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.
Just what was that society in which Adams and millions, in America and around the planet, put so much confidence? On many of its aspects we should look with horror. The Star Trek universe can be called libertarian in but one important way: It never pretends to be a utopia. As University of Virginia professor of English Paul Cantor has explained, the society of the Federation is the kind of thing that might spring fully grown from the hernia scar of Lyndon Baines Johnson—a galacticized Great Society. A vaguely militarized government makes all decisions. Any time the Enterprise crew encounters a private entrepreneur or contractor, that person will almost certainly turn out to be a thief, a swindler, a coward, or all three. (Roger C. Carmel's mincing, scheming Harry Mudd is Star Trek's idea of a businessman.) Entire planets and populations are wiped out at a time by disease or invasion. Despite frequent references to a "noninterference" directive in contacting alien civilizations, Star Trek eerily predicts the era of total interventionism, as James T. Kirk, an interstellar Gen. Tommy Franks, routinely smashes planetary autocracies, promising (sometimes) that others will come along later to do the nation building.
While some of these attitudes are rooted in a certain '60s peak of big-government confidence, Star Trek was an old-fashioned show even in its own time. Gene Roddenberry pitched it to NBC as "Wagon Train to the stars," and it is Roddenberry's original vision, for better or worse, that has informed every iteration of Star Trek. Many people contributed to the franchise's success. Dorothy C. Fontana, a story editor and writer, created such favorites as the aforementioned space hippies, the Vulcan death grip, and "Charlie X," the dangerously psychokinetic teenager, a precursor to the Columbine killers, played with icy longing by Robert Walker Jr. The writer-director Nicholas Meyer had a hand in the three most successful of the movies. The producer Rick Berman kept the franchise moving after Roddenberry's death in 1991 at the age of 70. In different ways, fans have insufficiently appreciated the contributions of Fontana, Meyer, and Berman (and others). But Roddenberry's was the individual intelligence behind Star Trek.
Two books help flesh out that intelligence. The former nun novitiate Yvonne Fern's Gene Roddenberry: The Last Conversation establishes the self-described "Great Bird of the Galaxy" as an original though not always profound thinker (and a strong opponent of religion, a trait that comes across in a striking number of Trek episodes). Joel Engel's unauthorized, unfriendly, and largely persuasive biography Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek, documents him as a hard-drinking TV tyrant who repeatedly rooked his collaborators out of money and credit, manipulated the personal loyalty of the show's fans to insinuate himself with movie and TV players who would have preferred to lock him out of developing Trek projects, and through megalomania and general nuttiness managed to obstruct as much as he created.
During World War II, Roddenberry, born in 1921, piloted B-17s in the Pacific and suffered a takeoff crash that killed several crew members. During the 1950s he served on a Pan Am plane that crash-landed in the Syrian desert, killing several people. Later, he served the Los Angeles Police Department as a flack and was mentored by legendary Dragnet creator Jack Webb in the art of TV screenwriting. By the time of Star Trek, Roddenberry had already produced a series called The Lieutenant, with Gary Lockwood as a young Marine officer—and though that show performed well in the ratings, it was canceled after one season, according to Roddenberry because the Vietnam War had made present-day military dramas toxic for television.
Through the first run of Star Trek and in the no man's land that followed, Roddenberry held on doggedly, working the fan conventions and struggling to get new projects off the ground. (Who can forget—or more accurately, who can remember—Genesis II, with Mariette Hartley as a futuristic babe with two belly buttons, or the mind-blowing Questor Tapes, with Robert Foxworth as an android rookie with the LAPD?) At one low point in the mid-'70s Roddenberry took a gig writing a script for the Circle of Nine, a New Age channeling cult in Ossining, New York. What emerges from this life is a character many Americans, and especially many Angelenos, will recognize: a hard worker to whom a stingy helping of success arrives maddeningly late in life and who never overcomes the pettiness and resentment bred of being an outsider among big shots less talented than himself.
Yes, Star Trek was the product of a man's midlife crisis, which by good luck hit during a time of great cultural ferment. Even the most ardent Trek hater must acknowledge that the show is a wonderful reading text for the tensions of late-'60s America. Star Trek engaged the Cold War obliquely (with an episode wherein the Federation and the Klingons must arm opposite sides in a planetary proxy war), directly (with a hokey time travel episode, brightened somewhat by a young Teri Garr, in which America circa 1968 narrowly avoids a nuclear exchange with the Russians), and tragically (with a planet where the superpowers have already pressed the buttons, and the Yankees and Communists are now reduced to iron-age "Yangs" and "Coms"). Through it all, Roddenberry accurately predicted the U.S.-Soviet conflict would be resolved peacefully and that Russians, personified in the Enterprise's never-believable Ensign Chekhov, would go on being Russians long after they had stopped being Reds.
The show's gestures toward the counterculture and the sexual revolution are more intriguing. Star Trek approached what was then called the "generation gap" from radically different angles. In the legendary space hippies episode (which is both disdained as a low point in series quality and beloved as unintentional comedy), the crazy longhairs come close to destroying the Enterprise in their kooky search for a California-style "Eden." In another, Kirk, following orders he never really questions, breaks up an idyllic settlement whose residents enjoy practically Mennonite contentment under the influence of mood-elevating, and entirely benevolent, flower spores. Discontent, not dilithium, is the real driving force of Star Trek, but the show is open-ended and curious, embodying an over-the-hill producer's simultaneous fascination and revulsion with the ways of the flower children.
Star Trek's sexual politics at first seem even more embarrassing, a Hugh Hefner fever dream of middle-aged authority figures scoring with beautiful and compliant young women. In its treatment of gender roles, however, Star Trek is underrated, and its vision of luscious Lt. Uhuras in miniskirts and go-go boots may be the show's most visionary and subversive element (and not merely for featuring the fabled "first interracial kiss" on television—a Kirk-Uhura moment so hot it may melt your picture tube). Postwar science fiction was as male-dominated as any field in American culture, and a classic like Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy features long stretches where women are as silent and invisible as they are in the streets of Riyadh. Star Trek countered that view with a world where women are independent, competent characters capable of command and occasional self-defense, and it did so in a way that bypassed the budding women's movement of the '60s and went straight to what we now think of as third-wave feminism, a society wherein women are recognized as equals while remaining entitled to sexiness and traditional gender roles.
If that point seems tangential, it contains the most important kernel of Star Trek's appeal: its rejection of the notion that progress would leave us diminished, less sure of our genders, our free will, or our humanity. The representative science fiction film of Star Trek's era, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, paints a largely bleak future of dull, robotic humans, hostile and powerful central computers, and an endless Cold War; the movie's only note of optimism comes at the end, with the possibility that a human being might leave behind his body and his humanity, and be reborn as a cerebral super-being. Star Trek's future, skeptical of super-beings and dehumanization alike, shows progress and technology mostly allowing people to be more human, not less—more manly or womanly, better fed, smarter, healthier, and wiser. Its important message, as one Reason Online reader put it, was its simplest: "Technology solves problems." And even when high tech causes problems it won't defeat us, as Captain Kirk proves in countless episodes that have him arguing computers into self-destructing—the most ludicrous being an incident where he disables the Enterprise's powerful electronic brain by having it compute pi (3.14) to its final digit.
This optimism, more than any correct guesses about wireless telephony, police use of Tasers, or the shape of 21st-century neoconservatism, was the dangerous message of Star Trek. The dystopian science fiction of the late '60s and early '70s (to which Star Trek was a rare exception) shares something with contemporary hysteria over stem cell research. Both claim to fear that the advance of science will hurt us, but their real fear is that it won't hurt us. Because if human life really is getting better, then maybe you've wasted your life fearing the unknown, clinging to useless traditions, missing out on better things ahead.
One useless tradition of the '60s, a decade that began with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minnow's description of television as a "vast wasteland," held that mass media were turning Americans into passive, hypnotized zombies. This view had dissenters at the time, the Canadian philosopher Marshall MacLuhan most prominent among them.
But nobody did more to smash the myth of the passive audience than the fans of Star Trek. More than anything else, Star Trek was about participating. "It is my sincere wish that you do not give up your search for Eden," Spock tells the space hippies after their quest has crashed and burned. "I have no doubt but that you will find it, or make it yourselves." That's what the fans did: They made it themselves, in immensely ambitious and creative ways, through the films and fiction mentioned above, through the conventions and communities and three-dimensional chess leagues. The clearest expression of the fan phenomenon is not found in Star Trek or even in Paramount's fun but perfunctory documentary Trekkies but in the 1999 spoof Galaxy Quest. That film's conceit holds that a civilization of real aliens, so persuaded of the truth of the television broadcasts emanating from planet Earth that they shed a tear for the hapless castaways of Gilligan's Island (another essential building block of the America we love, as Paul Cantor argues in his book Gilligan Unbound), have patterned their society on a long-canceled Star Trek-type show. As the alien leader appeals for help from the show's cast (wittily depicted as slightly pathetic has-beens working the convention and superstore-opening circuit), he expresses the fan's deepest, most shameful, most admirable wish—that it all might turn out to be real:
"For years, since we first received transmission of your historical documents, we have studied every facet of your missions and strategies. For the past hundred years our society had fallen into disarray. Our goals, our values had become scattered. But since the transmission we have modeled every aspect of our society from your example, and it has saved us. Your courage, and teamwork, and friendship through adversity! In fact all you see around you has been taken from the lessons garnered from [your] historical documents."
The Trekkies built their world in an era when science fiction thrillers did not yet command vast budgets, when Hollywood was not yet desperate to stroke "viral" and "grassroots" support for its properties. Entertainment has since become a two-way street, and the Trekkies helped make it that way. Star Trek fans endured decades of ridicule on the path to the glorious present (including an infamously mocking sketch by William Shatner himself on Saturday Night Live), but when Trekkies and Galaxy Quest hit theaters in the late 1990s, the films felt less like a vindication of fandom than a victory lap. Science fiction fans, you had nothing to be ashamed of all those years. It was those others, those techno-skeptics, those narrow-minded, pig-headed anti-Trekkies, those mere spectators, who turned out to be history's real losers.
The interactive, on-demand media environment the Trekkies helped create has been with us just long enough that we're beginning to take it for granted. Fan conventions are a regular feature of popular entertainment. "Slash" fiction, the fan genre named for the gay Kirk/Spock romances, now flourishes to the point that virtually any two TV characters you can nam e are getting it on somewhere out on the Internet. As the WB and UPN networks have found out during their merger, fan lobbying to rescue favorite shows has become extremely sophisticated, involving massive fund raising, bribery attempts, and skywriting campaigns. Entertainment properties are now routinely conceived in multimedia terms, with video games, action figures, merchandise, and labyrinthine back stories. Captain Kirk is the little acorn from which this mighty oak grew.
But in a real way, Star Trek itself is over. When the series Enterprise went off the air last year, it ended an era, stretching back to the early Reagan administration, during which some version of Star Trek had been continually in at least pre-production. Paramount will give Trek XI its day, and there will probably be an audience around when that happens. But the circumstances were unique. It's unlikely we'll see a similar fan phenomenon in a world of endless entertainment choices and eternal afterlives in home video (and if this birthday tribute has moved you to nostalgia or curiosity, be advised that Paramount has brought out all of Star Trek on DVD, with the original series packaged in a handsome set of color-coded tricorders).
The culture has moved on too. Technological change and greater personal freedom are now widely accepted as positive forces, rendering much of the Trek message superfluous. The romance of space travel that accounted for much of Star Trek's appeal (the original show went off the air two months before Apollo 11 landed on the moon) has withered; and the problems of the Yangs and the Coms seem quaint in a world where the Coms have signed onto a perverted form of capitalism. And who can get exercised about the hippies and the squares at a time when only Islamic fundamentalists are wearing beards?
It's even less likely we'll see another popular entertainment with such proudly mythic elements: thunderous musical cues, larger-than-life acting, props and special effects so basic they function more as symbols than as on-screen visuals. This article would be incomplete without an appreciation of at least one of those elements: the acting. If you still believe Shatner is just a laughable ham, nothing will convince you otherwise. People of refinement know better and recognize Captain Kirk's total commitment, his vein-popping intensity, his refusal to be cooler than the material, as the acting equivalent of the right stuff—an indefinable quality, not quite stagy, not quite cinematic, at once too big for TV and just right for it. On a fresh viewing, it's striking to see how ably Shatner, Nimoy, and the late DeForest Kelley sell Star Trek. Because even if you never believe those tinfoil props are really phasers or communicators, you never doubt for a second that they believe it.
That theatrical quality dwindled in the later, desexualized spin-off series. (At times in the 1980s, it almost seemed the execrable Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, with its paunchy, wisecracking leading man and bevies of perverse and exotic beauties, captured more of Star Trek's daffy spirit than the Star Trek franchise itself.) In all its iterations, Star Trek continued to provide juicy guest roles for some of the greatest character actors ever to chew Styrofoam scenery. What other series would give radical attorney Melvin Belli a job playing an androgynous angel? Where else but on Deep Space Nine could Andrew Robinson, the loathsome "scorpio killer" in the original Dirty Harry, have found years of work playing an alien in bumpy-forehead makeup? But it wasn't merely acting styles that passed the franchise by. Star Trek was a work of innocence, a relic of the mythic past lingering in a more wised-up, ironic age.
It seems very wistful, very un-Star Trek, to be looking back fondly on that mythic past, but on this one occasion, we can let our human halves overpower our Vulcan halves. Once upon a time, when our nation was in trouble, many brilliant people came together to produce a humble entertainment that was more than a sum of its parts: The most retrograde and prescient, the most religious and agnostic, the most male and female, the most heroic and absurd, the most rarefied and popular, the most American television show ever made.
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