It started with a sign. Strike that, with a bumper sticker. Everyday, as I walked to school, I would pass the house at the end of our street and see the familiar message straddled across the back window (apparently, the owner didn’t want their car’s chrome damaged by such a vinyl placard – or perhaps thought the higher placement would attract more attention?). While my memory is now as foggy as a San Francisco morning, I do remember certain parts of the sentiment – and in the light of revisionist history, I am convinced the communication was clear – “Call NBC – Save Star Trek“. At the time, I was probably six, going on seven, and I was unsure what the issue was, including what Star Trek itself…was. Even a couple years later, when older kids in school would lament its passing, I was perplexed.
Fast forward four years. I’m ten going on eleven. Saturday morning TV is my life, as it is for anyone who grew up in the format’s formative decades of the ’60s and ’70s. NBC, which I then understood was one of the three major broadcast companies in America, was bringing Star Trek back (there’s that name again…) in cartoon form. Many of my friends in Fifth Grade were ecstatic, anticipating the return of one of their favorite franchises though, honestly, few had any idea what they were actually talking about. As sci-fi nerds, we shared favorite authors and books. But something about Star Trek bridged a gap for many that I, as a maturing adolescent, was yet to discover. So I watched the animated adventures of the Starship Enterprise and was…well, I’m not sure what to say. Then I discovered the reruns of the original series.
You have to remember what life was like 35 years ago. There was no legitimate cable television (though first variations of same were being tested somewhere way out in the Midwest) and for those of us lucky enough to live in a sprawling urban market (Chicago), there were six – count ’em, SIX! – TV channels to surf through. ABC, CBS, and NBC were the “Big Three” – while there was always a PBS alternative to explore (ZOOM, anyone?). In addition, we were lucky enough to have a local independent, WGN, and a UHF option. So we were literally living in the lap of entertainment luxury, the choices and available time slots seeming to mesh perfectly with our after school/weekend needs. Of course, in retrospect, we were living in an era of paltry opportunities. I sometimes wonder if my appreciation for certain shows is based on a genuine love, or the forced favoritism of having no other alternative.
Yet I loved Trek. It followed me. It tagged along as I moved to Florida (a true bastion of variety nothingness). It accompanied me as I sat through Star Wars seven times. It became a presence in my conversations with friends, and most importantly, a freshman year college ritual. I was one of the few residents in my door with access to my own color TV, and everyday, once classes were completed and the various recreational vices were begun, the 13″ mega-screen was tuned to the continuing voyages of that iconic spacecraft and its capable crew going boldly where no man had gone before. My roommate and I would set ourselves up on our beds, then allow in the growing throng, a couple turning into more than a dozen by the time the daily diversion became a habit.
During those heady, smoke filled afternoons, we’d argue over characters and favorite episodes. We’d rally behind certain actors and mock those who favored the so-called “fringe” (sorry Sulu and Chekov). We learned the names of episode writers and sought out books and other contributions by them. And most significantly, we fueled the fanbase fires. We elevated a once dead speculative fiction masterwork, made by people interested in ideas vs. massive merchandising dollars (wonder who that might be???) and argued for its continuing commercial relevance. Debate all you want to over the first fighters in the mix, the men and women who convinced NBC to give the original series one last third season chance. You can also praise the participation of the ’70s adults, whose fond memories of the material kept the syndication scores high.
But it was us who made Star Trek into the viable property you now see before you today. It was us who tolerated the tepid, trying aspects of The Motion Picture (or “The Motion Sickness” as we called it back then) and turned it into a monster hit. It was us who initially celebrated the returning Wrath of Khan, who practiced our silly Shatner screams and amazing Montalban line readings long before most of you were born. We were the demographic, the 18 to 24 year olds who mandated the movies that were made. We had helped George Lucas cement his status as a fantasy filmmaker to watch (and later, reject). We gave Steven Spielberg his career defining hits, and sadly, helped Hollywood move from the post-modern majesty of ’70s cinema to the high concept cheapness of the disposable ’80s.
Perhaps that’s why now, some thirty years after Robert Wise took the original actors and thrust them directly onto the big screen for all the world to see, we Star Trek geeks are ready to see the series reborn. After all the Next Generations and Deep Space Nines, after the outsized ideas of Voyager and the failed origin attempts of Enterprise, the time has come to go back to square one and reset the star date. As Spock would agree, it’s only logical. The first cast is now far too old to jumpstart the franchise, and the various fragmented incarnations of the concept have apparently worn out their welcome (though Jean-Luc Picard and crew could still give the series a run for its residual money). By finding a proper way to bring Trek into the 21st century, by introducing the youth of today to the joys of yesterday’s future, without the stigma of the 11 other films flying over their head, a whole new chapter in series’ lore can be written.
As Paramount reconfigures the original, adding new effects and a professional polish to what was often a seat of their pants production, as DVD gives way to further Blu-ray wonders, fans can look forward to J.J. Abrams reboot masterpiece (my rave review arrives Tuesday) and the possibilities it offers. Let’s face it – if it can satisfy an old school Trek head (both Trekkies and Trekkers seem so…silly) like me, and make me wish for more installments just like it, the individuals behind the scenes are doing something right. Remember, we are the ones who made Star Trek what it is today. It’s nice to know that, some 40 plus years later, the right people were put in place to “save” it. It makes all daily trips past the bumper sticker seem all the more real – and relevant.