Why I still love 'Star Trek'

There's a good reason for the cross-generational appeal of a series that began when LBJ was in the White House, says CNET News.com's Charles Cooper.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read
Upon hearing that a bidder at last weekend's auction of "Star Trek" memorabilia paid $576,000 for a 78-inch-long model of the Starship Enterprise-D, my first reaction was pure snark.

Another yuppie dope, I quickly concluded. Doesn't this guy--and yes, it's a guy--have better ways to spend his dot-com dollars?

But it wasn't a single act of insanity. Over the course of three days, more than $7 million worth of props, models and costumes that figured in the "Star Trek" television series and feature films were auctioned off. That's more than double Christie's presale expectations. (For stories, video and photo galleries on the Christie's auction, fan-driven filming of new "Star Trek" episodes and how life imitates "Star Trek," click here.)

What with the Dow Jones Industrial Average seemingly breaking new records every day, I suppose one could attribute this extraordinary splurge to a surplus of disposable income. Times are good, and as the economic historian Thorstein Veblen noted more than a century ago, Americans never have been shy about engaging in conspicuous consumption.

Maybe wanting to be like Capt. Kirk wasn't so crazy an adolescent fantasy.

But that explanation only goes so far. My hunch is this crowd would have been equally ga-ga had the items been auctioned off smack in the middle of the recent recession. That's because "Star Trek" and the adventures of Kirk, Spock and the rest who followed have a special way of speaking to sci-fi fantasies we've carried over from childhood.

The first time I saw William Shatner in his spandex-like suit making out with gorgeous aliens and battling Klingons--the two naturally went hand in hand--it was instant infatuation. I was 10 years old and dreamed of one day taking off for distant planets on a starship just like the Enterprise. Back in the real world, NASA was shortly about to put men on the moon. Maybe wanting to be like Capt. Kirk wasn't so crazy an adolescent fantasy.

My career obviously went in a different direction, and the closest I ever came to a spacecraft was a summertime visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But every astronaut liftoff in the last 20 years has set my pulse racing, returning me to the days when the battles of a fictional starship were more tangible to me than the real-world heroics of the Apollo astronauts.

Star Trek auction

The Christie's auction again underscored how fan attachment to "Star Trek" is stronger now than it was during the three years the original show appeared on NBC. Put another way, Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy were doing their thing when LBJ was still in the White House. The cross-generational appeal of the series is virtually unheard of in the annals of television. Imagine the Nielsens ratings if a network attempted to reincarnate "My Favorite Martian" for prime time.

Lots of science fiction shows have since come and gone since the 1960s. But last time I checked, groupies don't hold conventions to celebrate the "Outer Limits" or "Battlestar Galactica."

Maybe it's the other-worldly gadgetry that various "Star Trek" captains have had at their disposal to use against sundry Klingons, Romulans and Cardassians. When I was a kid, I wanted a phaser in the worst way. My friend next door would have sold his Lionel train set to get his hands on a set of dilithium crystals. (Just what he would have done with them was never entirely clear.)

I think for most folks, though, it was the hokey story lines where the good guys usually--though not always--trumped the bad guys in a way that helped foster a greater good. A professor once tried to explain the appeal of "Star Trek" to me by likening it to Wilsonian idealism. His point was that Kirk et al were on a mission to spread the benefits of the Federation to oppressed aliens throughout the universe. In the aftermath of the First World War, Woodrow Wilson sought self-determination for people living under the rule of multiethnic empires. Kirk = Wilson, the Federation = America.

The story goes that "Star Trek" creator, Gene Roddenberry, wanted a story line that could hold its own against the likes of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. And that meant writing about technology--lots of it. Holed up in his office with a typewriter and a big idea, he did good.

The personal-computer revolution was still more than a decade away, but Roddenberry's imagined future wasn't that far off the mark. Of course, in one respect he was awfully wrong. On the Enterprise, the computer served the crew. Back on Earth in the early 21st century, it's still too often the other way around.

But at least we can dream of that starry future, the one the Enterprise is pointing to.