The Tao of 'Star Trek'?

The Star Trek science-fiction franchise turns 40 today. The original TV series only lasted three seasons. But in syndication, it became a viewer favorite, spawning spin-off shows and a series of big-budget movies. Brooke Gladstone, the host of NPR's On the Media, is proud to be a "trekkie." She explains the enduring success of the Starship Enterprise and its sister ships.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Star Trek turns 40 today. To boldly explain the success of this TV franchise, we thought we'd turn to one of our favorite trekkies, Brooke Gladstone, co-host of NPR's ON THE MEDIA.

(Soundbite of Saturday Night Live)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WILLIAM SHATNER (Actor): Get a life, will you people?

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. SHATNER: For crying out loud, it's just a TV show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BROOKE GLADSTONE: When William Shatner said that on Saturday Night Live, though to be fair he didn't write it, it stung.

Ms. BARBARA ADAMS (Trekkie): I feel like a lot of fans feel like they are not respected. They're almost ashamed to admit they're fans of Star Trek unless they hear two or three references to Star Trek in the conversation.

GLADSTONE: Not Barbara Adams. So moved was she by the series' optimistic, pluralistic vision of the future that when serving on the jury in the Whitewater trial 10 years ago, she wore the uniform of a Star Trek officer. If it helps to make people think a little bit more about what those ideals are, then I'll keep wearing this uniform, she said, and then was promptly dismissed for talking to the press.

(Soundbite of Star Trek theme music)

GLADSTONE: Those ideals were codified by Gene Roddenberry, a former flak with the LAPD who cut his teeth writing Dragnet scripts on spec for Jack Webb. His Enterprise was staffed by a crack, multi-racial crew, and though that crew was prohibited by the prime directive from interfering in developing societies, Captain James T. Kirk found some way to destroy evildoers wherever he went.

Roddenberry allowed us to examine the convulsions of the ‘60s - racism, the cold war and hippies, at a distance - mostly through aliens, since he had decreed that there would be no serious conflicts among the crew.

But after three short seasons, the show died. And for 18 long years, the fans waited as their ranks swelled through reruns and conventions, writing their own episodes and lobbying the network.

Henry Jenkins, director of the comparative media studies program at MIT, says that much of that pressure came from an unexpected quarter.

Mr. HENRY JENKINS (Comparative Media Studies Program, MIT): I think if you go back at the original letter-writing campaign that kept the series on the air for that third season, which made it viable for a syndication package, the majority of the leaders of that campaign were women. And while the women were disappointed in the ways they were portrayed on Star Trek often, it kept alive this idea that women alongside men would be active participants in shaping the future.

GLADSTONE: So finally, after an animated series and four movies, a new live-action series was launched, and instead of boldly going where no man had gone before, the new captain was to -

(Soundbite of television show, Star Trek: The Next Generation)

Mr. PATRICK STEWART (Actor): (As Captain Jean-Luc Picard) - to boldly go where no one has gone before.

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Mr. RICK BERMAN (Executive Producer, Star Trek: The Next Generation): We have three female cast members on The Next Generation.

GLADSTONE: Executive Producer Rick Berman.

Mr. BERMAN: One was Counselor Troi, one was the doctor, and there was some discussion that here we had two women in caretaker roles, which seemed a little sexist. But Gene also created this character, Tasha Yar, who was the head of security onboard the ship, and she was a tough broad, and probably the sexiest of the three.

GLADSTONE: Berman was hand picked by Roddenberry to launch the second series, but he's been widely reviled by the fans for coming to the franchise as a newbie and for failing to fully commit to the founder's vision.

Mr. BERMAN: If I could sit and corral all the things that have been said over the years, you could put me just a little bit beside of Himmler. Did I see the original series as sacred? No. Did I do my very best to keep from contradicting anything that occurred in those episodes? Absolutely.

GLADSTONE: The Next Generation also depicted a crew on a voyage of exploration captained by the resolutely rational Jean-Luc Picard. It lasted seven years, book-ended by a pair of episodes in which an omnipotent being called Q puts humanity on trial.

(Soundbite of Star Trek: The Next Generation)

Mr. JOHN de LANCIE (Actor): (As Q) You will now answer to the charge of being a grievously savage race.

Mr. STEWART: (As Picard) Grievously savage could mean anything. I will answer only specific charges.

Mr. de LANCIE: (As Q) Are you certain you want a full disclosure of human ugliness? Present the chargers.

GLADSTONE: It's a squeaker, but guess who wins. In Star Trek, humanity always wins. The sole exception was series number three, Deep Space Nine, mounted by vermin after Roddenberry's. Set on a space station in a time of war, humans and aliens were forced to confront crime and corruption within the crew and the humanity within all these species did not always win.

(Soundbite of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine)

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Mr. AVERY BROOKS (Actor): (As Captain Benjamin Lafayette Sisko) I don't personally believe that you were responsible for this?

Mr. RENE AUBERJONOIS (Actor): (As Constable Odo) Really? Now how can that be true? You don't know me, so don't tell me there isn't some doubt inside of you, some question about whether or not I murdered the man.

GLADSTONE: Some die-hard fans grumbled about the dark nature of the show, but that series also lasted seven years. The fourth series, Star Trek: Voyager, was set on a ship flung to the outer reaches of the galaxy. Its mission was simply to return home, and it also marked a return to the original vision, only this time the glass ceiling was broken. Captain Kathryn Janeway was at the helm, played by Kate Mulgrew.

Ms. KATE MULGREW (Actress): I realize that what was at stake was their largest demographic, young men. How was I going to transcend the fact that they could be potentially watching their mother in the chair?

GLADSTONE: Then in 2001 came Enterprise, set in a time before the original series. Rejected by the fans, the plug was pulled after three years.

Meanwhile, Star Trek lives long and prospers in cyberspace, where fans create and consume thousands of new stories and hundreds of videos, including new episodes. It's not what trekkers solemnly regard as Star Trek canon, it's called fanon, a tapestry of new plots and back stories endlessly embroidered by fans. Tim Cavanaugh is the Web editor of Reason magazine.

Mr. TIM CAVANAUGH (Web Editor, Reason Magazine): We grew up really loving Star Trek in the purest possible way. We just loved it as kids. You get to high school, you get to college, suddenly you become this super ironist, and you realize how campy it is and over the top and every joke about Captain Kirk getting it on with green women or about crew members wearing red shirts and dying - they've all been made. To some degree, the show has outlived all of that stuff.

GLADSTONE: But that may not matter to some fans for whom the show may have actually outlived the show. Erstwhile Whitewater juror Barbara Adams.

Ms. ADAMS: I don't think fans should worry about there not being a Star Trek series on. If it's not a good Star Trek series, if it's not showing us what we want to see in Star Trek, we don't have to have it there.

GLADSTONE: At some point, for fans like Adams, Star Trek shape-shifted from a franchise to a kind of creed, perhaps because Roddenberry made it seem almost plausible, because it made use of some real science and referenced some real history. Or maybe it's because his founding vision was bound up in the belief that ultimately, it's our shortcomings - our passion, our restlessness - that will save us, that as much as Vulcan logic and detachment are venerated in the Trek world, it's somehow better to be human.

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SIEGEL: Brooke Gladstone is co-host of NPR's ON THE MEDIA.

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