Star Trek is a true popular culture phenomenon. Gene Roddenberry was a successful television writer and producer since the late 1950’s when in 1964 he went to studio heads to pitch his “wagon train to the stars” concept for a science fiction show.
Although canceled, Star Trek had a very loyal and growing fan base that had lobbied the network with letter writing campaigns. These fans, eventually called “Trekkies” or “Trekkers,” kept interest alive through the 1970’s with fan magazines and conventions. Roddenberry and Hollywood took note and in 1979 Paramount Pictures released Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the rest is history.
More than 50 years have passed since the first episode of Star Trek aired and the power of Roddenberry’s vision endures. With Star Trek Discovery premiering this week, here are 15 reasons why we love the franchise.
15. Don’t Destroy the One Called Kirk
Following the cancellation of Star Trek in 1969, William Shatner found himself struggling to get new acting jobs. He lost his house and found himself living in a pickup truck camper for a time. Eventually his acting career got back on track and Shatner went on to solidify his role as the face of the Star Trek phenomenon.
Captain Kirk has always been a very popular part of the Trek universe, but Shatner himself hasn’t always been as beloved. Some Trekkers point to a funny Saturday Night Live skit where Shatner pokes fun at some of the sci-fi nerds’ excesses.
Nevertheless, Shatner has been a frequent guest at fan conventions and a chronicler of Star Trek history — with books like Star Trek Memories and the documentary film The Captains. Captain Kirk is the original captain of the Enterprise. All subsequent captains have inevitably been compared to Shatner’s straight forward, genial characterization of the archetypal Starship captain.
14. Where No Cartoon has Gone Before
After Star Trek was canceled in 1969 there was still an appetite for the show — its characters, its futuristic technology and its compelling story lines. This demand was temporarily filled by Star Trek: The Animated Series. It ran for two seasons and is considered part of the official canon of the Star Trek universe.
Gene Roddenberry and one of the original series’ most talented writers D.C. Fontana both served as executive producers on the show. The original actors were hired to voice their animated characters, which preserved a direct connection to the live-action series. Alan Dean Foster wrote novelizations of all the animated episodes under the name Star Trek Logs.
13. The Pen is Mightier than the Phaser
The Star Trek Logs series of books weren’t even the beginning of what would become an entire publishing universe of fiction and nonfiction. In 1969, Bantam Books started publishing the novelization of the original television episodes. The books have enjoyed a long and successful run with several publishers that continues up to the present day.
Various lines of books follow the crews from the different television shows as well as an expanded galaxy of life forms and civilizations. The books were particularly popular in the 1980s, when the slate of movies featuring the original crew were being released. There has also been large number of nonfiction books inspired by Star Trek including a Klingon dictionary, cast memoirs and examinations of scientific topics.
12. Toy World
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, before toys became fan boy “collectible,” lines of Star Trek toys were made for and marketed to kids. Children would tear open the packaging — a sacrilege to avid collectors — and play with these action figures. They often lost the little blue accessories, especially the tiny communicator.
The toy onslaught did not stop with Mego’s classic 8-inch figures but expanded into a dizzying array of play sets, costumes, games and models. The market for toys-turned-collectibles has been driven partially by the popular convention circuit where all manner of Star Trek and science fiction merchandise is displayed for sale. With the explosion of Internet commerce and sites like eBay, collectors and fans of all stripes can hunt for and often find just about anything related to Star Trek.
Many people think Star Trek fans — often referred to as Trekkies or Trekkers — are stereotypical nerds. While there is some truth to it, they are an intelligent and passionate community of fans from all walks of life. The first Star Trek convention was held in New York City in January 1972.
As the popularity of Star Trek has grown, it has spilled over into other conventions including ComicCon. The conventions usually run for several days and host a large assortment of vendors selling all manner of Star Trek and science fiction merchandise.
The events also feature discussion panels, autograph signings and guest appearances by actors, writers and other artists associated with Star Trek. The schedule of events can also include blooper reels, music videos, trivia games and costume contests. Conventions are recognized as celebrations of everything Star Trek, including Roddenberry’s vision of people coming together for a common purpose.
10. Trek to the Big Screen
Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one of those movies with a “troubled” production that stretched for several years, repeated rewrites, conflict between the creators and the studio and problems with special effects. No one should have been surprised then that it opened in December 1979 to mixed reviews and underperformed at the box office.
However, the movie eventually earned enough worldwide to convince Paramount Pictures to request a sequel. Many fans thought Star Trek: The Motion Picture was too long and a bit boring. Just about everyone hated the drab pyjama uniforms.
Fans also recognized the unoriginal plot as merely an expansion of the second season episode “The Changeling” — about a lost probe that reappears to confront the Enterprise crew with greatly enhanced powers. Subsequent movies were better and more successful including The Wrath of Kahn and The Voyage Home. To date, 13 Star Trek movies have been released, most recently in 2016.
9. A Star to Steer Her by
NCC-1701 is the registry number of the United Starship Enterprise. This Constitution Class vessel is a science fiction and popular culture icon that everyone recognizes whether they know anything about science fiction or not.
The ship is almost regarded as a beloved character and fans were sad when Captain Kirk was forced to sacrifice it to save his friends in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The Enterprise of the original series had a crew of approximately 430 officers and enlisted personnel.
It was capable of warp speeds, was outfitted with transporters, shuttle craft and armed with phaser cannons and photon torpedoes. These basic elements remained as the ship was refitted when a new Enterprise — designated NCC-1701 A — was built after Star Trek III.
A fan letter writing campaign convinced President Gerald Ford to allow NASA to change the name of its shuttle Constitution to Enterprise. Star Trek cast members were on hand for the ceremony.
8. To Boldly Go… Again
A little over 20 years after the original Star Trek series aired, Star Trek The Next Generation beamed into viewers’ homes. Set 100 years after Captain Kirk’s five-year mission, the new USS Enterprise was commanded by Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
The most original characters of the series were an android crewman named Data and an omniscient nuisance named Q — who periodically tormented the crew. The new show ran in first-run syndication from 1987 through 1994. Although the show experienced some teething problems during the first season, it was a hit.
The new cast grew into their roles, the writing improved and unlike most television programs, it got better over the course of its seven-season run. The Next Generation was rewarded with several awards including an Emmy for outstanding drama and a Peabody. Captain Jean-Luc Picard appeared on the pilot of a new show called Star Trek Deep Space Nine in 1993.
7. The Science of Trek
A significant portion of Star Trek fans were inspired by the show to pursue careers in science and technology. Teaching, physics and engineering are examples of careers some people sought after watching and/or reading about the adventures of the USS Enterprise.
Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss wrote a book called The Physics of Star Trek in 1995. The book is an attempt to introduce complex subjects using Star Trek’s fictional technology as a starting point.
Krauss also points out that some of the technology such as warp drive, phasers and advanced artificial intelligence will likely become realities in the future. The iconic communicator that Star Fleet personnel use to talk to one another over long distances has been realized in the form of cellular and satellite phones.
The advances in areas like information technology and space travel since the late 1960s should make us hopeful that scientists can make much of the world of Star Trek a reality.
6. The Continuing Voyages
Four live-action and one animated Star Trek television shows followed the original with various levels of success. In September 2017, Star Trek Discovery, the fifth live-action show, debuted on CBS. For the first time, the main character is not the captain of the ship, but a first officer named Michael Burhnam (played by actress Sonequa Martin-Green).
The series takes place about a decade before the events depicted in the original series and involves contact with the warrior species known as the Klingons. Some characters from the original show such as Spock’s father Sarek and pirate Harvey Mudd will make appearances.
CBS has high hopes for the show that will initially appear on the network, but subsequent episodes will be available through its streaming service CBS All Access.
5. Alternate Trek
In 2009 Paramount Pictures released a movie simply called Star Trek after a seven-year drought. The Star Trek franchise had seemingly petered out with the disappointing Star Trek: Nemesis released in 2002.
The movie featured the Next Generation cast in conflict with a clone of Captain Picard created by one of the Federation’s arch enemies the Romulans.
Although the television show Star Trek: Enterprise, which ran from 2001-2005, had a core following, it was generally considered a disappointment as well. The Star Trek franchise is too popular and too valuable to stay dormant, so Paramount turned the helm over to talented director J.J. Abrams.
Expectations were very high for its return. There was some trepidation because different actors would be playing the crew of the USS Enterprise. This was a full reboot, which Abrams cleverly framed as an alternate timeline set in motion by a genocidal Romulan. The movie was a critical and financial success; two sequels have since been released.
4. Beam Me up Scotty
At more than 50 years old, Star Trek has had plenty of time to sink into popular culture. It is kept alive not just with reruns but in a lot of other ways such as references across pop culture.
One of the best examples is the hit show The Big Bang Theory — a sit-com about a group fan boy nerds who collect comics and argue about whether Kirk or Picard was the better captain. This show has used multiple references to Star Trek including a recurring role for Star Trek The Next Generation actor Will Wheaton (as himself).
A number of lines from the original show are commonly used such as “beam me up Scotty.” Star Trek has been parodied on shows like Saturday Night Live, Family Guy, The Simpsons Futurama and in movies like Galaxy Quest.
3. Documenting the 23rd Century
The first reference book on Star Trek was published in 1968 — in the middle of the original show’s three year run. The Making of Star Trek was written by Stephen E. Whitfield with the help of the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry. The book contains the inside story of how the show got made.
There are anecdotes from long hours spent writing and filming the series as well as examples of production memos. It also features descriptions of how Roddenberry shaped his ideas and refined them to appeal to television executives.
There are a lot of pages devoted to the history behind the various props, costumes, aliens and planets featured on the show. As informative as the book is, it could only skim the surface of the Star Trek universe; an avalanche of books and documentaries followed. The documentaries covered Star Trek from different angles — including fans’ devotion in Trekkies.
2. The Great Bird of the Galaxy
In a throwaway line in the first season episode “The Man Trap,” Lt. Sulu thanks Yeoman Rand for her kindness with the words, “may the Great Bird of the galaxy land on your planet.” The ‘Great Bird’ is a reference to the beloved Star Trek‘s beloved Eugene Wesley Roddenberry.
As a veteran of World War Two and an LAPD officer, Roddenberry had an interesting life when he started submitting television scripts to Hollywood. Disenchanted with freelance writing, he developed a show called The Lieutenant that aired in 1963-1964 before pitching what he described as “wagon train to the stars,” referencing a popular show at the time.
Two pilot episodes later, Star Trek’s first episode “The Man Trap” aired on September 8, 1966. Although Roddenberry emphasized recognizable cowboy western themes to television executives, his vision was much more ambitious.
He foresaw a prosperous, peaceful Earth that had overcome superstition and bigotry, and reached out into interstellar space to become part of a galactic community called the Federation of Planets.
His vision was optimistic and he insisted on pushing the bounds of TV with a racially diverse crew that wrestled with moral issues thinly disguised with the trappings of science fiction. Roddenberry passed away in 1991 after guiding Star Trek for 25 years, seeing his vision become a reality.
1. Living Long and Prospering
“Infinite diversity in infinite combinations” is a basis for Vulcan philosophy and one of the guiding principles of the Star Trek universe. In our reality, it is a reminder to celebrate a brotherhood of mankind. In Star Trek, it’s a principle that extends beyond our orbit to all intelligent species willing to live in harmony.
It is an ideal mankind has yet to live up to, but it was one Gene Roddenberry sincerely believed was possible in the future. Pop culture today is steeped in cynicism and fascinated with dystopian outcomes that are nothing more than dead ends. Star Trek represents the hopes of anyone willing to dream and work for a better tomorrow.
This is why a television show that first went on the air more than 50 years ago could launch a phenomenon that is still going strong today. Fans have always been fascinated by the strange new worlds, the cool phasers and exotic aliens. Yet, Star Trek‘s legacy resides in our need for peace and harmony.