50 years ago today, Star Trek hit the airwaves for the very first time. There’s a galaxy of articles dissecting its impact on culture, on technology, on exploration; thousands of lists of best episodes, memorable moments, and defining characters. That’s all good.
But for a mass-market franchise that continues to earn huge profits, Star Trek was (and remains) a highly personal enterprise for many. (See what I did there? Of course you did.) Over five decades, Star Trek has moved from fame and praise, to obscurity and scorn, and back again. I wouldn’t presume to debate all those who are looking at it from wide perspectives.
So instead, this is a list of how the show has impacted me, how it has intersected and affected my life for most of my time on Earth. These aren’t the top 50 moments from episodes or movies - these are 50 different memories I've had, of a show that’s much more than a show. Like a good cup of tranya, I hope you relish it as much as I.
1. Sunday mornings in Canada, in the 1970’s. With only three channels, Canadian TV options were limited to religious broadcasts, political shows, or Star Trek. CBC showed the original series every Sunday at 10 AM. We’d rush from 9 AM church to my grandparents’ apartment, say a perfunctory hello, then settle in to watch Star Trek. At age four, I’d cry if I missed the opening credits, since the most important thing for me was seeing the Enterprise fly across the screen. At that age, the best episodes were the ones with a lot of exterior shots of the ship; I didn’t care much for the other parts. But soon, I’d grow to love Kirk and Spock as much as I did the ship.
2. Grade Two. I bring a Star Trek photonovel to school, and I’m mocked for liking “that stupid show”. I’m told it’s silly, ridiculous, and childish. That’s enough fodder to tease me mercilessly for the remainder of the year. Now we know: trolls predated the internet by at least 20 years.
3. “Rainy Day Schedule” at school kicks in when it’s too miserable to go outside. Recess means we head to the gym, and sometimes watch a movie. Sound is always bad, the projector often breaks, and the school only has 3 short movies to choose from. We know most of them by heart. But one day, we get a Star Trek episode instead. A teacher knows someone at the local CBC station, and snagged the reel before that weekend’s airing of the show. (We’re talking 16 mm prints here – real old school.) Unfortunately, the episode is “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, which is not a crowd pleaser. They actually turned it off after 20 minutes as no one but me was listening. A great moment to spread the gospel of Trek, but ruined by a dud.
4. Hunting for Star Trek books at the used book store. On Saturday mornings (and on my way to school at lunch time, if I could spare the time) I’d hunt for Trek books, from novels to comics to photonovels. Eventually I had almost all of the novels ever published. Forget hunting Pokemon; finding long-lost Trek books was a huge natural high.
5. One of those books was “The Making of Star Trek,” by Stephen E Whitfield. At first I was disappointed it wasn’t a ‘story’ book. I realized a year afterwards what a treasure it was. As the jacket said, it was “The Book On How to Write for TV! The only book of its kind! The complete history of a top TV series - how a television show is conceived, written, sold and produced.” I was enthralled. At 9 years old, I hadn’t considered that TV shows were things people actually wrote, and directed, and designed. From that moment on, my ‘dream job’ was to write a TV show.
6. It might not be fair to say that Star Trek got me reading as a child, but it didn’t hurt. I was reading Star Trek novels (and other books) by age eight. Reading Trek brought me to other great science fiction authors: Arthur C Clarke, Heinlein, and especially Asimov. Reading all the time gave me a leg up at school; reading helped me to write; writing would later help me land decent jobs.
7. Grade Two; seven years old. (Remember, this is the 1970’s – there are no movies, no Next Generation, no Enterprises hanging in movie theatres. Fandom is a lonely exercise.) Halloween. I decide to be Spock, and make a homemade costume. (There’s also no merchandising around to buy.) I cut out the Enterprise insignia, tape it to a blue pyjamas shirt, and make paper cones for my ears. I use an old camera from my father as a tricorder. On our two block excursion, exactly one person properly identified me. She excited called to her husband from the door, “Look, dear! It’s Mister Spock! Come see!” From inside the house, a voice responded, “I’m busy. Does he look good?” The woman looked me up and down. “He’s… well, he has the right coloured shirt.” From inside – “Pass!” She gives me an extra candy and ushers me away.
8. As a kid, imaginary Star Trek play always seems close at hand. A bike becomes a shuttlecraft; the garage where it’s kept is a hangar deck. Beaming down to a planet consists of standing still, humming, and rubbing your chest rapidly, as if the transporter effect is consuming you. And usually, it’s your job to fight the bad guys – which works well if you’re playing Star Wars, but is kinda missing the point of most Star Trek episodes. That’s okay, you’ll grow into it.
9. For a kid, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not. Do we have ships like the Enterprise? No. Have we gone to space? Sure. The Moon? Yes. Other planets? Not yet. Skylab is in the news, we see reports of building the space shuttle program, so I assume that rocket ships and travelling to space have been around forever. I’m shocked to learn from my dad that the first people who walked on the moon did so only 2 and a half years before I was born. This is mind-blowing to me, and sets me off on a lifelong interest in real space travel and technology.
10. 8 years old, finding out that Star Trek is coming back as a movie when my father shows me the ad in the newspaper. To say I was excited to see “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” would be an understatement. I remember loving the Klingon ships (but being confused why the Klingons looked so different); liking the Enterprise flyby sequence (but wondering why the ship looked so different); and enjoying hearing Dr. McCoy (but wondering why his beard made him look so different). When the Enterprise when to warp and disappeared from the screen, the silence in the theater was broken by my little brother Jeff, who asked loudly: "Why did the ship blow up?"
11. Seeing The Animated Series for the first time. My brother called me up from the basement, to see “Star Trek… as a cartoon!” I didn’t believe him. On two different occasions, he claimed to see an animated version of the Enterprise, but I thought he was very wrong or very much pulling my leg. I eventually saw the last few minutes of an episode, but even then I didn’t believe it was true Star Trek. Only when I saw an episode from the beginning did I believe it… and to be fair, it still seems like a bit of a joke.
12. At ten years old, my father brought me to my first “convention.” It was really just a show-and-tell in a hotel lobby, by a science fiction club. The Trek component was just a few tables of books and models. I did see a book I didn’t have, and asked the lady behind the table how much it was. She looked at me as if I had spat on her – “These aren’t for sale!” she proclaimed. “This is my collection!” “Then… why bother?” I almost asked.
13. The Day the Enterprise flew over my house. In June 1983, having retired as a test orbiter, NASA’s Space Shuttle Enterprise went on a world tour, bolted to the back of a modified 747. My dad took us to see it at the airport, but it did a flyby over the city before it landed. I have a picture of it, taken from my front porch, flying over the neighborhood, so low you could read its name on the hull. The noise brought everyone on the street out to see it. It was magnificent.
14. Our first computer is a Commodore VIC-20. Captain Kirk himself appears in the magazine ads. There’s no Star Trek game (that would wait until the Commodore 64), so I make one myself. It’s my science fair project for the year. It takes 20 minutes to load up, copying data from an audio tape (yes – this predates even disc drives). It’s not a great game – the whole computer has 3.5 K of RAM, let’s not forget – but it gives me a passion for programming. I win a few science fairs if only because the judges don’t really understand what I’m doing.
15. A local TV station in Kingston, CKWS, hosts a Star Trek marathon in honour of the show’s 20th anniversary, in September 1986. I record the episodes, thinking this is a good way to build up a video library – but the reception is so bad that most of them are unwatchably snowy.
16. I entered a contest for an advanced screening of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home”, and won. I remember my father driving me to the newspaper building on Baxter Road to claim my ticket. It was a glossy cardboard invitation, with the movie’s logo in shiny blue ink. I felt like a celebrity going to see the show – and what a show it was. People in costumes, people with makeup, all together to see the film a good week before everyone else. And what a film – in that age of pre-Internet, no spoilers, I had no idea what would happen. What a pleasant surprise to have a film so funny, so well written, and so respectful of the characters – as everyone around me at school would testify, I sang the praises of this film for a long, long time. For most of my teenage years, this was my favourite film of all time.
17. December 1986. Riding high from The Voyage Home, William Shatner hosts SNL and bags the highest ratings of the season. He performs the controversial but instantly classic “Get a Life!” sketch. “You people turned something I did as a lark for a few years,” he tells a convention, “into a colossal waste of time! It’s just a TV show, people!” Dana Carvey, as a fan in uniform whose faith is being shattered, asks, “Are you saying we should concentrate more on the movies?” No, that’s not what he’s saying at all. It’s hilarious, but shocking in its honesty.
18. Summer 1987. A press conference announces that Star Trek is returning to the airwaves, in the form of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. This makes the summer an exquisite wait until the show airs. As it’s syndicated, it comes to us a month later than anywhere else – November. I tape the premiere episode “Encounter at Farpoint” and watch it about 15 times the first week. Even the “cool kids” in high school give it high marks. Consensus is that the best character is Tasha Yar – the one person who wouldn’t last the first season.
19. Christmas 1987. We’ve had a wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with my grandparents and extended family, in their small town 45 minutes away. I’m fully satisfied with my Christmas loot. But before my brother and I trudge off to bed, we get “the big gifts” from my folks, which I wasn’t expecting in the slightest. I’m falling asleep as my father heads to the outdoor storage area to get the bounty; thinking its additional stocking stuffers, I’m tempted to tell him to wait until morning. He comes back with a boxful of gifts, almost frozen from the cold. I rip open a long rectangular box – it’s a Casio electronic keyboard, exactly what I wanted, more than I ever expected. The next gift looks the size of a book – but it’s a VHS copy of “The Voyage Home”. Remember, this is before movies were sold for home use; the only way to see a movie was to rent it. Home use videos could cost upwards of $100. My father had spoken with the owner of a video store, and bought the VHS from him. This was a “movie quality” version, not the crappy versions we’d tape off of TV. As soon as the tape warmed up to room temperature we played it, intending to just see a few minutes, but we end up watching the whole movie. I must have watched it 15 times over the next week, and each viewing seemed better than the last. Best of all, the end credits were in ‘widescreen’ format, so the last glorious shot of the Enterprise going to warp was letterboxed, something normally reserved for Laser Disc films. And, being in stereo, it sounded amazing when I hooked up the VHS player to my audio system. Ahh… glorious!
20. I’m taping episodes of The Next Generation as they air. Inevitably I watch each one at least one more time, then I’ll share the better episodes with friends when we get together. I had a handful of people who would watch the shows with me. As good as the shows are on their own, they’re even more fun to share.
21. George Takei comes to town for a convention. It’s a fun time, and I’m waiting patiently in line for an autograph with the original Mr. Sulu. Pictures are forbidden, in an effort to keep the line moving. (Nowadays, they just charge you for the picture instead.) I hear him mention how thirsty he is, just before he signs my picture. I then sprint to the hotel cafeteria to buy him a drink. Knowing he’s a healthy guy, I get him an orange juice instead of a soft drink. The $4 price tag nearly bankrupts me, but I brought it back to him. He’s very grateful, and offers this time to pose for a picture. “Oh, and John… thanks for the drink”, he says, in that unmistakable voice. Best 4 bucks I had ever spent.
22. Fall 1988. A friend’s grandfather is a war vet, and his squadron is having a memorial dedicated to their memory. Amongst his brethren is Captain James Montgomery Doohan, a fighter pilot whose finger was cut off by shrapnel on D Day. I’m invited down for the ceremony. Sure enough, walking alongside my friend’s grandfather is a familiar figure, dressed in a dark blue suit. It’s Scotty, right in front of me. I walk with him back to his hotel, amazed to realize that I’m taller than he is. I’m also surprised (though I shouldn’t be) to hear him speak without an accent. I’m calm, cool, and don’t go batty in my 15 minutes with him – until my knees go weak back in the car. I walked with Scotty, dammit!
23. On a high after meeting Mr. Doohan, I felt unstoppable. Invincible. I wanted to take that energy and do something useful. I decided to write a letter to the editor. It was my first published writing credit, printed in the Ottawa Citizen. (This was when “publishing” meant “print”, and the national capital’s newspaper seemed a stretch goal for a 16 year old.) My letter was short, but I knew as I typed it that it would get published:
“Fact: On October 22nd, actor James Doohan was in Ottawa. Mr. Doohan is best known for playing Star Trek’s Scotty, the engineer often called “the miracle worker”.
Fact: on the same day, the Ottawa Rough Riders earned their second win of the season over Calgary, a win many people called “a miracle”. I do not suggest any connection between these events; I let the facts speak for themselves.”
Damn, it felt good to see my name in print.
24. Reading a good Star Trek novel. Classics like “Spock’s World” or “Prime Directive”, “The Entropy Effect”, and “Crisis on Centaurus” – life was good if I could get in an hour or two of reading on a Saturday morning.
25. June 1990. The third season finale of “The Next Generation” airs, the cliffhanger “Best of Both Worlds”. Watching it as I’m prepping for my prom, I’m blown away. That was a long summer, waiting to see what’ll happen. I’m surprised the tape of that first episode didn’t wear out, I watched it so much.
26. I get a disc of Star Trek fonts for my computer. For the next ten years, any signs or posters I make inevitably have a Trek visual influence. At the restaurant where I work, I see how blatant I can get away with adding Trek fonts to the signs and price lists I make.
27. Summer 1992. I’m gearing up to go to military college; I’ll be away from home for 4 years. That’ll mean an enforced break from Trek. I watch The Next Generation cliffhanger for the year, “Time’s Arrow”, knowing that I won’t be around to see the conclusion. (That sounds fatalistic – let’s say “I won’t see the conclusion until my next visit home, likely at Thanksgiving.”) The thought of missing the premiere adds to the sadness of my upcoming departure. (That was a journey that ended differently, and my military career didn’t happen.)
28. October 24, 1991. My grandfather had passed away a month earlier. My father came into my room from watching the news. “Gene Roddenberry died,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He delivers the news as gently as if I’ve lost another member of my family.
29. By the time Deep Space Nine airs in 1993, novels are coming out twice a month. It’s a hard decision, but I don’t have the finances or the shelf space (or the time) to continue buying everything that comes out. Reluctantly, I give up the title of “owning every Star Trek novel, ever.” Life somehow goes on.
30. The World Wide Web is just over 20 years old, but the Internet is much older than that. I used to frequent Usegroups – chatrooms – to talk with fans, read and write reviews, and trade Star Trek pictures. It would take hours to download a photo over dial-up. It would help overcome any fear of technology, and gave me a leg up on future job options.
31. I had been writing down episode titles for The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine since they premiered. When Star Trek: Voyager premiered, I realized that my poor little brain could no longer instantly recognize more than 400 episodes by their titles alone, so I started to write down synopses and commentaries of the episodes. The weekly writing exercises were useful practice.
32. 1995. I’ve decided to take the plunge. In a move that felt inevitable from the moment I first read “The Making of Star Trek”, I register for a two-year college program in TV Broadcasting. During that time I’ll meet people who share my love of Trek, and others who will tolerate it; someone who would imitate little Balok’s laugh in stressful situations; someone who’ll take a TNG phrase literally, and a future colleague who’ll work with me on a show that’s as close as I’ll come to working on Trek without actually working on Trek.
33. After college, I drive to California for a month-long trip. I try to squeeze in as many Trek-related stops as I can, but I miss the Vasquez Rocks, the Monterey aquarium where George and Gracie played, and the street where Kirk almost got clobbered by a cab. I do get to see the Enterprise-D bridge at an LA TV museum – but somehow, it’s not as impressive as the Cheers bar.
34. My first big job in TV is… working on a show about jazz. But that led directly to “LifeSpace”, a show about life in space. It would air on the Discovery Channel, in Canada and the US and another 20 countries. So not only was I working in TV – a dream that came directly from reading that “Making of Star Trek” book – but I was working on a show about space travel and exploration, which I had been reading about all my life, also due to Star Trek. And our first show idea: looking at the company launching human remains into space, including those of Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry. Circles within circles within circles.
35. The day Majel Barrett Roddenberry called me. We were setting up an interview with her in L.A., for our Discovery Channel show, and she had to rearrange the details as she had to pick up her son at the airport. I worked with her to find a new time for the interview, all the while thinking, “I’m talking to the voice of the Enterprise computer! This is Nurse Christine Freakin’ Chapel, this is Lwaxana Troi!” No, I did not freak out…. but neither did I rush the phone call, either. (And she was lovely to our crew.)
36. As a producer and director for the show, I did a segment on a university research project working on a prototype holodeck, and other Trek-inspired segmenets. I ended up directing a shoot in Las Vegas, for the opening of a space museum. I booked us into “Star Trek: The Experience”, which was a live show where you’re beamed up to the Enterprise and go on a simulator ride. That was… unique. I ended up interviewing a Ferengi and a Klingon, drunk. But that’s another story.
37. Watching John Glenn ride into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery. I was one of about 2,500 media people with accreditation for the launch of STS-95. While that’s not strictly a Star Trek memory, it was the first time I watched a machine carry 7 humans out into space. If this is what the future is about, then sign me up.
38. Watching Galaxy Quest (1999). It’s the first (and only) time my friends head to the theatre without a firm idea of what movie to watch. I nudge towards Galaxy Quest; some of my friends are hesitant, as it’s a Tim Allen movie. But I persist, we watch it, and love it. A great comedy, a decent sci-fi adventure, and a loving homage to Star Trek. It somehow introduced its own mythology, then pilloried it (“By Grabthar’s Hammer!”), then rebuilt it, all within 102 minutes of run time. Rarely have I laughed out loud so much at a film.
39. The Star Trek shows in the 80’s and 90’s had an ‘open script submission’ process – you didn’t need an agent to submit a script, as long as you followed certain guidelines. Despite a few false starts, I never submitted anything to TNG or Deep Space Nine. Not wanting to let the opportunity go to waste, I did write a script for “Star Trek: Voyager”, and sent it in. By this time, I had been writing scripts for Discovery Channel, and other things, but this was still a stretch for me. It was a great exercise to go through the process. While it was rejected, it was nice to get the official “no thanks” letter from Paramount. I think it was a decent story, but it got bogged down in the last act; I did note, however, that some of the characters I brought back, and some of the lines I used, were “echoed” in episodes later that season. I’m not saying they stole my stuff, I’m just saying that I think I was on the same track they were.
40. The Star Trek heyday of 1999. Deep Space Nine is at its finest, Voyager is on, and while Star Trek: Insurrection wasn’t great, it’s obvious that there’ll be another big-screen adventure with Picard’s crew. I continue to tape the episodes on VHS, and, with my new roommate, we watch the show on Saturday mornings over breakfast, as reliably as I once watched TOS on Sundays on CBC. Semi-binge watching is great – 2 or 3 episodes at a time gives a better sense of appreciation for the storytelling. We work our way through DS9, Voyager, and later, Enterprise.
41. My Bachelor Party. The gang shows up at my house on Friday afternoon, and toss me a uniform tunic. I’m to wear it all weekend long (yes, out to bars and everywhere else). We end up in a comedy club, where obviously I’m the center of attention. “Your financee must have told them to put that on you,” one comedian says, “’cause even if it’s a bachelor party, there’s no way you’re getting laid in a Star Trek uniform.”
42. Going to watch the new Star Trek movie in 2009. It’s been 7 years since the last ST movie, no TV shows for 4 years, and now hotshot director JJ Abrams is taking a crack at it. For the first time in 43 years, we’ll have new actors playing Kirk and Spock. It’s like seeing your first girlfriend with a new guy – a rush of emotions, not all positive. I think, this’ll be it – say goodbye to the franchise that’s been part of my life for so long. I’m optimistic yet resigned as the lights dim. The movie starts, with what feels like 5 minutes of studio logos, and the first sound we here is the classic bridge sonar ping. It’s familiar, inviting, and puts me instantly at ease. It’s like coming home and smelling your favourite pie. The movie does the impossible, by respecting the old but ushering in the new. I'm smiling through the whole experience.
43. Star Trek was never afraid to tackle big questions. Life and death questions. When facing a death in my own family, this comforted me. And even now, six years later, I think of Kirk describing Spock’s death “as an open wound”, and I understand him. And it’s still open enough that I’ll leave that one as it is.
44. It’s amazing who turns out to be Star Trek fans. I’ve had the opportunity to make jokes about Trek with more than one Canadian and US astronaut.
45. Winter 2011. It’s announced that the Genie Awards – given to Canadian films, so like the Oscars without the glamour or the gift bags – will be held in my city, and William Shatner will host. I instantly decide to crash the party. I devise elaborate plans to get a media pass, but at the last minute, I call the Academy to see if I’m eligible for membership. Thanks to my documentary work, I qualify. I bring my wife for an evening of hobnobbing with the stars, and try desperately not to stare open mouthed at the Shat in the room. And thanks to my wife, I end up in a wonderful 10 minute conversation with Bruce Greenwood, who played Captain Pike in two of the new Star Trek movies (he’s a charming, generous guy).
46. I buy a new Star Trek book, and it’s not even for me. “The Star Trek Book of Opposites” replaces the Sesame Street version of the same thing. Here it’s “near / far”, “happy / angry”, with pictures from the Original Series. My kids love it. They learn “old / young” at same time as learning the difference between Balok and a Mugato.
47. 47. Watching the shows, and knowing of the preponderance of mentions of “47”, I delightfully point out every 47 reference that comes up, both in on-screen Trek but also ‘in real life’. My roommate asks me to stop – guess how many times?
48. Saturday, 23 November, 2013. Doctor Who airs an episode, world-wide, simultaneously, to mark its 50th anniversary. It is a tour-de-force, amazing hour that honours its past and sets up future stories. I ask myself – will Trek be able to do something comparable for its 50th? I’ll give points to “Star Trek: Beyond” writers to trying.
49. “Star Trek: The Starfleet Academy Experience” will premiere in my home town. And William Shatner will be at the opening night gala. I debate if I want to attend; what seals the deal is hearing talk about Shatner, “the 85-year old actor”. I realize he won’t be around for another 50 years. I go, he’s charming, drinks are fantastic, John de Lancie is huge and funny. René Auberjonois I speak with for a few minutes, not about his role as Odo, but his other shows, Boston Legal and Benson. A great night, and I’m sure my picture with Shatner will hang in my room in the old age home.
50. It’s 50 years to the day that a TV show airs for the first time. Millions watch a fairly forgettable episode, only it’s not forgotten. Far from it. “It’s just a TV show!” someone will someday yell, and he’ll be so very, very wrong.