Thanks to some old VHS tapes kept in meticulous condition by my grandfather, I’ve been a “Trekkie” since the third grade. I had high hopes for History’s documentary, 50 Years of Star Trek, and I was not disappointed.
Narrated by Joe Sanfelippo, History (formerly known as The History Channel) presents a documentary that takes a look at the past, present, and future of the Star Trek franchise. Seated as a round table panel in the Leonard Nimoy Theater of the Griffith Park Observatory, the documentary is “hosted” (for lack of a better term) by comedian and Nerdist podcast co-host Matt Mira, Jeri Ryan (Star Trek: Voyager’s “Seven of Nine”), actor/comedian Kevin Pollak, Doug Drexler (Special Makeup Effects Artist, Star Trek: The Next Generation), NASA engineer Bobak “Mohawk Guy” Ferdowsi, and Dr. John Putman (Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University). Our hosts discuss their earliest memories of the franchise, what they love most about it, favorite episodes and characters, and why they think Star Trek will continue to exist in the future.
In addition to interviews with numerous cast and crew members, viewers also hear from some famous fans including actors John Barrowman (Arrow), Bruce Campbell (Ash vs. The Evil Dead), Patrick Fabian (Better Call Saul), Michael McKean (This Is Spinal Tap), Olivia Munn (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Jared Padalecki (Supernatural). Peter Gould (Executive Producer, Better Call Saul) notes how Star Trek has influenced his show and speculates on how it has influenced others.
Star Trek debuted on September 8th of 1966 with “The Man Trap.” The show, which ran for three years, was originally called Star Trek; however, with so many subsequent versions and movies, it is now also commonly referred to as Star Trek: The Original Series. The history of this first show is told by some of the original cast members, including Leonard Nimoy, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig, as well as some of the original producers and writers, including John D.F. Black, Mary Black, and D.C. Fontana. Much time is spent on the importance and influence of creator Gene Roddenberry (below), as well as some of his personal experiences that led him to develop the show.
As Roddenberry wished, Star Trek: The Original Series was revolutionary for its time. Roddenberry’s son, Rod Roddenberry, and writers Mark A. Altman (The Fifty-Year Mission) and Marc Cushman (These are the Voyages) discuss the impact of his vision and the lasting legacy of the show itself. No other show of the time featured such a diverse cast and tackled quite as many relevant social issues. They also discuss a lesser-known influence on the show and its success. Did you know that Star Trek might not have existed without Lucille Ball?
In honor of its 50th anniversary, Star Trek: The Original Series is heavily featured throughout the documentary; however, the following animated version of The Original Series and the six live-action movies all featuring the original cast members are also included. Viewers get to hear which of the movies the cast and crew liked and disliked, in addition to the struggles of making each movie. Leonard Nimoy (below), who passed away a year before this documentary aired, reflects on the ending of The Wrath of Khan. To use one of Spock’s favorite words, his insight is “fascinating.” Walter Koenig shares how the special effects of the infamous bug scene from the same movie were made, while Ike Eisenmann (“Peter Preston”, The Wrath of Khan) discusses conflict on set. Christopher Lloyd shares his delight in playing the villainous Commander Kruge in the third film, The Search for Spock. There is a running joke among some fans that only the evenly-numbered Star Trek films were successful; writer and director Nicholas Meyer (note: who only worked on the second, fourth, and sixth films) shares his opinions about what made the films successful and what decisions were ultimately mistakes for the franchise. We also learn about what could have been; for example, at one point Eddie Murphy was supposed to star in the fourth film.
Following this discussion of Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the three following iterations of the franchise become the main topic, though less time is given to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise. Throughout this section, viewers get to hear from cast members including Robert Beltran, John Billingsley, James Cromwell, Roxann Dawson, John de Lancie, Michael Dorn, Jonathan Frakes, Whoopi Goldberg, Dominic Keating, Chase Masterson, Gates McFadden, Anthony Montgomery, Ethan Phillips, Tim Russ, Armin Shimerman, and Sarah Silverman (No joke – her first ever acting experience was on a two-part episode of Star Trek: Voyager back in 1996). We also hear how Star Trek influenced Brannon Braga (Co-creator/Executive Producer, Star Trek: Enterprise), Ronald D. Moore (Writer/Producer, Star Trek: The Next Generation), and Michael Sussman (Writer/Producer, Star Trek: Voyager), as well as what the franchise means to each of them. A recurring theme presented by the cast and crew is that each version of the show aimed to be unique while still attempting to have the “Star Trek” feel and familiarity.
Gene Roddenberry had an idea to present a show that featured a diverse cast working together in harmony; therefore, many episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series offered social commentary on controversial issues of the time, albeit typically in an allegorical form. For example, specific episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” used different alien species as metaphors for different races and views on racism. While remaining true to Roddenberry’s vision, all five shows attempted to offer social critique in some of their episodes. Aliens continued to be used as metaphors for different nationalities and races. Often sensitive topics like birth control, population limits, gender equality, world hunger, greed, and political corruption were also addressed – sometimes subtly, sometimes not.
Though noted for its ability to discuss controversial issues in allegorical form, the show was also revolutionary in its use of technology. Andre Bormanis and Naren Shankar, both science consultants on Star Trek: The Next Generation, discuss the use of technology throughout the entire franchise. Gene Roddenberry was insistent that the technology featured on Star Trek: The Original Series be unique, yet believable. The show was ahead of its time with floppy disks, communicators, and automatic sliding doors. (On a side note – it even featured the mini-skirt before it became popular in America.) The show featured devices similar to modern cell phones and iPads, and a clear connection between today’s Siri and the original ship’s computer (voiced by Majel Barrett) can be drawn.
A final major area of influence discussed is the franchise’s ability to inspire its viewers. Star Trek has inspired countless people to become engineers, doctors, scientists, writers, and more. Some of the actors and writers from Star Trek: The Original Series share some of their favorite stories. Long after the show ended, James Doohan (above, far left) and DeForest Kelley (above, second from left) both continued to receive fan mail thanking them for their inspirational performances as the brilliant engineer Montgomery Scott and the wise Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, respectively, until their deaths. Walter Koenig (above, third from left) shares a particularly funny story about a fan inspired by his Russian-speaking character, Ensign Checkov. Some of the more recent cast and crew members get to share how the franchise’s legacy influenced their career choices.
The final few minutes look to the future of the Star Trek franchise. The hosts, as well as several fans, cast members, and creators discuss why they think Star Trek will continue to exist in the future. Time is also spent discussing the J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek movie series. We hear from Abrams, cast members Simon Pegg and Karl Urban, and director Justin Lin (Star Trek Beyond). With a new Star Trek show on the horizon, former and current cast and crew members also discuss their hopes for the next installation – Star Trek: Discovery (expected in 2017).
It is worth noting that this documentary is not associated with CBS or Paramount. Instead, it is the product of Joe Braswell (writer) and Ian Roumain (director). It is clear that they love Star Trek and wanted to make a product that celebrates the franchise. In my opinion, they did quite well. I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary and would happily watch it again. Throughout the feature, I reminisced with fans, laughed at the on-set stories and trivia tidbits told by the actors and writers, and was fascinated by the history of the franchise told from many different perspectives. I loved hearing people share their favorite episodes or argue why one character was better than all the rest.
I only have two critiques of the documentary, and the first one is almost insignificant. The music on the DVD’s main menu feels out of place and doesn’t offer an immediate connection to the franchise. The theme from Star Trek: The Original Series would have been a better choice, but it may have been restricted by CBS and Paramount. Throughout the feature, the music is fine for the most part; however, in two or three places, it is distracting and almost competes with the person speaking. Though, again, that’s a minor issue at most.
My biggest critique of this feature is its lack of actors who portrayed captains. We see archived footage, but do not hear directly from William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Avery Brooks, Kate Mulgrew, or Scott Bakula. Not even the new Captain Kirk, Chris Pine, is seen. The reason for these absences is not given. With the amount of attention this feature dedicates to Star Trek: The Original Series, William Shatner’s absence is especially felt. Love him or hate him, it is hard to deny the importance of Shatner’s influence on the franchise. As film critic Scott Mantz says in this documentary, “William Shatner had Kirk down from Act 1, Scene 1, and he played that through right until the end in Star Trek: Generations in 1994.” The documentary also reveals that Kirk is not only many people’s favorite captain, but also their favorite character from the entire franchise. Not having the actor who brought that crucial character to life is definitely a mistake, in my opinion.
Overall, though, the documentary excels at featuring cast, crew, and fans alike. The topics discussed cover the importance and influence of Star Trek, including its controversial social commentary, belief in diversity, ideas for technology, and inspirations for young viewers. It covers the past, present, and future of the franchise and is sure to please almost every “Trekkie” out there.
This documentary comes in DVD and Digital formats and offers no special features.