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Life Trek – Star Trek turns 45 today

| September 8, 2011 | 2 Comments

It’s hard to believe that Star Trek is 45 years old. Looking back at everything that’s influenced me over the years in a creative sense, it was Star Trek more than anything that drove me as far back as I can remember.

My earliest recollection of Star Trek is watching it with my dad in the late 60’s when it was still on NBC. I don’t remember what episode it was, I just have this vague vision of the NBC logo and Star Trek. It wasn’t until the early 70’s that I rediscovered Star Trek with my dad again when it was on WPIX-11 in NYC every day at 6pm. Having a show in syndication play every day at the same time was unusual. Usually shows would run Monday through Friday for a few months and then change slots or disappear altogether, but Star Trek ran seven days a week at 6pm for several years, until Space: 1999 played on Sunday nights at 6:30pm in 1975.

Anyone who grew up before cable TV can probably recall those gray, rainy days when there was nothing but junk on TV. The winter months between football and baseball seasons were the worst. The only glimmer of hope was knowing that Star Trek was going to be on at 6pm so it made days like that just a little bit more tolerable. We had an old battery-powered Sony black-and-white TV with a headphone jack which I would watch Star Trek on while away from the house or in the car. In a way, it was the precursor to internet streaming and watching away from home. I watched so much Star Trek that at one point I would know the episode from the first few seconds, sometimes as early as the first frame or note of music. I can still do that for some episodes, but not as many as I used to.

What Star Trek did, more than anything I read or watched growing up, was spark my imagination. Today, I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was that attracted me to Star Trek, but I would have to say that it was a combination of good writing, art design, a great cast, and music. When some sci-fi shows were failing miserably, Star Trek endured because it didn’t make the same mistakes that other shows did. Star Trek built on the idea that man has at least gotten over some of his issues and reached out to space to explore. Other science fiction shows lacked a sense of humanity and that’s where I think other shows failed. Sci-fi at that time was meant to be what I called “disposable entertainment”, but Gene Roddenberry knew what he was doing by pitching it as a “wagon train to the stars”. He pushed the show to have great stories wrapped around this 23rd century universe and that’s what made the show last. Ok, well, maybe not “Spock’s Brain”, but not every episode is gold.

Early Impressions

I was always artistic, or at least trying to be. Star Trek was probably the one thing I doodled the most when I was growing up. I have notebooks filled with doodles of the Enterprise and the Galileo. They’re not very good, but it’s probably what started me on the road to drawing, teaching me about curved lines and perspective. Comics influenced me as well, but I was always better at drawing objects than drawing people. At some point I discovered models. Putting models together was a lot of fun for me because they were designed to be better scaled than toys. Toys would be deformed to fit action figures, but models had to be exact. It gave me a way to build something, and paint it. They also taught me how to determine how to do things in the correct order (paint, then glue on the clear pieces, then decals). I would have to say that working on models is what helped me get into engineering in the first place. Years later I tackled the challenge of lighting models, and they’ve always come out great.

Another aspect of Star Trek that got me into engineering was the Star Trek Technical Manual and the Star Trek Blueprints. Even though I knew that everything in Star Trek was fictional, the Tech Manual tried to map as much reality as it could into the book, making me imagine how to fill in the fictional parts and figure out what needed to be done to make them real. The one part I found most intriguing was the Communicator. There was a schematic for it in the book, with one piece that hadn’t been invented yet. However, the rest of the device looked like it could work. Battery, transistor, diodes, an antenna, it was all there. Today, we have an iPhone. Although the iPhone itself can’t talk directly to a ship hundreds of miles above the Earth, the design for the iPhone definitely came from Star Trek Communicators. Other contributions that Star Trek made to today’s technology are projection systems, nano technology, 3D printers, iPads, CERN, email, recordable data storage, and many others. What the Blueprints did for me was open up the ship for me and “see” parts of the ship that weren’t shown on TV. At one point, I had all the blueprints covering my bedroom wall.

In the early 70’s, Bantam Publishing started releasing novelizations of some Star Trek episodes in book form. The first three book covers were simple shots of the cast, but starting with the fourth book, the covers were graced with beautiful artwork. Rather than have emotionless covers, artist Lou Feck created these awe-inspiring covers which really captured the feel of what Star Trek was all about. My favorites were the covers for Star Trek 4, 6, and 8 since they conveyed a sense of exploration. It was these covers that gave me a different perspective on the show and space exploration and helped give the Star Trek a better sense of wonder.

Star Trek books 4, 6, and 8. My three favorites

The Enterprise Incident

A pivotal moment for me was in 1976 while at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. I didn’t know it at the time, but the filming model of the Enterprise was on display there. My dad knew, and told me that the museum had a surprise. Sure enough, hanging in the “Life in the Universe?” display was the Enterprise, the very same one that was used in filming the series. It was amazing that surrounded by all this history such as Apollo capsules and The Spirit of St. Louis, I was transfixed on this one spot. Today, it’s in the gift shop so that people can get a closer look at it, but I prefer to see it hanging.

The Force Factor

Things changed radically in May of 1977. We all knew that a new science fiction movie was on the horizon, but science fiction movies of that era were generally garbage. This one changed movies forever. Star Wars was like a sci-fi lover’s perfect movie. It combined big screen adventures, exciting special effects, a splash of humor, and the age-old story of saving the princess. You would think that now there’d be room for two important things in my life, but instead, my nine-year-old brain spent the next 18 months hating Star Trek. It was the big-screen excitement of Star Wars that kicked Star Trek out of my life for a little while. I couldn’t even watch Star Trek on TV anymore. The Lucas marketing machine kept me buying comics and figures and records and posters and calendars for quite some time. It was around 1978 when I realized just how stupid I was for hating something that meant so much to me at one point, and finally took Star Trek back into my life. Today, I look at both franchises as being important for different reasons.

The Big Screen

Star Trek: The Motion Picture was an odd beast. People were expecting a Star Wars-style movie in the Star Trek universe. We didn’t get that. I think that it was people’s expectations and the movie getting rushed to completion that gave it the bad rap it has today. I do remember waiting for all the action to take place which never did. The most we got was the Enterprise firing a torpedo at an asteroid. Yawn. I have to say that the segment of Kirk flying around the new Enterprise was breathtaking. Seeing the refit Enterprise on the big screen like that is one of the best scenes in a sci-fi movie. It’s a shame the rest of the movie didn’t fare as well, but it was made with the heart of the epic films of the 60’s and 70’s, it’s just that nobody told Robert Wise that those days were over. I saw the movie a second time in Jersey City a few weeks later with my grandfather, and the flyby around the Enterprise reminded me of seeing the World Trade Center across the river at night. Beautiful.

A side note about Star Trek: TMP is that at the time it was on cable, I had started using an 8mm camera for doing stop-motion animation. I used it to film some scenes from Star Trek: TMP, most notably the end of the film when the Enterprise hits warp speed. Since we didn’t have a VCR yet, my fix used to be syncing up the film with an audio tape I made of the movie. It never worked well because the speed of the film and the speed of the tape recorder were never right, but it’s probably the single point at which I started becoming aware of audio production.

It wasn’t until Star Trek II that we finally got the Star Trek movie we wanted. It’s about as perfect of a sci-fi movie as you can get. Even after all these years, short of a few minor nitpicks, it’s one of my favorite movies. In fact, I’d go so far to say it’s one of the best science fiction movies, not just a good Star Trek movie. What Star Trek II did for the franchise is show people that you can take a then-sixteen-year-old television show and give it a makeover that’s respectful. Spock’s death in the film was odd because at the time nobody knew what the future of the franchise would be. Will there be another movie? Will the show come back to the small screen? How can Star Trek survive without Spock? Is this how the franchise ends? It wasn’t so much denial as it was a sense of wondering whether or not this was really how they intended the film to end, especially with the whole “Remember…” thing. What was that about? So, there was hope for the future of Spock and Star Trek, and sure enough he was brought back to life in Star Trek III.

The Next Generation

Paramount announced in 1986 that a new Star Trek series was in production called “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (a name that still irks me), and it would premiere in September of 1987. A lot of people had mixed feelings about it, but one instance in particular I’ll never forget. While waiting on line to get into a Star Trek convention, a guy was handing out flyers trying to get people to cancel TNG before it got on the air. His argument was that there could never be a show as good as the original, and that anything else is an abomination. A bunch of us pretty much disagreed with him, but I said to him that there are no new episodes of the original series being made. While TOS was a great show, it’s time to move on and breathe new life into the franchise. The guy was adamant about his position, and told everyone that the show won’t last longer than TOS did. Well, he was wrong. I tried to find the flyer he handed out since I thought I had it, but unfortunately I must have thrown it out long ago. His arguments were silly, and TNG went on to survive for seven seasons, four more than TOS had.

By the time Star Trek: The Next Generation started I was already attending Trenton State College, and had a great group of friends that were all into Star Trek and D&D. We piled into our room the night it premiered on WPHL in Philly to watch it since we had our TV hooked up to the stereo. We had mixed feelings about the show. Picard wasn’t as swashbuckling as Kirk, Data was an odd replacement for Spock, and a ship’s counselor? It was definitely more of a touchy-feely Star Trek for the late 80’s and we were worried that it wasn’t ever going to live up to the original since it seemed that right off the bat they were trying to appeal to the Prozac nation. Half way through season two, they finally got their stride and finally lived up to the Star Trek name.

Conventions

I went to my first convention in 1975 at the Statler Hilton in New York City. I really don’t remember much about it, except for a cloudy memory of the dealer room, and seeing the stars of the show “beam” on stage. I do remember buying a book called “The Making of Star Trek” which I still have today, along with the program from the show which is missing the cover. It would be the first in a long line of conventions that I would attend in New York City until around 2002 when I just gave them up completely.

Starting in high school around 1984 when I went to conventions on my own, I think I went to every convention in New York City until maybe 1999 or so. There were three reasons for going to conventions: the dealer room, seeing cast members on stage, and seeing which conspiracy theory nutjob would be waiting on line with you. Oh, we had some winners. One guy was a “former army sergeant” who had seen the UFO in Area 51 for himself. He described it in great detail. When asked what happened to his tour in the army, he was told that he was about to break the story and the army wiped his memory, but he was able to recover his memory thanks to aliens. Another winner was a supposed former Time Lord, complete with Tom Baker scarf, that was sent here from the future to warn people about the coming apocalypse in the year 2000, and to score some rare Star Trek figures. Of course, every convention wouldn’t be complete without someone who thought that Star Trek was beamed to us from the future. Oddly enough, many people like that lived in their parents’ basements.

Two of my favorite memories of conventions was winning the trivia contest one year, with the very same question I asked to stump the panel the con before (the question was: where was Kirk vacationing in the novelization of Star Trek: TMP?). I don’t know if the person who asked that question knew that I asked it the last time, but it was nice making $100 that day. The other time something important happened at a con was when I built an Enterprise refit model, did an amazing job with the painting and lighting, and sold it at the Creation auction for $150. The person who bought it was very happy with the job I did on the model and said that they’d display it proudly in their home. I hope they still have it, it would be amazing if they did, it was around 1987.

After a while, I just didn’t enjoy going to cons anymore. When you’re in a stuffy hotel area for several hours in New York City, and you have to wait until the end of the day to see someone, and watch countless lame clip videos of Captain Kirk to the tune of Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young”, you just have to give up your con membership card. Also, the thrill of finding rare items was killed by the rise of eBay. My last convention was in Secaucus, NJ around 2002. I don’t remember who was there, but I remember being very underwhelmed with the whole thing. I hadn’t looked back at conventions since then. I had seen every major star of every Star Trek show up to Deep Space Nine, and met a few of them. I can say that the times I were at conventions were entertaining, but it wasn’t for me anymore. I thought about going to a convention again just to see how they’ve changed, if at all. So many people have passed on, and Leonard Nimoy retired from conventions, so I’m not sure what the attraction would be. The Duras Sisters aren’t much of a draw for me.

William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, and Mark Lenard

The Marathon

In the early 1990’s, a group of us ran films at the Union County Arts Center in Rahway, NJ. Our biggest success was the very last showing of the original Star Wars Trilogy in March, 1994 before George Lucas removed the originals off the face of the planet in lieu of the Special Editions in 1997. We had 700 people show up for that show, it was amazing. In November of that same year, we decided to run all six Star Trek films back to back. Unfortunately, the turnout wasn’t as good as the Star Wars run was, we got less than 100 people. It was still great running the films for people, but I wish more had shown up. At the time I was collecting certain episodes on 16mm and I had a print of “Space Seed” that we played that before the marathon started. It was great seeing the films on the big screen again, but it just showed that Star Trek doesn’t have the vibe that Star Wars does when it comes to theatrical presentations. Looking back, we probably shouldn’t have run all six films. It should have been Star Trek II, III, IV, and VI. I personally love Star Trek: TMP and I can’t tell you what it’s like watching that movie on the big screen in a restored theater, but it’s two and a half hours long. Star Trek V should have been removed because, well, it’s Star Trek V. And what DOES God need with a starship?

Legacy

Over the years there were other Star Trek shows. Anyone who’s listened to the podcast knows how I became disenchanted with Deep Space Nine after “Move Along Home”. I loved Voyager, but as good of a show as it was, it didn’t strike that chord with me that TOS and TNG did. Enterprise, well, I couldn’t stomach that show. I understand what they were trying to do with it, but I don’t think they thought things through very well. I still find myself watching episodes of TOS, TNG, and Voyager a lot as time goes on.

It’s strange to look at Star Trek over 45 years and realize how much influence it had on my life. It helped in picking my friends, it awakened skills I had, it made me look at TV differently, and it made me look at the world differently. I saw the business side of it, and I saw its creative side. To this day I still find myself quoting from episodes almost subconsciously. When I decided to “break out” of just doing a World of Warcraft podcast, Star Trek was one of the topics I wanted to talk about, and “This Week in Trek” has been doing very well, mainly because Darrell is just as enthusiastic as I am about doing the show.

Star Trek is in our DNA. Roddenberry’s vision was so dead on to the human condition that it’s going to last for many decades more. While Trek is currently in a holding pattern on TV, I hope that it comes back as strong as TNG did in 1987. The world needs new Star Trek.

Star Trek 6 laserdisc signed by George Takei

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  1. Peter says:

    Great story Michael. Reading your Star Trek memories reminded me of some of mine. I remember watching “Arena” with my father and being transfixed by the battle between Kirk and the monster. I read the “Wrath of Khan” novel before seeing the movie. My dad took me to see the search for Spock. One of the very few memories I have doing something just with him.

    When TNG premiered, I had just finished boot camp and was crammed into the TV room of our barracks with a bunch of other sailors watching the new Enterprise.

    The only post-TNG series I liked was Enterprise. I really liked the cast. I liked the stories. I was sad to see it go.

    I like the reboot movie. I hope the continue them. It would be nice to see a weekly series on the small screen, but a big screen version every few years is okay.

    Again, thanks for the memories.

  2. Chadwick says:

    I have been reading many great articles regarding Star Trek’s 45th. Another great read.

    I have been watching Star Trek for 24 years. I was 4 years old when TNG premiered, along with TOS reruns, I was hooked young. My father and I would watch it together, it was our show, and it has been an incredible journey ever since; one of adventure, aspiration and hope. I will never forget the way the show fascinated and inspired me as a child and still does so to this day. A child in the 80’s, the TOS cast was just as much “family” to me as the TNG cast. I will never forget the way the salt vampire from “The Man Trap” or the destruction of commander Remmick and the queen parasite in “Conspiracy” terrified me as a child. That was the joy of watching a show like this when one is young, is that your imagination runs wild with the fun and the scary.

    With 11 movies, 5 TV series, and a cartoon, Star Trek indeed is the most wonderful, well-versed, human space adventure ever told. Its a Trek through the stars not Wars. Growing up with TNG and TOS gave me an appreciation and love of TOS, being able to look beyond the budget restraints and use the imagination to fill in the gaps, that is one aspect of what made it fun.

    With many fans in an uproar, I am happy with the way the Star Trek movie series is progressing, but it does need tweaking. I am hoping we get a new TV series soon, one which takes a page from the original series, in the original universe. A fresh adventure but back to the basics with the moral and philosophical issues we love so much. I crave those weekly adventures again, that is the way this story of the trek through the stars is meant to be told.

    Kudos to Gene Roddenberry, Gene L Coon, Matt Jefferies and the countless visionaries and dreamers. To Alexander Courage, who wrote the original theme and Jerry Goldsmith who wrote the ever so noble Motion Picture theme which to me is the musical epitome of Star Trek. To Lucille Ball of Desilu Studios who believed in the show and the message of Gene Roddenberry. Not to mention everyone involved in the subsequent series who continued this dream we all share. I humbly and with humility thank everyone from the bottom of my heart.

    As Scott Bakula said, if he could use one word to describe Star Trek it would be “hope”.

    Happy 45th Birthday Star Trek!!!!!

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