Shelf-space, the final frontier. These are the products of the "Star Trek" franchise, whose half-century mission has been to boldly go where no entertainment venture has gone before by filling children's bedrooms with trading cards, comic books, action figures, autographed movie memorabilia, and iconic "combadges," those stylized inverted chevron insignia worn as communication devices and for identification.
When creator Gene Roddenberry pitched his first pilot for a futuristic show set in outer space in 1964, the NBC network executives made an uncommon request, asking him to remake the pilot incorporating more action. An acceptable version was finished the following year, and the first “Star Trek” television show aired on September 8, 1966.
Roddenberry’s utopian vision of humanity in the 23rd century starred William Shatner as James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise, which was named after a real ship that led the Allies to victory in the Battle of Midway during World War II. With the casting of African-American actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, and Japanese-American actor George Takei, who played Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, Roddenberry helped envision a world freed from the sexism and racism America struggled with during the 1960s.
Many episodes served as thinly veiled metaphors for present-day politics: Conflicts with alien enemies like the Klingons, Excalbians, and Romulans often stood in for the ethical issues of the Vietnam War or the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In 1967, the original “Star Trek” series was saved from an early demise when more than 100,000 fans wrote to NBC in response to a rumor of its impending cancellation. Ultimately, the show went on, with a 1968 season including one of television’s first interracial kisses between Captain Kirk and his communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura.
Though the original show went off the air in 1969, the Star Trek franchise would be revived in other television and film formats beginning with NBC’s animated series in 1973. By the late 1970s, “Star Trek” fans, or Trekkies, were organized enough they were able to convince President Ford to name the country’s first space-shuttle orbiter after the Enterprise at its dedication ceremony in September 1976, although the orbiter never actually launched into space. The franchise’s first film treatment, “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” was released in 1979, followed by “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” in 1982, “Star Trek II: The Search for Spock” in 1984, and “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” in 1986.
The “Star Trek” phenomenon continued to grow. “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which was set 70 years after Captain Kirk’s reign, premiered on September 28, 1987 and continued into the 1990s, when other spinoffs took up the mantle. In 1998, an exhibit called “Star Trek: The Experience” opened at the Las Vegas Hilton with displays of original props and costumes as well as interactive elements. Several more “Star Trek” series and films were produced throughout the 1990s and 2000s, resulting in a seemingly endless supply of merchandise for fans of all ages.