Phasers on Stun- The Ultimate Star Trek Book
Phasers on Stun!: How the Making (and Remaking) of Star Trek Changed the World
Ryan Britt 2022
"The power of Star Trek is that it teaches you, over and over again, how to live better. how to be a more thoughtful and kinder person."
"For almost six decades, Star Trek's little starships have taken us boldly though the looking glass, to find ourselves. The making and remaking of Star Trek isn't just about complicated business decisions made in Hollywood. That's part of it. But the profound aspect of Star Trek is in its willingness to radically change so often. It's the story of human survival, and human triumph."
Science fiction stories generally fall into three camps. The first camp is the classic hero's journey of good versus evil, but this time in space with aliens involved. Star Wars easily falls into this category with its plucky, virtuous heroes and evil dastardly villains. There's no grey areas about who to root for, except once in a while when Darth Vader turns on the Emperor and changes his tune at the very end of his story. The second camp is pure dystopian sci-fi that portrays mankind as flawed and evil, with technology as its main villain. These stories include popular movies like Planet of the Apes, Hunger Games, Blade Runner, I Robot, Divergent, and Waterworld. Buried into these dystopias are a few good people, but they rarely find a way to change the system and their small victories are of little comfort.
The third category of sci-fi is where Star Trek comes in- full of grey areas and optimism. Like the first two, there are spaceships, robots, and great special effects. Technology is seen as mostly a net positive, because humanity has tamed it and improved themselves to the point where they can explore the universe with noble intentions. There are bad guys of course, but they are complicated and not as easily dispatched as those in the first two camps. Star Trek pretty much invented this category, and over 60 years and multiple adventures the franchise has owned it. The heroes of Star Trek, such as they are, are complex and flawed, and most of the stories involve journeys of understanding rather than simple battles of conquest.
I did a deep dive into Star Trek with this book, Phasers on Stun, that covers the entire franchise from its humble beginnings to its fascinating position today with multiple shows that show how far we've come as a society in the past 50+ years. Ryan Britt is a journalist who has focused his career on science fiction, and he does an excellent job of looking at the many different versions of the Star Trek story that have emerged since the beginning. Considering the fact that there are 13 full length movies, 12 Star Trek series with over 900 episodes, and large numbers of books, podcasts, and fan fiction devoted to Trek, this was no easy task. In 330 pages there is room for only a few of the most important stories, but he does a good job of covering what has made Star Trek special throughout the years.
The first part of the book covers the original Star Trek series with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, and the many groundbreaking things that came from it. The original series came along at an interesting time in 1966. The space program was in full swing, with the moon landing on the horizon and everybody excited about what awaited us in outer space. In addition, the US was in a controversial and unpopular war in Vietnam, feminism was on the rise, and civil rights demonstrations were transforming race relations. Television had just transitioned to full color programming, and the show made good use of it with its sets and costumes. Science fiction was still very much a literary entity back then, with television rarely attempting it due to the huge expenses involved in its production. With apologies to Lost in Space, Trek was the first real attempt to bring science fiction to mass culture.
When Gene Roddenberry first proposed the show, there were many obstacles to overcome. The first pilot episode was rejected by NBC, but thanks to Lucille Ball the show got another chance to recast and re-imagine itself. They hired William Shatner to play Captain Kirk, altered Leonard Nimoy's character as science officer Spock, and dumped Gene Roddenberry's girlfriend at the time who was to play a strong woman officer. Britt tells the fascinating story of just how pivotal the Spock character became to the ultimate success of the original show, detailing how they went from portraying him as demonic to cool and logical, and obsessing over the shape and size of his famous pointy ears. The 79 episodes of the original Star Trek were revolutionary in many ways for television at that time. The crew was diverse- with a black woman, Uhura, and an Asian, Sulu given important roles. In age when racism was very much a thing, Star Trek portrayed a post-racial society that only got more and more diverse as the show evolved.
The show hired many of the best writers in the science fiction world to come up with scripts, and these thoughtful stories challenged viewers like never before. While some of the scripts were downright silly, most of them were thought-provoking and appropriate for the period. Some of my favorite aspects of the original series, as pointed out in this book include:
- Weapons were not glorified. Phasers could be set on stun to only immobilize an enemy, and not destroy them.
- The prime directive guided the Enterprise crew to never interfere with developing, primitive civilizations. This flies in the face of centuries of colonization and imperialism that guided much of Earth's history.
- People of different races and planets lived and worked together in a relatively just society. Certainly some episodes did touch on racism, but the assumption was that diversity was widely accepted. (except for homosexuality, which only recently entered the Star Trek world along with the rest of pop culture.)
- Money is generally not an issue (nor, apparently are bathrooms), and there is apparently no problem in the 23rd century with income inequality.
- Stories involving exploration and new ideas take precedence, and petty personal dramas are rarely the focus.
- Transporters could scramble your DNA and perfectly reassemble you across the galaxy. How cool is that??
Britt covers the surprising fandom that emerged in the 1970's after the original series was cancelled, resulting in Star Trek conventions, fan fiction, and groups of Trekkies who obsessed over the show and its optimistic universe. This all resulted in a motion picture in 1979, followed by 12 more, some of which were more successful than others. In 1987, the franchise returned to television with The Next Generation, a new series set in the future with a new Enterprise and new diverse cast including women, minorities, and an android. In this second golden age of Star Trek there would be three series in all that greatly expanded the Star Trek universe- Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager. The book gives a nice recap of each series, how they came about, and how they added to the Star Trek canon.
Klingons, who had been mortal enemies to the Federation during the first episode, became allies during the second period, and a Klingon character, Worf, was added to the crew of several series. Technology was seen as both a good thing, through the android character Data, and as an evil, through the Borg, a new cybernetic villain that rose up in the first episode of Next Generation.
After the turn of the century, Star Trek went through a quiet period with fewer new stories save the little known Enterprise series with Scott Bakula. In 2009 the franchise was jump-started again by JJ Abrams and a new cast with a series of new full-length movies. And now, in the 2020's Star Trek has evolved once again with five vastly different series, all in production at once- Discovery, Picard, Strange New Worlds, Lower Decks (animated) and Prodigy (aimed at kids). With each new version, Star Trek becomes a more diverse, more "woke", and more ambitious. The stories are as interesting and entertaining as ever, but the theme of seeking out strange new worlds, and civilizations, boldly going where no man has gone before continues.
The subtitle of this book is "how the making and remaking of Star Trek changed the world." Did Star Trek change the world? Perhaps. NASA named one of its space shuttles after the Enterprise. It certainly enriched many lives. But it also gave us a role model for the future- one where technology is our friend, sentient beings are protected no matter what their shape, size, or color, and where everybody is open to learning new things. Britt says that one of the problems with the Star Wars saga is that everything seemed so perfect in the first 1977 movie, and all that followed was compared to that unrealistic standard. Star Trek, on the other hand, never got it all right, and kept on trying to improve and explore its world (both the fictional one and the real world of its viewers), making its stories resonate. I can identify with the flawed crew of the Enterprise, and learn from their well-intentioned mistakes, and so Star Trek has definitely changed my world.
This is the best book on Star Trek that I've ever read, but it's not for the uninitiated. I would recommend catching up on episodes before tackling the book (Most of them are available on Paramount +). Live long, and prosper.