Star Trek: A Chronicle
Space… the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship “Enterprise.” Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds… to seek out new life and new civilizations… to boldly go where no one has gone before…
The above blurb has been used to introduce the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show’s run has elapsed that of it’s predecessor, the original Star Trek. The original spawned six movies and endless conventions, and both have given way to action figures for children, national clubs, and other various paraphernalia. This is the chronicle to end all chronicles: the full analysis and timeline of one of the most popular television programs in contemporary American history.
Americans are fascinated with the possibility of intelligent life somewhere else in the universe; this has been displayed in books and plays and movies too numerous to mention, not to mention the accounts of “everyday people” who say that they have encountered aliens and unidentified flying objects (UFOs). This fascination became so great that in the late 1970s, President Carter decided to launch an investigation within NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) to uncover the mystery of UFOs and intelligent life in the universe.
Science fiction plays upon this obsession. The great science fiction writers have sent our imaginations into overload with scores of stories to tell. The two most popular futuristic science fiction stories, Star Trek and Star Wars, both have similar characteristics. Both involve many different species of life (our nearest equivalent would be “races”). The Ferengi, Vulcans, humans, Betazoids, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, androids, and Bjorans are in the Star Trek series (which includes the original television series, the six movies, the NextGeneration television series, and the television series Deep Space Nine), while the Star Wars movie trilogy includes humans, Wookies, Jawas, Ewoks, droids, Tusken Raiders, and a host of various other strange and exotic looking lifeforms. Each species has its own heritage, customs, beliefs, and socioeconomic status. I am sure that each science fiction storyline has it’s own unusual breed of lifeform, but this paper will examine only a particular science fiction storyline which has mushroomed into a cultural obsession. I choose not to focus on the works of Ray Bradbury and the like; I’m sure that they are superb writers. (A fantastic example is Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” which is the probable predecessor to all of today’s hype surrounding the film Jurassic Park and the children’s character Barney the dinosaur.) However, I’ve never heard of a Ray Bradbury convention, or action figures based on characters he’s created.
Star Trek appeared in the right place at the right time. It was the middle of the 1960s, an extremely vibrant decade which primarily transformed America from a quiet-yet-strong idealism with do-or-die patriotism to a wild and eccentric liberal age, exhibiting imaginations let loose from the taboos and inhibitions of the era of World War II and the 1950s. The 1960s are difficult to describe briefly; I’d do a better job in another whole paper. However, major contributing factors that made the 1960s what they were included Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, assassinations of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King (among others), the music revolution (which was symbolized and brought to a head at Woodstock), the Vietnam war, and the space program. Not to mention (to quote Dave Barry) 42 hillion jillion other things. But it was the space program (which was President Kennedy’s dream), along with American curiosity of UFOs, that gave Star Trek a nearly guaranteed fan base.
Having completed the Mercury 7 shift, NASA was in full gear with the Gemini spaceproject when Star Trek premiered on television sets across the country. It told the tale of a time (nobody knew if it was the future, the present, or the past — nobody knew exactly when the stories took place in reference to our time here on Earth, because the time sequences were given in a mysterious-sounding five-digit “stardate”) in space with a governing body called Starfleet, and the vessel of focus was an exploratory starship named the Enterprise. The characters of the show were the ship’s main personnel: Captain James Tiberius Kirk and his crew.
All of the signifiers that these characters displayed in the original series have been distorted to such a degree in certain circles that sometimes they have completely lost the original characterization of the fictional person. An illustration is that of slashzines, which are pseudo-condescending fanzines (which is a magazine focused solely on a cultural obsession), which usually includes fictional homoeroticism. The term “slashzines” comes from the way the stories are classified. For example, K/S (read: “Kirk slash Spock”) stories deal with stories of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock engaging in homosexual sex.
The original television series lasted for about three years, then fizzled out. Until the early 1980s. Star Trek: The Movie came out at this time, right at the peak of the Star Wars fame (the second movie of the trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, was released in 1980, and the final film of the saga, The Return of the Jedi, came out in 1983.) Any hint of competition between these two thrillingly entertaining science fiction storylines would occur at this juncture in time. The sequel to the movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, enjoyed the same level of success that the first did, and throughout the next ten years following this film, the Star Trek series would be reborn through the countless movies and a resurgence of the television series.
The 1980s also saw a rather unusual phenomenon: the Trekkie convention. “Trekkies”are people obsessed with the show and all of the paraphernalia associated with it. These people were the true and dedicated fan base; they watched every episode loyally, memorized whole scripts and show trivia (including personal data of the characters which had to be fabricated by the writers because of either demand or excess creativity), bought action figures and countless books on the Starship Enterprise and the crew (one book I recall seeing gave a complete detail of everything on the ship, from bathrooms to living quarters to engines to loading bays), and attended lectures and formed their own regional clubs (also called Starships).
Part of what makes Star Trek a cultural obsession is its alluring, almost mysterious quality. This quality is inherent in one case, because the base of the show and the storyline covers a possible solution to the contemporary American’s wonder of the great beyond: is there other intelligent life in the universe? (A bumper sticker parodies this as well: “Beam me up Scotty: there’s no intelligent life down here.”) Also, some of the things that the show’s actors do outside the show are of interest. William Shatner, the actor who played Kirk in the original series and all of the movies, has been stereotyped as the perennial bad actor, overacting every one of his lines. Many people can imitate and do an impression of Kirk. Leonard Nimoy, the Mr. Spock on the original series and six films, turned to directing, and has done quite well; a recent notable achievement was Three Men and a Baby. (On a brief sidenote, most of the actors on the original series have made brief cameo appearances either on Star Trek: The Next Generation as their original characters an example is James Doohan, who played Scotty, the engineer or in a similar context in another show, such as the actress who played Uhura, who appeared as herself on Head of the Class, an ABC situation comedyset in a high school.) Patrick Stewart, who plays Captain Jean-Luc Picard on The Next Generation series of the television show, was a Shakespearean actor before auditioning for the part. I have seen him play Claudius in Hamlet; he was extraordinarily good. Brent Spiner, who plays Audio Animatronic-like android Lieutenant Commander Data on the newer …..series, recently did a musical album entitled “Old Yellow Eyes Is Back.” The title parodies Frank Sinatra (“Old Blue Eyes”) and the character Spiner plays; he dons yellow contact lenses as part of his android costume. One of the songs on the album features his fellow co-stars as backup singers. A final note belongs to Wil Wheaton, who plays Ensign Wesley Crusher (and son to Dr. Crusher, the ship’s doctor) on The Next Generation. He had already acquired some semblance of fame as the lead in the flick Stand By Me. However, Wesley has also been stereotyped as a whining child in a teenager’s body who sulks in his quarters whenever he doesn’t get what he wants.
The show has been so popular and so stereotyped that the parodies it has endured run into countless numbers. But most of the Star Trek parodies we are familiar with are those on the accessible media: radio and television. The NBC late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live has done it at least twice; one with the late 1970s cast (which had John Belushi at the ship’s helm), and another time when William Shatner himself hosted the program, where the ship had turned into a restaurant of sorts. (I distinctly remember Dana Carvey playing some character out to get Kirk by listing sanitary problems with his restaurant. I can hear it now… “No sneeze-guard on the salad bar!”) Furthermore (possibly on the same show, because I don;t think he hosted the show more than once), a skit about a Star Trek convention was produced, and the convention was especially lucky because William Shatner, nearly considered a god to these die-hard Trekkies, wouldactually be speaking at the convention. In his speech, he says that he is sick and tired of all this nonsense and tells all the Trekkies to “get a life.” (Some say this skit is the origination of that particular phrase.) He asks one Trekkie in particular, who looks like the stereotypical nerd and wears a T-shirt that says “I Grock Spock” (and who knows what that means), after guessing his age to be about 30, if he had ever kissed a girl. He shies away and looks embarrassed. He does the same to others, lashing out at their eccentric fetish, screaming “I mean, it’s just a TV show!” Then some angry suit whispers something into his ear, and he returns to the podium, looking red in the face and apologizes to the crowd, saying that was what the evil Captain Kirk would have said, had he been here today. He was just pulling your collective leg, ha ha ha, now live long and prosper, and he’ll see you on the bridge. A funny song called “Star Trekkin'” was created by a band called The Firm (not to be confused with a rock band of the same name). The chorus was: “Star trekkin’ across the universe, on the Starship Enterprise, with old Captain Kirk… Star trekkin’ across the universe, boldly going forward ’cause we can’t find reverse.” The song received heavy airplay on “The Dr. Demento Show,” a radio program which only played really bizarre and funny tunes. All the verses of the song were the repetition of classic lines used in the original series, such as:
There’s sic Klingons on the starboard bound, Jim
You cannot change the laws of physics, Jim
Scotty, beam me up!
It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it, Captain
It’s worse than that — he’s dead, Jim!
The above phrases are but a few in the vernacular of the show’s history. A few others are “Onscreen” (which has been used in both the original and The Next Generation series),”Make it so” and “Engage”, used exclusively by Jean-Luc Picard on the newer show, and “Thank you, number one,” also used exclusively by Picard to his right-hand man, William Riker.
The uses of computers and networking have allowed many people (including college students) access to a wealth of information about nearly anything — a worldwide computer library, if you will — and the possibility to hold conversations across the globe. A lot of information for this paper was retrieved from the computer networks, and a minuscule fraction of it has newsgroups and permanent computer discussions which parody Star Trek in every imaginable way. For example, a computer news group system exists on the network where one can read postings by people across the globe on numerous topics, ranging from music to jokes to sports to sex to television. There are (at last count) over twelve hundred groups. Nine del with Star Trek in one way or another. Some of the names of these groups include alt.startrek.creative, rec.arts.startrek, rec.arts.startrek.fandom, rec.arts.startrek.info, rec.arts.startrek.reviews, and rec.arts.startrek.tech. (The computer network is in itself part of what Star Trek is all about: the show has the ability to communicate nearly anything in its known universe in a matter of seconds. Once I sent a piece of electronic mail a.k.a. e-mailto a student at the University of California at Berkeley; he said he received it in under five minutes. Sure beats the postal service, and it even beats Federal Express.
Those who are obsessed with the show and the image it projects upon society sometimes like to dress the part; this is the marketability (and the subsequent financial success) of the image. The show does offer uniforms, insignia, posters, hats, and other paraphernalia to the public through mail order catalogs and fanzines. My friend James (whose computer account name, by the way, is “Enterprise”) has a lapel pin which is used on the show for intraship communication. He loyally wears it on the vest he wears while working.
Many Star Trek discussions have sprung up in recent times comparing Old Generation characters to their Next Generation counterparts, leading almost to a shouting match between those who hold the original series near and dear to their hearts, and those who have jumped on The Next Generation bandwagon in recent years (like myself). Comparisons between Kirk and Picard, Spock and Data, Scotty and LaForge, and Bones and Crusher are many and varied. An example of a main difference between different characters in like positions in different television series is that of the desires of the resident “brains”: Mr. Spock and Lieutenant Commander Data. Spock, being half Vulcan, shuns emotions and feelings, although his other half is human. Spock is caught between two forces. Data, on the other hand, is an android, a computer which looks human, who wishes to become human (the Pinocchio theory). This comparison is blown wide open when Nimoy makes a rare cameo appearance on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and he holds a conversation with Data which covers the above.
A final bit of information about this cultural obsession involves actual use of the showin real life. In the movie Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, the Klingon language was partially invented and used in the film. English subtitles were used when Klingons were conversing in their native tongue. A linguist somewhere in America got a hold of an idea, and began long talks with the people behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation concerning the full invention and implementation of a real Klingon language. The Klingon language now does exist, and it holds the odd distinction of being the first artificial language created solely from the field of entertainment. Glossaries and dictionaries are in print, and the language consists of a lot of guttural and groaning sounds, along with difficult consonant combinations that would cause any American to emit saliva in an outward direction while attempting to talk in this truly original language. The Klingon language has rules of grammar, spelling, and the alphabet looks more like an Oriental language than Cyrillic. Therefore, the true die-hard Trekkie can actually use something in his quest for Star Trek Nirvana.
To conclude this paper, I will prove that Star Trek is a cultural obsession. Some of the information gathered for this paper came from a few friends with their few various thoughts, and the small amount of information I got from my computer account. However, the bulk of information came from my memory and personal experience. And I don’t even speak Klingon.
Star Trek: A Chronicle