Star Trek began as a science fiction television series, originally conceived by writer-producer Gene Roddenberry (1921–1991) in the early 1960s. Airing on NBC from the fall of 1966 through the spring of 1969, Star Trek episodes chronicled the adventures of the twenty-third-century starship Enterprise, serving the interplanetary Federation on a five-year mission to “explore strange new worlds” and “boldly go where no man has gone before.” The show has since become a worldwide science fiction and pop culture phenomenon. Several other TV series followed, featuring different characters and set in different time periods. In addition, the series was the precursor to a popular movie franchise, novels, comic books, fanzines, clubs, conventions, board games, video games, and memorabilia.
THE ORIGINAL SHOW
Initially assembled at Desilu Studios, the first Star Trek series took shape with significant help from the actors, all of whom were participating in a new and important shift in television content. Captain James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) was the young, handsome leader of the mission, the youngest captain in the history of Starfleet. Though occasionally headstrong and impetuous, and with a weakness for beautiful women of all races (and all species), he was an inspiring and resourceful leader.
Rivaling Kirk in popularity was Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), a native of the planet Vulcan, where emotions are suppressed in an attempt to achieve complete objective logic. Spock's tapered eyebrows and pointed ears were at once sinister and fascinating, like a hybrid between a devil and an elf. Spock was particularly interesting because he was half human; though raised as a Vulcan, he was torn between the rigors of logic and the irrational pull of friendship and love. The third major character was Dr. “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), a curmudgeonly and quick-tempered older man. He had little patience for the impossible idealism that often accompanied Kirk's confidence and even less patience for the self-importance that often accompanied Spock's self-restraint.
The other prominent members of the original Enterprise crew were a deliberate mixture of races and nationalities, as Roddenberry felt an accurate vision of the future must depict humanity as having transcended ethnic and political strife. Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), nicknamed Scotty, was the ship's Scottish engineer; he could push the ship beyond its limits and work miracle repairs. The Japanese Lieutenant Sulu (George Takei) and the Russian Ensign Chekov (Walter Koenig) were the ship's helmsmen. The African Lieutenant Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) was the communications officer.
Star Trek was originally conceived as a rather dark and serious show, but it quickly became much more than that and incorporated tragedy, comedy, mystery, romance, action, and adventure. One of the most popular humorous episodes was “The Trouble with Tribbles,” during which some members of the Enterprise crew purchase cute, round, fur-covered creatures known as tribbles from an intergalactic merchant, only to discover that the creatures multiply at a rate fast enough to threaten to engulf the entire ship. Often voted the best all-time episode was “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a time-travel drama written by Harlan Ellison and costarring Joan Collins. In this heartrending episode, Kirk is forced to choose between saving the life of the woman he loves or forever altering the natural course of history. Other popular episodes feature the Enterprise in conflict with the Federation's redoubtable alien enemies, the warlike Klingons and the scheming Romulans.
The original Star Trek series was justly famous for its social commentary. A few episodes, including “A Private Little War,” offer thinly veiled criticism of Vietnam by showing the problems of getting involved in other nations' internal struggles. Indeed, Starfleet's Prime Directive is that no technologically advanced society may interfere with the normal development of a more primitive society. Other episodes promote racial harmony and equality; the exciting “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode shows a planet of racists engaged in a futile and self-destructive war. A few episodes, including “A Way to Eden,” critique the communal counterculture: intergalactic hippie types are seen spoiled by drugs or foolishly deluded into thinking that they will find a perfect paradise. Overall the show was upbeat, suggesting that many of the problems of twentieth-century Earth would ultimately be solved. The later Star Trek series also included social commentary, examining issues such as overpopulation, environmentalism, homelessness, drug abuse, bisexuality, and religious fanaticism.
The original Star Trek was also remarkable for its breaking of television taboos. The show's setting in the future allowed it to get away with content that would have been unacceptable in a real life show. Many episodes feature scantily clad men and women, often in thin and flimsy outfits that seem about to fall off entirely; but, as many of these men and women were robots or aliens, the network censors allowed them on the show. Star Trek was also historic in condoning interracial (or even interspecies) love. The “Plato's Stepchildren” episode, which aired in November 1968, features the first interracial kiss on U.S. television.
Over the years the original Star Trek series furnished its fans with a multitude of inside jokes. Drinking games developed during which fans took one drink every time the show's most famous motifs were repeated. Common occurrences in the show included the ship's teleporting transporter breaking down; redshirted security officers dying at the hands of evil aliens; Kirk finding a way to talk attractive female aliens into bed; Uhuru tapping the microphone in her ear to get better reception across the light-years; Spock and his fellow Vulcans greeting each other with mystic hand signals and with the words, “Live long and prosper”; McCoy examining a dead body and sadly saying to the captain, “He's dead, Jim”; and, after a successful mission, Kirk requesting, “Beam me up, Scotty.” Yet all these jokes, along with the occasional silly looking sets and ham-acting, became a source of endearment rather than derision.
THE SHOW'S FAILURE
Despite the tremendous efforts of everyone involved with the show, and despite the high cost of close to $200,000 per episode, media critics considered the show a failure. Worse still, after some initially high Nielsen ratings, the show's popularity began to decline. Although fan mail increased week after week, the number of viewers appeared to be dwindling. NBC came close to canceling the show after the first season but relented after being deluged by letters written during a save Star Trek campaign organized by prominent science fiction writers. The show's second season, however, still failed to capture high ratings. Again the program was nearly canceled, but another save Star Trek campaign, this time organized by fans, saved it. The third season was the show's last, but the total of seventy-nine episodes were enough to allow syndication.
In syndication Star Trek became an immediate hit. Fanzines and fan clubs proliferated, and the first Star Trek convention took place in January 1972 in New York City. In response to this burgeoning popularity, NBC revived the show as an animated series, featuring the original actors as the voices of their characters. Unfortunately, although the animated show featured stories as complex as the live-action series, it was mistakenly aired for young viewers on Saturday mornings. It was canceled after a brief twenty-two-episode run from the fall of 1973 to the winter of 1974. Plans for a second television series were progressing, but, after the spectacular success of the movie Star Wars in 1977, Star Trek's new owner Paramount decided to make the show into a movie. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (directed by Robert Wise) hit theaters in 1979, and while it was not well liked by critics or hard-core fans (mostly because of its extravagant special effects and emphasis on concept over character), the picture drew tremendous crowds and was a financial success.
Star Trek movies have since hit theaters regularly every few years. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982, directed by Nicholas Page 689 | Top of ArticleMeyer) was an action-packed adventure costarring Ricardo Montalban and Kirstie Alley; it became both a critical and popular success despite the death of Mr. Spock in the film's final scenes. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984, directed by Nimoy) was another all-around success; the Enterprise is lost, but Spock is resurrected. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986, directed by Nimoy) time-warps the crew back to 1980s San Francisco in search of a pair of humpback whales and became the most successful Star Trek film of all. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989, directed by Shatner) gives the crew a rebuilt Enterprise and sends them in search of an evil alien whom they mistake as God; the movie also purposefully suggests that the characters are perhaps getting too old to be adventuring in outer space. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991, directed by Meyer), in which the Klingons and the Federation make peace, was the last film to feature the original cast.
Star Trek: Generations (1994, directed by David Carson) portrays the death of Kirk; it was also the first film to feature the second generation of Star Trek characters from the already successful Next Generation television show. Star Trek: First Contact (1996, directed by Jonathan Frakes) is a multilayered time-travel film showing Earth's first contact with an alien race. And Star Trek: Insurrection (1998, directed by Frakes) portrays a power struggle over a beautiful pleasure-planet. In the tenth movie, Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), it appeared the franchise had run its course. Movie critic Roger Ebert gave it just two stars and describes it as an experience in which “gradually it occurs to me that ‘Star Trek’ is over for me.” There followed a break of seven years, at the end of which Star Trek (2009) brought back the original characters, albeit played by a new, young cast. A box-office and critical success, the movie won an Academy Award for best makeup and had two other nominations.
NEW TV SHOWS
The success of the first Star Trek movies inspired Paramount to produce a second television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, set twenty-one years after the first. The new show, which ran from 1987 to 1994, took a more contemplative and peaceful approach to its episodes; there was less action but more science and more diplomacy. Computer-generated special effects added further breadth. As with the original series, however, a prime appeal of the second series was the emphasis on character. With families and couples onboard a much larger starship, the show had a balanced group feel. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (played by Patrick Stewart) was mature and dignified, while First Officer Riker (Jonathan Frakes) was suave and sturdy. Klingon security officer Worf (Michael Dorn) was often torn between his hereditary codes of honor and his duties serving the Federation, while android Lieutenant Data (Brent Spiner) struggled to compare his thoughts and his emotions with those of human beings.
Other major characters included the empathetic Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis), the young engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), and the doctor Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden). Some episodes featured Dr. Crusher's son Wesley (Wil Wheaton), the Ukrainian security officer Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby), and the 500-year-old Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg). Like the original series, The Next Generation offered fans a great variety of shows ranging from the lighthearted to the serious. Popular episodes feature the Romulans (now a major enemy of the Federation); the Borg (frightening and hostile aliens who resemble a cross between insects and robots); and the nearly omnipotent alien Q (John de Lancie), who enjoys teasing the earnest but helpless humans.
After seven seasons The Next Generation was replaced by a new show, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (created largely by Rick Berman and debuting in 1993), whose characters inhabit a space station rather than a spaceship. The station is precariously situated at the edge of the Federation near an intergalactic wormhole through which all manner of alien spaceships frequently pass. Besides accommodating their alien visitors, the Deep Space Nine crew faces the challenge of a conflict raging in their sector between the empire of the Cardassians (reptilian Federation adversaries) and the inhabitants of the planet Bajor.
In later shows the crew faces the threat of the hostile Jem-'Hadar alien troops and their masters in the Dominion. The look and mood of the show is darker than in the earlier shows, but the optimistic vision remains. The characters include widower Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) and his son Jake (Cirroc Lofton), the Bajoran first officer Kira (Nana Visitor), the unscrupulous merchant Quark (Armin Shimerman), the symbiont-hosting alien Dax (Terry Farrell), and the shape-shifting officer Odo (René Auberjonois). As in the earlier shows, the Deep Space Nine crew is a harmonious mixture of peoples: Sisko is black; the ship's doctor (Siddig El Fadil) is Arab; the operations officer (Colm Meaney) is Irish; and the botanist (Rosalind Chao) is Japanese.
With Deep Space Nine still intended to run a full six or seven seasons, in 1995 yet another Star Trek TV series debuted, titled Star Trek: Voyager (also created largely by Berman). In this series USS Voyager is lost light-years from the Federation and must find its way home. The Voyager crew must also deal with internal Federation rebels known as the Maquis, some of whom serve on the Voyager bridge. As with the preceding series, there is not only an underlying sense of optimism about the future but also a broad variety of episodes that deal with serious subjects, such as personal versus professional loyalties, legitimate versus illegitimate forms of authority, foreign (or alien) codes of ethics, and the loss of families and loved ones. Star Trek: Voyager was itself replaced in 2001 by the fifth incarnation of the series, named Enterprise (subsequently renamed Star Trek: Enterprise). Set a decade before the formation of the Federation, the series ran until 2005.
IMPACT ON CULTURE
Star Trek had a deep and lasting impact on U.S. popular culture, an impact that resonated far beyond the Trekkies who attended conventions dressed in costumes from the shows and spoke Klingon to one another. The stars of the original Star Trek series were featured as the subjects of biographical articles, books, and documentaries. Under pressure from Star Trek fans, NASA even named its prototype space shuttle Enterprise in tribute to the show. World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking appeared on a Next Generation episode, as did Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space. Star Trek television shows were seen around the world, while Star Trek novels were almost guaranteed best sellers.
In addition, there were many websites devoted to the series, and the mythology of the show inspired real technology. For example, flip phones such as the Motorola Razr early in the first decade of the 2000s bore a striking resemblance to Star Trek's Handheld Communicator devices, online translation services (including Google's, which for a while translated into Klingon, among other languages) resembled the show's Universal Translator, Page 690 | Top of Articleand an app for Apple's iPad turned the twenty-first-century tablet computer into the Personal Access Display Device used in the Next Generation series.
Star Trek's successes were often attributed to the deep and compelling characters, the charismatic actors, the intelligent themes and plots of individual shows, the consistency of the future technologies and devices, and the believability of the future universe. Perhaps one of the most important reasons for its success, however, was the show's positive vision of the future. Star Trek television shows and movies offered inspiration and hope for a world dealing with crime, homelessness, ethnic strife, and AIDS. It was a vision that emerged from the idealistic 1960s. Despite the show faltering in the early twenty-first century, the Star Trek culture and its millions of devotees remained a powerful force in the popular imagination.
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