‘Phasers On Stun!’: The Continuing Legacy of Star Trek
A fan’s critical evaluation of why a never-ending franchise endures
In the 21st Century, a lot of science fiction from the past can seem hokey or out of step with what has actually come to pass. But Star Trek, in its various iterations, has had a lasting impact and influence on the real world that would’ve been impossible to predict when the original series went off the air in 1969. How did Star Trek become a multi-generational touchstone for fans of diverse backgrounds and life experiences? Ryan Britt does a good job trying to explain how in his new book.
“Phasers on Stun!: How the Making (and Remaking) of Star Trek Changed the World” is at once both a longtime fan’s love letter to the franchise and a critical evaluation of the many different properties associated with the brand “Star Trek” and how they often failed to live up to the ideals of the fan base, despite some worthy efforts. The book isn’t interested in a deep dive into all the lore of the franchise (which is a relief if you’re more of a casual fan), but a more nuanced look at each iteration of the shows and movies that have come about ever since the original series premiered in 1966.
Britt, a journalist steeped in the lore of Star Trek, conducts interviews with cast members and creative personnel to give a full portrait not just of how the shows came to be, but what they meant to each generation of fandom. Star Trek has been around so long that each succeeding property has its own loyal fan base, often ascribing that property the notion of being their “version of Star Trek” above all others.
Beginning with the very important characterization of Spock and how the half-human, half-Vulcan science officer’s believability rested on how real his pointy ears looked, Britt goes over fifty-plus years of science-fiction and entertainment history to provide readers with a generous look at the various properties that Star Trek encompasses. Whatever your preferred Trek, you’ll find plenty here to whet your appetite, as well as some great behind-the-scenes stories of how the original series gained a second life through syndication and the animated series, how the movies came to be greenlit in the wake of rival Star Wars’ massive popularity in the 1970s, and why each new Trek property has its fair share of haters as much as it has fans.
The series has taken some bruises over the years. Some people have questioned Star Trek’s commitment to LGBTQ representation even when it featured one of the first multicultural casts on television. George Takei, while openly gay in real life, never got a chance to play Sulu as a gay man on television in the 1960s. There was also some revisionism on creator Gene Roddenberry’s part about the progressivism of the franchise. The original series, Britt contends, could make for some awkward viewing in today’s media landscape, and it was only with the film series that Trek truly began to show its more liberal leanings.
Britt documents the ways in which “The Next Generation” laid the groundwork for what came after: a tug of war between acknowledgement of what came before while trying to stake your own ground. And with the introduction of Benjamin Sisko as captain of “Deep Space Nine,” the series could once again address issues of racism, while sometimes dropping the ball on issues of sexuality despite well-meaning efforts (and the inclusion of one of television’s first lesbian kiss scenes).
Each iteration of the franchise gets its own chapter in Phasers on Stun! Britt also provides an overview of the J.J. Abrams film series that has proven divisive between fans of the original, brainier brand of Trek and those who came to it through the prism of space-battle epics like Star Wars. As Trek has become a longer-lasting property, its popularity has waxed and waned, and the calls for more representation have helped give the shows and movies more to work with.
From “Deep Space Nine” to “Discovery,” people of color and the non-binary community have seen representation that isn’t token but integral to the stories, and it’s hard to think of any multi-billion dollar entertainment franchises that do this as well as Trek has. If Britt seems to go on for a little longer than necessary in covering the shows that have populated the Trek universe, it’s with the purpose of enlightening those of us who aren’t as rabid about Trek as he is, and why he thinks it’s worthwhile.
“Phasers on Stun” is proof that, almost sixty years after a struggling writer and producer first envisioned a five-year voyage among the stars, with our heroes battling aliens in obvious rubber suits while embracing a holistic philosophy that welcomed all to the decks of the starship “Enterprise,” Star Trek continues to be one of the most enduring franchises in entertainment history. Britt suggests that the point of Trek isn’t to point toward a warp-speed perfect future, but to provide a guide as to how we all can do better as a society. He sneaks in this point of moral seriousness among the worship and adoration of a beloved property of which Roddenberry would be proud.
Plume (May 31, 2022)
One thought on “‘Phasers On Stun!’: The Continuing Legacy of Star Trek”
I guess I never thought of Star Trek and Star Wars as rival franchises. There’s a book right there!