Why Star Trek is What I’m Thankful For
A brief history of the show that has changed television, technology, and culture (and why Trekkies are better than sports fans).
50 years ago, something very cool was born.
It wasn’t easy. I bet nothing this ahead of its time, this revolutionary, this EVOLUTIONARY, can be easy.
GETTING AN EVOLUTION STARTED
I’ve talked about this in the past, most recently on the final edition of my radio program, The Week with Sebastian Kunz, in 2013.
They made a TV pilot in 1965, but it didn’t fly. It had been described in the pitch meetings (I always picture Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza in the office of Russell Dalrymple) as “Wagon Train To The Stars.”
You gotta put yourself in the place and time. First, there was no such thing as the internet, there was no such thing as On Demand, there was no such thing as illegal downloading. There weren’t 750 channels of horse shit to watch, the way there are today.
You really have to put yourself in the place and time. There were three television networks, four if you count National Educational Television (which we now call PBS). The Today Show, which we still have today, was very different (even if you had a color television, Today didn’t start broadcasting in color until mid-September 1965).
There was a handful of other things you and I might recognize if we went back to 1965 and tried to find something to watch on TV. Gilligan’s Island, the first versions of Jeopardy and the Price is Right, Meet the Press, Flintstones, Andy Griffith, The Lucy Show, Mister Ed, My Three Sons… were all on TV. Lassie, What’s My Line (a personal favorite of mine), Batman, Mr. Rogers, I Dream of Jeannie… and 1965 was also the first year of a very futuristic show called Lost In Space. (There had been Outer Limits and Twilight Zone, but those aren’t really science fiction as much as they were fantasy, I feel.)
But, back to Star Trek. They made a pilot in 1964, but the network execs had been promised a “Wagon Train To The Stars” (Wagon Train was something the suits were familiar with, and in starting something new, you gotta try and draw a parallel to something familiar). The problem was the pilot was deemed “too cerebral”, and that was a bad thing. They were looking for blazing guns and action fight sequences and so on… and they got something much more different and experimental.
What was unusual then (and has happened repeatedly in the 50 years since) was that their network, NBC, didn’t just throw the pilot out. Someone in the room saw some value there, and decided to treat the pilot as a ‘first draft’. There were battles about what to keep and what to dump, and we all know now what they kept (the concept, the ship, the sets). But this would be only the first time of many that Star Trek almost didn’t make it, but squeaked by.
They went on to do three seasons, and six movies with Kirk and the crew, and four more TV series (each running five to seven years) and four more feature films (plus the two cinema excretions by the shithead J.J. Abrams, which do not count for true Star Trek fans.)
I feel like the least-known thing about Star Trek is that they were always getting cancelled (more on this at the end).
SPORTS VS STAR TREK
People have laughed at me all my life, because of my fascination with Star Trek. These same people sometimes dress up in sports outfits, get wasted, paint their faces, scream like fuckin’ cavemen at a television screen, lose lots of money on bets, waste tons of time online playing some fantasy version of the game they obsess over, and devote space on their bumpers, their shirt fronts, and many times embed ink on their skin… All to, as Elaine’s boyfriend Puddy once said, “support the team”.
Yet I’m the one that gets laughed at, yelled at, made fun of, ostracized.
I’ve never myself owned a Star Trek uniform, though some people refuse to believe me. I’ve had a few toy phasers, flip-top communicators, comm- badges, and ship models over the years. Books, games, apps, and autographs too. I occasionally get a Trekkie T-shirt or hoodie as a gift, though, many people don’t know: the badass Trekkie apparel never ever has the words ‘Star Trek’ on it anywhere visible.
Admit it: you probably didn’t know that.
And I’m nowhere near the craziest Trekkie I know. It gets much more freaky than the cBas Level of Trekkieism.
This show I revere is credited with advancing diversity. They had a multicultural crew: Asians, Russians, African-Americans and women all working alongside the white man, at a time when military vessels did not. Star Trek boasts TV’s first interracial kiss (a story which makes me respect William Shatner more than any other story, I think). They did stories about the issue of drugs, at a time when network television censors didn’t generally allow such topics.
Yet women in real life, in the 21st century, still get paid less than guys for the same work, white cops in real life still shoot unarmed black guys with few to no consequences, and the news media covers garbage like Snooki, Kim Kardashian, baby bumps, and nip slips in an endless chase for ratings and revenue.
This show I revere is credited with spurring technological advancements that kids today will take for granted their entire lives. Lots of people have written about this, and you think you know them all.
I thought I knew them all, but no.
The flip-top communicator became the flip cell phone (already kind of outdated), Uhura’s earpiece became the Bluetooth headset, and the wrist-communicator became the wearable. Riker and Data liked their touchable lapel communicator or comm-badge. The startup Vocera out of California has it, in real life today, mostly for hospital workers to replace the building-wide page call.
Kirk and Picard both had versions of a small handheld computer with a sensitive screen (Kirk’s had a stylus, Picard’s didn’t). I know you love your iPad, your Surface, or your other tablet computer. Video-screen communication in real time? Hello webcams, Polycom, and Skype.
Tractor beams? We’ve got ‘optical tweezers’ now. Transparent aluminum? We’ve got aluminum oxynitride (ALON) now. Phasers? We’ve got stun guns, dazers, Tazers, Laser-Induced Plasma Energy, and The United States Air Force with their Personal Halting and Stimulation Response (gee, that doesn’t spell PHaSR, does it?).
Helping blind people see? We’ve got bionic eyes. Helping the sick, injured, and amputees? We’ve got needles that are being replaced by the hypospray, the biobed (non-invasive MRI scanners), bionic limbs, handheld scanners so close to Dr. McCoy’s tricorder it’s scary, and now, Google spoons that balance out tremors (so people whose hands tremble can feed themselves easily… this was never depicted in Star Trek but I think it’s awesome nonetheless.)
Need help with a language you don’t speak? There’s now an app for that. Captain Kirk sported a universal translator, and I just got back from teaching English for a year in Mexico, and that was possible in no small part to Google Translate on my iPhone.
Robots? Where do I even begin? Automated gadgets that mop and sweep in the Roomba, AT&T and Cisco TelePresence, Sheldon Cooper’s Virtual Presence Device, and I’ll even throw Siri in here… Kirk and Spock spoke to the Enterprise’s computer and damned if she didn’t understand, compute, and speak back. Go ahead, hit that button on your iPhone and ask Siri about your sports team’s score, when the next game is, what the weather in any city is, or to tell you a joke. Softbank out of Japan is starting to sell “affectionate robots” that supposedly are programmed to read your emotions by recognizing facial expressions and vocal tones. In this country, the home improvement store Lowe’s offers robotic assistants that come up to you as you enter, ask what you’re looking for, and lead you to the right aisle of the store.
Back at Arizona State, studying artificial intelligence in 1997, I was seeing computer programs already getting fairly close to passing the Turing Test (named for Alan Turing, there’s a movie about him, go see it). Forbes reports a program recently PASSED the Turing Test (fooling a human into thinking they were talking to another human), and while that may not be real sentience (yet), the progress we’ve made even since I was in school is downright startling.
“Yeah yeah, cBas, but we don’t have replicators, the holodeck, or cloaking devices yet”, I hear you sports troglodytes screaming out your End Zone.
Gee. Hello, Fab@Home, the 3-D printer that can make physical objects up to and including FOOD. Hello, Oculus Rift that can let you experience other places and people (you have GOT to see the Not-Safe-For-Work video my buddy Shashi tipped me off about… at http://vimeo.com/74025061 [again, it’s NOT SAFE FOR WORK but really funny], and if this video isn’t the future of sex, I don’t know what is). Hello, 3-D metamaterial coated with nano cups.
“Nano… cups?”, I hear from the peanut gallery.
That’s the first try at making a cloaking device-style invisibility shield.
Transporters or warp drive? Give it a few years.
In the meantime, research into quantum teleportation is making breakthroughs (even though I admit I don’t understand what it is, I know it’s not the Beam Me Up Scotty thing. Yet the name alone is awesome.)
And NASA’s doing actual real life research into faster-than-light travel. Again, Star Trek doesn’t have the exclusive patent on the idea… but come on.
Of course, I know that it’s entirely possible, even likely, that _many_ of these things are logical, sensical things that eventually would have happened anyway.
But a visionary is a visionary. And while Gene Roddenberry didn’t invent all those ideas himself… he’s the military pilot-turned-cop-turned-writer who set up the _foundation_ upon which all the rest of these ideas… social, cultural, and technological… were built.
And that was a mere TWO DOZEN EXAMPLES of Star Trek technology that’s actually come true.
Here’s the part I think I like the most, about the story of Star Trek. They were always being cancelled. Always.
We discussed the pilot which didn’t fly, so they made a second pilot that did.
Season One of Star Trek had NBC order a mere 16 episodes. Demographics were not a thing yet in network TV, and if you don’t know what that is… viewers are not just viewers. Network suits want YOUNGER viewers, AFFLUENT viewers, viewers who are tryers and buyers and spenders of money and seekers of pleasure.
Yet in 1966–1967, networks were just barely becoming aware of the idea and experimenting with measuring _exactly_ who was watching what. Gunsmoke, for instance, was cancelled by CBS because there were too many older and not enough younger viewers.
Based on the demographics, NBC went ahead and ordered an additional ten episodes for that first season, and also ordered the second season… and as the story goes, letter writing campaigns organized by fans who felt passionately that the largely shitty television lineup (of a mere THREE networks plus PBS, mind you) finally had something for THEM.
Season Two was also rough, since the network moved Star Trek to Friday nights. Young people go out and watch movies and attend sock hops and have malteds down at the soda fountain on Friday nights in the late 60s, but again, Star Trek brought in the “quality audience” made up of “upper-income, better-educated males”… and the only show they had that brought in more fan mail to NBC was The Monkees.
But NBC still was toying with canceling Star Trek, until they got another 116,000 letters from fans between December 67 and March 68, and a book by Stephen Edward Poe says that the network actually got something like a million letters supporting Star Trek, maybe more. Students marched on NBC’s offices in Burbank. Berkeley and MIT students held similar demonstrations in San Francisco and New York.
Season Three is when Roddenberry more or less bowed out, and the quality of the show is generally thought to have dropped off, so it finally got cancelled for real in 1969. They did reruns for a while though, and Star Trek found a new audience in new teens (too young in the 60s to watch at 10pm, but now older, not interested in the 5 o’clock news, and finding Star Trek reruns really hit them between the eyes).
Then Paramount wanted to make a fourth commercial TV network, to compete with NBC, CBS and ABC. Again, you have to put yourself in the place and time. There were only three channels plus PBS. That’s IT. So a company was trying to figure out how to compete with those gargantuan entities which had been around since the days when we only had the radio for entertainment. It’s almost unimaginable these days, I grant.
But they couldn’t quite work it out.
Then in 1977, 20th Century Fox releases Star Wars. We all know what happened with Star Wars. It was fucking huge. It was explosive, exciting, and if you don’t understand what Star Wars was like in 1977 (I myself didn’t live through it), I suggest watching the episode of That 70’s Show that mentions it (there may have been more than one episode, even).
The people at Paramount Pictures were like… “well, what do WE have that can get some of those Star Wars kids buying tickets and popcorn for US?!?”
And (as actor Walter Koenig said in a DVD special feature), someone in the back of the room at Paramount Pictures says something like… “I think we have that thing called Star Trek”.
So they made a movie. Star Trek: The Motion Picture or Star Trek One.
Now, if you know this story, you know Star Trek One is boring. My buddy Dave Krieger (who was original scientific advisor for Star Trek: The Next Generation and has an actual letter of recommendation from Gene Roddenberry himself) calls Star Trek One … “Star Trek: The Motionless Picture”.
The problems were all over the place. They were locked into a December 1979 release and had to rush the movie. The special effects never got really finished. It cost like 44 million dollars. And worst of all… (a) the plot sucked and (b) somehow, no one noticed it was almost an exact plot remake of one of the original TV show episodes.
But if you were alive then, and hungry for Star Trek on the Silver Screen… you ate it up. What I say now is… it’s like art. It’s not an explosiony, science fiction movie. It’s closer to 2001 in pace than Star Wars.
But… put yourself in the place and time. You’re hungry for more Star Trek. You’ve been watching and loving the reruns. Star Wars really got your private parts all tingly. You’re ready for the big screen Starship Enterprise and Kirk and Spock and the gang all back together again, and you’ve also been teased for a while by rumors of a new tv network or show or something.
Despite all the problems, the boredom, the rushed job… it was epic. It was awesome.
But it was a bit disappointing, and after that initial rush, everyone thought, well, that’s it. No one in the production team gave any thought to ANOTHER movie.
And yet the fans still wanted more.
But this wasn’t today. Put yourself in the place and time. Sequels were not made for every movie every time. The word ‘sequel’ itself was not even super common, I don’t think. There wasn’t Empire Strikes Back yet, though it was in production by then… so when another Star Wars came out… Paramount goes, okay… maybe, with the right team and the right release date and the right script… if we do it RIGHT…
But now… Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Spock, is sick of it. It’s now the Eighties. He wants to move on, making that first movie wasn’t easy or painless at all, and he’s not into another movie.
But the producer calls him and says… “what if we kill Mr. Spock?”
Nimoy, as an actor, was like… whoa. What an idea. Dramatically… after all these years… that’s huge.
And you KNOW they can’t POSSIBLY make another movie after this.
So they went for it. They did it right, and any Trekkie worth his salt knows Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is by FAR the best Star Trek film in history.
For me, cBas, it’s the greatest film in the history of American cinema.
And now you KNOW it’s over, right? Making a third movie without Mr. Spock? Jeffrey Katzenberg said that would be like “making a car without wheels”.
But now they’re getting this idea of … “we did a second movie and it was better than the first. The fan response and the box office numbers told us so.
Let’s go again. Hey Nimoy, you want in?”
Nimoy says, “Sure, but only if I can direct.”
And they went again. Nimoy directs The Search For Spock. And it’s touching, and it’s heartfelt, and it’s grand and exciting and it has a happy ending and it has hope and humor and love and Klingons.
After every movie, from one, to two, to three, they were thinking, FINALLY, this is it. No more of this Star Trek bullshit.
After every TV season, they were getting cancelled.
After every movie, they were TOTALLY getting cancelled, and each time, they were more certain than EVER that they were NEVER coming back.
They made 79 TV shows and six movies under that paradigm.
That’s what I call… hope for anyone who thinks it’s hopeless. It’s not over until it’s over, until the fat lady sings, until the suits say you’re done… and even then…
Maybe it’s not over for real, after all.
So go get wasted sports fans. Go paint your face. Go watch your drab, wretched football or baseball or basketball game.
Yell at me if you want to. Call me names. Make fun of my friends, my feelings, and my future-philia. We’re used to it.
To steal a line from Alex on Modern Family… you have your fans, and I have my fans.
And someday… your fans are going to work for my fans.
(thanks to Mental Floss, Mashable, NBC News, CNN.com, Forbes Magazine, Gizmodo and Space.com )
Davies, Máire Messenger; Pearson, Roberta; Michael Lowell Henry (August 1, 2007). “The Little Program That Could: The Relationship Between NBC and Star Trek”. In Hilmes, Michele; Henry, Michael Lowell. NBC: America’s Network. University of California Press. ISBN 0–520–25079–6.
Pearson, Roberta; Niki Strange (February 2, 2011). “Cult Television as Digital Television’s Cutting Edge”. In Bennett, James; Strange, Niki. Television as Digital Media. Duke University Press. pp. 105–131. ISBN 0–8223–4910–8.
Poe, Stephen Edward (1998). A Vision of the Future. Simon and Schuster. pp. 138–139. ISBN 0–671–53481–5.
Scott, Vernon (February 7, 1968). “Letters Can Save ‘Star Trek’”. The Press-Courier (Oxnard, California). United Press International. p. 17. Retrieved April 29, 2011.
”Televation Obscurities — A Look At Star Trek”. Television Obscurities. September 1, 2006. Retrieved May 14, 2011.