In September 1966, Gene Roddenberry dispatched the crew of the Starship Enterprise on its maiden voyage through space and time and into the American living room. It was an inauspicious start, but almost fifty years later the Star Trek universe is still expanding. The new film debuted last weekend with a $70 million opening. In a piece we originally ran in 2006, Brooke explores the various television incarnations of the franchise and the infinitely powerful engine behind it all: the fan.
Star Wars Theme/Star Trek Theme
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Star Trek Into Darkness is number one at the box office right now, the sequel to the latest reboot by director JJ Abrams of a cherished 47-year-old franchise.
CHRIS PINE (AS JAMES T. KIRK): Spock, nobody knows the rules better than you, but there has got to be an exception.
ZACHARY QUINTO (AS SPOCK): None. Such action violates the prime directive.
CHRIS PINE (AS JAMES T. KIRK): Spock, we’re talking about your life!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The reboot was controversial when JJ Abrams, who said outrageously that he never was a fan, released the first installment in 2009, fans were offended in advance that he had the audacity to cast youngsters to impersonate Kirk and Spock, who could only be Shatner and Nimoy. But they were silenced by the bravura results. Here’s The Onion’s take:
GLEN BANNON: And with us now to discuss the backlash is entertainment reporter Bree Lindsay.
BREE LINDSAY: Hi, Glen.
GLEN BANNON: Bree, is this Star Trek as riveting as the fans are complaining it is?
BREE LINDSAY: Oh Glen, early reviewers are calling it a delightful action-adventure movie and a surefire hit.
GLEN BANNON: No wonder the fans feel betrayed here.
BREE LINDSAY: Apparently, there isn’t even one scene set at a long table in which interstellar diplomacy is debated in endless detail.
GLEN BANNON: Really?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What made it so fiendishly effective for long-time Trekkers – “Trekkie” is demeaning – was that its young Spock and Kirk were perfectly cast and it offered comforting continuity and in-jokes while at the same time introducing a change in the timeline of the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise right at the beginning, so it wouldn’t have to stay true to the past. Even more important, both films have stayed true to Star Trek’s fundamental principles, as noted in this review on YouTube, by deaddropsd1972, who gave it a 10.
DEADDROPSD1972: It asks you what would you do, how far would you go, your ethics, um tested to the limits, to save your child, your crew, your best friend?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When I first reviewed the impact of the series on its 40th Anniversary, I spent a lot of time on it.
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So, here’s a shorter version, because, as they say, Star Trek is here, it’s dear, so get used to it.
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WILLIAM SHATNER: Get a life, will you people?
For cryin’ out loud, it's just a TV show!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When William Shatner said that on Saturday Night Live, though, to be fair, he didn't write it, it stung.
BARBARA ADAMS: I think a lot of fans feel like they are not respected. They're almost ashamed to admit they're fans of Star Trek, unless they hear two or three references to Star Trek in the conversation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not Barbara Adams. So moved was she by the series' optimistic, pluralistic vision of the future, that when serving on the jury in the Whitewater trial ten years ago, she wore the uniform of a Star Trek officer. “If it helps to make people think a little more about what those ideals are, then I'll keep wearing this uniform,” she said, and then was promptly dismissed for talking to the press.
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Those ideals were codified by Gene Roddenberry, a former flack with the LAPD, who cut his teeth writing Dragnet scripts on spec for Jack Webb. His Enterprise was staffed by a crack multiracial crew, and though that crew was prohibited by the Prime Directive from interfering in developing societies, Captain James T. Kirk found some way to destroy evildoers wherever he went.
Roddenberry allowed us to examine the convulsions of the sixties, racism, the Cold War and hippies, at a distance, mostly through aliens, since he had decreed that there would be no serious conflicts among the crew. But after three short seasons the show died, and for 18 long years the fans waited, as their ranks swelled through reruns and conventions, writing their own episodes and lobbying the network.
Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, says that much of that pressure came from an unexpected quarter.
HENRY JENKINS: I think if you go back and look at the original letter writing campaign that kept the series on the air for the third season, which made it viable for a syndication package, the majority of the leaders of that campaign were women. And while they were disappointed in the ways they were portrayed on Star Trek often, it kept alive this idea that women, alongside men, would be active participants in shaping the future.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, finally, after an animated series and four movies, a new live-action series was launched.
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And instead of "boldly going where no man had gone before," the new captain was to:
JEAN-LUC PICARD: “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”
RICK BERMAN: We had three female cast members on The Next Generation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Executive producer Rick Berman.
RICK BERMAN: One was Counselor Troi, one was the doctor. And there was some discussion that here we had two women in caretaker roles, which seemed a little sexist. But Gene also created this character, Tasha Yar, who was the head of security onboard the ship, and she was a tough broad, and probably the sexiest of the three.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Berman was handpicked by Roddenberry to launch the second series, but he's been widely reviled by the fans for coming to the franchise as a newbie and for failing to fully commit to the founder's vision.
RICK BERMAN: If I could sit and corral all the things that have been said over the years, you could put me just a little bit this side of Himmler. Did I see the original series as sacred? No. Did I do my very best to keep from contradicting anything that occurred in those episodes? Absolutely.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Next Generation also depicted a crew on a voyage of exploration, captained by the resolutely rational Jean-Luc Picard. It lasted seven years, bookended by a pair of episodes in which an omnipotent being called "Q" puts humanity on trial.
Q: You will now answer to the charge of being a grievously savage race.
JEAN-LUC PICARD: “Grievously savage” could mean anything. I will answer only specific charges.
Q: Are you certain you want a full disclosure of human ugliness? [LAUGHS] Present the charges!
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's a squeaker, but guess who wins? In Star Trek, humanity always wins. The sole exception was series number three, Deep Space Nine, mounted by Berman after Roddenberry's death. Set on a space station in a time of war, humans and aliens were forced to confront crime and corruption within the crew, and the humanity within all these species did not always win.
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ODO: Will that be all, Commander?
COMMANDER SISKO: I want you to know I don't personally believe that you are responsible for this.
ODO: Really? Now, how can that be true? You don't know me, so don't tell me there isn't some doubt inside of you, some question about whether or not I murdered the man.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Some diehard fans grumbled about the dark nature of the show, but that series also lasted seven years. The fourth series, Star Trek Voyager, was set on a ship flung to the outer reaches of the galaxy. Its mission was simply to return home, and it also marked a return to the original vision, only this time the glass ceiling was broken. Captain Kathryn Janeway was at the helm, played by Kate Mulgrew.
KATE MULGREW: I realized that what was at stake was their largest demographic, young men. How was I going to transcend the fact that they could be potentially watching their mother in the chair?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In fact, they watched her for seven years, even though the bodacious Borg, Seven of Nine, was added to the crew to boost ratings. But even she represented more than just sex appeal, because in Star Trek, humanity was always the real final frontier. So the best-loved characters were not human.
The half-Vulcan Spock in the first series, the android Data in the second, Odo, the shape shifter in the third and Seven of Nine in the fourth, they showed what it meant to be human by reacting against it or, more often, groping toward it. Here's Data on a date.
ENSIGN JENNA D’SORA: This is all part of a program?
DATA: Yes, one which I have just created for romantic relationships. I have written a sub-routine specifically for you. I have devoted a considerable share of my internal resources to its development.
ENSIGN JENNA D’SORA: Data, that's the nicest thing anybody's ever said to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Later, Data gets an emotion chip, but ultimately rejects it. Spock would approve. He never understood Kirk's infatuation with humanity.
SPOCK: But Captain, we both know that I am not human.
CAPTAIN KIRK: Spock, you want to know something? Everybody's human.
SPOCK: I find that remark – insulting.
EMMA: I love Spock. He's really awesome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's your name?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How old are you?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We found Emma at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Northern Connecticut, checking out a display of Star Trek memorabilia soon to be auctioned by Christie's. Like thousands of others, Emma writes fan fiction, original stories based on the series, and she posts them on her blog, as do many of her friends.
EMMA: Most of them write from the original series, Kirk and Spock. They either write slash or just friendship.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's slash?
EMMA: Slash is the gay romance, and it's very popular all over the Web. And I write some of it, but I prefer the friendship.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She says the fans she's met online hated the last series, called Enterprise, set in a time before the original series, and they're very riled up about the new movie, another prequel which recasts Kirk and Spock as students at Starfleet Academy.
EMMA: And people say, they can't do this to our franchise, and they call it their franchise. I know it's definitely not our franchise, but I think we have a big part in it, ‘cause without the fans there would be no like, continuation. There would have been no The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine or Voyager.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Through the fans, Star Trek lives long and prospers in cyberspace, where they create and consume thousands of news stories and hundreds of videos, including new episodes. It's not what Trekkers solemnly regard as Star Trek canon. It's called "fanon," a tapestry of new plots and back stories endlessly embroidered by fans. Tim Cavanaugh is the Web editor of Reason Magazine.
TIM CAVANAUGH: We grew up really lovin’ Star Trek in the purest possible way. We just loved it as kids. You get to high school, you get to college, suddenly you become this super ironist and you realize how campy it is and over the top, and every joke about Captain Kirk getting’ it on with green women or about crew members wearing red shirts and dying, they’ve all been made. To some degree, the show has outlived all of that stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that may not matter to some fans for whom the show may have actually outlived - the show, erstwhile Whitewater juror Barbara Adams.
BARBARA ADAMS: I don't think fans should worry about there not being a Star Trek series on. If it's not a good Star Trek series, if it's not showing us what we want to see in Star Trek, we don't have to have it there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: At some point, for fans like Adams, Star Trek shape-shifted from a franchise to a kind of creed, perhaps because Roddenberry made it seem almost plausible, because it made use of some real science and referenced some real history. Or maybe it's because his founding vision was bound up in the belief that ultimately it’s, our passion, our restlessness that will save us, that as much as Vulcan logic and detachment are venerated in the Trek world, it's somehow better to be human.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's it for this week show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, PJ Vogt, Alex Goldman, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary. We had more help from Ravenna Koenig, Alexandra Hall and WNYC archivist Andy Lancet. And it was edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Rick Kwan and Justin Gerrish.
Katya Rogers is our Senior Producer. Jim Schachter is WNYC’s Vice President for News, and our boss. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.