Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Star Trek at 50

Star Trek has been going where no television show has gone before for half a century.

The original series lasted only three seasons, from 1966 to 1969, but the program gained new life in syndication during the 1970s. Instead of withering away, the sci-fi phenomenon grew in popularity after its cancellation, spawning fan clubs, fan fiction, conventions, a cartoon, merchandise (make that tons of merchandise), parodies, TV and movie sequels and prequels, and much more, including Star Trek Beyond, which debuted in theaters July 22.

Set in an optimistic future where humans have largely outgrown hunger, racism, and war with one another, Star Trek was created by humanist Eugene “Gene” Wesley Roddenberry, a.k.a. “The Great Bird of the Galaxy.” He developed the show as “Wagon Train to the stars,” drawing inspiration from the Western TV series Wagon Train (1957-1965), the space opera TV series Rocky Jones, Space Ranger (1954), and the cinema classic Forbidden Planet (1956), along with such serials as Flash Gordon (1936) and Buck Rogers (1939).

Literary works influenced Roddenberry as well, including the writings of A.E. van Vogt (The Voyage of the Space Beagle), Eric Frank Russell (the epic voyage of the Marathon), and C.S. Forester (the Horatio Hornblower novels).

Roddenberry, who died Oct. 24, 1991, at the age of 70, began his career in Hollywood during the 1950s. While holding down a “real job” as an LAPD officer, he wrote scripts under the name of “Robert Wesley” for such shows as Highway Patrol and Have Gun Will Travel.

Roddenberry’s ambitions went beyond freelancing, so he developed a World War II adventure series called APO 293, but couldn’t get the networks interested. He had better luck with his next series, a Marine Corps drama called The Lieutenant, which NBC picked up in 1963. Unfortunately, The Lieutenant, which featured Nichelle “Uhura” Nichols in its first episode, only ran one season.

In 1964, Roddenberry filmed the pilot for Star Trek, with Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike and Leonard Nimoy as Science Officer Spock. It was called “The Cage.” NBC executives deemed the program “too cerebral” for mainstream audiences, but in a rare move, the network, seeing potential in the concept, let Roddenberry film a second pilot (which they approved, of course), this time with William Shatner in the lead role of Captain James T. Kirk.

The episode, which also introduced chief engineer Lt. Commander Scott (James Doohan) and Lt. Sulu (George Takei), was called “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” The title refers to Shatner’s famous voiceover introducing it and subsequent episodes: “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

The first season of Star Trek, which debuted Sept. 8, 1966, also saw the addition of: Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), who was third-billed behind Shatner and Nimoy; Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), who left midway through the first season; Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett, Roddenberry’s wife), head nurse and assistant to McCoy; and Lt. Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), the first African-American female to hold a prominent, non-stereotypical role in an American television series. Walter Koenig joined the cast as Ensign Pavel Chekov in the second season.

During its original run, Star Trek was nominated for Emmy Awards (13 nominations, 0 wins), and it had a fiercely loyal cult following, but it was a relatively expensive show to produce, and its ratings were only mediocre. Late in 1967, NBC was rumored to be cancelling the show after just two seasons. However, in March of 1968, after receiving more than 100,000 letters supporting the show (a campaign promoted by super fan Bjo Trimble), NBC announced that they were renewing it for a third season.

Trek expert Paul Cortez, an IT service manager at a Department of Energy research facility, understands the passion that would prompt tens of thousands of fans to save what is “just” a TV show.

Star Trek examined certain progressive and cultural issues,” he said. “The symbolism was not lost on the counter-cultural mindset of many young people at the time who probably saw the show as speaking in support of many of the same ideals they espoused. For that reason, these first Baby Boomer fans were the ones who set out to make sure that Star Trek should never be forgotten, and they passed that enthusiasm on to younger fans of my generation and beyond.”

In addition to its social relevance, Cortez appreciates the exploratory nature of Star Trek.

“I think the show never lost sight of showing people the wondrous possibilities of exploration,” he said. “That exploring means you will possibly find things that are dangerous but also things that are wonderful as well, and that the bad must be accepted along with the good to give the act of exploration any kind of meaning.”

Cortez began watching the show in 1976 when he was in first grade.

“It was on in late-afternoon syndication on a local station, but of course I had no idea what syndication or reruns were at the time,” he said. “It was all brand new to me. I watched it pretty much every day after school. I was mesmerized by the bright colors of the characters' uniforms. The fact that the show was about people who explored outer space was the most amazing thing ever, yet it seemed to me to be the most natural thing that people would want to explore space.”

Citing his favorite episode, Cortez bypassed such oft-cited classics as “The City on the Edge of Forever,” “The Trouble With Tribbles,” and “Mirror, Mirror” in favor of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” a heavy-handed but sincere allegory for racial discrimination. In that third-season episode, which starred Frank Gorshin, a humanoid alien whose face is black on the left side and white on the right hates the guy whose face coloring is the opposite.

“‘Let That Be Your Last Battlefield’ makes an open-and-shut case for the pointlessness and potential risks of sustaining racial prejudice as part of a society,” he said. “As an adult fan I've always felt that Star Trek was at its best when it had a strong, positive social message, and this message was one of the show’s best.”

Cortez’s favorite character, Spock, is a more obvious, more mainstream choice than his favorite episode, but his reason for liking the green-blooded Vulcan is highly personal in nature.

“By the age of 8 my parents had divorced, and I had relocated to another city, so I was going through a lot of emotional turmoil,” he said. “I would watch Star Trek and see Mr. Spock as an example of how I didn't have to let sadness and grief dominate my mind if I chose not to. I also had a lot of emotionally volatile people on both sides of my extended family, but Mr. Spock showed me that it was possible and worthwhile to live a life with emotional restraint, as well as in pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself. It's no exaggeration to say that Mr. Spock was highly instrumental in putting my life on a better course than it would have gone on had I not had his example to follow.”

On a lighter note, Cortez shared a story about his father and Dr. McCoy. When he was 7 years old, Cortez got a piece of glass stuck in his foot while swimming at the lake, prompting him to exit the water “screaming and hysterically limping around.”

“My dad tried to hold me still so he could remove the glass, but I kept nervously pulling my foot away from him,” he said. “Finally he looked at me and said, ‘Calm down, didn’t you know I used to be Dr. McCoy on Star Trek?’ As I was inclined to believe anything my dad told me at this age, I immediately relaxed and let him pull the glass out of my foot and get a bandage on it. That’s how much Star Trek meant to me—I trusted Dr. McCoy more than my own father!”

From a collecting standpoint, Cortez has “always been enamored with the different types of spaceships, both those belonging to Starfleet and the different alien races,” so a lot of his memorabilia is “centered around representations of these ships ranging in scale from small vinyl-molded figures up through full-sized model kits.”

Cortez also has “quite a few” of the various Star Trek-themed tactical and role-playing games published in the 1980s, but his favorite item is an original Star Trek bridge playset, which Mego released in 1974.

“This bridge playset is basically a ‘Barbie Malibu Dream House’ for Trekkies,’ and I say that unashamedly,” he said, laughing. “I enjoy it because it directly connects me to that period of my childhood when I first discovered Star Trek.”

Devoted Star Trek fan Mike Mahnich, owner of Versus Gameplay Arcade in Plano, Texas, was born during the late 1960s, but he didn’t discover the show until the 1979 premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. His first memory of watching the TV series was in 1982 during summer break.

“To the best of my recollection, Star Trek didn’t run in syndication in the Dallas/Fort Worth area at that time,” he said. “However, my brother and I would stay with my grandparents in Illinois for a few weeks each summer, and a local station was showing reruns in syndication. One of the episodes included ‘Space Seed’ as a tie-in with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I had no idea that the movie had a ‘prequel’ episode on the original series, so I started watching other episodes to see what else I had missed.”

Mahnich’s favorite character is Captain Kirk because of Shatner’s delivery and the captain’s strength of character. His favorite episode at the moment is “Who Mourns for Adonais?” in which the crew of the Enterprise encounters the Greek sun god Apollo.

“All seven of the main cast are featured in this episode,” Mahnich said. “Also, I always thought the idea of a giant hand in space holding the Enterprise was awesome!”

Mahnich collects Star Trek books, toys, “unusual licensed items” (he seems especially proud of his Enterprise pizza cutter), and Christmas ornaments, but one ornament in particular has remained elusive.

“I have a boxed collection of every Star Trek ornament put out by Hallmark, except one,” he said. “In 2009, Hallmark had a booth at Comic-Con in San Diego featuring an exclusive run of Lt. Uhura ornaments. It was a variation of a 2007 release featuring Uhura in her common red uniform, but the Comic-Con edition has her dressed in yellow. Because she only wore yellow in one episode, ‘The Corbomite Maneuver,’ and the run was limited to 450 ornaments, it is now hard to find at a reasonable price. I have yet to see one in person.”

Mahnich’s favorite Star Trek item is an early U.S.S. Enterprise technical manual, though it has “plummeted in value” since he got it years ago.

“Back then there was no Internet, and fans would publish their own material,” he said. “The tech manual I have, which was given to me by a great friend and fellow fan, is obviously printed on a dot-matrix printer, which only makes it cooler to me. It was probably sold at an early Star Trek convention.”

Mahnich enjoys all of the various “Star Trek” series, including The Next Generation, which he watched with his parents while he was in high school, and Voyager, which he’s watching now on Netflix with his wife and kids.

A self-described Trekkie/Trekker (“doesn’t matter which,” he says), Mahnich believes The Original Series lives on 50 years later because of its “bold stories and well-defined characters,” along with its positive outlook on the future.

Star Trek really was ahead of its time regarding diversity and dealing with social issues on TV,” Mahnich added. “So much of what it has to say is still relevant, and since it teaches using the metaphor of space adventures, it continues to gently influence its viewers, even if they are not aware of it.”

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