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Star Struck



A long time ago in a country far, far away, I watched Star Trek for the first time. It was five years before the North Vietnamese Army rolled into Saigon, victorious. I was in the Army, stationed at a listening post in East Africa where KANU-TV, a remote station in the Armed Forces Radio and Television Services, broadcast television shows for three hours a day. Star Trek aired on Sunday night. I don't remember the other programs. Re-runs of Dick Van Dyke, Carol Burnett and Andy Griffith probably, their TV shows were popular at the time. Watching Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk's adventures became a Sunday night ritual involving a big bag of M&M's and a portable black-and-white television set with a telescoping antenna. I don't know when "Trekkie" was coined to denote a Star Trek fan ardent enough to buy a pair of Vulcan ears, but I wouldn't have laid claim to it. I liked the show well enough—I had come of age with Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and The Twilight Zone—but sci-fi was no more appealing than a spaghetti western. Star Trek was an incremental improvement of the sci-fi genre on network television. Ironically, my introduction to it was analogous to the light of a supernova: Star Trek's three-year run on NBC was over long before I saw the first episode. Low ratings caused the show to be canceled in 1969.

After four years removed from American pop culture, I returned to Salt Lake City as a graduate student at the University of Utah. That year, George Lucas was nominated for academy awards for American Graffiti, and he had begun to write the Star Wars saga. The only trace of Star Trek I noticed was a bumper sticker that read, "Beam me up, Scotty. There is no intelligent life on this planet." One day, however, I read a notice that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, was scheduled to speak at the university's union building. I had read about Roddenberry and the reel of bloopers and outtakes he showed at such events. I decided to attend just for ducks. I had never talked to anyone about Star Trek—nobody I knew was a Trekkie. So I went alone. I assumed the event would be sparsely attended. Not so! By the time I found parking, a line of people snaked out of the front door and along the sidewalk toward Orson Spencer Hall. I was stunned. I joined the enthusiastic crowd as it pushed into the lobby, reaching the ballroom just before fire-marshal rules closed the doors. A lot of people were turned away. Many were very unhappy. Roddenberry had not yet taken the stage when a telephoned bomb threat caused the building to be cleared by campus police. The crowd milled about in the parking lot. After a long wait, we were allowed to re-enter.

Roddenberry was welcomed warmly. He talked for a few minutes before showing the outtakes. The 16 mm film showed a few risqué scenes plus Spock laughing and Kirk cussing. The crowd loved it. Then Roddenberry took questions. I remember two: "When will Star Trek return to television?" and, "Why does Star Trek remain so popular?"

Roddenberry answered the first by saying that the set on which 79 episodes had been filmed had been dismantled. The most cost-efficient way to build new sets, he explained, was to make a movie. The movie sets could be repurposed for a TV series. The crowd applauded when he confided that he was in discussions with Paramount Pictures about making a Star Trek movie.

Roddenberry's second answer was the other big surprise of the night. He said he believed that the show's popularity was partly a reaction to the war in Vietnam. He talked about the "Prime Directive" governing the actions of Starfleet officers like Kirk and Spock and how it forbade interference in alien cultures in general—technologically inferior ones in particular. He contrasted that with the U.S. military incursions in the developing countries of Southeast Asia. The show's popularity reflected Americans' preference for nonintervention, he believed.

I'm not sure he was right about a Vietnam effect, but I often think back to that night whenever the subject of Star Trek is at hand. What stays with me is the moment of realization that a frothy television show could be misapprehended. The point was driven home a few years later when Star Wars hit theaters. Obi-Wan Kanobi launched a thousand Sunday sermons with his admonition to Luke Skywalker, "Trust the Force."

Star Trek is now 50 years old. The years have passed at warp speed. Sad to say, the quagmire that was Vietnam has been revisited in Afghanistan and Iraq. Roddenberry died in 1991, and his ashes were launched into space in 1997. Spock is now dead both on and off the screen, and Kirk has lived long and prospered. At age 85, William Shatner drew a crowd at September's Salt Lake Comic Con. The latest iteration of the franchise, Star Trek Beyond, had a budget of $183 million. (An episode of the 1960s TV show cost about $200,000.) The millions paid for the dazzle of special effects, but they didn't buy a nuanced plot or engaging characters. That Kirk weaponized the Beastie Boys to defeat a swarm of attacking drones was just funny.

Roddenberry's 42-year-old son is the executive producer of the new Star Trek TV series CBS is launching in May. Despite the promise of "new crews, new villains, new heroes and new worlds," I expect it will boldly go where many have gone before, but I'll be watching nonetheless.