Commentary

TV Columnist's Desperate Plea: Will Somebody Please Explain 'Star Trek's' Popularity?

I never got it when it started, I never got it throughout the 1980s when they made the first series of “Star Trek” movies (starting in 1979), I never got it when they made the spinoff shows, and I don’t get it now.

Will somebody please tell me: What exactly is the appeal of “Star Trek”?

Except for Mr. Spock comically arching an eyebrow and declaring of unexplained phenomena that they were “highly illogical,” I never found any of the other characters on the show to be the least bit interesting, starting with William Shatner as Capt. Kirk.

I must have been a precocious kid (one destined to become a TV critic, I suppose), but even back in the 1960s, I was turned off by Shatner’s histrionics, even if I didn’t quite know how to articulate what they were. As a young child, I was unfamiliar with phrases such as “chewing the scenery” or the description of a performer as "a ham actor." I would learn all that later.

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Cut to the present day and we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary next month of the premiere of the original “Star Trek” (star date Sept. 8, 1966) and the popularity of this franchise seems stronger than ever.

This summer, hardly a day goes by when some “Star Trek”-related news announcement doesn’t suddenly appear in my email inbox. This Sunday (Aug. 14), for example, there’s a two-hour special on “Star Trek’s” 50th anniversary on the History Channel. Next month, there’s another special on Smithsonian Channel, owned in part by CBS.

This summer saw the release of “Star Trek: Beyond,” the 13th theatrical feature film. And CBS is making a new “Star Trek” series called “Star Trek: Discovery” that will be available exclusively (except for the first episode) on its pay-streaming service, CBS All Access, starting in January. Discovery is the name of the new starship that will be featured on the show. If you haven’t yet heard about this new “Star Trek” show, then you need to get out from beneath that rock you’ve been living under.

In response to all of it, I have to ask: Why? Feel free to leave an explanation at the bottom of this blog post.

It’s not that I don’t “get” space-travel science fiction. The original series was about exploring “strange new worlds,” as the famous introduction went. That’s easy enough to understand.

However, every time I ever watched “Star Trek” or any of its TV progeny such as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or “Star Trek: Voyager,” I never seemed to see anything more imaginative than a bunch of cheesy aliens with bumpy foreheads menacing the “Star Trek” space travelers. Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I freely admit right here and now that I have no imagination whatsoever.

“Star Trek” is often credited with inspiring the inventors of the future. More than one “Star Trek” special has included the story of one of the inventors of the mobile phone, for example, who says he based the idea on the communication devices the crew members of the Enterprise used to talk to each other on the original 1960s series.

Smithsonian’s “Star Trek” special ballyhoos this same theme. “Two-hour special to take in-depth look at far reaching influence that original ‘Star Trek’ series has had on science and technology,” a subhead on the Smithsonian press release informs us.

Really? Which episode did that? “The Trouble With Tribbles”?

Someone who possesses no imagination and a whole lot o’ skepticism (that would be me) finds it pretty easy to poke holes in the “Star Trek” mystique. To me, the original series was about on par with a dozen other fanciful but run-of-the-mill series churned out by the Hollywood TV sausage factory of the 1960s. There were some exceptions. “Get Smart” was a standout among the decade’s comedy shows. And in terms of style and panache, “Mission: Impossible” was light years ahead of “Star Trek.” (“Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible” were both Desilu productions.)

And yet here we are. It’s 2016 and we’re awash in “Star Trek” projects all aimed at an audience of receptive nerds, er, fans. What’s the explanation for the longevity of this brand of aged cheese? I plan to pose this question to the next bumpy-headed alien I run into.

11 comments about "TV Columnist's Desperate Plea: Will Somebody Please Explain 'Star Trek's' Popularity?".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, August 9, 2016 at 12:32 p.m.

    Adam, in its time the original "Star Trek" series was a far more adult and, technically superior sci-fi series and its regular cast of characters blended very well together, much like the original "Gunsmoke" cast. The series was heads and shoulders above other sci-fi concoctions being turned out by the Hollywood "sausage factories", but ran afoul of the anti-war sentiment and budgetary constraints. This led to it using far too many old movie lot settings and costumes as the series took us back to ancient Rome or Greece or recreated Adolph Hitler in space persecuting a band of space Jews---all humanoids, of course. As the series progressed it began to preach its anti-war sentiments a bit too much and eventually its ratings suffered. Still, when NBC planned to cancell "Star Trek" its fans staged such a protest, sending in thousands of letters, that the network relented and gave the producers one last chance. They continued along the path they had set upon and the ratings nosedived, causing a speedy cancellation. Afterwards, "Star TreK' was syndicated on many independent TV stations where it proved a huge success and garnered more viewers in reruns than its original airings on NBC. This led to a growing cultish fan club, which is why the latter day versions of the series, as well as many of the theatrical movies and, I expect, the impending CBS SVOD series,also did quite well

    By the way, I disagree with your characterization of Shatner as a "scenery chewer" and I believe that the idealistic Dr. McCoy as well as the other characters, were nearly perfect compliments and much needed role models for viewers in the tension filled context of the late 1960s---the country being torn apart by anti-war and civil rights upheavals and counter reactions by conservatives.

  2. Jonathan Hutter from EMHS (Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems), August 9, 2016 at 12:58 p.m.

    I could delve into the psychological underpinnnigs of any number of characters, from the top to the bottom (except for the poor, doomed red shirts other than Ensign Garrovick), but unless you identify with any of them, you'll probably continue to see it as you do. Spock I suspect was popular not because of those comical asides, but for many fans of science fiction, they could identify with being the outsider, whether on a starship crew or on his own planet.

    If you don't get it Adam, I suspect you may be a Klingon spy.

  3. Patty Ardis from Ardis Media, LLC, August 9, 2016 at 1:29 p.m.

    I agree with both Ed and Jonathan! Let's celebrate the legacy of Star Trek warts and all. Yes the sets and costumes were hokey at times but the series did the best it could with the budget at hand. Ironically, this allowed the actors to be showcased even more so without being upstaged by special effects. So please don't fault Mr. Shatner as a scene chewer. In fact, one of the biggest things about Star Trek was the enduring friendship between Spock and Kirk and the Frenemy-ship between Spock and Dr. McCoy. I am looking forward to the CBS SVOD series. As many Trek fans continue to say and as Mr. Spock always said, "Live Long and Prosper"

  4. Steven Cherry from TTI/Vanguard, August 9, 2016 at 1:36 p.m.

    Ditto on all counts, but my biggest objection is the relative lack of technology. By the way, the first cordless phone was in 1965 and the first mobile phone call was made in 1973; anyone who credits a 1966 TV show with the idea of the cellphone is ignoring history. Are we really to believe that the technology hasn't improved in 400 years except to work in outer space?

    In the current movie, there's a big deal about using the transponder. Is there really any reason a transponding can only be initiated on the ship? And why can't a double-transponding sequence be programmed, so that Kirk can go from point A to point B, via the ship, but instantly? 

    If you think about the developments in artificial intelligence required for a "universal translator," they should show up in a million different other ways. It's very hard to picture the future more than a few years out, but Star Trek didn't even make an honest effort. Today it seems obvious that AI, biotechnology, and materials science are going rewrite the world over the course of the next 50 years, but unfortunately the Star Trek franchise is locked into the singularly unimaginative premises of the original series.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, August 9, 2016 at 7:34 p.m.

    Star Trek pushed an emotional and creative button many try, few succeed. Revel in it. It took a sticky time into a time where everything moved and mostly moved at warp speed.

  6. Chuck Lantz from 2007ac.com, 2017ac.com network, August 9, 2016 at 7:58 p.m.

    Explain the popularity of Star Trek?  Hmmm, that's a tough one.  Let's review, shall we?

    A band of varied individuals, with various talents, on a journey through strange territory, frought with unexpected dangers that tests their skills.  Does that sound about right?

    It should also sound very familiar, since it's essentially the synopsis of almost every successful adventure story since Homer's time.  Replace the Enterprise with conestogas, and you've got Wagon Train; ... or with a sailing ship and you've got Treasure Island, Moby Dick, and dozens of others. And so on.  

    Star Trek simply follows a very basic formula that's been used for a very long time, some better than others, depending on the scripts and the players. Some enjoy it, and some don't.

    I strongly suspect that your positive mention of Get Smart is a clue, since the premise of that show is totally the opposite of the Star Trek genre.  To those who enjoy the Star Trek formula, the Get Smart one-joke-told-often formula leaves them cold. 

    Imagination involves curiosity, and Star Trek tapped-into both in small ways.  To many young minds, even those in old bodies, discovering what's around the next corner can be very interesting.  To others; ... well, let's just say they'd rather march down the hill after the battle and shoot the wounded. (That was a Firesign Theater-esque moment) 


  7. Scott Hamula from Ithaca College, August 10, 2016 at 7:25 a.m.

    Choosing this topic and headline is more like a desperate plea for comments, likes, and shares...Click bait.

  8. pj bednarski from MediaPost.com, August 10, 2016 at 9:43 a.m.

    I'm with you, Adam. Insufferable, over-rated, pretentious. I was happy Shatner went where no man had ever gone before, but then he came back.

  9. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, August 10, 2016 at 9:57 a.m.

    Reading some of these posts it sounds to me as if a lot of those on the anti- "Star Trek" side don't like Shatner and, probably, aren't sci-fi enthusiasts, either. Regarding Shatner, as he aged he began doing a large number of commercials and talk shows that somewhat tarnished his image and, in some cases made him seem pompous and/or buffoonish. OK. But way back in 1966, he appeared as a young, somewhat idealistic, starship commander aided by a well sorted crew who engaged in some interesting outer space adventures, often with a high moral tone to them. That's when the "cult" began to develop---not now.

  10. Dan Greenberg from Impossible Software, GmbH, August 13, 2016 at 6:26 p.m.

    I think the original series was popular for a simple reason: writing.  The sets and effects? Cheap and minimal.  The acting?  Variable.  The characters... well... they meshed well and were a whole lot more integrated than most series of tody.  But the writing?

    OK -- some episodes are awful.  But there are many that rise to the level of "teleplay"... theater on the TV.  They have a theme, a message.  Like all Sci Fi, the truly great comes from truly great writing.  Shows like The Twilight Zone also thrived on the writing.  As did Get Smart in a different genre.  These shows stand out because of this simple element.

    Star Wars is the contrast - it's a relatively predictable shoot-'em-up with great effects.  Ultimately that appeals to a lot of people.  And when the directors get too enamored of the effects and forget the writing (Episode 1 Jar Jar Binks anyone?), it's quite the disaster.

    But as Star Trek moves in the direction of Star Wars... as evidenced in the current movie... a lot is lost.  In fact, the thematic inconsistencies in the latest movie - the result of weak writing - were very noticeable.  As I said, though, a lot of the original series was badly written also.  Thus, there's hope for recovery.

  11. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, August 14, 2016 at 3 p.m.

    Dan, I agree with you about the quality of the writing on "Star Trek", though some of the scripts were real howlers. However, the sets, uniforms and futuristic trappings, which now seem like something you'd see on a kid's show, were very unusual for the period and had a major impact. The TV viewer of 1966 had not seen anything like this in contemporary sci-fi entries like the low budget, CBS anotholoy series, "The Twilight Zone" or ABC's "daring" sci-fi epic---also an anthology---"The Outer Limits". Indeed, the fact that this was a continuing series, with the same core cast, mission and basic setting was part of the mystique. After a while, viewers who were succeptible, bonded with the whole concept and remained faithful----despite the show's pontificating and cost saving expedients.

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