Star Trek, and the non-existent 50th birthday party

Last week, Star Trek officially reached its 50th birthday. It was a surprisingly quiet celebration...

On September 8th 1966, Star Trek officially debuted on American television. The first ‘regular’ episode (following the earlier pilot, The Cage, that wasn’t broadcast for many decades), The Man Trap, was aired to mixed reviews, as we first met the crew of the maiden Enterprise as they ventured to planet M-113. The episode kicked off an original run that covered three seasons. More than that, too. It kicked off something very special in the world of science fiction.

Last week marked the 50th birthday of that broadcast. Given the impact of Trek across those five decades, its ability and willingness to reinvent itself, its mission to explore new worlds and put a warm, welcoming arm around fans of all species, its 50th anniversary is a huge landmark. A really welcome one too, having flown the flag for geekdom long before it became so mainstream to do so.

The problem? You could be forgiven for barely noticing it was Trek’s birthday at all. For it seems somebody forgot to arrange any kind of big celebratory party. Whilst there were screenings and events, there was no obvious sense of a celebration. And I can’t help but think that’s a missed opportunity.

Inevitably, I can’t help but contrast that with 2013. Back then, Doctor Who was celebrating its 50th birthday, and boy, it certainly felt it. An official convention debuted in London (and quickly sold out), there were special DVD releases and merchandise were released to mark the occasion. And, best of all, there was The Day Of The Doctor, a glorious 90 minute special that worked both as a standalone story, and also as a wonderful gift to fans, and fandom. That it was backed up with Peter Davison’s exceptionally funny reunion of The Five Doctors was all the better. That night, in fact, on November 23rd 2013, felt like something special. And that was even before The Curator turned up.

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But that wasn’t all, remember. The BBC also arranged for The Day Of The Doctor to play in cinemas around the country, and people duly turned up. Doctor Who broke into the top five at the cinema box office for that week, mainly down to the takings on one Saturday night. It felt like an event. Heck, it was an event. 50 years on, the BBC took the Doctor’s birthday to try new things, to celebrate with fandom, and to broadcast a joyously fun special episode.

Star Trek? There wasn’t even a cake that I saw.

Sure, there were things, but there wasn’t something central to salute, to draw fandom together. And I think that’s a real shame. The obvious centrepiece could have been the enjoyable summer blockbuster movie Star Trek Beyond, which certainly had its fair share of nods (and a heartbreaking wonderful tribute to Leonard Nimoy), and appreciation for Trek lore and history. But it also had other things it needed to do. Paramount’s latest round of Star Trek movies are trying to bring in a big, broad blockbuster audience that, in some cases, has been wary of Star Trek in the past. As such, Star Trek Beyond was a big blockbuster film, that arrived in the middle of big blockbuster season. It would be barely conceivable for Paramount to spend $150m+ upwards simply making the film, and then release it in early September. I fully get why it didn’t.

Furthermore, the 50th birthday has come at a point when Star Trek on the small screen is at an exciting point, but not quite there. Sure, we get Syfy showcasing episodes, and Netflix uploading back seasons of the show to its streaming services. There’s a special boxset out there too. That’s all very much appreciated. But – even though you could argue there’s been some notice of a 50th birthday impending – there was no opportunity to get a television special together in time. That, for me, is the real loss here. Remember how wonderfully Star Trek: Deep Space Nine honoured the 30th anniversary of Trek with the episode Trials And Tribble-ations, still one of the most fondly remembered pieces of DS9? Granted, it broadcast two months after the birthday, but it barely mattered, because we knew it was coming. It proved a lovely and fitting salute to the show.

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As unreasonable a wishlist as it may be, was there really no discussion, or opportunity, for a one-off anniversary special? We’re in an era where, for instance, American networks will do a one-night only restaging of something like Grease, and attract sizeable ratings in return. Surely, if someone had built something Star Trek-y for 8th September 2016, people would have come.

Perhaps the closest we’ve had to something is Adam Nimoy’s For The Love Of Spock, a documentary chronicling the work of his father, the late, great Leonard Nimoy. The pair envisaged the project when Leonard Nimoy was nearing the very end of his life, and the finished film is a testament both to the man himself, and to the values of Star Trek. It’s a very welcome piece of work, albeit not strictly an official one.

For it should noted that Star Trek is a show with more parents these days than Doctor Who. In the case of Doctor Who, it’s a BBC show, and the commercial offsprings were overseen by BBC Worldwide, which is technically a separate company. But it’s still clearly not going to have that much trouble getting its paws on BBC things that it needs. The BBC and BBC Worldwide were clearly very joined up on Doctor Who’s 50th, as was showrunner Steven Moffat. The result was a celebratory year that Star Trek has fallen a long way short of.

Trek, though, has a differing corporate family tree. CBS is overseeing the new TV show, with Netflix picking up rights in many territories. CBS used to be part of the Viacom group, that owns Paramount Pictures, but the two have split. Whilst there is linkage between the two – and I can’t claim to fully understand corporate machinations – it’s clear it’s far from a case of walking into the next office and having a chat. As such, more corporations are vested in Star Trek, and different organisations seem to have different screen rights. Thus, bringing everyone together for one big special sounds like a lawyer’s dream, and an executive’s nightmare.

I don’t know if there was ever any chance of there being a one-off at any point, but it’s all clearly moot now. September 8th came and went, and Star Trek goes on. As it should. It’s just I’d argue it didn’t get the celebration and salute it deserved (although Syfy in the UK was giving it a good go).

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I do think that’s a shame, but still: the Trek flag has been flying. Conventions continue, as they always do. The cast and crew of the assorted generations of Trek continue to interact with fandom, as they always do. Trek, in its many forms, continues to resonate, and find new friends, each and every day.

Crucially – and perhaps most importantly – it should be noted that the future for Star Trek is as bright as it’s been in a long time. Not withstanding one of the most upstanding and loyal fanbases, along with a community that’s kept together through the times, the franchise has an exciting 2017 on the horizon.

Primarily because Bryan Fuller is, right now, overseeing the return of Star Trek to the small screen, with the series Star Trek Discovery, that’s set to debut next year (it’s now set to premiere in May). On top of that, we’re already promised a 14th big screen adventure for the crew in the Kelvin timeline, with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto leading the returnees for the thus-far untitled movie. We thus know for certain that 13 episodes of Star Trek, along with one movie, are definitely happening. And we couldn’t say that on the 40th anniversary of the show.

As such, the 51st birthday of Trek promises to be a bit more exciting than the 50th. But for now, let me hold up a candle and salute a television gamble, that’s turned into something that’s brought so much joy to so many millions of people. Perhaps that one of the beauties of Star Trek. Just because the corporate side doesn’t want to have a knees up, it doesn’t mean its extensive fanbase can’t.

Live long and prosper, folks. 

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