Star Trek first aired in 1966 and was cancelled after three seasons. In 2016, the show celebrated its 50th anniversary in the wake of multiple television iterations of the series, an animated series, a film franchise and a sexier rebooted film franchise. In the 60s, Star Trek was considered a failure, now it’s one of the most important television shows of the 21st Century.
Building Star Trek is a documentary working on two fronts that looks at the pop cultural impact of the series while showcasing at the real-life technological innovations inspired by the show: tractor beams, teleportation and phasers.
Once you get past the voiceover guy with the enthusiasm of a substitute teacher on their first day, it’s a fascinating look at what Star Trek presented as ‘the dream’ and how those ideas have become a reality in the hands of scientists and innovators who were inspired by the show. It’s surprising seeing how close scientists are to making the tech of the show a reality. Building Star Trek visits Google HQ, The Googleplex, to see how engineers are refining Google Translate to work like the ‘universal translator’, a device the crew of the Enterprise would use to talk with aliens. At New York University, physicists have developed a tractor beam capable of moving minuscule objects. Most alarming is the project being developed by the top minds at weapon making giant, Lockheed Martin, called ATHENA (Advanced Test High Energy Asset), which is a high-powered laser that can already destroy missiles mid-flight as well as small-unmanned boats and aircraft, yikes.
Building Star Trek slowly reveals the ideas behind Star Trek’s vision of the future did not always have inspiration at heart. Former Star Trek writers explain how a lot of the technology was scripted to get around the show’s low budget. Instead of always using shuttles to get to planets, which required expensive model spaceships, they invented the transporter; don’t tell the guy who based his whole career on building a real one.
There’s an archival aspect to Building Star Trek that’s a reminder of the historical importance of maintaining pop culture relics. Parts of the documentary focus on a special team at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum attempting to restore the model U.S.S Enterprise used in the original series. It looks okay for a fifty-year-old but it’s slowly disintegrating and in desperate need of attention. At Seattle’s EMP Museum, curators are shown unboxing original props from the series while they set up an exhibit.
Since Star Trek was considered a flop when it was cancelled due to poor ratings, a majority of the original sets and props were thrown in the garbage. It’s remarkable what managed to survive, the captain’s chair of the Enterprise is one of those items (drool), and there’s an emotional moment where one of the curators handles Spock’s uniform; which brings on the tears quickly with thoughts of Leonard Nemoy’s recent passing. The iconography of Star Trek is built around these props. It’s bittersweet to see so much care put into maintaining what’s left, but there’s sadness for what got junked. While archival projects like this may seem frivolous compared to dusting the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum, each object from the series holds the hope of creator Gene Roddenberry’s peaceful promise for mankind which has united people in thought for 50 years. The scientists, – many professing their love for the show in Building Star Trek – working to turn the show into a reality are evidence of the transformative power of the show beyond the small screen.
Building Star Trek approaches the iconic series from a lot of different perspectives but there are enough surprises in the real-life innovations to keep it interesting, even if you’ve heard all the behind-the-scenes tales before. Getting caught up in the enthusiasm for any kind of fandom is always infectious but Star Trek has the edge in its endurance and impact beyond the little sci-fi show that found life after failure and changed the world.
Watch Building Star Trek on SBS On Demand now: