Television series come and go. Remember Dragnet and Happy Days? Both were wildly popular in their day. Dragnet was on the air for eight seasons, from 1951 to 1959, and was the basis of a 1987 movie starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks. Happy Days gave rise to a number of popular spin-offs including Laverne & Shirley, Mork and Mindy, and Joanie Loves Chachi.
But today, can you walk into your average bookstore and pick up a Happy Days novel? Can you attend a Dragnet convention? When was the last time you even saw an episode from either of those series, except maybe on late-night cable?
And yet, one series, even though not as popular during its initial run as those others, simply refuses to die.
Star Trek never enjoyed exceptional ratings. More than once, studio executives at Desilu and Paramount wanted to cancel the poorly performing series. It was expensive to produce, fraught with technical difficulties, and constantly challenging the sensibilities of the censors. (Many of the costumes for the alien women were quite revealing, and the series boasts the first on-screen interracial kiss.)
After only two seasons it seemed the obstacles had become too great; Gene Roddenberry’s western in space was canceled.
Play Star Trek Catan from Amazon.
For any other series that would have been the end of the matter. Not so for Star Trek. Before the stage lights had cooled and before the sets could be dismantled, production had resumed. What happened?
In an unprecedented letter-writing campaign, Star Trek fans inundated studio executives with demands to resurrect their beloved series. Remember, this was long before the advent of email and online petitions. As many as a million typed and hand-written letters flooded the offices of NBC, proving beyond a doubt the show had a loyal following.
Although the series finally was canceled after the third season in June 1969, fan devotion didn’t fade. Syndication kept the dream alive, making Star Trek available in re-runs around the world in dozens of languages. Countless books featuring both the original cast as well as new characters in all new adventures appeared.
An animated series aired in 1973 followed by the first movie in 1979, another in 1982, and two more in 1984 and 1986. By then, the producers realized that Star Trek still had a lot of life in it, thanks to the fans that kept lining up at the box office. So they launched a whole new series in 1987. Set almost a hundred years after its predecessor, The Next Generation featured a new ship with a new crew. With an incredible seven year run, it was followed by still more series, Deep Space Nine in 1993, Voyager in 1995, Enterprise in 2001, Discovery in 2017, and Picard in 2020.
Meanwhile there were more movies with the original cast and crew, a passing-of-the-torch movie in 1994, more movies with the Next Generation characters, and then a new set of movies envisioned as a re-boot of the franchise with a cast of new and younger actors taking over the original roles of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest. All the while, novels, graphic novels, and comics continued to appear, many of them featuring new ships and new crews.
Even that isn’t enough for the fans.
Taking advantage of desktop video editing, 3D modeling, and computer animation, fan-produced movies now let old and new characters explore even more strange new worlds, with production values often superior to those of the studio-produced original series. This includes the exceptional 11-episode series Star Trek Continues, overlapping the events of the original series with new, yet familiar, stories. And with the availability of broadband internet access, there’s no need to rely on the whims of network executives.
The legal owners of the Star Trek universe, while not sanctioning any fan fiction, for the most part seem content to let it be so long as it isn’t produced for commercial gain. They obviously appreciate that it is these same loyal fans that have kept the franchise alive and that to stifle them would be like putting a phaser to their own heads.
Today, it’s this unbridled fan enthusiasm that continues to foster Star Trek conventions, action figures and toys, video games, and innumerable online discussion forums.
When will it end? Not any time soon, judging by the ongoing success of Discovery and Picard. Without a doubt, we will boldly go for a long time to come.