Exploring the 50-year legacy of the Star Trek franchise
One of the choicest revelations about the National Security Agency from the Edward Snowden affair was that it commissioned and built something called an Information Dominance Center, an office for executives that was designed by a Hollywood set designer to mimic the feel of the bridge on a Star Trek starship.
The level of detail was impressive, according to The Washington Post, right down to automatic doors that “make a distinctive ‘whooshing’ sound when opening and closing”.
The image of America’s top spies ordering data visualisations “on screen”, or concluding their commands with the unnecessary flourish “make it so”, is ridiculous and alarming – and one that my inner teenager firmly and completely endorses.
I have had those fantasies, too. I remember the slightly disproportionate joy I felt playing the video game Star Trek: Bridge Commander at a friend’s house over a LAN network as a 13-year- old. Then a budding technologist, now a physics PhD, he had worked out how to connect his laptop to his two brothers’ laptops and set us at each other, the three of us battling in three dimensions with photon torpedoes and phasers, dodging asteroids and timing shield recharge cycles to minimise damage.
But behind the computer-generated light show, I was struggling to conceal the real source of my glee at that game. There I was, commanding my own starship, an imagined avatar of myself making imperative statements while staring at the viewscreen, demanding that my chief engineer reroute power from auxiliary systems, switching power from engines to forward shields and opening fire on the enemy.
I was Captain Jean-Luc Picard – or perhaps, someone who had graduated after him from Starfleet Academy, a sci-fi Sancho Panza who had been given his own command aboard an Akira-class vessel, flying in formation at the side of the Enterprise.
Created by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek began in 1966 and ran for only three seasons before it was cancelled. However, the franchise refused to die, spawning four TV spin-offs (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise) and an animated series, which were broadcast on and off until 2005. A new TV spin-off is set to begin in January.
There have also been 13 films, beginning with Star Trek The Motion Picture, released in 1979. The latest, Star Trek: Beyond, which was partly filmed in Dubai, will be released in cinemas on Thursday.
Given the success and cultural significance of Star Trek – not to mention the billions of dollars of merchandise it has generated – I was clearly not alone in my dreams of commanding a starship. When members of the US Congress visited the NSA’s IDC, it was reported that they all wanted to sit in the Star Trek-style “captain’s chair” and pretend to be Captain Kirk or Picard.
Jordan’s reigning monarch, King Abdullah II, went one better and made a cameo appearance in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager, in which ensign Harry Kim casually says to him, “See you later”.
So what do these members of Congress, the King of Jordan and I – and millions of other people around the world – see in Star Trek?
The final frontier
Let us travel back in time to 1959. We are watching TV and the familiar, clipped voice of Rod Serling informs us that we are travelling into another dimension.
“A journey into a wondrous land, whose boundaries are that of imagination.”
Our next stop is, of course, The Twilight Zone. At the tail end of the golden age in science fiction literature – when the likes of Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Philip K Dick were at their prolific best – this was a TV show that highlighted the genre’s power to combine high-concept philosophical ideas with fantasy and imagination.
Despite a troubled production history, it proved influential, and set a template for producing high-concept science fiction for adults. It also featured a young Canadian actor called William Shatner in one of its most memorable episodes, Nightmare at 20,000 feet, in which the future Captain Kirk spots a malevolent gremlin on the wing of an airplane in mid-flight.
Star Trek, now known as The Original Series, followed in this mould, adding a few touches of camp as seen in Saturday morning sci-fi cartoons.
Like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek featured an opening voice-over, and shared its aesthetic message: the audience is invited join an exploration of “Space, the final frontier” – that wondrous land, whose boundaries are those of imagination.
Like Serling before him, Roddenberry ventured – with varying degrees of heavy-handedness – into exploring the issues of the day.
The political overtones were plentiful: the Klingons, who in their earliest iterations adhered to the militaristic collectivism of the Soviet Union, were a frequent nemesis of Kirk’s. In one episode, Friday’s Child, the Federation competes with the Klingons for mining rights over a resource-rich planet, which is clearly intended to represent the Middle East. Star Trek also featured the first interracial kiss on television in America, in the 1968 episode Plato’s Stepchildren, only four years after the Civil Rights Act had outlawed segregation in schools and public places.
Kirk or Picard?
Kirk was the original Star Trek captain but for a younger generation, myself included, it was Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus Patrick Stewart’s magisterial performance as Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the first TV spin-off, The Next Generation, which began in 1987, that anchored our appreciation of Star Trek.
“I know that my experience with classic Shakespeare was a great help to me in finding this heightened language that was larger than life and utterly epic,” he said in an interview with Deadline Hollywood.
Stewart imbued Picard with gravitas and nobility, which is a particular treat when he is sparring with John de Lancie’s omnipotent being, Q.
Q, a mercurial, omnipotent spirit, issues a challenge to Picard in the first episode to prove the value of humanity, to show that a violent species that has committed terrible atrocities throughout its existence is able to transcend that history, to solve problems with reason and empathy, instead of force.
This, in a way, is the theme of everything that followed during the show’s seven-season run: as Picard’s Enterprise explores the galaxy, humanity’s ethics, values and principles are repeatedly examined, tested and applied, with Picard and his crew attempting to show that the universe can be governed with calm reason.
In this way, the show harks back to the narrative purposes of the golden age of sci-fi, where stories often had the quality of extended thought experiments. A TV series lent itself perfectly to episodic encounters of this kind. When the more cliquey science fiction fans argue about the relative merits of Star Wars and Star Trek, they are really arguing about whether they prefer movies or television.
Which brings us to J J Abrams, modern-day steward of science fiction’s two biggest global franchises.
His timeline-altering big-screen reboot of The Original Series in Star Trek (2009) and its sequel, Into Darkness (2013), divided fans because, no matter their merits, they didn’t press quite the same buttons as the TV series that first captured fans’ imaginations.
It is hard to argue that his Star Trek isn’t a well-made, energetic, seriously fun reboot. But it felt as though it were set in a different conceptual universe to the television series – one with less time to consider how to apply engineering expertise to technical problems, or to wrestle with moral dilemmas, and with more shooting instead.
Into Darkness, meanwhile, was pilloried by fans, not least because it didn’t make much sense. It was fun to watch an invincible Benedict Cumberbatch chewing on the pneumatic doors, even if this altered version of the best Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, felt like gratuitous shoehorning that might have been borrowed from a Marvel movie. However, Trekkies who liked calculating the energy output of phasers in the original series would not have found much to nerd out over.
If the Star Trek TV series inspired dedication from a committed fan base, then J J Abrams’s films are aimed more at what Hollywood calls “four-quadrant” success – wider appeal to all four major demographic groups.
Fast and Furious director Justin Lin took over from Abrams at the helm of Star Trek Beyond – and the initial trailer was pilloried for focusing on motorbikes and a Beastie Boys song instead of starships and aliens. It looked like Fast and Furious in space, which predictably upset certain vocal sections of the internet. A second trailer went some way to assuaging these fears – and showed our heroes travelling to a planet that looks suspiciously like Dubai.
Regardless of the grumbles and the changes in tone from the original TV incarnations, one thing is certain – there will be more Star Trek. A fourth (or 14th, depending on your viewpoint) film is already confirmed, plus that new TV show, the details of which are still scarce, but which will be set in the new timeline of the rebooted movies.
This is a franchise that, like a topeline-rich asteroid, will surely be mined further for decades to come. For those who want to travel at warp factor 9.7 to a land whose boundaries are those of imagination, Star Trek will always have us in its tractor beam.
• Star Trek Beyond is in cinemas from Thursday, July 21
Updated: July 18, 2016 04:00 AM