Why ‘Star Trek’ Is Still Around After 50 Years
Star Trek’s first appearance in The New York Times’ TV listings was inauspicious. “William Shatner as the captain of a space ship.”
It fared even worse in Jack Gould’s September 16 column on the new TV season, when he said Star Trek’s second episode, “Charlie X,” was an “astronautical soap opera that suffers from interminable flight drag.” Gould preferred a show called Jericho about spies in World War II. After a shaky start, Gould predicted “future installments might turn out to be massive.”
50 years later, Jericho is long forgotten while Star Trek just celebrated its golden anniversary with a big convention in New York City and a massive new television series on the horizon.
In fairness to the TV pundits of 1966, the first Star Trek, which premiered on NBC at 8:30PM on Thursday, September 8, didn’t look like a groundbreaking moment in the history of television, science-fiction, and fandom. The first episode aired — though not the first episode filmed — was “The Man Trap,” a mundane monster story about the crew of the Starship Enterprise arriving on a planet where crewmen (not all “redshirts” at this early date) begin turning up dead with strange red rings on their faces. It turns out that a beautiful woman who once dated Doctor McCoy is actually a shape-shifting “salt vampire” leeching the precious minerals she needs out of these poor Starfleet officers’ skin. The vampire manages to con its way onto the Enterprise and confuse the crew for a while, before McCoy finally phaser-blasts it into oblivion.
These were fairly humble beginnings, which is actually the main reason why “The Man Trap” aired first even though it was the sixth Star Trek episode produced. Unlike several of the episodes made before it, “The Man Trap” was relatively light on special effects and exposition; its simple story of outer-space explorers battling a strange creature could be easily understood and easily completed in time for an early September premiere.
Still, even an episode light on VFX with small roles for several of the main cast (and even a bizarre scene where Captain Kirk tells a Starship Base Commander named José Dominguez who’s worried about a delayed supply shipment that “he’ll get his chili peppers when we get there”) contained moments of wonder. At the Star Trek Mission: New York convention last weekend, John Byrne, a legendary comic book writer and artist of series like X-Men and Superman, told me he vividly remembered watching “The Man Trap” on Canadian television in 1966. He was 16 years old.
“I was sitting in front of my parents’ 22-inch black and white TV,” Byrne said. “I’d seen it listed in the fall preview issue of TV Guide, but I wasn’t really sure what it was. And then the Enterprise is the very first shot in ‘The Man Trap’ — the Enterprise hovers into view — and I’d never seen anything like it! Space ships [before Star Trek] were cigars with fins.”
Like thousands of others, Byrne was instantly hooked for life. (He now works on officially licensed Star Trek comics and photomontage books, where he Photoshops and reassembles images from old Trek episodes into entirely new adventures, for IDW.) According to Byrne, the Enterprise may have been the first thing to grab audience’s imaginations, but the characters were the reason they kept coming back.
“I think the principal appeal is that it’s about the people,” he told me. “They drive the stories. It isn’t just a bunch of guys wander into a story; it’s a bunch of very specific guys wander into a story, and they deal with it in their own ways. They each have their own set of quirks and ticks. And I think that’s always been Star Trek’s greatest strength.”
He may be right. From Star Trek, The Next Generation to Deep Space Nine to Voyager and Enterprise, the series has created far more indelible characters — Kirk, Spock, Bones, Picard, Data, Odo, Janeway, and on and on — than almost any comparable media franchise. At Mission New York, Spock ears were almost as ubiquitous as smartphones - a device that seems to fulfill the promise of the magical Star Trek communicator from 50 years ago. But in my mind, there’s even more to Star Trek’s appeal than that.
About an hour after I talked to Byrne, the cast of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine reunited on the Main Stage at Mission New York. During their panel, moderator Jordan Hoffman asked the actors for the most interesting or unusual fan interpretation of their character. The best answer came from Armin Shimerman, who played Quark on DS9. Quark (top left in the picture above) was the proprietor of Deep Space Nine’s bar, and a member of the alien race known as the Ferengi. Bald and big-eared with jagged teeth, the Ferengi are marked by their obsession with wealth (particularly their beloved “gold-pressed latinum”) and their love of dealmaking. Quark’s basically Donald Trump with better hair and worse dental work.
Here was how Shimerman answered Hoffman’s question:
I’ve been asked this for 20 years: Do the Ferengi represent Jews? That’s what happens here in the United States. If I’m in the United States, people will ask me that question. If I’m in England, they’ll say ‘Do the Ferengi represent the Irish?’ If I’m in Australia, they’ll say ‘Do the Ferengi represent the Chinese?’
What I’ve come to understand is that for many cultures around the world, the Ferengi represent the outcast. The Ferengi represent the culture that they don’t quite understand, but are living amongst them and they don’t necessarily know who they are. And that I find enormously fascinating. It was a great shock to go to various parts of the world and find out about prejudice.
Even more than Scotty or Sulu or Chekov, this is what has kept Star Trek relevant for 50 years: It is set in a far future, but it speaks about our time and place, mining our hopes and fears (and yes, even our prejudices) and turning them into universal fables about the human condition.
Mission New York wasn’t the biggest fan convention I’ve attended; in terms of sheer numbers, it paled in comparison to the annual New York Comic-Con, much less San Diego Comic-Con. But the guests at ST:MNY were a remarkably diverse group, filled with members of every race imaginable, both from this planet and others. At one point wandering the show floor I walked past an old man in a wheelchair, and nearly bumped into a baby (in a Next Generation uniform onesie!) getting pushed in a stroller. The show hasn’t always been perfect; its representations of women and some minorities and sexual orientations have sometimes been lacking. But its heart, its hope for a brighter future where differences are put aside for humanity’s greater good, has always been in the right place. Everyone, of every age and every background, can find themselves somewhere in Star Trek.
They’ll soon find themselves in a new Trek, Star Trek: Discovery, debuting next year on a new streaming service CBS All Access. And Mission New York showed off exciting new ways to experience Star Trek in the future, like a VR game called Star Trek: Bridge Crew featuring an impressively immersive simulation of warping through the galaxy in your very own starship. Eventually, of course, Discovery will end and the VR hardware needed to play Bridge Crew will become obsolete. But Star Trek will never go away because the ideas that Star Trek represents will never go away. People always want to see a hopeful vision of the future.
At least that’s my opinion. I asked John Byrne whether he thought Star Trek would still be around in 100 more years. “I’m kind of a gloomy Gus,” Byrne chuckled. “I kind of wonder if there will be people in 100 years.”
And if there are people in 100 years? “If there are people,” Byrne replied. “They’ll be looking at it. Maybe they’ll be saying ‘Look, it all came true!’”