Entertainment

Star Trek: A Cultural Phenomena Celebrates Half A Century!

  • PoliticalMavens.com
  • |
  • July 23, 2016

by Karen Feld

The new film “Star Trek Beyond” opened this week, 50 years after the first NBC-TV episode in 1966.  William Shatner aka Capt. James Kirk of the U.S.S. Enterprise, now 85, says, “for Star Trek to remain in the public Consciousness 50 years later is a phenomenon beyond belief.”

That’s why I dug up my syndicated feature which appealed to Trekkies and was published in many daily newspapers including the now defunct Washington Star and The Detroit News in summer 1978. That’s when the first Star Trek motion picture went in to production. On the occasion of Star Trek reborn, my original article is reprinted below for another generation.

The voyages of the Starship Enterprise, the most celebrated spaceship in television history, continued for 79 episodes and three years. Now the ship which carried the crew of “Star Trek” is about to be launched again.

The popularity, the magic of “Star Trek,” is something extraordinary in the fickle entertainment industry. It seems hard to believe the last show was filmed a decade ago. It seems equally hard to believe a new mission is ready to seek out strange new worlds.

But a new U.S.S. Enterprise has been rebuilt at Paramount Studios, utilizing sophisticated 23rd-century technology. It will be launched in August, when “Star Trek—The Motion Picture,” Not to be confused with the television series, goes into production.

Its fearless crew, Captain James Kirk, played by William Shatner, his First Official Officer, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and Medical Officer Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) have been reunited for a science-fiction event that can only be termed monumentous. The motion picture, with a budget of $15 million—greater than the cost of all the television episodes combined—is to be released next summer.

And Nimoy, Shatner, and “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, have been so bombarded with inquiries that they’ve hired a publicist to guard the secrets of the new mission. The project is cloaked in that special secrecy of Hollywood. Roddenberry is silent; some cast members say they’ve not even seen the final script.

At stake is not only a film, but the “Star Trek” mystique.

When NBC cancelled the series in 1969, due to poor ratings, the decision was vigorously protested by legions of fans. Indeed, the number of fans seems to have grown, and a genuine cult of “Trekkies” formed active fan clubs, organized conventions and even displayed bumper stickers (“Honk if you love Star Trek” and “Spock for President.”)

And, of course, the show never left the air. It returned almost at once in syndicated reruns, where its popularity soared. Currently it is seen on 160 American stations and in 51 foreign countries in 47 languages. Never has a show achieved such popularity in reruns and never have fans been so vocal for so long about a show’s cancellation. All the principals continue to receive fan mail and recognition as if they were still doing a hit show. Shatner says he receives several hundred pieces of mail a week.

The original U.S.S. Enterprise, after which NASA’s space shuttle was named, hangs from a ceiling at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, along with such historic vessels as Apollo 11 and “The Spirit of Saint Louis.”

Just days before the much-postponed production date, Roddenberry and Harold Livingston are busy revising the script, which is based on an original story by Alan Dean Foster and Roddenberry. Bob Abel, Con Pederson and Richard Taylor are readying spectacular special effects. (Pederson supervised those effects in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) Academy Award-winner Robert Wise (“West Side Story,” “The Sound of Music”) will direct; and Jerry Goldsmith (“Chinatown,” “Planet of the Apes”), an Academy Award-winner himself, is finishing the musical score.

Also returning from the original cast are James Doohan (Chief Engineer Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott); George Takei (Mr. Sulu); Nichelle Nichols (Lieutenant Uhura); Walter Koenig (Ensign Pavel Chekov); Majel Barrett (McCoy’s Nurse, Christine Chapel); and Grace Lee Whitney (yeoman Janice Rand). A former Miss India, Persis Khambatta, plays an exotic cast member joining the Enterprise from the planet Delta. Next week, her head will be shaved, but what that means for the film is a matter for guesses and publicists.

Roddenberry had hoped to do a feature a few years ago, but was unable to interest the studios. Rich Frank, head of Paramount Television Services, spent a half-million dollars on new “Star Trek” sets last winter and tried to develop a new series for a so-called “limited fourth network,” to air weekly on a group of independent and network affiliate stations. The project was put in a holding patter last spring, but the studio feels the time is right for a feature and that it will be more economically feasible than a new TV series.

“Star Trek” was a show that affected not only the careers of the cast, but their personal lives. The past decade has found Shatner in various projects, including one short-lived television series about early San Francisco. He is now doing a one-man show called “The Star Traveller.” Nimoy has spent much time on the road, working, and Kelley has spent much time at home, “enjoying life.” “Jim Kirk,” “Mr. Spock,” and “Bones” look forward to the film reunion.

I had lunch with Nimoy, who played the half-Vulcan, half-Earthling with the Lucifer-like ears and became a pop culture hero over the past decade. On his way to the restaurant, he’d stopped to be fitted for seven pairs of specially designed boots for the film. He is taking seriously his role as the logical Spock, a character who struggles to free himself from human emotion.

“I am no in a process of meditation for two or three hours a day on the condition that I will arrive at on the day we start shooting—the emotional and psychological condition of the character,” says Nimoy. “I must be ready on the day we start filming to present a character, who is interesting, provocative, dramatic, and dynamic.”

What can we expect from the movie? “Ask Gene Roddenberry. It’s only my next job,” Nimoy replies. But some information has been beamed out. Shatner says the story has to do with “a large event that needs the help of the Enterprise crew.” Nimoy says, “Spock has aged 10 years. Everybody ages, even in science fiction.”

And Nimoy, of course, is 10 years older, too, and has matured as an actor. Although he is most closely associated with the role of Spock, he has been playing a variety of parts in television, theater and film. He stars in the new movie, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and he’s written, produced, directed, and toured with his one-man show “Vincent,” based on the relationship between Vincent VanGogh and his brother, Theo.

How did “Star Trek” affect his life? “Not a bit.” Nimoy is barely able to hide the laughter.

Nimoy is tired of talking about Spock. The role led to an album, “Leonard Nimoy Presents Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space,” which sold 130,000 copies, and then a single, “Visit to a Sad PLanet.” He also wrote a book, “I Am Not Spock,” which is a statement about Spock and the times. But right now, he would much rather talk about Leonard Nimoy, the actor. “Why don’t you ask me how ti feels to be an actor?” The question is posed. The answer: “Wonderful!”

He recalled when he was a student actor, visiting a Picasso exhibition. Somebody approached a painting and asked, “What does this mean to you?” Picasso responded by quoting the alphabet. “The point for me,” says Nimoy, “is that if the work does not make its own statement, then all the rest is just empty dialogue. Either the work speaks for itself or it doesn’t.” Nimoy is a perfectionist; a serious actor. “We’re talking about a certain kind of work that I do and if I am to have any respect for that work or to ask other people to have respect for the work, then you cannot reduce it to clichés. My life is a body of work that will take on a certain degree of quality. The work either speaks well or it doesn’t, and I leave that up to the audience,” says Nimoy.

Shatner feels as if he’s never been away from the show.

He spoke of the closeness among cast members, saying, “That closeness is particularly between Leonard (Nimoy) and myself. It was as if we had never done anything else. When we met again, it ended up with him inviting me to his one-man show, and me inviting him to mine.”

Shatner’s ”The Star Traveller” is a show he calls “the most innovative and unique thing I’ve done. It’s a new concept in multi-media, combining music and lights and science fiction. I’ve just received funding from Warner Brothers.” He is also due to appear in two made-for-televison films, “Crash” and “Little Women.”

Does he find that returning to something old is something new? “Yes. I just came out of wardrobe fitting. The new design is sensational. It’s obvious that the designer has got the feeling of ‘Star Trek.’ It’s clear the Bob Wise and the others are in tune with it.”

Shatner says the film’s gone through some considerable re-writing. “The original script wasn’t going to have Spock, because Leonard wasn’t available a year ago. The re-writing was mostly about Spock.”

If the film is a success, he says, he expects a series of “Star Trek” films will follow. At one point he referred to the character he plays as “James Bond,” then corrected himself with a laugh.

“I don’t think I’ve been typed in that way (as Kirk), but I’m sure in the public mind, the most popular thing I’ve done is Captain Kirk. The series has probably pushed me into an area I would not have done had I not been part of the show.” He says, too, “It’s voided my privacy,” but he appears not to mind.

While Nimoy and Shatner have not been out of work since “Star Trek” was cancelled, Kelley’s career has gone otherwise. “It’s been a mixed blessing,” says Kelley. “It has given me enormous popularity, but at the same time it has crippled my career as far as picture work is concerned.”

Prior to “Star Trek,” Kelley did a lot of films including “Love is Gone” and “Raintree County.” He was also a child actor. “My life consisted of playing a great number of predominantly western heavies,” he says, adding that he’s turned down most of the roles offered since “Star Trek.”

“I became so identified with the role of the doctor that everything that was offered to me afterwards was the role of a doctor. Nothing was coming my way that was really stimulating, so as a result, I just kind of coasted with life. I’m basically a very lazy actor anyhow. And I enjoy doing nothing about as well as anyone you ever met.”

But Kelley does keep busy—painting, swimming and surfing, writing and reading. “I enjoy my home and I’m just enjoying life and smelling the flowers,{ he adds. He looks forward to returning to the Paramount lot where he worked as a child, and he looks forward to the film. “I feel that if you’re associated with a winner, stay with it.”

“‘Star Trek’ has just never let go of my life. It’s with me day and night,” says Kelley. “Mail comes from people from all walks of life, from doctors and lawyers. It seems to have raised a hope for the future with most people.” And Kelley adds: “It feels weird, like you’re doing a hit show and not being compensated for it.”

Nimoy’s interest in science fiction “as an interesting theatrical form” began before “Star Trek.”

“You can talk about politics; you can talk about feminism; you can talk about civil rights; you can talk about these ideas in another framework and translate them into another time and place in a way that become more palatable, and, perhaps, more easily recognized as an interesting and valid point of view. You can talk about creatures and really be dealing with human nature,” says Nimoy.

He has become something of an authority on science fiction, lecturing at universities around the country. The recent box office successes of films like “Star Wars” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” reflect the public’s fascination with the field, although nothing has yet proved so enduring as “Star Trek.”

“Star Trek” has become a genuine cultural phenomenon. “It seems to touch a very responsive chord in people from all walks of life, from 8 to 80,” says Kelley. “It just keeps picking up new viewers in syndication—whole new little generations,” he adds. He attributes its appeal to the fact that it’s a very optimistic show. “It showed the youths that there was some place to go, that this was only the beginning of an adventuresome time of life.” Another explanation may be “the unabashed camaraderie and love and respect for everybody.”

Shatner speaks, too, of “the warmth the audience feels toward the family of players. That’s the most enduring factor beyond the quality of the stories and production.”

That camaraderie and chemistry among the cast and crew continues off the set as well. The principals have kept in touch with one another on a regular basis through the past decade, although Shatner observes that a certain hierarchy exists not only on the fictional Enterprise, but off the set, too.

After he finishes his poached salmon, Nimoy asks that he not be categorized. He doesn’t want to be quoted “refusing to discuss this or that”; and he doesn’t want someone to write, “He’s obviously trying to escape the role of Spock.” But Nimoy admits that he became so involved with the character of Spock that he has taken on some of his characteristics. In “I Am Not Spock,” he confesses to feeling at times like an alien.

The three stars feel tremendous affection for “Star Trek” fans. “You get a deep feeling of love. You can feel it,” says Kelley. “It’s a flattering feeling to think that I’ve been a part of a show that’s had this impact on people, but it’s also a stroke of luck for everyone identified with it. I don’t think that many actors in Hollywood have ever experience the feeling that the ‘Star Trek’ crew has dealt with. In fact I know of no other show that has stirred up the imagination and the feeling of people who attend the mini-conventions that we attend where there have been as many as 20,000 people.”

“Space,” Shatner says, “will be the frontier that will remain, eternally.”

Nimoy thought about it all for a moment. “This is a gigantic, kind of historic thing, isn’t it? All of us coming back together again. It really is. I don’t want to belittle that. Describe it as my next job, because I don’t want to get carried away and overblown with the circumstances and the trappings and and the surroundings of it all. I have to deal with the work. I can’t earn my money telling interesting stories to the press about what it means to have ‘Star Trek’ come back together again.”

He simply wants to be Leonard Nimoy until he walks into the studio in the morning and puts on his make-up and Vulcan ears. He is constantly waging a battle against the actor and the character merging into one.

“I look forward to being at the world premiere when the picture opens. And I will probably be off doing something else … That’s the nature of the actor,” says Nimoy. “But you must not overlook one central point,” he adds. “The whole thing works. It is successful.”

Says Kelly:

“We just wait and hope that the film will satisfy all of those people out there. You have to take into consideration the wonderment of ‘you can go home again.’”

Apparently Shatner was right, “Space will be the frontier that will remain, eternally.”

To read the published article, click here.