglomerates must court fans not only as customers but as co-creators. You could search all 50 states (and since Canadians, including even William "Kirk" Shatner, play crucial roles in this story, you could look up there too), but you wouldn't find a leader or politician who deserves a tribute as much as Star Trek does. If the franchise is approaching its 40th birthday somewhat worse for wear, it has some great stories to tell.

Among other things, there's a story of a tough, almost millennial faith that endures no matter how absurdly bad things may look: Even in its darkest decade of cancellation, when the only Star Trek remnant was a half-hour animated series that ran in 1973 and 1974, the fans would no more give up hope than Kirk would have surrendered the Enterprise to those space hippies. There's also a story of democracy, in which motivated masses of people guided the behavior of programmers at a giant media company (a class almost as craven and powerful as elected officials). There's a story of management and governance, in which the keepers of the franchise have maintained fairly good continuity over many years, through a constitutional "canon" of texts (in the form of scripts, licensed media, and series "bibles").

And finally, a story of a powerful belief in what the franchise represents: the right of individuals, through machinery, weaponry, or barehanded intelligence, to live, be free, and pursue happiness, no matter how horrific the results (and we can all agree that Robert Wise's Star Trek: The Motion Picture was as slow and agonizing as any torture devised on that evil Enterprise from the "Mirror, Mirror" episode in which Spock has a beard). Put all these ingredients together and it's clear: Star Trek is the story of America.

As an American story, Star Trek is not just about resurrection but about production, and there's been plenty of that: Fan books such as Dave Marinaccio's All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Watching Star Trek, a tome that more than lives up to the promise of its title. Fan films like the Star Trek: New Voyages series (freely watchable at newvoyages.com, and executed with an astonishing degree of commitment and creativity). Fan fiction in which Captain Kirk, a man whose robustly heterosexual libido made satisfied customers out of white, black, brown, and green women, finds his true soul mate in Mr. Spock.

And that's just the unofficial stuff. Paramount declines to say how much money Star Trek has made for it over the years. A 1999 Salon article estimated that the Star Trek franchise had earned $2.3 billion in TV revenues, more than $1 billion in movie box office, and $4 billion in merchandise sales; there have been more series, movies, and merchandise since then. But any dollar amount is dwarfed by the overall content amount the franchise has produced.

On the big screen, there have been 10 movies so far. Paramount and J. J. Abrams, the creator of the hit TV shows Lost and Alias, have announced development of Star Trek XI, though seasoned Trek numerologists are wary of the movie's place in the series. (Just as you should stick with the odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies, you'll have better luck with the even-numbered Star Trek films.)

On the small screen, in addition to the cartoon (now remembered mainly for bringing Lucien the goat-man into many an already troubled childhood in the '70s), there have been four live-action spin-off series. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard and the only post-Kirk crew member this viewer can fully endorse, Data, the coolly curious and helpful android played by Brent Spiner. Deep Space Nine, a darker, more pessimistic show, moved the action to a space station and explored the ugly, sausage-making dynamics of maintaining the Federation on a daily basis.

Voyager featured Kate Mulgrew as the franchise's first woman commander as well as a sexy but unapproachable "Borg" character played by Jeri Ryan, the actress who later gained fame in her divorce from sex-club-addicted Republican Senate candidate Jack Ryan. (Scientists may never be able to calculate the number of teenage geeks whose adolescences were soothed by the women of Star Trek.) Enterprise was a prequel cleverly set on an earlier, ramshackle version of the flagship. For many viewers (including this one), Captain Kirk's is the one true Trek, but it should be noted that each of the spin-off series ran through many more episodes than the original show's 79 and won many more Emmy awards than the original's zero.

None of this stuff—the successful TV series, the big-screen Trektaculars, the video games and action figures and merchandise—would have happened if the decisions had been left to the actual owners of the brand. The value of Star Trek remained hidden by some Romulan cloaking device until the Trekkies, doggedly gathering at fan conventions and bombarding Paramount with letters throughout the '70s, demonstrated the franchise's potential. The commitment of those fans (along with the unprecedented success of George Lucas' Star Wars, which may yet turn out to be merely an epiphenomenon of Star Trek) eventually persuaded Paramount to bring Trek to movie theaters in 1979. With a less rabid fan base, Wise's disappointing film would have been the end of the franchise, but the Trekkies hung on, demanding more movies, more television series, more Star Trek crap than there were tribbles on the Enterprise. For in the resurrection story of Star Trek, the fans are the Holy Spirit.

"That's impressive," you may say, "but it doesn't prove that Star Trek is the story of America!" No? Then imagine that through an ion storm or transporter malfunction, we were all beamed to some other universe where Star Trek had never existed. For one thing, we wouldn't know that we had "beamed" there because that usage would not be part of the American vocabulary. Nor, when a person reacted defensively in conversation, would we say that his or her "shields" had gone "up." Some of the most useful catch phrases that we have used in making sense of the last 40 years—"He's dead, Jim," "where no man has gone before," "highly illogical," "Beam me up," "Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated"—would never have been uttered. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, whose record looks increasingly humble next to the Federation's, would not have named its first shuttle Enterprise. We would not find Star Trek's DNA in concepts as disparate as flip-top cellular phones and Shatner-fu, the foursquare fighting technique (ill-advisedly including a two-handed clubbing motion on the opponent's back) that still shows up on dramatic television. You would need an extra sentence in this article explaining who "Captain Kirk" was. When James Mann published his history of President Bush's war cabinet, Rise of the Vulcans, none of his readers would have grasped the title's allusion, or understood the noun Vulcan to suggest specific habits of logical, overly rational, nonintuitive thinking. When you told people Star Trek is known in Japan as Sulu: Master Navigator, nobody would get the joke.

And we would not have been able to enjoy Star Trek at its many levels of achievement, including the level of high, hilarious camp. (Though it must be stated that knowing irony is the least sophisticated way to appreciate Star Trek. The cable network G4 now plays to this demand with Star Trek 2.0, interactive broadcasts of the original series in which chatting fans trade fossilized jokes about Lt. Uhura's panty flashes and the deaths of crew members in red shirts.) We would not have had the literary works of Leonard Nimoy, including both I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock, nor William Shatner's albums of spoken-word cover versions of pop hits: 1968's The Transformed Man and its 2004 follow-up Has Been, featuring a performance of Pulp's song "Common People" that is better than the original.

And we would not have been able to kick around the fans, crowding the conventions in their bumpy-forehead Klingon or Ferengi makeup. We could never have heard the story of Barbara Adams, who wore her Star Fleet commander's uniform while serving on the jury in the trial of Jim and Susan MacDougal in 1996. At the time, Adams gave a simple reason for wearing the costume while discharging the duties of citizenship. Just as every juror brings deeply held beliefs into the courtroom, she brought her creed: Faith in the Federation, in its pluralistic society and its noninterventionist code of conduct.

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