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Sunday, January 24, 2021

It’s Star Trek Week!

To boldly go to exactly the same place we’ve been going to for the past 55 years...


A few years back we were at Dragon*Con, where among other things they had a world’s record gathering of nearly 600 people in Star Trek costumes.

Six hundred people. That’s probably more people than ever had speaking parts in the original series, the spinoff series, and all the movies combined. Friends, this is the sine qua non of geekdom; the ultimate index of nerdiness. Star Trek is a thing that has made such an enormous dent in the zeitgeist that even its parodies have become cultural touchstones: Galaxy Quest or The Orville, anyone? Even the tiniest bits of business have become instantly recognizable signals. When Stan and Cartman show up wearing goatees in the “Spooky Fish” episode of South Park, you instantly know that they’re not our Stan and Cartman, but their dopplegängers from a mirror dimension, where Cartman is nice and Stan is a jerk.

Like it or loathe it, for better or worse, Star Trek has reshaped our culture.

So today I’d like to kick off Star Trek Week with a simple question: why is it that some science-fiction or fantasy-themed TV series develop devoted fan followings, while other more commercially successful series don’t?

It’s worth remembering that the original Star Trek series was a commercial flop that was canceled in its second season. Fan protests did a miraculous thing and convinced the network to rescind the cancellation and bring the show back for a third season—albeit with a much lower per-episode budget, which definitely shows in those Season 3 episodes—but it received the definitive stake in the heart at the end of the third season. Ratings-wise it was even beaten out by some Irwin Allen steaming pile of crap, though whether it was Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel, or Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, I no longer remember nor care enough to research now. 

And yet, in the fifty years since the cancellation of the original series, Star Trek has become the focus of both an almost religious fan following and a multibillion-dollar multinational media industry.

This is not completely unique. Firefly, for example, lasted all of thirteen episodes and one movie, and yet today there are more Browncoats than ever, begging for another movie or a revived series.

But compare these to series such as—oh, Charmed. Beauty and the Beast. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Babylon 5. Xena: Warrior Princess. The X-Files. Perhaps even Stargate. All of these were science-fiction or fantasy-themed series that had long and commercially successful runs. All of them had decently high or even better ratings while in first-run production, and strong fan followings while they were airing. At least a few of these should now make you scratch your head and think, “Oh yeah, there was a series with that name, wasn’t there?”

So to reiterate today’s question: what is that mysterious je ne sais quoi that enables one series to develop a fan following so strong it lives on in the fans’ hearts and minds long after the original series has ended, while another series has its run and then fades from memory as if it was never there?

Your thoughts and comments?

—Bruce Bethke 


Pete Wood said...

Star Trek TOS was an oasis in a science fiction desert. In the 60s and 50s we had Star Trek, Land of the Giants, the Invaders, Captain Video, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and a couple of anthology shows- The Outer Limits and Twilight Zone. The 70s were even worse with Logan's Run, Sp[ace 1999, Fantastic Voyage and Battlestar Galactica.
Is it any wonder Star Trek stood out?
Star Trek had good acting, an optimistic view of the future, and characters you might actually want to hang out with. Wold anyone really want to grab a beer with anyone from an Irwin Allen series? I'll drink alone, thanks.
Plus Star Trek had adult plots written by honest to God giants of print science fiction.
I have no problem with the show having a cult following.
I do, however, grow tired of jaded producers who want to go back to the well one more time instead of digging a new well. There are a lot of great sources of science fiction out there that is being largely ignored in favor of reboots and h=rehashes of Star Trek and Star Wars.
That's a damned shame.

~brb said...

As opposed to steampunk, which keeps going back to the Wells.

~brb said...

Sorry. I've waited years for an opportunity to use that joke.

JVS said...

I wish I had time to really talk about the theme music to all of the Star Trek incarnations. The opening music to "Star Trek, Wrath of Kahn,' is considered the best by classical symphonic standards. The most recent, "Discovery," has a fabulous theme. It's wonderful to see LIVE musicians who have studied their craft and found work in the entertainment industry. People don't realize how much music is part of our everyday lives. Anyway, off my soapbox, here's the "Discovery" theme for your enjoyment.