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50 years of Star Trek, boldly going and counting…

The legendary director Orson Welles had a famous quote that directing a movie is like owning the world’s greatest toy train set. The best directors are good at dropping witty and philosophical bon mots. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when sitting down with Star Trek II and VI writer/director Nicholas Meyer for my new book, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Uncensored Oral History of Star Trek, he offered this pearl of wisdom: “Hollywood,” he memorably said, “is the only business where you get to shake hands with your dreams.”

And he’s right. For decades, I’ve been a devoted fan of Star Trek and have had a very special connection to the Star Trek universe. I’m not sure exactly when I first discovered Star Trek, but I do have vivid recollections of obsessively watching the series every weeknight at six o’clock back on WPIX in New York and lashing out at the television when a self-professed Trekspert on The $100,000 Pyramid was stumped by a question about the name of the starship that was destroyed in “The Doomsday Machine” (“The Constellation, you moron!”). Yes, I loved Star Trek… a lot.

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It was an exciting time to be a Star Trek fan in the 1970s. It was a different era back then. Movies were rarely adapted from popular television series and/or comic books (let alone unpopular ones), and branded merchandise was even harder-to-come by. If you wanted a tribble, you’d probably have your Aunt Bertha (in my case, Gus) sew you one. When a show was cancelled, it was almost assuredly consigned to the dust bin of history. It was long before the birth of home video revolutionized the consumption of movies and television on-demand. Instead, you were at the mercy of whatever episode was airing on television that night or which movie The 4:30 Movie was airing that afternoon (which explains why I have actually seen The Night of the Lepus, in which DeForest Kelley battles killer bunnies). The fact that Star Trek managed to not only survive but flourish in this environment was a testament to its genius and the enthusiasm it inspired in its dedicated and loyal fans. Long before Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, fans shared their love for Star Trek in self-published fanzines and at fan-run conventions.

As rumors of a new Star Trek series or movie grew, fans were delighted to find a surprising plethora of merchandise suddenly available. Among these was the following:

  • James Blish’s Star Trek novelizations, culminating in his original novel, “Spock Must Die.”
  • Popular AMT model kits.
  • Power Records with art from Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios Gold Key comics, featuring stories by such legendary creators as writer Len Wein and artist Alberto Giolitti.
  • Fotonovels, in which the episodes were told in comic book format with color photography from the episodes and word balloons for dialogue.
  • Gene Roddenberry’s spoken word Inside Star Trek LP.
  • Franz Joseph’s brilliant Star Trek Blueprints of the Enterprise (a bowling alley, who knew?), followed by the even more sensational Star Fleet Technical Manual.
  • Bjo Trimble’s sublime Star Trek Concordance with its distinctive spinner wheel episode guide.
  • Susan Sackett’s Letters to Star Trek, as well as Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Sondra Marshak and Joan Winston’s Star Trek Lives!
  • Alan Dean Foster’s Star Trek Log series, the birth of Starlog.
  • A litany of original novels, poster books, and Mego action figures (I went on that mission to Gamma VI a lot as a kid, I have to admit).

It seemed clear the future wasn’t dead quite yet.

As for me, in the years ahead, I continued to passionately follow Trek. As anyone who’s familiar with my first feature film, Free Enterprise, may recall, my junior high school friends and I went to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture excitedly on the day it debuted, December 7, 1979. After we were turned away from the box office by an overearnest ticket taker who refused to allow children under sixteen into a G-rated movie due to some recent unruly theatregoers, I was forced to boldly seek out my mother at a nearby bank as she was depositing her paycheck and prevailed on her desperately to accompany us to the film. She did—and she’s never forgiven me since. I, on the other hand, still love, respect and admire ST: TMP, the only film of the original TOS movies to have an epic motion picture scope and first-rate production values truly conveying a 2001-sense of awe of the universe. You may casually dismiss it as “The Slow Motion Picture,” but I would disagree vehemently.

Many years later, I was visiting Los Angeles for the first time and found myself on the Paramount lot, where I got a giddy thrill from seeing Starfleet uniform–festooned extras for the first time milling around during a break at the studio commissary as production commenced on “Encounter at Farpoint,” the premiere episode of the fledgling Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s hard to understand now—it was almost impossible to believe at the time—but Star Trek was finally coming back to television two decades after its inauspicious cancellation on NBC. It was with an all-new cast, but with much of the same creative team in place that had stewarded the original sacred seventy-nine episodes, spearheaded by Gene Roddenberry, the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself. At least, for the time being.

A few months later, as editor in chief of my college newspaper, I received a query letter from Paramount publicity’s first-season press kit that suggested how news outlets could cover their new show, which was desperate for some good press (any press, actually) and whose success was in no way assured. Buried among all the hyperbole about this exciting new program was the suggestion of a set visit. I proceeded to hastily make the trek out to Hollywood to visit. I arrived in sunny Los Angeles, ready to beam down to Paramount Pictures Stage 8 where the episode “Too Short a Season” was filming. For me, it would be the first of many visits.

Years later, my days as editor at Sci-Fi Universe (“the only magazine for sci-fi fans with a life,” we proclaimed boldly on the cover) launched by Chris Gore and myself in the early 90’s, proved to be the basis for my first feature film, originally called Trekkers, later Free Enterprise. If they say “write what you know,” then Free Enterprise certainly validated that axiom. The film, about two die-hard and dysfunctional Star Trek fans who meet their idol, William Shatner, and find out that he’s more screwed up than they are, was the opportunity of a lifetime. Not only did I get to write and produce my first movie, but it starred William Shatner, a man I had admired and idolized since I was in utero.

Prior to the film’s premiere in 1999, director Robert Burnett and I traveled to the Cannes Film Festival with Mr. Shatner… or Bill, as he preferred to be called. Albeit he was on the Concorde and we were flying in steerage on Air France, it was a wonderful week of screenings and walking (more often staggering) along the Croisette as Bill admired the view of the beach and winked with a sly grin as he muttered in his legendary staccato fashion, “Topless… topless is good.” A few hours later, he was giving away a bomber jacket to Planet Hollywood Cannes that he had worn in the film, telling the assembled throngs of press that he unearthed it in a secondhand thrift store in Los Angeles and that it had once belonged to the famous World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. He added that he was now returning it to the beaches of France. I was stunned. How come he had never told us this? What an incredible find. “I made it up” was his simple and elegant reply. And I learned something that day about the art of great storytelling and a great storyteller.

Because in the end, the magic that had always endeared Star Trek to me wasn’t necessarily its optimistic view of the future, the gee-whiz and prescient peek at the technology of tomorrow, the cutting edge of visual-effects technology, or even the great writing, directing, and magnificent scores. It was its anchor: William Shatner as Kirk. A man who, I’ve often said, had the respect of his crew, the loyalty of his friends, and a green girl on every planet. What more could you ask for in life? But perhaps that’s too frivolous an answer. Maybe there’s a lot more to this Star Trek stuff than just some cool spaceships and crazy alien characters. The thing about Kirk that makes him a great leader is that, while he is open and inviting of the opinions of others, he’s ultimately decisive, smart, and insatiably curious. And willing to disregard rules and regulations when necessary. He is a leader in the best sense of the word. With the debut of The Next Generation, Captain Picard proved a different type of leader for a different era. Not the twenty-fourth century, mind you, but the early 1990s. He was a consensus builder, and thoughtful and deliberate. These two templates would color the captains that would follow and forever define what Star Trek was for a generation (and the next generation) of viewers.

While Star Wars is wonderfully and delightfully elevated pulp which I adore, Star Trek is something else entirely. At its heart have always been characters who are a family, united by friendship, loyalty, and an insatiable curiosity about the unknown. In a culture in which cynicism and fatalism are the currency of the day—whether it be because of political gridlock, economic depression, or the horror of drug resistant diseases – what continues to make Star Trek so unique and utterly endearing is that even when it goes into the heart of darkness, it still manages to come out the other side extolling the human adventure with a palpable sense of optimism and hope for the future. It’s a progressive, liberal vision that is to be lauded and not deconstructed or replaced with the fashionable pessimism and cynical worldview that understandably permeates the zeitgeist of today. Star Trek gives up hope, that this world turned upside down shall give way to a more elevated, inspired, and understanding future generation.

In the end, it’s harder to write characters that aspire – and situations that inspire – without being hokey and, dare I say, passé. It doesn’t mean there can’t be conflict—there must be both interpersonal and interstellar conflict in order for Star Trek to be good drama—but humanity united has always been at the very heart of Star Trek rather than humanity divided. At its best, it’s space opera writ large with something deeply profound to say about the human condition. Look no further than episodes like “The Devil In the Dark” in which we discover a seemingly vicious, murdering and hideous creature is actually a terrified mother trying to protect her young, “Arena” in which Captain Kirk refuses to kill the Gorn Captain acknowledging that the Federation may be in the wrong for having established a base in what turns out to be the Gorn’s sovereign territory, or “A Taste of Armageddon” in which two warring planets who are sending their citizens willingly into disintegration chambers to spare themselves the real horrors of a centuries-old conflict are given an ultimatum by Captain Kirk whose about to trigger a real war in which he passionately argues, “We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we won’t kill today… Peace or utter destruction. It’s up to you.” (It’s worth noting all three episodes come from the pen of the show’s visionary and under lauded producer, the late Gene L. Coon, who also first conceived of the Prime Directive and the Klingons among many of the ingredients of the stew that is Star Trek that made it so utterly addicting).

It’s scenes like these – and many more – are the reason that fifty years later, Star Trek remains a towering work of popular culture that easily ranks alongside The Twilight Zone, Hill Street Blues, Twin Peaks (original recipe and new), The Sopranos, The Wire, Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men and Breaking Bad as one of the greatest television series ever made. And as I reflect back on decades of an ongoing personal association with Star Trek, which has taken me to the sets of virtually every Trek TV series since TNG, making a feature film with Bill Shatner, a TV series with Jonathan Frakes and being dubbed “the world’s foremost Trekspert” by The Los Angeles Times, I realize Nick Meyer was right. Hollywood truly is the one place in which you can shake hands with your dreams.

Written by Mark Altman
Mark is co-author of the bestselling The Fifty Year Mission: The Uncensored & Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek. In addition, he is a former Co-Executive Producer on TNT’s hit series, The Librarians, as well as a writer/producer on such shows as Castle, Necessary Roughness, Femme Fatales and Agent X. He is also the writer/producer of the beloved romantic comedy, Free Enterprise, as well as a producer of James Gunn’s superhero spoof, The Specials and the adaptation of the bestselling video game series, DOA: Dead Or Alive, from Dimension Films. He recently co-wrote an oral history of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Slayers & Vampires, being released from Tor Books in September. @markaaltman