Star Trek 40 years young

Star Trek, that eternally optimistic series about the future of humanity, is celebrating its 40th birthday. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke outs himself as a closet Trekkie and takes a look at the series that refuses to die.

By Andrew Clarke

Star Trek, that eternally optimistic series about the future of humanity, is celebrating its 40th birthday. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke outs himself as a closet Trekkie and takes a look at the series that refuses to die.

Space, the final frontier, phasers on stun, to boldly go where no man has gone before - Star Trek, the series that launched a dozen catchphrases, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend.

The longevity of this hardy science fiction perennial will come something of a shock to those in charge of the American network that cancelled the series in 1969 after three short years. But it was the show that refused to die. Bizarrely as soon as the axe fell the show became incredibly popular popping up on the plethora of local TV stations on endless repeat runs. In a TV first, audience figures for the repeats were better than those for the original transmission.


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The BBC snapped up the series in the early 70s to fill in the summer gap left by Dr Who - our own timeless wanderer in space. Once again as soon as it hit the airwaves it was never off. It was a smart, fast, colourful, action-packed series which lacked the wobbly sets and duff special effects which defined the early black and white years of Dr Who. It looked as if some money had been spent on it and it forced the BBC to invest rather more on the Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker years as The Doctor so the series wasn't completely squashed by this bright-eyed American import.

One of the reasons for the success of Star Trek both here and in American was that it presented a resolutely upbeat view of the future. It was a future with not only a world government but a United Federation of Planets as well. It was significant that the USS Enterprise was a science vessel exploring the outer edges of the known galaxy rather than a warship.

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What was also remarkable, considering that the series was made at the height of the cold war and with America deeply immersed in the endless Vietnam conflict, is that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry created a culturally eclectic crew. Okay Captain James T Kirk was your square-jawed American boy but his first officer Mr Spock was a pointy-eared alien (who TV execs wanted to remove because they thought he looked like the devil), the navigator was Russian, the helmsman Chinese, the communications officer was an African woman, the engineering chief was a Scot and the doctor was that rarest of rare things, a technophobe. Dr McCoy was forever complaining about having his molecules scrambled when beaming down to an alien planet and ranting when he was asked to perform the impossible “I'm a doctor not a …. (the blanks would then be filled in to suit that week's situation.)

The regular line “It's life Jim, but not as we know it,” was sampled and used in the 1980s pop hit Star Trekking also known affectionately as Klingons Off The Starboard Bow.

The series was cutting edge to such a degree that it was responsible for the first inter-racial kiss when, under an alien influence Kirk and Lt Uhura puckered up and got smoochy. The brief love scene caused such a fuss that many of the southern states of the US refused to screen the episode. This was at the time of bussing - the enforced integration of schools - and as such was extremely provocative.

For a former air force pilot and police officer Gene Roddenberry caught the peace and love bug of the 1960s very early. He was an optimistic individual who saw the earth's future only in terms of global cooperation. He was one of the first people to espouse the need to celebrate differences rather than fight over them. Star Trek was designed to spread this philosophy at a time when all American eyes were firmly fixed on the heavens as NASA engaged in the space race with the Russians to see who could get to the moon first.

After the pilot was completed in 1964, the NBC network refused to commission the series because “it was too cerebral and ordinary people would not understand it,” - a fairly damning indictment on US television and on their views of the average American family.

But this incident prompted the first hint of Star Trek's uncanny ability to come back from the brink of death. In an unheard-of move, following more lobbying from Gene Roddenberry who explained that he wanted Star Trek to be like Wagon Train to the stars, a second pilot was commissioned.

The result was Where No Man Has Gone Before and this did the trick - the series was up and running. Funnily enough the devilish Mr Spock was the only character retained from the first pilot and his appearance this time seems to have past without comment.

The series launched in America on September 1966 and although far from a ratings hit quickly developed a stable and loyal following. But at the end of the second season in 1968 Star Trek is cancelled and is then immediately reprieved following a huge letter writing campaign.

Because of the adult nature of the show Star Trek was moved to the graveyard slot of 10pm on a Friday night. The drop in viewing figures was dramatic and the series was not renewed. Rumours at the time suggested it had been a deliberate move to sabotage the show because the young, male target audience would be out enjoying the night-life with their mates.

But the series refused to stay dead. As the ratings climbed during the 1970s as the series continue to sell overseas, pressure mounted for the series to return. During the latter half of the 1970s plans grew for a Star Trek II television series which after the success of Star Wars quickly turned into Star Trek: The Motion Picture which was a long, tedious special effects exercise which totally missed the charm of its action-packed predecessor. Audiences, along with critics, were underwhelmed and it seemed that Star Trek was dead again.

But, the increasingly strong Star Trek fan base were not to be robbed of their dream of a big screen franchise and with Roddenberry pushing hard behind the scenes Paramount green-lit Star Trek II. Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scotty were not be pensioned off just yet but there was to be a sting in the tail - Spock, the embodiment of the Star Trek universe, was to die. The Wrath of Khan was also to recapture the camaraderie and spirit of adventure of the original series. The movie was a huge hit and was exactly what the fans wanted - and the cinema-going populace in general.

As a result an array of sequels followed which took these further adventures of the USS Enterprise even deeper into deep space and in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home back to 1980s earth to rescue an endangered humpback whale. This was very much the high point of the big screen series. A great script and wonderful tongue-in-cheek performances showed that the Star Trek franchise was hotter than ever. Maybe it was time for that long awaited second TV series.

Star Trek: The Next Generation left space dock in the autumn of 1987 and it very quickly eclipsed the success of the original series. Casting and a wonderful sense of camaraderie provided the life-blood of the show - that and the determination of the production crew to shoot the series as if they were making a film. The sets were built on Paramount's movie stages and special effects were delivered by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic.

Patrick Stewart made a superb Captain Jean-Luc Picard while an array of unknowns made up a terrific ensemble including Michael Dorn as the Klingon security officer Worf, the wonderfully named Gates McFadden was Dr Beverley Crusher and Brent Spiner created a believable android in Data. Set many years ahead of the original series, these actors weren't afraid to poke fun at themselves and Worf and Data in particular were often the butt of many on-screen jokes.

Humour as well as adventure played a huge part in the success of The Next Generation especially with the arrival of camp super-being Q, played with a blinding twinkle in his eye by John DeLancey. The war with the Klingons may have been over but the peace was a fragile one and we got to learn a lot about the complicated nature of their society. But if the Klingons weren't the bad guys any more. The Next Generation came up with some superb replacements in the emotionless, robotic, cyber-creatures The Borg - a collective entity that learnt, absorbed and marched onward.

After seven years The Next Generation also flew onto the big screen, destroying the USS Enterprise in the process while Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, set on a space station, took their place on TV. Again casting and a series of darker storylines marked this out as a series to watch. A shape-changing security officer called Odo and a smuggling bar-keep called Quark added some dramatic friction to the series while Terry Farrell as a sleek, sexy science officer added a different kind of interest.

And so Deep Space Nine was eventually replaced by Voyager, the first series in my humble opinion to really get lost in space, and then by the prequel series Enterprise.

So after 40 years of boldly going where no man has gone before, and surviving numerous cancellation attempts Star Trek still has something to offer us all. It shows us humanity at its best - an aspirational template for society and a way for us to survive.

Beam Me Up Scotty.

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