U.S. Science Fiction

With the premiere of Star Trek on NBC in September 1966, few could have imagined that this ambitious yet often uneven science-fiction series would go on to become one of the most actively celebrated and financially lucrative narrative franchises in television history. Although the original series enjoyed only a modest run of three season and 79 episodes, the story world created by that series eventually led to a library of popular novelizations and comic books, a cycle of motion-pictures, an international fan community, and a number of spin-off series that made the Star Trek universe a bedrock property for Paramount Studios in the 1980s and 1990s.

Star Trek followed the adventures of the U.S.S. Enterprise, a flagship in a 23rd-Century interplanetary alliance known as "the Federation." The ship's five year mission was "to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before," a mandate that series creator and philosophical wellspring Gene Roddenberry described as "Wagon Train in space." Each episode brought the crew of the Enterprise in contact with new alien races or baffling wonders of the universe. When not exploring the galaxy, the crew of the Enterprise often scrapped with the two main threats to the Federation's benevolent democratization of space, the Hun-like Klingons and the more cerebral yet equally menacing Romulans.

The program's main protagonists, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelly) remain three of the most familiar (and most parodied) characters in television memory. As commander of the Enterprise, the hyper-masculine Kirk engaged in equal amounts of fisticuffs and intergalactic romance, and was known for his nerves of steel in negotiating the difficulties and dangers presented by the ship's mission. McCoy was the ship's cantankerous chief medical officer who, when not saving patients, gave the other two leads frequent personal and professional advice. Perhaps most complex and popular of the characters was Spock. Half-human and half-Vulcan, Spock struggled to maintain the absolute emotional control demanded by his Vulcan heritage, and yet occasionally fell prey to the foibles of a more human existence. In addition to the three leads, Star Trek featured a stable of secondary characters who also became central to the show's identity. These included the ship's chief engineer, Scotty (James Doohan), and an ethnically diverse supporting cast featuring Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), Chekov (Walter Koening), Sulu (George Takei), Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), and Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett).

Scripts for the original series varied greatly in quality, ranging from the literate time-travel tragedy of Harlan Ellison's "City on the Edge of Forever" and the Sophoclean conflict of Theodore Sturgeon's "Amok Time," to less inspired stock adventure plots, such as Kirk's battle to the death with a giant lizard creature in "Arena." With varying degree of success, many episodes addressed the social and political climate of late-sixties America, including the Vietnam allegory, "A Private Little War," a rather heavy-handed treatment of racism in "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," an even an encounter with space hippies in "The Way to Eden."

NBC threatened to cancel Star Trek after its second season, but persuaded in some degree by a large letter-writing campaign by fans to save the show, the network picked up the series for a third and final year. Canceled in 1969, Star Trek went on to a new life in syndication where it found an even larger audience and quickly became a major phenomenon within popular culture. Beginning with a network of memorabilia collectors, fans of the show became increasingly organized, gathering at Star Trek conventions to trade merchandise, meet stars from the show, and watch old episodes. Such fans came to be known as "trekkies," and were noted (and often ridiculed) for their extreme devotion to the show and their encyclopedic knowledge of every episode. Through this explosion of interest, many elements of the Star Trek universe made their way into the larger lexicon of popular culture, including the oft heard line, "Beam me up, Scotty" (a reference to the ship's teleportation device), as well as Spock's signature commentary on the "illogic" of human culture. Along with Spock's distinctively pointed ears, other aspects of Vulcan culture also became widely popularized as television lore, including the Vulcan "mind-meld" and the Vulcan salute, "live long and prosper."

As "trekkie" culture continued to grow around the show during the seventies, a central topic of conversation among fans concerned rumors that the series might one day return to the airwaves. There was talk that the series might return with the original cast, with a new cast, or in a new sequel format. Such rumors were often fueled by a general sense among fans that the show had been unjustly canceled in the first place, and thus deserved a second run. Initially, Paramount did not seem convinced of the commercial potential of resurrecting the story world in any form, but by the late seventies, the studio announced that a motion picture version of the series featuring the original cast was under development. Star Trek: The Motion Picture premiered in 1979, and though it was a very clumsy translation of the series into the language of big-budget, big-screen science-fiction, it proved to be such a hit that Paramount developed a chain of sequels, including Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982), Star Trek III: The Search of Spock (1984), and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).

By the mid-1980s, the Star Trek mythos had proven so commercially viable that Paramount announced plans for a new Star Trek series for television. Once again supervised by Roddenberry, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in first-run syndication in 1987 and went on to become one of the highest rated syndicated shows in history. Set in the 24th century, this series followed the adventures of a new crew on a new Enterprise (earlier versions of the ship having been destroyed in the movie series). The series was extremely successful at establishing a new story world that still maintained a continuity with the premise, spirit, and history of the original series. On the new Enterprise, the command functions were divided between a more cultured Captain, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), and his younger, more headstrong "number one," Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes). Spock's character functions were distributed across a number of new crew members, including ship's counselor and Betazoid telepath, Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), the highly advanced android, Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), who provided the show with "logical" commentary as ironic counter-point to the peculiarities of human culture, and finally, Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn), a Klingon raised by a human family who struggled to reconcile his warrior heritage with the demands of the Federation. Other important characters included Lt. Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), the ship's blind engineer whose "vision" was processed by a high-tech visor, Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), the ship's medical officer and implicit romantic foil for Picard, and Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton), the doctor's precocious son.

Running for 178 episodes, Star Trek: The Next Generation was able to develop its characters and storylines in much more detail than the original series. As with many other hour-long dramas its era, the series abandoned a wholly episodic format in favor of more serialized narratives that better showcased the expanded ensemble cast. Continuing over the run of the series were recurring encounters with Q, a seemingly omnipotent yet extremely petulant entity, the Borg, a menacing race of mechanized beings, and Lars, Data's "evil" android brother. Other continuing stories included intrigue and civil war in the Klingon empire, Data's ongoing quest to become more fully human, and often volatile political difficulties with the Romulans. This change in the narrative structure of the series from wholly episodic to a more serialized form can be attributed in some part to the activities of the original series' enormous fan following. A central part of fan culture in the 1970s and 1980s involved fans writing their own Star Trek based stories, often filling in blanks left by the original series and elaborating incidents only briefly mentioned in a given episode. Star Trek: The Next Generation greatly expanded the potential for such creative elaboration by presenting a more complex storyworld, one that actively encouraged the audience to think of the series as a foundation for imagining a larger textual universe.


Star Trek

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Despite the show's continuing success, Paramount canceled Star Trek: The Next Generation after seven seasons to turn the series into a film property and make room for new television spin-offs, thus beginning a careful orchestration of the studio's Star Trek interests in both film and television. The cast of the original series returned to the theater for Star Treks 5 and 6, leading finally to Star Trek: Generations, in which the original cast turned over the cinematic baton to the crew of Next Generation. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine premiered in January of 1993 as the eventual replacement for Next Generation on television. In contrast to the usually optimistic and highly mobile structure of the first two series, Deep Space Nine was a much more claustrophobic reading of the Star Trek universe. Set aboard an aging space-station in orbit around a recently liberated planet, Bajor, the series generated its storylines from the aftermath of the war over Bajor and from a nearby "wormhole" that brought diverse travelers to the station from across the galaxy.

Hoping to compete with Fox and Warner Brothers in creating new broadcast networks, Paramount developed a fourth Star Trek series as the anchor for their United Paramount Network. Star Trek: Voyager inaugurated UPN in January 1995, serving as he network's first broadcast. Responding perhaps to the stagebound qualities and tepid reception of Deep Space Nine, Voyager opted for a premise that maximized the crew's ability to travel and encounter new adventures. Stranded in a distant part of the galaxy after a freak plasma storm, the U.S.S. Voyager finds itself seventy-five years away from earth and faced with the arduous mission of returning home.

Both Deep Space Nine and Voyager attracted the core fans of Star Trek, as expected, but neither series was as popular with the public at large as the programs they were designed to replace. Despite this, at century's end, there would seem to be every indication that the world of Star Trek will survive into the new millennium.

-Jeffrey Sconce


Captain James T. Kirk ...........................William Shatner
Mr. Spock.............................................. Leonard Nimoy
Dr. Leonard McCoy ...............................DeForest Kelley
Yeoman Janice Rand (1966-1967)..... Grace Lee Whitney
Sulu .........................................................George Takei
Uhura................................................... Nichelle Nichols
Engineer Montgomery Scott..................... James Doohan
Nurse Christine Chapel............................... Majel Barrett
Ensign Pavel Chekov (1967-1969)............. Walter Koenig

PRODUCERS Gene Roddenberry, John Meredyth Lucas, Gene L. Coon, Fred Freiberger


September 1966-August 1967             Thursday 8:30-9:30
September 1967-August 1968                 Friday 8:30-9:30
September 1968-April 1969                 Friday 10:00-11:00
June 1969-September 1969                 Tuesday 7:30-8:30


Alexander, David, and Ray Bradbury. Star Trek Creator: The Authorized Biography of Gene Roddenberry. New York: Roc, 1994.

Asherman, Allan. The Star Trek Compendium. New York: Pocket, 1989.

Dillard, J. M., and Susan Sackett. Star Trek, Where No One Has Gone Before: A History in Pictures. New York: Pocket, 1994.

Gerrold, David. The World of Star Trek. New York, Ballantine, 1974.

Gibberman, Susan R. Star Trek: An Annotated Guide to Resources On The Development, The Phenomenon, The People, The Television Series, The Films, The Novels, and The Recordings. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1991.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Nemecek, Larry. The Star Trek: The Next Generation Companion. New York: Pocket, 1992.

Okuda, Michael, Denise Okuda, Debbie Mirek, and Doug Drexler. The Star Trek Encyclopedia: A Reference Guide to The Future. New York: Pocket, 1994.

Shatner, William, with Chris Kreski. Star Trek Memories. New York: Harper Collins, 1993.

Trimble, Bjo. The Star Trek Concordance. New York: Ballantine, 1976.

Tulloch, John, and Jenkins, Henry. Science Fiction Audiences: Watching Doctor Who and Star Trek. London; New York: Routledge, 1995.

Van Hise, James, and Hal Schuster. Trek, The Unauthorized Story Of The Movies. Las Vegas, Nevada: Pioneer Books, 1995.

Whitfield, Stephen E., and Gene Roddenberry. The Making Of Star Trek. New York, Ballantine, 1968.


See also Roddenberry, Gene; Science-fiction Programs