Note: This article was originally published as a freelance piece for Space.com. They have removed the article from their website, so I've reposted it here.
Star Trek. The two words represent something that occupies a large space in our popular culture, as well as a part of many of our imaginations. It's a safe bet to say not everyone is intimately familiar with Star Trek and its various spin-offs, but is there anyone with any knowledge of mainstream American entertainment who hasn't at least heard of it? I tend to doubt it.
Much is (and has been) made of the Star Trek universe, which, of course, has been around for more than 30 years. Countless articles have been written; countless opinions have been put forward, argued, defended, and reshaped; countless Internet sites and bulletin boards currently feature discussion and debate.
And, it would seem, countless incarnations of the Trekkian enterprise (no pun intended) will continue to be produced, in some shape or form. Where is this franchise (as many, myself included, tend to call it) going? For that matter, where has it already gone? And who am I to say?
Welcome to "The Deeper Side of Trek," a new biweekly SPACE.com column series about Star Trek culture. Every two weeks, this column will aim to scrutinize a topic relating to the Star Trek world and its satellites, ranging from the themes spanning the shows and films themselves, to topics of fandom which exist outside that fictional world.
In this premiere installment, I'd like to offer a quick overview of what the Franchise "is" — from one person's perspective, anyway.
History (the extremely abridged version)
As most reading this probably know, Star Trek began in 1966 as just another television show, created by Gene Roddenberry, which ran for three seasons (having been canceled and then barely renewed for its second and third seasons following famous letter-writing campaigns). At some point that is perhaps difficult to pinpoint, Trek took on a legendary pop-culture status that was not immediately evident in the ratings numbers of The Original Series. The fans' passion is perhaps worth noting, particularly in light of such things as the letter-writing campaigns and the Trek conventions that gained momentum over the years following TOS.
The film franchise launched in 1979, following years of behind-the-scenes shuffling that had Star Trek's destination bouncing around among the options of becoming a TV movie, returning to episodic television, and being released as a feature film. It finally became the feature Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The 1977 success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had more than a little to do with it.
A few years later, in 1982, along came the second feature film, The Wrath of Khan, whose success among the public provided the affirmation necessary for Trek such that it could (and would) continue right up until Present Day.
Looking at more recent, "second-generation" history, we see that the debut of The Next Generation in 1987 paved the way for Star Trek in a new arena — that of first-run syndicated TV — which was followed in 1993 by Deep Space Nine. And in 1995, with Voyager as the cornerstone, Paramount finally achieved its goal of launching its own network — something it had intended back when the revival project that would eventually become the first motion picture was still envisioned as a TV series.
My point? Well, Star Trek has logged a lot of hours on the screen, giving us plenty to discuss (and debate), and with plans for a fifth series already under way, it seems those discussions will continue ... while receiving fresh fuel for the fire. In future columns I'll address aspects covering all the series, but for now I present their collective sum as the primary entry for The Definition...
The source material, first and foremost
The Franchise, by its technical definition, encompasses everything about Star Trek that is a consumer product licensed through Paramount Pictures Corporation. This includes the TV shows, the movies, the novels, tons and tons of toys and other fan trinkets, and any other "official" piece of merchandise relating directly to Star Trek. There are of course the unofficial, unlicensed books and other merchandise, not to mention reams of fan-administered Web sites, which would not fall under the definition of the Franchise, but rather the fan-base end of the Trek universe. This fan base is also a very large and certainly no less important aspect of Trek culture.
However, for many of the purposes of my analysis, Star Trek mainly refers to the canon material — that is, the TV shows and the movies that are officially recognized as part of the fictional universe. There's a lot of Trek stuff out there, and plenty I'm surely not even familiar with. But these days, in my corner of the world, I tend to look at Trek mainly as television and films. I must confess that as a Star Trek fan and critic, most of my interest is limited to what I actually see on the screen, even though there is plenty more beyond it. These TV/film stories are what comprise the "source material," as we might call it. They're only part of the Franchise (which itself is only part of all of Star Trek culture), but they are ultimately the most important part in defining what makes Trek what it is.
In looking at what Star Trek is, it helps to keep things in perspective. Many people like to talk about Gene Roddenberry's "vision," asking one other: What exactly was/is it? Invariably, the answer always comes back to something along the lines of: "It shows a positive future where humanity has conquered its problems and now explores moral questions in the vastness of space." And that's great. And, on the bottom line, it's probably true. But it's also the simplified answer, because Star Trek is also television, having all the ups and downs that go with that fact.
The notion of Star Trek has evolved over 30 years, and it needs to continue evolving to remain fresh and interesting. In this column series, I will look at the progress the Trek missions have made, as well as the missteps along the way.
The fact of the matter is, Star Trek, in all its forms, has been written primarily by Hollywood writers plugging away week after week trying to survive the ratings war while trying to tell a good story in the meantime. They create what defines the direction of the Franchise. But once they create it, it no longer belongs to them, because it belongs to the audience. It's the audience's to embrace, to reject, to make the connections with what came before, and what might come after. It filters into the public and becomes our Star Trek to digest, scrutinize, praise, lambaste.
The bottom line: It's your franchise. You decide. I'm here merely as an observer. That, and for sideline commentary.
Next: The Movies