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.