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When “Star Trek” first launched on television in 1966, each episode announced that the starship Enterprise and its groundbreaking multicultural crew was on a five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. The voyage lasted just three years before the network canceled the sci-fi show, but the journey has continued on for nearly five decades in numerous other television series, movies, video games and conventions.
With director J.J. Abrams’s “Star Trek Into Darkness” currently in theaters, the “Official ‘Star Trek’ Convention” presented by Creation Entertainment comes to Boston’s Hynes Convention Center this Saturday and Sunday, June 8 and 9. Six actors from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”—Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Denise Crosby and Michael Dorn—are scheduled to be on stage together for a talk Saturday night moderated by the original Captain Kirk, William Shatner.
The convention also features appearances by other stars from the television shows—from George Takei and Nichelle Nichols from the original “Star Trek” series to Rene Auberjonois and Nana Visitor from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”—plus vendors and a costume contest.
I spoke with one of the convention organizers, Gary Berman, about the history and influence of “Star Trek” as well as the debate among Trekkies about whether Abrams, whose new “Star Trek” films feature relentless warp speed action, is neglecting the philosophical conundrums that have often been the foundation of “Star Trek” stories.
Berman also recounted how Nichols, who played the African-American Lieutenant Uhura, was talked out of quitting the show by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “She says that she was going to leave the show because she wasn’t happy with the size of the role and she wanted to pursue a singing career, which she had prior. She bumped into him at a party and she mentioned she was thinking of leaving the show. And he said, ‘No, you can’t do that because you realize what you represent to our people.’ And she agreed to stay. … Imagine decades later to meet with President Obama in the Oval Office.”
Did Obama invite her?
“Yeah, I believe so. She was going to be in Washington and I think they heard about it. And he’s definitely a ‘Star Trek’ fan. I know that because Leonard Nimoy tells a story that when he first met him he also give the Vulcan sign. So we have a ‘Star Trek’ fan in the White House. Pretty cool.
What does “Star Trek” mean today?
“Hopefully it means that same as it’s always meant. [Producer Gene] Roddenberry created this ideal place where diversity was welcomed rather than derided and a positive future where everyone seems to get along a little bit better than we do now. Those two basic tenets really started in the early ‘60s and were reflected in the original series and hopefully through much of the series that followed. That’s kind of the idea that most of us who enjoy the show like to think the show’s about. … If you look at some of the stories there, they were touching on things that were going on in the ‘60s, racial things and war and politics. They wrote around them. If you watch the show carefully, you can see that he was commenting on the issues of the day by talking about the future. They tried to do that in the following series as well.”
It feels like it was also reflecting that 1960s era of the United Nations, when African nations were getting their independence and coming to the UN.
“At that point in time you weren’t going to see an African-American woman in a position of authority like Nichelle was. Or an Asian actor having a role of importance like George [Takei, who played Lieutenant Sulu in the original television series,] did. The show was definitely way ahead of its time. It might have even been more ahead of its time, but they had to deal with the network. They had to answer to that too. It’s quite interesting that he was able to be so far ahead of his time. And not only that, if you look at the iPads and computers and communicators, the sick bay, all of that has come true, which is pretty incredible on the writers’ side.
Our imagining of the future often defines the future. “Star Trek” envisioning certain things in a certain way is going to inspire people to invent things that look that way.
“We know that it did. We know of the guy who invented the cell phone and he made it look like the communicator. And the iPad definitely looks like the ‘Next Generation’ item that they used there. It kind of works hand in hand. But then again some times it’s so far off. If you look at some of the movies of the ‘20s where they show people flying in cars, 30 years ago from now. So it’s not always right, but ‘Star Trek’ got it right quite a bit.
Yeah, ‘2001’ hasn’t come true yet.
“No. Nor ‘Planet of the Apes,’ but it’s still possible. You never know.”
Has J.J. Abrams ruined everything?
“No, I think quite the contrary. I love both of his films. There was a lot more action than traditionally you would see in ‘Star Trek.’ But of course he was working with these tremendous budgets. He has to live up to what people expect in a big film science-fiction adventure story. And there were moments where the characters interrelated like they did back in the original series. Personally, I felt that the actors did a terrific job and I liked the strengthening of the Uhura character very much because I think that that’s very important. No, I think he’s done a good job, and you can see by the hundreds of millions of dollars that it’s earned around the world that he’s keeping the ‘Star Trek’ brand alive.
Correction: An earlier vision of this essay incorrectly spelled Brent Spiner and "tenets."
This program aired on June 7, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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