The vision of the future that “Star Trek” laid out in 1966 may have been bright and shiny, but 50 years later, the most valuable artifacts that the show left behind were a real mess.
“Building Star Trek,” premiering on the Smithsonian Channel on Sunday, tells how those artifacts were restored to their 23rd-century glory – for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, and for Seattle’s EMP Museum.
You can see the fruits of the conservators’ labors at the EMP’s 50th-anniversary “Star Trek” exhibit, but “Building Star Trek” shows you much more: glimpses behind the scenes at what it takes to preserve the past, parallels between the futuristic fiction of “Star Trek” and cultural trends of the 1960s, and present-day technological developments that echo the show’s sci-fi innovations.
There are even enough cheesy clips from the original series to remind you that this was a TV program from the days before computer-generated wizardry took hold, when “Bonanza” led the ratings.
The need to work within the limitations of the age was what spawned many of the futuristic technologies on “Star Trek.” For example, crew members beamed back and forth using the Starship Enterprise’s transporter to save set designers and scriptwriters from having to worry about how to fly them down to an alien planet’s surface.
Faster-than-light warp drive, meanwhile, made it easy for Captain James T. Kirk to wedge lots of locales into a five-year mission – and three seasons’ worth of TV episodes.
The prop masters and set designers weren’t necessarily thinking about how their creations would hold up after 50 years, and that’s where the drama comes in for curators like Brooks Peck at the EMP, and Malcolm Collum at the Smithsonian.
During one segment of “Building Star Trek,” you can read the look of dread on Peck’s face when he opens the box containing a section of the Enterprise’s main control panel. It looks like something you’d find in a trash bin, with holes in the plywood where Ensign Chekov’s sparkly lights and switches should have been.
“Wow,” Peck says. “I knew it was in a bad way. I didn’t know it was this bad.”
A similar look is on Collum’s face as he surveys a 11-foot-long model of the Enterprise that he and his team are supposed to get ready for display at the National Air and Space Museum.
“I’m very concerned this entire hull section could just split open like an egg,” he says.
Over the course of four months, both teams of conservators find ways to patch up the cracks and fill in the holes, handling the TV props with the same care they use on actual space artifacts.
They’re lucky they had anything at all to work with. Most of the sets and the props from “Star Trek” were tossed out once production stopped. In one scene from the show, retired UCLA professor Bill Ward recalls how the painted sets were dropped off unceremoniously at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television for recycling.
“If they had known how valuable this would have become, they would have held onto it, because it would be worth a tremendous amount today,” he says.
Fortunately, the legacy of “Star Trek” lives on – not only in the museum exhibits, and not only in the string of sequels that followed, but also in the real-life scientific advances inspired by science fiction.
For science fans who prefer to keep their feet firmly grounded in reality, the best parts of “Building Star Trek” are likely to be the scenes featuring researchers such as New York University’s David Grier, who’s working on a tractor beam to collect samples of dust and ice in space:
Or laser scientist Rob Afzal, who’s based in Bothell, Wash., and is working on Lockheed Martin’s high-energy laser weapon system. He hasn’t turned it into a Trek-worthy phaser yet, but it’s still early days:
Or the University of Rochester’s John Howell, who developed a simple optical invisibility cloak that was inspired by the Romulans’ cloaking device on “Star Trek.” (Other scientists are working on different types of wave-bending cloaking devices that use metamaterials.)
Or Sonny Kohli, a Canadian physician who’s on one of the teams trying to create portable diagnostic devices inspired by the all-purpose medical tricorder on “Star Trek” – and win a $10 million XPRIZE competition in the process:
Some technologies have actually outpaced the “Star Trek” vision for the 23rd century. Today’s smartphones, for instance, make Captain Kirk’s flip-phone communicator look horribly out of date.
“Would these things have happened as quickly as they have without ‘Star Trek’?” Peck asks. “I think science and science fiction have this symbiotic relationship. Science fiction inspires scientists to invent what they see in science fiction.”
“Building Star Trek” isn’t just about building a couple of museum exhibits. It’s about a vision of the future that keeps inspiring us to create objects and ideas that are bright and shiny, even after 50 years.
“Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds” will be on exhibit at Seattle’s EMP Museum through next February. The museum has planned a day of special activities on Sept. 8, which marks the 50th anniversary of the first “Star Trek” TV episode. Among the highlights are a showing of “Building Star Trek” and a panel discussion titled “Trek Talk: Star Trek’s Continuing Influence on Science and Innovation.”
“Building Star Trek” premieres on the Smithsonian Channel on Sunday, but there will be repeat airings. Check your local TV listings for times.