By Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies, authors of Star Trek and American Television
‘It’s a television show’—said William Shatner (Captain Kirk) to us when we interviewed him for our book, Star Trek and American Television, in 2002. He didn’t mean to be dismissive, he didn’t mean it was just a television show; he was pointing out that Star Trek—despite the movies, the games, the fans, the spoofs—was, and is, primarily culturally important as a product of television. It’s worth being reminded of this fact especially this year—the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, the original series (TOS) being launched on the NBC TV network.
We love Star Trek—but it’s always been the TV show that was most special to us, both as viewers and as scholars. That’s why, when it came to writing a book about Star Trek, we decided to take Bill Shatner’s assertion as our mantra and named our book Star Trek and American Television. At first we thought of simply calling it Star Trek as Television. But as we researched the history of the show—and especially after talking to many of its leading lights, including founder-producers such as Robert Justman and Herb Solow, (alas, Gene Roddenberry was dead by the time we got round to researching the book)—we realized that the story of Star Trek was also a way of telling the story of American television more broadly.
The show started in the era of the three networks, made by a production company run by one of the most iconic and beloved of all TV stars, Lucille Ball, and it was not a ratings success. But, prophetically, it found a dedicated audience of fans who helped to keep the show alive in syndication. In the 1980s and 90s, with The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, it progressed through the cable era, and on into the era of channel abundance brought about by digital technology. Along the way, it changed ownership several times, and ironically, it is now the property of CBS, who turned the original series down in the 1960s. Simply following the twists and turns of fortune involving the show’s ownership was a story in itself—as the early chapters of our book discuss.
It was a great privilege to talk to so many of the people involved in the show. We had especially privileged access to the stars of The Next Generation who were making the final film in the TNG series, Nemesis, when we did our Hollywood research. Thanks to introductions from Sir Patrick Stewart, Captain Jean Luc Picard in TNG, who kindly wrote a foreword for our book, we were able to talk to actors, producers, technicians, set builders, designers, makeup artists, writers, and directors—all of whom had fascinating insights into the series, into their own particular roles in it, and into why the Star Trek phenomenon has been so enduringly popular. Generous interviews given by stars such as Sir Patrick himself, Jonathan Frakes, William Shatner and Marina Sirtis are extensively quoted in our book.
The last TV series, Enterprise, had just started production when we visited Hollywood to meet these Star Trek luminaries, and it was cancelled after only four seasons. It seemed as if the future of Star Trek had to be in the new film series directed by J. J. Abrams and that its primary identity as television was over. But Star Trek as television was never going to die; all the previous series continue in syndication around the world—and a new TV series, Star Trek: Discovery, will premiere on CBS in January, 2017*. As we say at the end of our book: “Whatever happens in the future, we would bet all our gold-pressed latinum, several bottles of Saurian brandy and a few dilithium crystals that Star Trek will live long and prosper!”
* Note that you can currently stream a few free episodes from each Star Trek television series in honor of the anniversary and upcoming new series.
To get a copy of Star Trek and American Television, visit your local bookstore, or purchase online at IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on ucpress.edu, enter discount code16M4197 at checkout).
Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham and author of several books, including A Critical Dictionary of Film and Television Theory.
Máire Messenger Davies is Professor Emerita of Media Studies at University of Ulster and author of Children, Media, and Culture.