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‘Star Trek’ has turned five-year mission into 50-year journey

By RICK BENTLEY • Sep 4, 2016 at 2:00 PM

It started out as a five-year mission and turned into a 50-year phenomenon.

“Star Trek,” one of the new fall shows on NBC’s 1966-67 schedule, went from a struggling series that only lasted three years to being one of the most influential programs in television history. The characters and phrases crated by Gene Roddenberry and his team have permeated pop culture. It has sparked conversations about social issues, introduced the idea science could be cool and influenced both those working in film and TV.

The TV show that ranked only 52nd out of the 94 programs on the networks during its first season went on to spawn five TV series, 13 feature films, a universe of merchandising, books and countless other items in the “Star Trek” universe. It helped issue in the era of pop culture conventions and was a primary trigger for cosplay.

Brooks Peck, curator of the EMP Museum in Seattle, is a life-long fan of the series. His efforts to pull together a display of original props from the TV series is featured in the Smithsonian Channel special “Building Star Trek.”

Peck cannot think of another TV program that has been as influential as “Star Trek.”

“It has been influential both culturally and in society at large. If you search the Congressional Record, ‘Star Trek’ comes up a bunch of times. It is a metaphor to argue policy: we should be more like Vulcans than Klingons,” Peck says. “I love how it pops up in places in general like baseball teams having ‘Star Trek’ night. It is in our cultural DNA. There are people who know the characters and the phases even if they don’t know the show.”

Roddenberry’s final frontier

The man behind “Star Trek” pitched the show as a western in outer space. His crew — that consisted of a captain full of bravado, a science officer who suppressed his emotions and a cantankerous Southern doctor — traveled the galaxy meeting new civilizations.

Each stop tackles moral issues made more palatable by the science-fiction coating. The series has looked at religion, ecology, race, greed, lust, false idols and humanity.

Ronald D. Moore, the man behind television shows like “Roswell,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Outlander,” cut his writing teeth during the third season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

Working on the show was not only a big move for Moore as a writer and producer, but it let him live out a boyhood dream. He grew up a huge fan of the original series. “Next Generation” brought him on board.

“The fact I was able to work on it, participate in it, was an enormous thing for me. By the time I got to work with Gene, he was very aware of the legacy he had created,” Moore says. “After ‘Star Trek’ went off the air, it just kept getting bigger and bigger. Gene was being celebrated for what he had created. He came to embrace that.”

Moore’s direct connection to Roddenberry allowed him to see first-hand the direction the series creator wanted the franchise to go. Every writer was given a guide book to the help them keep the concepts that Roddenberry had introduced in the original series alive. Those concepts included the importance of looking at political and social issues.

“He also didn’t want any conflict between the main characters,” Moore says. “He felt humanity was supposed to have gotten better and would not have a lot of the petty conflicts and jealousies we have today.”

That vision was the driving force behind Peck putting together the museum display. He wanted to ask the big question of why “Star Trek,” of all the thousands of TV shows that have launched over the decades, resonates so deeply with the fans. The answer: “Star Trek” has always been about dealing with strong values.

“It is such an optimistic and positive look at the future,” Peck says. “This was very different people getting together to take on this amazing task.”

To boldly go 

The world that Roddenberry put together 50 years ago was different than anything that had been on TV as far as the cast was concerned. Crew members represented a variety of races and gave women jobs of respect.

Most of that came through the casting of Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, the ship’s communications officer. Black actresses at that time on TV were cast as servants or second-class citizens. That fact was not lost on viewers, one fan in particular.

Although Nichols was given a prominent role on the ship, her work load was so limited she decided to leave. The day after she told Roddenberry she planned to beam off the show, she was at an NAACP fundraiser and was told there was a big fan who wanted to meet her.

“I thought it was a Trekkie, and so I said, ‘Sure.’ And I stood up, and I looked across the room, and there was Dr. Martin Luther King walking towards me with this big grin on his face,” Nichols says. “He reached out to me and said, ‘Yes, Ms. Nichols, I am your greatest fan.’ He said that ‘Star Trek’ was the only show that he and his wife, Coretta, would allow their three little children to stay up and watch.”

She told King about her plans to leave the series.

“I never got to tell him why, because he said, ‘You can’t,’” Nichols says. “He said, ‘You’re part of history, and this is your responsibility even though it might not have been your career choice.’”

He said it was her duty to stay on the show and be a positive role model.

Nichols went back to work and told Roddenberry she would stay. When Roddenberry heard what King had said, he cried.

“Star Trek” gave Roddenberry the leeway to write about topics and present ground-breaking moments that, without the sci-fi facade, would have not been acceptable on TV at the time. One of the most memorable is the first interracial kiss shared by Nichols and William Shatner.

“Let that Be Your Last Battlefield,” airing in season three, offered a stark look at racism. The Enterprise picks up the last two survivors of a planetary war who are determined to kill each other. Their differences are based on how one is white on the right side and black on the left, while the other is black on the right side and white on the left.

In the closing scenes, Uhura asks if their hate is all the two men ever had. Kirk reasons with “No — but that’s all they have left.”

The diversity that Roddenberry pioneered will continue with next year’s “Star Trek Discovery.” Bryan Fuller, the man behind the series, has committed to taking the mix a step further.

““Star Trek’ started with a wonderful expression of diversity in its cast. You had a Russian with a black woman and an Asian man amongst a Vulcan, who is a different kind of diversity. Infinite diversity and infinite combinations, as he would say,” Fuller says. “So we’re absolutely continuing that tradition. We’ll probably have a few more aliens than you normally do in a ‘Star Trek’ cast, because usually you’ve got one person with a bumpy forehead and then seven other people who look relatively human. We wanted to paint the picture of a Starfleet that is indicative of a universe where we’re encountering people that are much different than we are.”

Where no person has gone before

At the same time “Star Trek” was spawning political and social issues, it was sparking interest in the sciences for many. The series featured some futuristic concepts and equipment, such as hand-held communicators, desktop computers, tractor beams, phasers, space shuttles, touch screens, and more.

David Grier, professor of physics and director of the Center for Soft Matter Research at New York University, has been a “Star Trek” fan since seeing the original series. He’s also featured in the Smithsonian Channel special “Building Star Trek.”

He grew up a fan of the TV show and with a big interest in electronics. Grier’s convinced one had an impact on the other. The technology he saw on “Star Trek” was futuristic, but Grier and others have seen many of the items created for the show become a reality.

It was because of “Star Trek” he was able to recognize the first real tractor beam. Fans of the show know that a tractor beam is a way for the Enterprise to pull an object toward them using only light.

Peck and his team were working on a project using light when they made a discovery that was not a planned part of the research. They noticed they could use light to move microscopic elements around.

“Everyone in the room of a certain age yelled ‘That’s a tractor beam.’ When we saw this, we understood what it meant because of ‘Star Trek’,” Grier says. “The important thing about science is to understand what you are seeing. To know all the hidden meanings that get attached to a phenomenon. Or, it will pass you by. ‘Star Trek’ has put concepts and a language in place.”

‘These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise’

The legacy of “Star Trek” shows no signs of slowing. “Star Trek Discovery” is scheduled to air through a CBS online site in 2017.

The “Star Trek” exhibit at the EMP Museum will be in place until March 2017. Peck is hoping those who attend will share his feelings about “Star Trek.”

“I know there are people who enjoy ‘Star Wars,’ but it’s a war story. It doesn’t have the aspirations of ‘Star Trek’ and that is the reason the franchise keeps going on,” Peck says.

Moore considers the positive vision of the future one of major strengths of “Star Trek.” He describes that view as being “very American.”

“It’s the idea that we culturally hope to be one day,” Moore says. “‘Star Trek’ represents the future that we can all dream about. There’s no more war. There’s no more racism, poverty, disease. We are past all that.”

That bright approach continues through “Star Trek Beyond,” the 13th film in the franchise, and a 14th movie already in the works. Those who have become part of the franchise, like Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock, see “Star Trek” as more than just a job.

“It is great to honor something that has been around a half century. That is a pretty unique place for any kind of pop culture element to occupy. I feel really cool to be part of the legacy,” Quinto says.

It’s a legacy that covers the globe. The late Grace Lee Whitney talked about going to the massive “Star Trek” conventions and appearing in front of fans who didn’t even speak English. She played Yeoman Rand in the first season.

The fans share the language of “Star Trek” that has been cultivated over the past 50 years.

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©2016 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

Visit The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.) at www.fresnobee.com

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