Next month, the Egyptian Theatre will host a 50th anniversary celebration of all things Star Trek, featuring films, documentaries, featurettes, discussions, and more. Filmmaker and author Mark A. Altman reflects on what Star Trek means to him.
The new trilogy of Star Trek movies has been called a “gateway drug” for new fans. Yes, as hard as it is to believe, Gen Z’ers (not to be confused with Doctor Z, Galactica fans) and even a sadly large percentage of millennials don’t have the same deep, abiding appreciation for Star Trek that many of us have. At 50 years old, Star Trek is as antediluvian and out of date to them as their grandparents (and, lo, even a fair share of their parents). Possibly because for over a decade after the inauspicious cancellation of Enterprise, Trek was off television and out of theaters. It didn't return until J.J. Abrams’ new films re-introduced the franchise to a contemporary movie audience that had vaguely heard of the exploits of Captain Kirk and his intergalactic exploits, but was acquainted with the iconic William Shatner as Denny Crane and the ubiquitous Priceline pitchman. Thankfully, the new films have helped lead the more curious of these new generations to boldly seek out the original-recipe Star Trek, hopefully ensuring that Trek will live long and prosper for another fifty years, as they discover the magic of this beloved franchise and why its unlike any other in genre history. There are certainly better movies than the Star Trek films and, arguably, better TV series as well (although they are far fewer and in between) and yet there is an indomitable spirit and ineffable quality to Star Trek that makes it a product of popular culture unlike any other ever produced. Some say that Star Trek’s appeal is minted in nostalgia, but I disagree. While I can hardly dispute that the roots of my passion for Star Trek were planted deep in my childhood, my love for the world of Star Trek has always been about looking forward and not backwards. It’s a deeply personal connection that I know many of my friends and colleagues, professionals and fans alike, share. Here’s a few thoughts on why.
The legendary writer/producer/director/raconteur/wine pitchman Orson Welles once said 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 like that, including Star Trek II and VI writer/director Nicholas Meyer, who probably only stands in the shadow of Peter Bogdonovich as cinema’s most delightfully erudite and endearing film historian/director/narcissist. When I interviewed him for my new book, The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored Oral History of Star Trek, Meyer offered the following pearl of wisdom: “Hollywood 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. It might have something to do with the fact we both made our respective debuts on this planet the same year. 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 (“Oh no, not 'Whom Gods Destroy’ again!”) 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.
Growing up in the 1970’s, it was an exciting time to be a Star Trek fan - it was a different era back then. Movies were rarely adapted from popular - much less unpopular - television series and/or comic books, and branded merchandise was even harder to come by. If you wanted a tribble, your best bet would be to 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 (the alphabet soup of VHS, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-Ray, UHD, SVOD) 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 whatever the 4:30 movie was that afternoon (which explains why I have actually seen The Night of the Lepus, in which DeForest Kelley battles killer bunnies). So 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.
With rumors of a new series or movie becoming more frequent, fans were delighted to find a surprising plethora of merchandise suddenly available, ranging from James Blish’s Star Trek novelizations culminating in his original novel, Spock Must Die, popular AMT model kits, comics, Fotonovels (in which the episodes were told in comic book format with color photography from the episodes and word balloons for dialogue), the Gene Roddenberry spoken-word Inside Star Trek LP, the release of Franz Joseph’s brilliant Star Trek Blueprints of the Enterprise (a bowling alley, who knew?) and much more including a litany of original novels, poster books, and Mego action figures.
And as for me, in the years ahead, I continued to passionately follow Trek. As anyone who’s familiar with my award-winning first feature film, Free Enterprise (directed by Trek super fan Robert Burnett), 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, another day that shall live in infamy. After we were turned away from the box office by an over-earnest ticket taker who refused to allow children under 16 into a G-rated movie due to some recent unruly theatregoers, I was forced to boldly seek out my mother at a nearby bank and prevail 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-esque sense of awe of the universe. It has been casually dismissed as “The Slow Motion Picture,” but I would disagree vehemently. Until J.J.’s films, it was also notably the last of the movies to have a real budget. Its cost overruns and travails led to Paramount shuttling the next two movies off to the television division to produce – and it shows with the triumph of the brilliant Trek II being in its writing and its acting, not its production values and Star Trek III: The Search For Spock, well, the less said the better.
In the end, the magic that has always endeared Star Trek to me wasn’t necessarily its optimistic (some would say, Pollyanna-ish) view of the future, the gee-whiz and prescient peek at the technology of tomorrow (although I did dig those sliding doors and Automat-like replicators), 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 is 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. John F. Kennedy by way of Bill Clinton (interesting that one of President Clinton’s best friends is Gil Gerard, another iconic space traveler). 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, 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, 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, famine, or disease —in which all our best contemporary television series from Breaking Bad to The Walking Dead plumb the darkness of man, 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 permeates the zeitgeist (and the social media) of today.
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 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 died of lung cancer in the mid-70’s and doesn’t get near enough credit for what he brought to the series, including the Prime Directive and the Klingons).
It’s scenes like these – and many more – that 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, The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men and Breaking Bad as one of the greatest television series ever made and a franchise, with all due respect to The Maltese Falcon, of the stuff that dreams are made of. Dreams of a future in which we have transcended our petty differences, dreams of a future where we can disagree without it devolving into petty bickering and respect everyone’s point of view, dreams in which xenophobia and fear of our differences with others and other life forms are a thing of the past and dreams in which we learn, it really isn’t easy being green. Star Trek isn’t a dream of future’s past, it is a dream of a better future. It’s a mantle Bryan Fuller’s new TV series, Discovery, will take on this January, and a dream millions of people continue to share around the world. And if you’re not one of them, take a trip back to the future and maybe, just maybe, you will be soon.
Mark A. Altman has been dubbed “the world’s foremost Trekspert” by The Los Angeles Times and is the co-author of the bestselling two volume series, The Fifty-Year Misson: The Complete, Uncensored Oral History of Star Trek from St. Martin’s Press. He is also the writer/producer of the beloved feature film, Free Enterprise, starring William Shatner and co-executive producer of TNT’s hit series, The Librarians. He is a graduate of the WGA Showrunners Training Program and a member of the Television Academy. Twitter: @markaaltman.
BACK TO THE FUTURE: TOP 10 ESSENTIAL STAR TREKS
1. STAR TREK: "The Corbomite Maneuver"
2. STAR TREK: "The Devil In The Dark"
3. STAR TREK: "The City on the Edge of Forever"
4. STAR TREK: "The Trouble With Tribbles"
5. STAR TREK II: The Wrath of Khan
6. STAR TREK IV: The Voyage Home
7. STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION: "The Measure of A Man"
8. STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION: "The Best of Both Worlds"
9. STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION: "All Good Things"
10. STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE: "In the Pale Moonlight"