New Smithsonian documentary highlights the cultural importance of Star Trek


You can usually expect that the Smithsonian Institution productions will deliver quality programming, and its latest is no exception.  The two-hour documentary Building Star Trek chronicles fifty years of Star Trek from its inception to the artifacts of the series that remain decades later, and from the idea of a 23rd century future and beyond to futuristic technologies being made reality today.

The Smithsonian used two museum exhibits to bookend its overview of Star Trek for the 50th anniversary, one on each coast.  At the Smithsonian’s own National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, DC, the museum recounts the recent restoration of the original filming model of the Enterprise, which has been on display there since 1974, but not as a featured display.  On the West Coast the EMP Museum in Seattle created a display of props and costumes as well.

Interspersed with snippets from the progress of each museum’s projects are interviews with insiders like reboot actor and writer Simon Pegg, actor Karl Urban, original series star Nichelle Nichols, original series writer DC Fontana, and Trek fans.  With each artifact featured in the exhibits, a short segment is given to an original creator, like the designer of the original shuttle Galileo, and a modern-day scientist working on the implementation of concepts introduced or emphasized in Star Trek, like phasers, tricorders, transporters, the universal translator, and warp drive.

The Star Trek display running currently at the EMP Museum in Seattle.

The documentary doesn’t take itself too seriously, using campy graphics that reflect the humor of the original series–an acknowledged critical component of the show’s success.

Building Star Trek is the best documentary so far among several attempts to get to the heart of Star Trek’s 50-year impact on the world, such as the lesser thought-provoking efforts TrekNation and History Channel’s 50 Years of Star Trek.  This is also the first time participants admit their youth in relationship to the series.  As one scientist notes, many at NASA, for example, were not alive when the original series ran.  They credit Star Trek for their inspiration, watching the 1970s and 1980s syndication airings.  Simon Pegg and Karl Urban were not around for the original series, yet anyone today can be experts on Star Trek because of so much resource material, and they did a nice job maneuvering the historical elements of the show.  Even Leonard Nimoy’s fan letters are discussed–they are part of an archive at UCLA.

The restoration of the full-sized original 1967 Galileo prop now on display in Houston is also discussed.

One of the most eye-opening pieces is “The Trouble with Tribbles” scriptwriter David Gerrold dismissing technology written for the original series as not actually possible.  The creators of the documentary then proceed to show how so much created as fiction for the series is already either in place today or well underway.

Unfortunately we don’t get a good look at either final display at the end of the show.  Much conversation is spent discussing how the Enterprise is going to be the centerpiece of the gallery of real spaceflight, which includes The Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Brothers flyer, and the Friendship 7 module.  Yet we only get a close-up of the final restored model of the Enterprise with no indication of its final location.  Likewise, the final reveal of the EMP Museum is not edited very well so we can’t get a good luck at much at all.  One piece in need of restoration–the original Enterprise console–is shown arriving in a poor state, but no discussion is given about what work was done to restore it.

The original Enterprise filming model, hidden off in a corner of the Smithsonian two years before its third restoration in 1991. I took this photo when I worked at the Smithsonian, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the moon landing, July 20, 1989.

The location of the Enterprise in the museum was always a big deal.  Donated in 1974, it was viewed as merely a piece of Americana, not a significant piece of the NASM collection.  When I worked at the Smithsonian Institution back in 1989, it was difficult to find, hidden away in a corner and every few years it was moved to a different location, finally landing in the NASM gift shop.  So it really is an achievement for this cultural piece to find its place among real spacecraft.  It is explained that the model reflects the dream of space exploration, and that is an important part of the artifacts of actual exploration on display at the museum.  The show, the ship, and this model, have come a long way.

Another angle of the Enterprise model I took on July 20, 1989.

A worthy look at the impact of Star Trek over its 50 year history, Building Star Trek airs tonight at 7 p.m. Central on the Smithsonian Channel.

C.J. Bunce

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