Star Trek, in all of its incarnations, is a living document. It’s more than the vision of its creator, Gene Roddenberry, or the vehicle of hundreds of hours of episodic television, feature films, or the mountains of paper devoted to novels, comics, and zines. As a living thing it has evolved during the almost half-century of its existence, from a beloved but struggling TV show in the ‘60s to a reinvigorated franchise in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.
As a living thing it has many moving parts, not the least of which are the executives in charge of the franchise. They’re a hard read, their motives and actions mysterious, like a twitch of the leg or a sudden shudder of pain. The bones of the thing are the fans. They held it up after the series’ cancellation in 1969, all the through the long years until the feature film was released in 1979. They created content when officially there was none: stories, songs, homemade films. They kept Star Trek alive.
The story of Star Trek is huge, a tangle of corporate and creative continuity spread across every popular medium in our culture. Robert Greenberger’s Star Trek: The Complete and Unauthorized History tries to capture the drama of Star Trek’s life on-screen and off, from the original series on up to the current film, but instead reads like a Wikipedia article. It’s a starting point, succinct, dry, and anything but complete. The books begins with a wide screen view of the original series, starting with Roddenberry’s concept of “Wagon Train to the stars”, before winnowing down to little more than a keyhole’s glance at the final Trek show, Enterprise, and the 2009 JJ Abrams film reboot.
Informative but rarely insightful, the book is at least visually appealing. Book and record covers, calendars, behind the scenes photos, and a vast assortment of collectibles provide a pleasant diversion from the bland reporting and light episode commentary. The recent vintage of many of these items, such as the Enterprise pizza cutter, speak more to the show’s hip cache than to its cultural significance. Other bright spots are the personal essays from convention organizers, authors, production crew, and even astronauts, all of whom found themselves enthralled at the utopian future depicted on the show.
The “unauthorized” bit in the subtitle suggests there’s little to no participation from the cast or crew of any of the series or films. The book seem quiet as a result, the lack of original quotes from participants a vacuum filled by the voice of the author. Because of this, juicy behind the scenes stories seem more like office gossip than history, like the time Roddenberry prodded his future wife Majel Barrett into unbuttoning her sweater during an audition for unsuspecting producer John D.F. Black.
The book is best when Greenberger writes about the fans. The camaraderie and excitement created during the series following the original series’ cancellation is contagious, even on the page. It’s a testament to the show and the people who kept it alive. Budding fiction writers cut their teeth creating new Star Trek tales, with everything from sequels to popular episodes to erotically charged K/S (Kirk-Spock) stories.
Greenberger mentions his own involvement with fandom a few times, and not following up on these threads is a missed opportunity. Star Trek is the fan franchise, and if anyone could tell the story it should be a fan. Perhaps that’s the problem, though. Fands are passionate, but that doesn’t always translate to the page, here.
As reality and science intrude on the fiction, the show’s hopeful vision of global peace and interstellar travel feels so far away. Still, Star Trek at its best serves as a vehicle for our hopes for the future, a world in which humanity’s biggest problems have been solved and the stars slowly reveal their secrets to the most curious among us.
Now, though, the new films are backward looking, a revisionist update of Roddenberry’s vision. With syndicated episodes buried amidst hours of reality shows and no new Star Trek on television, stumbling upon the dream of a near-perfect future is passed on through word of mouth, an oral tradition of bad Scotty and Kirk impressions.
As the show’s 50th anniversary approaches, there are bound to be more books like this, both good and bad, all of them purporting to tell the whole story. Perhaps waiting is best. To try to tell the whole story suggests an ending, but Star Trek is too important to our culture to simply end. Books like this can give fans and historians context and insight, but at their worst they’re little more than obituaries, an account of what’s been lost.