American Film


"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

This is the legacy – and the future – of STAR TREK, its newest mission coming to theaters next month with returning director J.J. Abrams at the helm.  Even for a series as layered and long-lived as STAR TREK, Abrams' take is notable; his first incarnation of the theatrical franchise debuted in 2009 with an alternate timeline for the science-fiction staple, showing (for the first time) the earliest adventures of its iconic ship's original crew.  And on May 17, they return to the big screen with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. Before transporting to the 23rd century, here's a quick guide to the landscape, key characters and essential concepts of STAR TREK's human adventure.

STAR TREK's iconic prologue – first spoken by star William Shatner over the original series' opening credits – encapsulates what audiences have found so appealing about the franchise for nearly half a century. Making its television debut in 1966, STAR TREK presented a look at an optimistic future, one that marched in parallel to the nation's wide-eyed fascination with space travel and at the same time peered even further into the vast potential of humanity's tomorrows.

And it is also worth noting that, in subsequent iterations of STAR TREK's famous mission statement, the ostensibly utopian mandate of the Enterprise has been adapted and updated to feature an even more inclusive sensibility. While the original series introduction may have reflected the 1960s with its explicit focus on boldly going "where no man has gone before," later versions of the STAR TREK core ideologies were expanded to reflect enlightened attitudes regarding gender roles, even more appropriate to the series' promise of a better future. Celebrating diversity even as it continues to lead by example, STAR TREK now follows the crews of the Enterprise and their ongoing mission "to boldly go where no one has gone before."

  • Created by Gene Roddenberry, STAR TREK was originally conceived as a "wagon train to the stars," embodying the courage of the frontier spirit previously realized so effectively in serialized westerns of the time.
  • STAR TREK is set in the 23rd century – a period of peaceful exploration under the purview of a deep-space navy known as Starfleet. Headquartered in northern California's Bay Area, Starfleet operates as the peacekeeping and exploration arm of the United Federation of Planets – a post-capitalist interstellar body that encompasses not only humans, but also members of many different alien races and civilizations.
  • The guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets – and, by extension, Starfleet – is known as the Prime Directive, which states that its emissaries cannot interfere with the social or technological advancement of less developed alien civilizations.

  • Abrams' reboot of the STAR TREK franchise created an alternate timeline for the characters, making anything possible in their narrative trajectories – but without re-inventing the beloved canon indiscriminately. STAR TREK (2009) began at a point before the already-chronicled adventures of Captain Kirk, et al., but added a well-executed sleight of hand to get around the potential predestination of its iconic characters. The introduction of a time travel element allows for uncertain futures and elastic storytelling that provide a unique framework for new adventures – including INTO DARKNESS – with audiences' old friends.
  • Advanced technologies introduced by the series and emblematic of its utopian advances include the iconic transporter, a teleportation device which can convert persons or objects into energy before "beaming" them within a limited effective range. Though one of the series' pop cultural touchstones, the phrase "Beam me up, Scotty" was never actually said by any of the characters during STAR TREK's original run.
  • Another significant technological advance of the 23rd century is the warp drive, a faster-than-light propulsion system that allows STAR TREK's starships to fulfill their mission of traveling to regions of space previously unexplored by humankind.
  • The signature weapon of Starfleet personnel is the phaser – a handheld energy device with adjustable power settings that can be used to stun or to kill. Since the mission of the Enterprise is primarily one of peace, it is common for its representatives to employ the former setting – which has led to the common usage of the phrase, "set phasers to stun."

  • Starfleet's flagship vessel is the USS Enterprise, under the command of Captain James T. Kirk – a character originated by Shatner for the TV series, and now played by Chris Pine in Abrams' films.
  • The "T" of James T. Kirk stands for "Tiberius." In STAR TREK (2009), its origin is for the first time established as tribute to the character's paternal grandfather.
  • James T. Kirk was not the first man to captain the Enterprise. In a rejected STAR TREK pilot, the ship was under the command of Captain Christopher Pike, played by Jeffrey Hunter. Roddenberry was given a second chance to pitch his science-fiction series, however, and the resulting episode introduced Shatner's Kirk to the Enterprise bridge.
  • Complementing Kirk's traditional heroism – and his occasional brashness – is Mr. Spock, chief science officer of the Enterprise. Spock is half-human and half-Vulcan – the latter representing a race of advanced aliens who have developed a cultural discipline which eschews all emotion in favor of logic. He is physically distinguished by his pointed ears, which made the character an immediate icon when he first appeared in the original TV series. The role was originated by Leonard Nimoy, and is now played by Zachary Quinto – though, thanks to the paradox responsible for the new series' alternate timeline, both versions of Spock were able to meet face to face in STAR TREK (2009).

  • The formal valediction among Vulcans is "live long and prosper," and is typically associated with a distinctive hand gesture – palm forward, with the fingers split between the middle finger and the ring finger.
  • Vulcans are capable of forming a telepathic link by way of the mind meld, initiated by touching key locations of the face and head of the other participant. This link can vary in its intensity; in its most intimate form, the result can be a complete merging of consciousnesses and the co-habitation of a single mind by the combined souls – known to the Vulcans as the katra.
  • Vulcans are also known for their distinctive nerve pinch, an application of pressure to the base of the neck which can be used to render its victim unconscious.
  • Other notable alien races that are iconic to the STAR TREK series – both film and TV – are the Klingons and the Romulans. The former is a race of warriors often at odds – explicitly and belligerently – to the noble pursuits of Starfleet and the Federation. The latter race is also conventionally antagonistic, but is typically more covert and duplicitous in its opposition to the largely human population of the Federation. Romulans also share a common ancestry with Vulcans, though they have developed cunning instead of their star-crossed cousins' distinctive logic.
  • The villain of STAR TREK (2009) and the catalyst for the film's alternate timeline was Nero (Eric Bana) – a disgruntled Romulan from the (future's) future, who traveled back in time to mete out his revenge upon those he deemed responsible for a natural disaster that befell/befalls his homeworld of Romulus. 
  • Though STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES only ran for three seasons from 1966-1969, the adventures of the crew (and its original cast) continued on television in an animated series (1973-1974). Many of the original series' writers also returned for the animated series, as well.

  • The chief medical officer of the Enterprise is Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy – a cantankerous Southern physician often portrayed as less than enthusiastic about the more mysterious elements encountered in outer space. A counterpoint to both Kirk's heroism and Spock's logic, McCoy is irascible and seemingly incapable of leaving his emotions and opinions left unsaid – which results in frequent clashes with the emotionless Spock. Bones was originally played by the late DeForest Kelley. Karl Urban has assumed the role for STAR TREK (2009) and STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS.
  • The character of Enterprise communications officer Lieutenant Uhura was, until 2009, known only by that single name. In the original series and throughout the original feature films, she was played by Nichelle Nichols. It was not until the Abrams reboot of the theatrical series that she was given a first name – Nyota. In STAR TREK (2009) and STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS, the character is played by Zoë Saldana.

  • The 1968 STAR TREK episode, "Plato's Stepchildren," featured the first scripted interracial kiss ever to appear on North American television.  It was a lingering moment between Kirk and Uhura. In the re-imagined STAR TREK (2009) under Abrams' direction, Uhura is romantically involved with Spock.
  • Nichols had considered leaving the STAR TREK cast, but was convinced to stay by civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Nichols, he told her that he was a fan of her work on the series, and that her character was a vital role model for black children and young women.

  • Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott – known affectionately as "Scotty" by his crewmates – enjoys a reputation as a miracle worker for his intimate knowledge of the Enterprise's workings. Known for his vast technical knowledge and his warm Scottish brogue, Scotty was originally played by the late James Doohan (a Canadian), with Simon Pegg (an Englishman) assuming the role in the new timeline.
  • Swashbuckling and heroic, Enterprise third officer and senior helmsman Hikaru Sulu has been depicted as a gymnast, a botanist and an ancient weapons enthusiast – all of which provided distinct counterpoints to the conventional 1960s stereotype of Asians as inscrutable and expressionless. Originally embodied with vigor and humor by George Takei, the role of Sulu is currently held by John Cho.
  • Added to the original series in its second season, Ensign Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) indicated a future no longer beset by the ideological conflicts that characterized then-contemporary world politics. On the bridge of the Enterprise, the Cold War was but a distant memory from an antiquated Earth, and the Russian navigator was merely another member of the diverse crew. In the current film series, he is a youthful prodigy played by Anton Yelchin.
  • Carol Marcus (Bibi Besch) first appeared in STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) – a star-crossed lover to Kirk who had – unbeknownst to the captain – born a son as a result of their youthful union. In STAR TREK (2009), both she and Kirk are still the fresh-faced youths prone to romance and indiscretion – though the twisted timeline has clouded their future together, leaving their relationship to unfold entirely anew. Alice Eve takes on the character's latest incarnation.

  • Starfleet officers are notable for their distinct uniform colors – gold, blue and red – each of which indicates the wearer's branch of operations within the organization's infrastructure. Command and helm personnel wear gold, science and medical officers wear blue and red denotes operations, security and engineering. Many of the primary crew's away missions are accompanied by anonymous red-shirted security officers – who inevitably die as a means of dramatizing the danger to the heroes. Fans who have observed this repeated phenomenon affectionately refer to these ill-fated stock characters as redshirts.
  • Various spin-off TV series are set at different points in humanity's future, with STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION (1987-1994), STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE (1993-1999) and STAR TREK: VOYAGER (1995-2001) set in the 24th century, and STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE (2001-2005) set in the 22nd century.
  • Following the theatrical success of STAR WARS in 1977, STAR TREK was revitalized for the big screen with six feature films following the original Enterprise crew – STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979), STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982), STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (1984), STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986), STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER (1989) and STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991). A seventh film – STAR TREK: GENERATIONS (1994) featured only some of the original cast, and passed the theatrical torch to the crew of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.
  • There have been three additional feature films focused exclusively on the big screen adventures of the STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION crew – STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996), STAR TREK: INSURRECTION (1998) and STAR TREK: NEMESIS (2002).

  • STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN featured the first-ever computer-generated sequence in a major motion picture – a simulation of the film's Genesis device. The demonstration showcases the device's capacity for instant "terraforming," or the creation of habitable conditions on previously lifeless planets. The groundbreaking sequence was created by Industrial Light & Magic – the visual effects company perhaps best known for its work on the STAR WARS Saga. To date, the company has contributed to nine STAR TREK films – three more than for the STAR WARS franchise. 
  • STAR TREK fans have historically been known as Trekkies or Trekkers – the latter adopted as a preferred alternative to what has sometimes been seen as a slur.

  • Directed by J.J. Abrams, STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS is written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof – three of the most notable writers currently working. Among their credits are major releases such as the TRANSFORMERS films,  THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, PROMETHEUS, ENDER'S GAME and TV's LOST. But they are not the first luminaries to contribute to STAR TREK's shining narrative future. The original TV series boasted scripts by literary sci-fi icons Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison and Richard Matheson.