Trekking Onward

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FOR STAR TREK FANS, THE MEMORY STILL HURTS. IT WAS A Saturday Night Live sketch eight years ago, and William Shatner -- the indomitable Captain James Tiberius Kirk from the original TV series -- was playing himself making a guest appearance at a Star Trek convention. After fielding a few dumb questions from the nerdy, trivia-obsessed fans, he suddenly exploded: "I'd just like to say Get a life, will you, people?! I mean, for crying out loud, it was just a TV show!"

No matter that Shatner, in the sketch, quickly recanted, telling the crestfallen Trekkies that his outburst was, of course, a re-creation of "the evil Captain Kirk" from Episode 37. The put-down was like a phaser to the heart. Trekkies (or Trekkers, as many prefer to be called these days) have always existed in something of a parallel universe of TV viewing. They're the ones who can debate for hours the merits of the episode in which Mr. Spock mind-melded with a bloblike alien called the Horta, or the one where Captain Kirk time-traveled back to the Great Depression and fell in love with Joan Collins. They know the scientific properties of dilithium crystals, they have memorized the floor plan of the Starship Enterprise, and they can say, "Surrender or die!" in the Klingon language. They have immersed themselves, with a fervor matched by few devotees of any religious sect, in a fully imagined future world, where harmony and humanism have triumphed and the shackles of time and space can be cast aside almost at will. Trekkies are true-believing optimists, and a few of them may be nuts.

They are also the custodians of perhaps the most enduring and all-embracing pop-culture phenomenon of our time. Consider the industry that has grown out of a quirky TV series that ran for three years in the late 1960s, only to be canceled because of low ratings. Two decades later, a second series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, ran for seven seasons and became the highest-rated syndicated show in TV history. A third Trek series, Deep Space Nine, if not quite as big a hit, is currently the No. 1-rated drama in syndication. Six Star Trek movies have earned a total of nearly $500 million at the box office. Videocassettes (of every series episode, as well as the movies) are so popular that most video stores devote an entire section to them. Star Trek is seen around the world in 75 countries, and Trek mania has hit many of them; the official Star Trek fan club in Britain has 18,000 members. Trek-related merchandise, ranging from T shirts and backpacks to a $2,200 brass replica of the Enterprise, has exploded in the past five years, with total revenues topping $1 billion. More than 63 million Star Trek books are in print, and new titles -- from tell-alls by former cast members to novelizations of Trek episodes -- are appearing at the rate of more than 30 a year.

And the Trek phenomenon is bursting again like a fresh supernova. A seventh feature film, Star Trek: Generations, which opened over the weekend, brings together for the first time the two Enterprise big shots: Shatner as the heroic, headstrong Captain Kirk of the original series and of every movie until now; and Patrick Stewart, the bald-pated Brit who succeeded him as the more cerebral Captain Picard in The Next Generation. The new film, a smashingly entertaining mix of outer-space adventure and spaced-out metaphysics, almost certainly marks the last movie appearance of the classic Trek crew (Kirk, in a secret no one seems able to keep, dies at the end of the film) and launches what promises to be a new string of movies featuring Stewart and his Next Generation gang. With Deep Space Nine continuing, and yet another TV series, Star Trek: Voyager, debuting in January, the pump is primed for more TV-to-movie transfers in the future. The mother ship of all TV cult hits seems poised to boldly go where none has gone before: into eternity.

For all that, Star Trek has never won much respect. In the realm of long- running entertainment phenoms, Sherlock Holmes has more history; James Bond, more class; Star Wars and Indiana Jones, more cinematic cachet. And while no one sneers at the Baker Street Irregulars, noninitiates consider Trekkies to be pretty odd: Trekkies like Pete Mohney, a computer programmer in Birmingham, Alabama, who leads a double life as captain of his local Starfleet "ship," the Hephaestus NC-2004, and publisher of a 40-page Trekkie newsletter; or Jerry Murphy, a Sugar Grove, Illinois, business manager and father of two, who is commander of a local Klingon club and frequently dresses up as one of the big-browed aliens for charity events. "Nobody messes with Klingons," he says. "We're the bikers of the Star Trek world."

After all, you have to wonder about people who would pore over The Star Trek Encyclopedia, with 5,000 entries on every character, planet, gadget or concept ever mentioned in the series, from gagh ("serpent worms, a Klingon culinary delicacy") to Pollux V ("planet in the Beta Geminorum system that registered with no intelligent life-forms when the Enterprise investigated that area of space on Stardate 3468"). Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's late creator and guiding spirit, once got a letter from a group of scientists who complained about a scene in which Captain Picard visited France and looked up at the night sky. By their calculations, they said, the stars could not have been in that position in France in the 24th century.

Yet Star Trek has legions of more temperate fans too. General Colin Powell is a watcher; so are Robin Williams, Mel Brooks and Stephen Hawking, the best- selling physicist (A Brief History of Time) who made a guest appearance in an episode of The Next Generation, playing poker with holographic re-creations of Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton. Rachelle Chong, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, has decorated her office with Trek paraphernalia and dressed up as Captain Picard for Halloween. "I like the show because it shows me tomorrow," she says. And sometimes today: the cellular phone-like communicators used by the Trek crew back in the 1960s are almost exact precursors of the personal-communication systems the FCC has just begun issuing licenses for.

According to Paramount TV research, Star Trek's regular weekly audience of more than 20 million includes more high-income, college-educated viewers (as well as more men) than the average TV show. Even at the better than 200 Trekkie conventions held each year, the clientele is more likely to be middle- ! aged couples with kids in tow than computer geeks sporting Vulcan ears. "In the early days, everyone had a shirt and a costume," says Mary Warren, who was selling Trek apparel at a recent convention in Tucson, Arizona. "Now you get all these normal people in here." Among the 2,000 who attended was Elaine Koste, who came with her husband David and five-year-old daughter Karessa. "I use Star Trek as a tool to educate my daughter," said Koste. "It's good for her to see the characters deal with other races and teach good values."

"People have not gotten a real sense of what Star Trek fandom is really all about," says Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock, the superrational, pointy- eared Vulcan on the original series. "I talk to people in various professions all the time who say, 'I went to college to study this or that because of Star Trek."' Jonathan Frakes, Commander Riker on The Next Generation, concurs: "If you go in looking for geeks and nerds, then yeah, you'll find some. But this is a show that doesn't insult the audience. It is intelligent, literate and filled with messages and morals -- and that's what most of the people who watch are interested in."

Star Trek has evolved over the years from the brash, sometimes campy original series, with its Day-Glo colors and dime-store special effects, to the more meditative, slickly produced Next Generation, to the relatively conventional action-flick pleasures of the feature films. In all its incarnations, however, Star Trek conveys Roddenberry's optimistic view of the future. Sinister forces and evil aliens might lurk behind every star cluster, but on the bridge of the Enterprise, people of various races, cultures and planets work in utopian harmony. Their adventures, in the early days, were often allegories for earthbound problems like race relations and Vietnam -- problems that were solved with reason. A key concept of the show, which began during the Vietnam War, was the Prime Directive. It stated that the Enterprise crew must not interfere with the normal course of development of any civilization they might encounter.

The comforting ethos of the series was expressed not merely in the amity of the crew -- who never fought amongst themselves except when one or another had been taken over by aliens, which seemed to happen about every third episode. Beyond that, the freewheeling way the starship broke the constraints of time and space was a testament to unlimited human possibilities. Hundreds of light- years could be traversed in minutes (just accelerate to "warp factor"); crew members could be transported from place to place in an instant ("Beam me up, Scotty"). Time travel was a particular Star Trek favorite; characters were often shuttling back and forth to the past, trying to rectify mistakes of history and avoid disasters of the future. Talk about power trips!

Despite its techno-talk, Star Trek and The Next Generation were, at bottom, shows about the nature and meaning of being human. The endless parade of evil aliens and perverted civilizations -- from the bellicose Klingons to the pernicious Borg, with their hivelike collective consciousness -- was always contrasted to the civilized humans on board the Enterprise. The most popular characters were the nonhuman ones -- Spock, the "logical" Vulcan, and Data, the soulless android -- precisely because they were constantly being confronted with the human qualities they lacked: the emotions they either scorned (in Spock's case) or craved (in Data's).

Star Trek: Generations (directed by David Carson, who did several episodes of the series) continues the exploration of this theme. Data (Brent Spiner) has an "emotion chip" implanted in his brain, then suddenly has to deal with unfamiliar feelings like fear, remorse and giggly irresponsibility. Captain Picard, meanwhile, must overcome the siren-like lure of the Nexus, a timeless zone of pure joy that is being sought by the villainous Dr. Soran (Malcolm McDowell). The Nexus is a personalized fantasyland, where Picard experiences the idyllic home life he never had. Captain Kirk is there too, going through his own homey fantasy, but both must reject the Nexus and return to the real world to help defeat Soran. Responsibility, caring for others, recognizing your mortality -- these things too are part of being human.

Star Trek's optimistic morality plays were especially appealing when the show first went on the air in 1966. "It seemed like there was a hell of a lot of trouble in the world," says D.C. Fontana, a writer on the original show, "and it was a time there might not have been a whole lot of hope in America. And here comes this series that says mankind is better than we might think." Says Ian Spelling, who publishes a weekly Star Trek newspaper column: "It's a story of a positive future in which people are getting along. And if they're not, they're trying to work things out."

The multicultural Star Trek crew -- a Russian, a Japanese, a black woman, a ! Vulcan (make that multiplanetary) -- was of symbolic importance to many viewers. "As a teen, I was a fan," says Whoopi Goldberg, who had a recurring role in The Next Generation. "I recognized the multicultural, multiracial aspects, and different people getting together for a better world. Racial issues have been solved. Male-female problems have been solved. The show is about genuine equality."

Star Trek has won praise from many science-fiction writers. Ray Bradbury, a close friend of Roddenberry's until the latter's death in 1991, finds the show's popularity unsurprising: "We're living in a science-fiction time. We're swimming in an ocean of technology, and that's why Star Trek, Star Wars and 90% of the most successful films of the last 10 years are science fiction." Indeed, Star Trek has helped spark a revival of science fiction on TV, including such shows as Babylon 5 and SeaQuest DSV and an entire cable network, the Sci-Fi Channel.

Many scientists too admire the show for its faithfulness to the scientific method, if not to factual science. "They have a respect for the way science and engineering work," says Louis Friedman, a former programs director at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "For example, when you make measurements of a planet and try to determine its atmosphere, then get into the transporter ... well, if you had a transporter that's probably how you'd do it. They make it believable because they go through a reasonable process."

Others attribute Star Trek's popularity less to its science than to its dramatic and mythic qualities. Richard Slotkin, professor of English at Wesleyan University, says the show echoes the pioneer stories that dominate American history and literature. "What's so appealing about Star Trek is that it takes the old frontier myth and crosses it with a platoon movie," Slotkin says. "Instead of the whites against the Indians, you have a multiethnic crew against the Romulans and Klingons."

Star Trek has always had its literary pretensions; allusions to Shakespeare abound, and it has often been compared to The Odyssey. "There was something heroic and epic to the underlying themes," says Patrick Stewart, a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. "In terms of its ambition, the stage on which it was set was Homeric." Says Shatner: "I think there is a need for the culture to have a myth, like the Greeks had. We don't have any. So I think people look to Star Trek to set up a leader and a hearty band of followers. It's Greek classical storytelling." Not that the stars buy all the highfalutin analyses of their work. Kirk has been described as a classic Kennedyesque cold warrior. "That's too esoteric for me," says Shatner. "All I wanted to do was come up with a good character. I always played Kirk close to myself, mostly because of fatigue."

Shatner wouldn't have played Kirk at all if the original pilot for the series had pleased NBC. The show, which Roddenberry produced in 1964, starred Jeffrey Hunter as the captain. But NBC wanted changes, and by the time a new pilot was done, Hunter had dropped out. One actor who remained from the first pilot was Nimoy as Mr. Spock -- though only after Roddenberry persuaded NBC not to drop the character. The network had other alarming suggestions: at one point, Roddenberry recalled, NBC executives suggested that Spock smoke a space cigarette, to please a tobacco-company sponsor.

The original Star Trek never drew much of an audience, and it was saved from cancellation after two seasons only with the help of a letter-writing campaign from fans. But in its third season, NBC moved the show to a weak time slot, on Fridays at 10 p.m., and cut its budget by $9,000 an episode, putting a further crimp in the already bargain-basement special effects. The show was gone after that season.

But three seasons and 79 episodes were just enough to put the show's reruns into syndication, and there they were an enormous hit. By the end of the '70s, the success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had prompted Paramount to give its TV space crew a crack at the big screen. Star Trek: The Motion Picture displeased hard-core fans. But it made a sturdy $82 million at the box office and launched a series of films that peaked in 1986 with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which grossed $110 million. Only Roddenberry felt left out. Though listed as executive consultant on all the films, he was largely supplanted by other producers. "He was pretty bitter about the films," recalls writer Tracy Torme. "He really felt like they took the films away from him."

Yet Roddenberry got a second chance on TV, when Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987. The show, set 80 years after the original, introduced a new Enterprise crew and had a much bigger budget. But still there was turmoil: Roddenberry's insistence on rewriting scripts alienated many of the writers. Things settled down when Rick Berman, Roddenberry's second-in- command, and co-executive producer Michael Piller took control. The show soon hit its stride, with an accomplished cast, better special effects and some of the most imaginative sci-fi writing ever for TV. The series was ended last May, at the height of its popularity, because Paramount wanted to switch it to the big screen exclusively.

Deep Space Nine is a drearier show, set in a kind of outer-space bus stop, where another imposing commander (Avery Brooks) presides over a melting pot of alien riffraff. The upcoming series, Voyager, aims to return to the exploration theme of the earlier series. Its premise: a Starfleet ship, chasing a band of rebels who oppose a Federation peace treaty, is transported (through a pesky space-time anomaly) to a distant part of the universe. The Starfleet crew and the rebel band must then join forces to find their way back home. The new show also responds to one longtime complaint about the Star Trek series: the lack of prominent roles for women. The captain of this Starfleet ship is played by Kate Mulgrew (replacing Genevieve Bujold, who quit the show after two days of shooting).

The Star Trek mystique has grown big enough that there's money to be made in debunking it. Two cast members from the original show, Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) and George Takei (Sulu), have written books in which they describe Shatner as an egomaniac on the set. Shatner has given his side in two volumes of Trek reminiscences, and some ex-colleagues charge that he has exaggerated his creative role. "The only thing that surprises me about Bill's (first) book," says Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who played Nurse Chapel in the original series and later married Roddenberry, "is that he managed to get it in the nonfiction category."

Bruised egos also resulted, not surprisingly, from the effort to combine the two TV casts for a passing of the torch in the new movie. Nimoy declined a role after he saw how small his part would be. "I told them," he says, "'The lines that you've written to be spoken by somebody named Spock can be easily distributed to any of the other characters on the screen."' Which is what happened: Captain Kirk appears with two lesser members of the old crew: chief engineer "Scotty" (James Doohan) and Ensign Chekov (Walter Koenig). Several members of the Next Generation cast, meanwhile, were less than thrilled with their relatively small amount of screen time. Says LeVar Burton, who plays Geordi: "Hopefully, if we do another one of these, we will have an opportunity to spread the wealth more."

Then there was the film's controversial ending. As originally shot, Captain Kirk was killed by a phaser in the back. But test audiences were reportedly dissatisfied, and the scene was reshot just weeks before the film opened. Kirk now has a more action-packed, though considerably lower-tech demise; Trek fans are already grumbling.

None of which will matter much if the film is, as expected, a big hit. Then all that Paramount will have to worry about is trying not to squeeze too much out of its cash cow. The studio plans to produce a new feature film every two years, while keeping two TV shows running simultaneously. "Star Trek will do fine if they don't kill the goose," says Barrett Roddenberry. Berman acknowledges the danger: "There's always the question about taking too many trips to the well, and one of the tasks Roddenberry left me with was at least to try to prevent that from happening."

Yet Roddenberry's old optimism seems to be prevailing. "Gene Roddenberry had a point of view that space is infinite as far as we know, and therefore the possibilities for stories are infinite," says Brent Spiner, with Data- like precision. "In the original series, I think they had explored some 18% of the universe. We (The Next Generation) went into another 15%. So that leaves 67% of the universe left to explore." Which, by our calculations, should carry the show well into the 21st century, and that's not even traveling at warp speed.