THE STARSHIP Enterprise began exploring space, the final frontier, 40 years ago this September. Initially (and in hindsight, mistakenly) described as a five-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations, explore strange new worlds, and boldly go where no man had gone before, the series Star Trek took its place in the National Broadcasting Company's prime time lineup on Thursday, September 8, 1966.
And it flopped.
The low-rated show lost money for the network throughout its first season, then lost money again through its second season. Despite this poor performance, NBC renewed Star Trek for a third year, thanks in part to a massive letter-writing campaign by fans. For its faith in Star Trek, the network would be forever reviled by the show's volatile creator Gene Roddenberry (who, we now know, had a secret hand in the letter-writing campaign). Through its ill-starred third season, Star Trek suffered from management turmoil and the sale of its production studio to the Gulf & Western Corporation. The new studio, Paramount, tried to shave costs, producing a ghastly hybrid: an expensive show that looked cheap, featuring radioactive bombs of episodes that focused on "Spock's Brain" and a cult of space hippies whose signature song "Steppin' Into Eden" failed to climb the 1969 charts. The show was not just a failure but an embarrassing failure: The acting was old-fashioned; the scripts were square; it was intelligent in a way nobody respected, corny in a way nobody liked anymore; the cast's only breakout star was a straight man with pointy ears. After three seasons, NBC cut its losses and put Captain Kirk and his crew out to pasture.
The real story of Star Trek begins here, for Star Trek is a story of resurrection, and after this first death there is no other. Just ask Mr. Spock, for whom we mourned at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan but who had returned to life before the end of the tellingly rifled Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. The risen Trek predicted the future through good guesses (and plenty of bad ones) about technology. It welcomed the future with a secular spirit that may be the closest thing America has to a national religion: confidence in what lies ahead. And it created the future by building an environment where multimedia conglomerates must court fans not only as customers but as co-creators. You could search all 50 states (and since Canadians, including even William "Kirk" Shatner, play crucial roles in this story, you could look up there too), but you wouldn't find a leader or politician who deserves a tribute as much as Star Trek does. If the franchise is approaching its 40th birthday somewhat worse for wear, it has some great stories to tell.
Among other things, there's a story of a tough, almost millennial faith that endures no matter how absurdly bad things may look: Even in its darkest decade of cancellation, when the only Star Trek remnant was a half-hour animated series that ran in 1973 and 1974, the fans would no more give up hope than Kirk would have surrendered the Enterprise to those space hippies. There's also a story of democracy, in which motivated masses of people guided the behavior of programmers at a giant media company (a class almost as craven and powerful as elected officials). There's a story of management and governance, in which the keepers of the franchise have maintained fairly good continuity over many years, through a constitutional "canon" of texts (in the form of scripts, licensed media, and series "bibles").
And finally, a story of a powerful belief in what the franchise represents: the right of individuals, through machinery, weaponry, or barehanded intelligence, to live, be free, and pursue happiness, no matter how horrific the results (and we can all agree that Robert Wise's Star Trek: The Motion Picture was as slow and agonizing as any torture devised on that evil Enterprise from the "Mirror, Mirror" episode in which Spock has a beard). Put all these ingredients together and it's clear: Star Trek is the story of America.
As an American story, Star Trek is not just about resurrection but about production, and there's been plenty of that: Fan books such as Dave Marinaccio's All I Really Need to Know I Learned From Watching Star Trek, a tome that more than lives up to the promise of its rifle. Fan films like the Star Trek: New Voyages series (freely watchable at newvoyages.com, and executed with an astonishing degree of commitment and creativity). Fan fiction in which Captain Kirk, a man whose robustly heterosexual libido made satisfied customers out of white, black, brown, and green women, finds his true soul mate in Mr. Spock.
And that's just the unofficial stuff. Paramount declines to say how much money Star Trek has made for it over the years. A 1999 Salon article estimated that the Star Trek franchise had earned $2.3 billion in TV revenues, more than $1 billion in movie box office, and $4 billion in merchandise sales; there have been more series, movies, and merchandise since then. But any dollar amount is dwarfed by the overall content amount the franchise has produced.
On the big screen, there have been 10 movies so far. Paramount and J.J. Abrams, the creator of the hit TV shows Lost and Alias, have announced development of Star Trek XI, though seasoned Trek numerologists are wary of the movie's place in the series. (Just as you should stick with the odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies, you'll have better luck with the even-numbered Star Trek films.)
On the small screen, in addition to the cartoon (now remembered mainly for bringing Lucien the goatman into many an already troubled childhood in the '70s), there have been four live-action spin-off series. Star Trek: The Next Generation featured Patrick Stewart's Captain Picard and the...