07/24/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Star Trek Firsts... 43 Years On

The rebooted Star Trek won the Golden Trailer Award and is the most popular Star Trek movie ever.

Some 43 years after it began, and seven years after the movie franchise seemed completely played out, Star Trek is making firsts again. And so far, it's the most popular movie of the year in America.

That's about to change, with the new Transformers picture opening. And Up, a fine animated film which has the family film market almost entirely to itself, is likely to pass the new Star Trek as a result. But its leadership in the live-action field, and almost certain top five finish for the year, is remarkable, and says a lot about the revived franchise and the country it's succeeding in. Star Trek had long since passed the movies it was really being gauged against, the recent reboots of the James Bond and Batman franchises in the form of 2006's Casino Royale and 2005's Batman Begins, which went in the opposite direction of Trek in making the characters darker than before.

Over the past weekend, Star Trek went over $240 million in domestic box office, much higher than anyone I know expected, and it still has some running room. In fact, it took in a little bit more this past weekend than it had the previous weekend, which is practically unheard of for an action/adventure film these days.

The weekend past is also the weekend in which it passed all other Star Trek films in both inflation-adjusted box office and total admissions.

Humorist John Hodgman roasted "the first nerd president of the modern era" (who flashed the Star Trek Vulcan salute, twice) and discussed the nerds vs. jocks culture war at Friday night's Radio & Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington. Hodgman, "PC" in the long-running Apple commercials, was also a doctor on the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. Not that I would know.

It's also the weekend on which President Barack Obama gave the Vulcan salute, not once but twice, at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner in Washington. The Trekkie president was responding to an interactive speech given by humorist John Hodgman -- "PC" in the long-running Apple TV ads (he's a longtime Mac user, of course) -- in which he dubbed Obama "the first nerd president of the modern era."

Obama, Hodgman said, is someone who bridges the gap between nerds, geeks, and jocks. And that's something the new Star Trek movie does as well.

Which is much of the reason why Star Trek is suddenly very popular again, even cool. Audiences love the optimism, the teamwork, the positive use of technology, the action, the humor, and the heart.

In reprogramming the Kobayashi Maru simulation, James T. Kirk shows that he doesn't believe in the no-win scenario.

As a longtime Trek fan, I can tell you that it's been a long time since Star Trek has been cool. I'd taken to simply not mentioning that I've seen every episode of all five live-action series, from the original series through The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Okay, I may have missed some episodes of Voyager, though as something of a completist I tried to catch up.

I never saw the animated series and only read what I thought of as a handful of Star Trek novels. But now as I look at the list, I realize that "handful" is more like 15 or 20 of the Trek novels.

All this continuity, or canon, as it's known, is of course a huge reason why Star Trek lost its currency in the popular culture. You simply had to know too much in order to follow it all, even in the movies. And hardcore fans were sticklers for expanding the complexity of the Trek universe and having it all be consistent.

Trek had also become ossified in its political correctness, with much of the juice squeezed out of it by the need to have the characters as paragons of human development.

Changing the timeline with time travel, going back to the original, zestier crew, creating a new Star Trek in which the casual fan need only know who Kirk and Spock are, worked tremendously well for the new film. It's taken us back to the key elements that made Star Trek cool in the first place.

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the original cast goes back in time to 1986 San Francisco to save the Earth by, ah, saving the whales. Gene Roddenberry picked San Francisco as Starfleet headquarters because it's where the United Nations was founded and where troops shipped out for World War II in the Pacific.

I started with Star Trek as a kid when it began in the 1960s. The show had a message, as creator Gene Roddenberry intended, but it also had imperfect characters, admirable though they were in many respects. It was that lack of perfection that made them interesting. That, plus a lot of action, much of it added to the mix by others after Roddenberry's original pilot, a ponderous think piece, was rejected by the network.

After years of waiting, during which time the three seasons of the show from the '60s thrived in syndication, the first motion picture appeared in 1979 and was, to be frank, rather boring. I actually nodded off during it, which was shocking given how much I'd looked forward to the film. But it was a huge hit, driven by heavy repeat business that hardly happens today with the profusion of media options and the emphasis on moving films out of theaters and into the home entertainment market.

With Roddenberry removed from decision-making, the second film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, was much more satisfying from a character and action standpoint and really saved the franchise.

Batman Begins rebooted its franchise in 2005 with a much darker take.

After thrilling to most of the movies with the original cast during the '80s, I was fascinated to see Star Trek return to television with Star Trek: The Next Generation. Only to be frequently bored by the first season, with Roddenberry back in charge of the show. As others became more involved, the show improved, but it took me awhile to warm to the perfection of both the new Enterprise crew and the United Federation of Planets.

The series had some great episodes, but also quite a few that when I catch them today on cable are remarkably staid and bloodless. Though I came to greatly appreciate Captain Jean Luc Picard, at times thinking him better than the sainted Kirk and Spock, the characters aside from the Klingon Worf are generally too highly evolved and get along too well. That's Roddenberry's utopianism, of course, and he comes by it legitimately as a World War II vet, but it doesn't seem terribly realistic and does not make for drama.

Movies with the Next Generation cast came, along with other Star Trek series, with Deep Space Nine the most involving for me. With such a profusion of Trek, some of it inevitably was dreck, and the specialness wore off.

Incidentally, I think that most of the Trekkie critics of the new film are much more fans of the The Next Generation than the original series. Next Gen is the PC series, studiedly cerebral, with a highly ordered universe and constant continuity checks.

Casino Royale took the Bond franchise back to basics in 2006.

The original series is not PC, it's very '60s with women crew members in minidresses, brawling action, and a more chaotic universe with continuity that doesn't exactly fit together. Ironically, given that it is essentially a United Nations in space, Star Trek has never been near the success internationally that it has been in America, perhaps because it became so talky and ingrown. While the original series is also cerebral -- after all, it has Spock, not to mention a captain who loves to quote the classics -- its producers learned the lesson of the failed pilot and made the show much more action oriented. Rather like the new movie, actually.

Change is endemic now in the Star Trek world, not only on the feature film front, but in the Star Trek novels which die-hard Trekkies have embraced over many years, through endless adventures of largely familiar crews. This year, the novels themselves were rebooted, with the Borg, once so fearsome a foe but ultimately done to death, on Voyager, in particular, invading in huge numbers to wipe out humanity. They fail, and disappear as a threat, but not before causing such devastation that the galaxy of Star Trek is in tremendous flux.

So the new Star Trek is an enormous success, far more than I expected, in the hands of director J.J. Abrams and his group, including writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (who ironically scripted the Transformers picture likely to knock Star Trek off the live-action title of the year). In other words, it's in the hands of folks who brought Alias, Lost, and Fringe to television. The first two are backdoor scifi shows. It took awhile for viewers to realize that Alias and Lost weren't just spy or castaway shows. Only the third show, Fringe, was overtly science fiction from the beginning.

A lot of people think that the new Star Trek is, given Abrams' professed love of Star Wars, heavily influenced by that competing scifi empire. But I see much more of Alias in the new Star Trek than I do Star Wars.

Jennifer Garner as intrepid super-agent Sydney Bristow in J.J. Abrams and company's Alias. The tattoo she flashes is the mark of uber-MacGuffin Rambaldi.

As someone who was a great fan of the globe-trotting adventures of Jennifer Garner's high-kicking, soulful superspy with all the different hair styles, the Alias effect is pretty obvious to me.

What's the Alias effect? Very fast-paced, with plenty of humor and occasional pauses for heart, plotting that turns on a dime, attractive young characters with an action-oriented mentor figure (Sydney Bristow's spy dad in Alias, Captain Christopher Pike in Star Trek) and an Apple Store design aesthetic. (The secret HQ in Alias literally looked like an Apple Store.) It's all there, complete with Alias co-star Rachel Nichols playing Kirk's green-skinned, red-haired Orion playmate at Starfleet Academy. And a high tech MacGuffin actually lifted from Alias, in the form of the "red matter" device that creates black holes. In Alias, the device which looks exactly as it does in Star Trek, though it does something else, a large floating red sphere of liquid, was called a "Mueller device."

And now we get to the problems with the Alias effect. It was never all that clear to me what exactly this device was supposed to do. The device, along with so much of everything in Alias, came from the 500-year old designs of a seer called Milo Rambaldi. Much of the show revolved around revelations about Rambaldi and powerful factions vying to control his mind-bending technology.

In the end, it was all very convoluted and confusing. Not unlike Lost, which I've watched from the beginning and greatly enjoy. But with all the time travel on that show, it's unclear what it all means. Which may be the point, at least to a point. In any event, we won't know for sure until the series concludes.

But we do know that the shifts on Alias were frequently ill-conceived. The sudden hairpin turns in plotting on the new Star Trek ended up working but did leave, let's say, some gaps that had to be papered over.

What's next in the film series? Who knows? Many on the fan boards are clamoring for the rebooted young crew to tangle with Khan, as the original Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and company did in the terrific 1982 movie.

I think that's a mistake. We all know that story, which is wonderful and probably can't be improved upon.

Taking on the Borg would be interesting, given the increasing technologizing of our own society. But for the fact that the Borg have been done to death.

That old space pirate Harry Mudd? Not unless the next movie is an out-and-out comedy.

Perhaps Gary Seven, who in the original series was a brilliant human, trained by an unknown alien race of great power, sent to Earth to help keep the planet from destroying itself before it could grow up. A Star Trek movie may not always need a villain. Perhaps a challenging cross between Q and the Doctor in Doctor Who is just what the doctor ordered.

In any event, the prospects are exciting. A young and in many ways still quite green crew, cast in the roles we remember from the original series years in advance of the way it had been, thanks to the timeline reboot and some of that hairpin plotting.

Whatever the next movie is, it starts out with something Star Trek hadn't had in decades, popular cool and smashing success. Unless it's promptly screwed up, Star Trek seems set to live long and prosper for many more years to come.