Tuesday, June 29, 2004


You have to understand what it was like, being in the audience for the first run of '>Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Some in those audiences had waited ten years for this moment, from 1969, when the Star Trek series went off the air, until late 1979. They'd waited from junior high until their first child was born. Or from college when they didn't trust anyone over 30, until they were over 30.

But probably most of the audience had come to Star Trek several years later than that. The late 1960s were a pretty intense and involving time. But the country had quieted down by the mid 1970s, more exhausted than anything, it seemed. These were the years when Star Trek truly became an obsession shared by millions.

Like any other network show in the 60s, Star Trek had been on NBC once a week, fall through the spring, with reruns in the summer. There were three networks and in some places, educational TV. Daytimes were soap operas and game shows. Then the news, and then the evening programs.

By the early 1970s, there were new TV stations on the UHF band you could get with a special antenna, and some people were starting to get their TV through a cable, with better reception. The number of TV stations suddenly increased, and so did the need for programming. Some stations that didn't have their own news broadcasts showed Star Trek in the early evening. Almost all stations that syndicated Star Trek showed it every day. And that was the key.

You saw those stories at the same time every day. The stories were different, but there was a level of consistency that gave the Star Trek universe substance and made it real.

The Star Trek crew became a regular part of your world, an alternative universe you visited ritually every day. The stories were provocative, and you began to see different meanings in the episodes, and notice more about the characters even the second or third time. The characters stayed in your head from day to day, and assumed a kind of reality. The stories said something about the world you lived in, as well as perhaps the world you'd like to live in.

In the mid 1970s, Star Trek was so popular in syndication that one survey showed that more New York males between 18-49 watched Star Trek than any first run network dramatic series, or Monday Night Football. The New York figures also showed Star Trek was more popular with teens than first run episodes of the reigning teen network favorite "One Day at a Time", and with more adults 18-34 than first-run episodes of M*A*S*H.

The actors became global icons as the series was syndicated around the world. The fan base grew in numbers and fervor the entire decade, fed in part by the new phenomena of fan conventions and fan publications (both "fanzines" and fan fictions). These had been traditions in the science fiction fan world, but never before applied with such size to a single set of stories, let alone a mere TV show. The Star Trek Fleet Manual became a number one best-seller on the trade paperback lists.

In 1975, Star Trek was being seen in 148 TV markets across America, and on 54 stations outside the U.S. In some cities Star Trek was on several different stations at different times, so there were days when you could see two or three episodes. It became a heightened alternative reality, with an addictive magic. The geeks and freaks who'd discovered it in the late 1960s, and may even have watched it together in their college dorm, were joined by New York stockbrokers, NASA scientists, and Andy Warhol.

And it became a shared reality, everywhere you looked. One afternoon I was on the phone making an airline reservation. The TV was on and Star Trek was starting..."These are the voyages..." The reservation clerk must have heard it in the background. "Oh, you're watching Star Trek!" she cried. "What episode is it?"

Here's a more complicated story that might suggest how pervasive this Star Trek mania was by 1975. I was working on an alternative weekly newspaper in Washington D.C. called Newsworks. It had just started up, and a couple of old friends from different places had wound up on the first staff. I'd come to visit and write a few stories. I wound up staying and at this point I was editor of the arts section, which made me sort of second in command. That's one reason for the nickname I got. The Newsworks office---three floors of an old frame house in the then-bedraggled section of Adams-Morgan-seemed to run on adrenalin and panic. In contrast, my desk was an oasis of calm and reason. So they called me Spock.

One day I was returning to my desk on the editorial floor. As I crossed the room, ahead of me were two male staffers standing nose to nose, arguing loudly. They were in my path, and people were starting to watch from their desks as the argument got more heated. Neither of them looked at me as I approached, and I didn't look directly at them, so they probably thought I was going to just walk past them. But as I got behind them, I stopped, calmly reached forward with both hands, and silently applied the Vulcan neck pinch to both of them. They both immediately slumped to the floor.

People laughed and some cheered. And everybody knew exactly what had just happened.

Not too long after that, I covered my first Star Trek convention, at the Hilton hotel in Washington. I briefly met Gene Roddenberry, but the truth is I was so distracted by Majel Barrett Roddenberry, tanned and looking incredible in a backless sun-dress, that I couldn't think of much to ask him. But he did talk to the assembled fans, and mentioned that a Star Trek movie was about to go into production. That was probably the Philip Kaufman project, which was cancelled when Paramount decided to launch a new network with a Star Trek TV series featuring the original cast. Before that, they'd considered a small budget feature and a series of made-for-TV movies. Then came Star Wars in 1977 and Close Encounters in 1978, and so the new TV series was dropped and work began on Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I remember a magazine article in the mid 70s that told of an avid Trek fan, a stockbroker or in some well-paid white collar position, who after a hard day on Wall Street tuned into Trek one evening, realized it was an episode he hadn't yet seen, and opened a bottle of wine to celebrate. By the mid-70s, it was a rare event to have somehow missed one of the 79 episodes. But ten years after the network run ended, there were few even moderately interested viewers who hadn't seen every show at least once. There was the short-lived animated series, and there were Star Trek novels and short stories, and fan fictions circulated on mimeograph paper. By the late 70s, fans were running up against one essential limitation more impassible than the Galactic Barrier: the 79 episodes of 1966-69. There were 79 stories, and no more. They could run them in rotation forever, but there would never be a new one.

And then, finally, and somehow suddenly, towards the end of 1979, there you were. In the movie theatre, waiting to see Star Trek come alive again.

Filled with anticipation, impatience and a little worry, you stared at a screen of blackness and moving pinpoints of white stars. There was an "overture," a throwback to the Big Event movies of the 40s through the early 60s, like "Gone With the Wind" and the Biblical epics, a tradition that borrowed its sense of grandeur from the overtures to operas and stage musicals.

Then the music came to its end, and the Paramount logo---then at last, the opening credits, and the new Star Trek theme. The theatre erupts in cheers. They cheer the titles. They cheer the cast. They cheer everything. Some have been waiting a third of their lives, even half their lives, for this.

Then a hush as the music changes and the movie begins: with a new Klingon ship...and new Klingons! There are whispers in the awestruck silence. These Klingons look really alien, and scary. They even sound scary.

If you'd followed the news and the gossip leading up to it--and you probably had---you knew that one main anxiety about this movie was whether Spock was going to be in it. For awhile, the answer was no. Leonard Nimoy was not in the cast of the new Star Trek TV series, and then he wasn't signed at first for the movie either. But even though by now you knew he was supposed to be in this movie, there was still that lingering doubt, like you couldn't quite believe it until...

There he is! Spock is on Vulcan! And the audience cheers.

Another anxiety that people had---which seems pretty funny now---was that after ten years, the Star Trek actors would look way too old to be credible. Could they still look capable of the action and adventure of exploring strange new worlds?

So when Captain Kirk and then Scotty appeared, both slim and fit, there was a grin of relief on some fans' faces.

But the moment that fans had probably been waiting for the most was just ahead. They had watched Star Trek on television over and over. They loved the Enterprise and even grew to have affection for the cheap costumed monsters and credible (great for TV) but not spectacular special effects. Then they saw "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," or even before that, "2001: A Space Odyssey," and they fantasized about what Star Trek would be like as a motion picture: the effects, the aliens, and above all, the Enterprise.

The Enterprise on television was mostly a few exteriors (some of which were more convincing as models and only suggested a starship) and a few interiors (which except for the bridge, grew to seem both cramped and bare.) That was enough to stimulate imaginations. But now there could be so much more to actually see...if Star Trek could be a movie!

Now it is a movie, and now is the moment of finally seeing: the Enterprise. Those who watch the movie today, especially on small screens at home, may not quite understand why the scene of Kirk and Scotty in a shuttle, flying to, around and then directly toward the Enterprise, is so long. This was the reason: because it was one of the moments that Star Trek fans had dreamed about and talked about for five years, or seven years, or ten years. Gene Roddenberry said more than once that the real star of Star Trek is the Enterprise, and Robert Wise, director of this movie, seemed to feel as well that the Enterprise was itself a major character. So even in the Director's Cut DVD, this scene remains just as long, matched to a wonderful piece of music by Jerry Goldsmith.

This magic continued in the new interior of the Enterprise, and in seeing the rest of the old crew, looking good. If the movie bogged down later, with a story that seemed as muddled as the dark interior of the alien object that threatened earth, this first half hour or so was almost pure joy for the first Star Trek audiences when this movie first opened in theatres.

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