Star Trek Into Darkness opens in the United States this Friday after having opened in a couple dozen countries since its May 2 London premiere. Once again, Chris Pine essays the iconic role of Capt. James T. Kirk and all of the key actors in the Enterprise crew return intact from 2009’s Star Trek, which rebooted the franchise by taking the property’s original characters and shaving several years off their ages. Reboot director-producer J.J. Abrams, was also back on board for this latest voyage.
Unlike most other sci-fi sagas, which take place in other solar systems, galaxies, universes, and/or eras, the Star Trek saga traces its origins to planet Earth and takes place in the not-too-distant future. Due to the vast number of TV series, movies, books, games, etc., fans now refer to the franchise as the Star Trek universe. After 47 years of Star Trek in all its many guises, that’s not too much of an exaggeration, that’s a fairly apt description!
Writer-producer Gene Roddenberry first created the concept for Star Trek in 1964. NBC commissioned a pilot from Desilu Studios (later purchased by current Star Trek franchise owner Paramount) starring Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Christopher Pike. NBC passed on the show, but still had enough interest to finance a second pilot in 1966 starring William Shatner as Capt. James T. Kirk. That version was picked up and the series premiered on the peacock network on September 8, 1966. The progressive-thinking Roddenberry had sold the show to NBC as being like a western set in space, but used the series to comment on hot-button social issues (racism, religion, imperialism, human rights, feminism) through slyly-disguised allegories. Star Trek, featuring one of TV’s first interracial casts, started strong, but found its ratings slowly erode over the show’s three-year, seventy-nine episode run.
The series had already developed a cult-like audience as a network series, but it really built a fanatical following once it went into syndication in fall 1969. By 1973, there was enough interest in reviving the show for NBC to bring it back as a Saturday morning cartoon. That version of the series, now dubbed Star Trek: The Animated Series, ran for a season and a half with twenty-two episodes. Although many Star Trek fans choose to ignore the series’ very existence, it should be noted that all of the principals from the original cast provided the voices for their characters.
A mid-seventies attempt to reunite the original cast for another primetime network TV show was scrapped, but eventually formed the basis for the first theatrical film, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Neither fans, nor critics, were wholly satisfied with the result, but the box office numbers showed Paramount that there was still plenty of interest among Trekkies (or Trekkers, as some prefer to be called). Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan arrived in 1982. Although it grossed less than the first film, its much lower production cost resulted in the studio earning a higher profit. Now that Paramount had figured out a workable model, they were just getting started. Soon, there would be more Star Trek titles than Cyrano Jones had tribbles.
More films followed with the original actors: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). In the meantime, Paramount had also created a new television series – Star Trek: The Next Generation – following different characters and set roughly 100 years after the original. Bypassing the networks, Paramount ran TNG in first-run syndication. The series, starring Patrick Stewart as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, premiered September 28, 1987, running seven seasons and 178 episodes.
Months after TNG ended, 1994’s Star Trek: Generations arrived in theaters with a storyline seeking to bridge the Capt. Kirk and Capt. Picard eras, but with the TNG cast taking center stage. Three more TNG movies followed: 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact, 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection, and 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis, before the public tired of that crew.
Star Trek: Generations may have passed the figurative baton from the original series to TNG, but Paramount wasn’t just relying on the latter to keep the Star Trek banner flying. In 1993, the studio introduced Star Trek: Deep Space Nine while TNG was still in production. Like TNG, DS9 was also shown in first-run syndication, running for seven seasons and 176 episodes. Just two years later, Paramount launched yet another series in the franchise, Star Trek: Voyager. Voyager, which premiered on the newly-created UPN television network, also ran seven seasons, but for four fewer episodes than DS9. Each of those series (TNG, DS9, Voyager) ended by the decision of the producers, not by cancellation.
In 2001, just months after ending Voyager, Paramount introduced Star Trek: Enterprise. Unlike the three previous Star Trek series, which all took place in the same time period, Enterprise took place halfway between the original series and three seven-season entries. Like Voyager, Enterprise was a UPN show. Unlike Voyager, its ratings steadily declined. During its fourth and final season, Enterprise was canceled, though it was allowed to complete the season, having produced 98 episodes. The cancelation of Enterprise in 2005 made it the first Star Trek series to suffer that fate since the original in 1969. It also ended an uninterrupted 18-year run of new Star Trek product on television, with several of those years featuring concurrently running series.
All told, there have been six Star Trek series, totaling thirty seasons and 726 episodes. Now, with the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, there have been twelve films, featuring three distinct casts. Where can you find your favorite Star Trek TV series/season/movie, or the one that has eluded you? The answer, of course, is the Des Moines Public Library, where DVDs (even entire TV seasons) check out for seven days for just one dollar. And so ends this warp speed tour of the Star Trek universe. “Take over, Mr. Sulu. Steady as she goes.”