For those Star Trek fans able to make it to Washington, D.C., in the coming weeks, you’re in for a bit of a treat. The Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum has lovingly restored its prized 11-foot Enterprise studio model to full Original Series glory and has made it the centerpiece of its Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall exhibit – something our team here at TrekCore has covered extensively over the past two years.
At the same time, on the opposite side of the country, Seattle’s EMP Museum of Pop Culture is running an original series exhibit of its own, featuring over 100 prized treasures and artifacts, titled Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds.
The two exhibits honor Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, which will be recognized officially on September 8. There has no doubt been incredible interest in Star Trek history this year, which is sure to peak in the coming weeks. Recognizing this appetite for Trek, its history and influence, the Smithsonian Channel will debut on September 4 its documentary Building Star Trek, which pays tribute to the original Star Trek series by examining its impact on culture and technology while simultaneously charting the development of the two exhibits at the Smithsonian and EMP museums.
The Enterprise studio model and its history could have merited an entire documentary of its own, as its trajectory from the television show to this year’s Smithsonian showcase is a fascinating one. After its use in the original series, which ran from 1966-69, the model was donated to Smithsonian in the early 1970’s. The model saw considerable wear-and-tear and relocation in the museum over the next 40 years.
During that time, the model had undergone a series of restorations, and in 2000, the ship was brought to the museum’s gift shop – a decision that had generated some criticism among fans. In 2014, a team of experts was finally put together to restore the ship to mint, ’60s-era condition. The work was finally completed this year.
It’s sad to say that the Enterprise restoration work is perhaps the least interesting thing about the documentary when it should have been the most. Do some afternoon Internet research on the refurbishment – or check out TrekCore’s video series on the project – and you’ll get a much better picture of how intricate and painstaking the process was.
This is because the documentary, which clocks in at almost two hours, takes a broad look at the original Star Trek television series and its impact – but he restoration simply doesn’t get the nerdist attention it deserves. (For example: two members of Industrial Light & Magic did detailing work on ship – an interesting tidbit that is not mentioned in the doc).
This is not to say the documentary is without merit. It’s a nice, general look at the original series’ impact that’s well-packaged for the uninitiated and the casual fan. Hardcore fans, however, may find it a bit bland and elementary.
Brooks Peck, curator for the EMP Museum, does humanize his portion of the documentary as he chronicles his efforts to track down artifacts for his exhibit in Seattle. It’s obvious this guy is a serious fan and it’s fun to watch him turn into a kid again when he gets his hands on Captain Kirk’s original command chair. When he visits the home of a collector who has in his possession a phaser from the ’60s series, Peck is so concerned with smudging the weapon that he puts on latex gloves before accepting it from its owner.
Peck certainly had his work cut out for him. Much of the television series’ set had been trashed or had been cannibalized for student film productions, and many of the props were lost. The full-scale Galileo shuttlecraft itself from the Original Series was found abandoned in a parking lot and was in decrepit shape. After being restored by model collector Adam Schneider, it was given a home at Space Center Houston. Peck himself did manage to pull everything together in record time for his exhibit, and it’s a sight to behold. His exhibit in Seattle runs through February 2017.
As you might expect, the documentary also takes a look at how the Star Trek influenced the technological advances we enjoy today and is inspiring those of tomorrow. Probably the most eye-popping of the technological work featured centers on Google’s work developing a Universal Translator. One of its team members demonstrates a camera filter that can translate foreign text into the desired language by simply hovering the camera over the text. The screen instantly displays the translation.
We also get a sneak peek at work being done at Lockheed Martin to develop laser weapons technology meant to mirror the power and portability of the Star Trek phaser. Of course, the broader implications of harnessing and controlling such technology aren’t touched upon in the documentary. It’s simply too soon to expect anything close to a functioning, hand-held phaser, and too soon to start breaking a sweat over who’ll get to use the first one, and how it will be used.
Don’t expect any real meaty discussion on any of the technologies examined, and this includes the tricorder, warp drive, and tractor beams – all of which have engineers hard at work to break ground on comparable technologies. There is even a shout-out to the NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), designed to be the most advanced rocket ever produced to power future deep space mission, including the one to Mars.
It is fun to see original series writers David Gerrold and DC Fontana pop up to help put Star Trek into cultural context, and there’s also commentary by Kelvin Timeline Trek actors Karl Urban and Simon Pegg, who have prominent performance and creative roles in the rebooted movies. But make no mistake: this documentary is about the Original Series and its influence.
We are reminded that the original series took place during the height of the Cold War, and that villains like the Romulans were proxies for U.S. adversaries during that period, particularly the Soviet Union. We’re also reminded that Star Trek featured television’s first interracial kiss and that Uhura became a role model for women, particularly those seeking careers in science and engineering.
Building Star Trek could have benefited from a tighter focus, particularly relating to the Enterprise model restoration, which was the real headline-story hear. For what it is, however, the documentary is a decent overview of the Original Series and its impact and a refreshing reminder that Star Trek, despite its years, still has the power to move and inspire.
BUILDING STAR TREK will debut September 4 at 8PM on the Smithsonian Channel.