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Star Trek at 50: Cast members spill insider tales of epic ad-libs, favorite captains

It's been 50 years since 'Star Trek' debuted. We spoke with a dozen former cast members about which Trek tech they most want to see in real life and why they think the world's still captivated by the beloved franchise.


Got a Star Trek story?

Maybe, like me, you dressed in starship captain uniforms for Halloween and snuck into the family room past your bedtime to watch reruns, no matter how tired you'd be the next day at school.

Or maybe you never watched "Star Trek," but you still know the difference between Klingons and Romulans. At the very least, you probably know how to separate your fingers into the iconic Vulcan salute and offer up a "Live long and prosper."

With the Star Trek franchise turning 50 on September 8, I asked a dozen cast members from six of Star Trek's TV shows and movies, including Zoe Saldana, Gates McFadden and Jeri Ryan, to share their stories for CNET's Star Trek at 50 anniversary series.

Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and William Shatner pose with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and director Robert Wise ahead of the 1979 release of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

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When Star Trek was born in 1966, it was the heart of the Cold War and the scars of World War II, which ended just two decades before, were still fresh. That's why many viewers were surprised to see a Japanese helmsman working alongside a Russian ensign on the show.

They were joined by a black woman who served as the communications officer, a Scottish engineer working tirelessly to keep the ship running and an emotionless alien science officer with pointy ears. The divisions that defined the world at that time didn't seem to matter to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Michael Dorn, who starred in two Star Trek shows and five movies and is best known for playing the Klingon Worf, remembers how the original TV show stood out from the westerns and spy thrillers typical of '60s TV.

"When this came about it was like, 'Oh my God,'" Dorn said. "It was groundbreaking and different."

Star Trek went on to become a cultural touchstone that spawned six other TV shows, including a new series called "Star Trek: Discovery," coming from CNET parent company CBS in January. There have also been 13 movies, dozens of books, and more comics, video games and toys than you can imagine.

This fantastical world dreamed up by Roddenberry -- a former combat and commercial pilot, plane crash investigator and Los Angeles police officer -- inspired generations to pursue careers in science, the military, medicine and the arts.

And the world Roddenberry envisioned spurred products that helped bring the show's fantasies closer to reality. The communicator that Capt. James T. Kirk used to hail his crew on the starship Enterprise inspired the clamshell design of flip phones. Virtual-reality entrepreneurs say they're trying to re-create the Holodeck. There's currently a competition to create a real-life medical scanner, known on the show as a "tricorder."

Star Trek's recognition extends to the Smithsonian, where the model of the Enterprise used in the first show is on display, next to the Apollo 11 capsule used by Neil Armstrong and his crew for their journey to the moon and the Spirit of St. Louis, the airplane Charles Lindbergh piloted on the first solo flight across the Atlantic.

Even a space shuttle -- the real type, used by NASA -- was named after the Enterprise. So was one of the private space planes owned by Virgin CEO Richard Branson. The other was initially named after the titular ship in "Star Trek: Voyager." (It was later named Unity.)

Sure, Star Trek has been a financial blockbuster -- the movies alone have pulled in more than $2 billion by one estimate. But Roddenberry's dreamworld helped show that advanced technology and space travel were not only possible but normal.

It's a tradition for the shows, including "Star Trek: Voyager," to have a diverse cast.


Metaphor for a modern world

Star Trek featured an episode with an interracial kiss at the height of the civil rights movement.


Behind the warp-speed travel, technobabble and pajamalike uniforms, Star Trek was a not-so-subtle allegory of the world. There was the hope of everyone working together, and the reality that the society Star Trek imagined came about only after our world nearly wiped itself out in a nuclear war.

The show's launch in 1966 came as the US was enmeshed in a Cold War with Russia -- and arguably, as the country was at its most pessimistic. The Cuban missile crisis had unfolded just three years earlier, and the antiwar movement was gaining steam. The show aired through the assassinations of civil-rights icons including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

By comparison, Star Trek was "hopeful that we might see a better world where we steward our resources and our conscious is better and we plan for the common good," said Dominic Keating, who played tactical officer Lt. Malcolm Reed on "Star Trek: Enterprise" from 2001-2005.

It tells stories of human conflict through the analogs of alien races, giving viewers an opportunity to explore feelings about subjects like terrorism, nationalism, racism and religious bigotry from a more detached, objective place.

"It sort of takes the worst problems we have and puts them out into the universe so we can sit in our armchair and say, 'Oh, those aliens, tsk tsk tsk,'" said John Billingsley, who played Phlox, an alien doctor on "Star Trek: Enterprise."

But by making all the aliens represent problems in our world, some critics complained the humans came across as an unrealistically utopian society exploring the universe and discovering its challenges.

That didn't mean some of the show's stories didn't strike nerves, or break ground on TV. At its most heavy-handed, Star Trek came across as antiwar and supportive of both LGBT rights and the civil rights movements by depicting the struggles they faced.

Gates McFadden played a widow and single mother on "Star Trek: The Next Generation."


"The huge message for our show was, 'Look at this, some of this is ugly,'" said Nana Visitor, whose character Kira Nerys on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" was from an alien race that fought against an intergalactic version of the Holocaust.

Sometimes the conflicts were on a much smaller, more personal scale. Jeri Ryan played a girl kidnapped and raised by evil aliens, then snatched back by humans. For the four years she was on "Star Trek: Voyager," her character rediscovered her humanity.

Dorn, by comparison, was born to an enemy alien race, the Klingons, but served on a human starship. His was a story of an outsider being accepted.

McFadden played the ship's chief medical officer on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," but her character was also a single mother. "I had grown up when Gloria Steinem had happened and the question was, 'Can women have it all?'" McFadden said. "This was a different role. There was something modern about it."

With the most recent movies, which bring a new spin to the Capt. Kirk-era starting with 2009's "Star Trek" reboot, Zoe Saldana said she enjoyed playing the role of communications officer Nyota Uhura as an empowered woman. "I always hope that as a role model I inspire women and men to feel strong and be strong in their own skin," she said.

A scene from the 1999 Star Trek send-up "Galaxy Quest."

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Many cast members said the show offered an extended moment of reflection about the world of today. "It's interesting when we explore the very edges of ourselves," said Jolene Blalock, who played a kind of female version of Spock named T'Pol on "Star Trek: Enterprise" starting in 2001. "Star Trek is good for the health of humanity."

A newfound compassion for fans

That approach probably helped bring Trekkies together too, inspiring them to follow the franchise for half a century as it spawned cartoons, books, video games, movies and conventions.

Enrico Colantoni didn't really know about the subculture around Star Trek before playing the alien leader Mathesar in the 1999 parody homage movie "Galaxy Quest." It begins at a Star Trek-like convention, where Colantoni and his cast mates journey to ask for help from the fictional "Galaxy Quest" crew, not realizing they're actually actors (one of Alan Rickman's favorite performances).

The movie throws us into the deep end of Trek fandom, with intricate costumes, alien languages and schematics of ships so precise, you'd think they really existed. "That's a lot of time spent imagining something other than your own life," Colantoni said. "That's a commitment."

Before working on the film, Colantoni said he would have made fun of Star Trek fans for memorizing a made-up language and arguing over small details. Now he sees them differently. "They're no different than the fan of anything; they just have to define themselves," the actor said. "I discovered compassion for these people where I might have made fun of them before."

That's probably why I loved "Galaxy Quest" so much (I wasn't the only one -- it's one of the rare flicks where the people in the theater applauded at the end). The movie was like a love letter to the Star Trek world, and it helped me realize these shows and movies weren't a waste of time for those of us proud to call ourselves nerds.

I haven't stopped staying up too late to watch the shows, and to prepare for the interviews for this story, I rewatched episodes into the wee hours of the morning. I've also already warned my wife that our infant son will be wearing a Starfleet uniform soon. Blue. Science officer.

Now if only I can get his first words to be "Live long and prosper."

Editors' note: This story originally published on September 3.

Clarification, 8:45 a.m. PT September 3: The NASA space shuttle Enterprise didn't actually travel to space.