‘Star Trek’ fans celebrate 50 years of the franchise at DePaul

Two attendees came fully dressed as Klingons, a race from the 'Star Trek' franchise. (Gabriella Mikiewicz / The DePaulia)
Two attendees came fully dressed as Klingons, a race from the ‘Star Trek’ franchise. (Gabriella Mikiewicz / The DePaulia)

Fifty years of the “Star Trek” franchise were celebrated Saturday at DePaul’s annual Pop Culture Colloquium.

The event composed of several notable speakers and panelists, including keynote speaker Brannon Braga,  a creator, writer and executive producer of more than 300 episodes of “Star Trek, who called fans “intelligent, successful, and thoughtful people.”

The “Original Series of Star Trek,” which aired in 1966, was the first of six series and 12 movies. The franchise is a multibillion dollar industry, created by Gene Roddenberry.

The fictional universe is set several hundred years into the future (depending on series and storyline) and “explores a utopian future,” said Braga, a version of humanity that is post-racial, post-sexist, post-ableist, with no disease or bigotry, and is a lot more diverse and inclusive.

With over 150 people in attendance, the colloquium focused on the more academic side of “Star Trek,” with panels focusing on gender, sexuality, race, social justice, inclusion and more.

Paul Booth, an associate professor of media and cinema studies in the DePaul College of Communication, has been coordinating the event since 2013. “Each year has been themed differently,”he said, with “Doctor Who,” the work of Joss Whedon, then “Supernatural” and now “Star Trek.”

“Turnout is strong and passionate for an event like this,” said Booth. “We have grown every year.”

Popularity of these colloquiums may be due to the large ‘geek scene’ in Chicago and especially at DePaul. Plus, “’Star Trek’ is an incredibly Vincentian program,” he said.

“I also think that students interested in learning about the media and how television is made would love to hear from the keynote speakers,” Booth said.

Braga’s Q&A session included topics such as media and television, as well as screenwriting. Braga writes for four hours every day, and has written some classic episodes as well as “some duds.” With the show producing 26 episodes per year, he said the process was “a nightmare,” and a lot of hard work.

When asked about his favorite character to write about, he answered that it was Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” because despite him being an android, his stories were the most emotional.

The hardest character to write? Picard, because he had to be so articulate.

Before becoming a writer for “Star Trek,” Braga hadn’t watched the show. He eventually fell in love with it, but his distance brought a unique perspective to The Next Generation. “My episodes tended to be more stand-alone and high concept,” he said.

Braga was also asked if it was difficult portraying human conflict within a futuristic society that was supposed to be “better,” past the point of conflict.

“The exploration of human conflict within the show was done allegorically,” he said, since humans weren’t allowed to be racist, for example, it had to be portrayed with Klingons or other species.

Thus, the Star Trek franchise has pushed boundaries since it first aired. Laura Ammon, a panelist and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Appalachian State University, said that “The Original Series” was “multiracial, multicultural, and radical in the 1960s.”

However, some panelists and audience members believed that the show had devolved with the reboot movies. Where Lieutenant Uhura, an African-American female in a position of power as Chief Communications Officer played by Nichelle Nichols, was radical and a feminist move by producers in the 1960s, some believed that her identity had been stripped to just “Spock’s girlfriend” in the recent reboot movies where she is played by Zoe Saldana.

It was also mentioned that in the original pitches for the show, the women wore pants, but NBC wanted to make the show more “appealing” and had the women don short skirts for their uniforms.

Panelists also discussed the fact that even though the show had some women in positions of power, there wasn’t a female captain until Kathryn Janeway of “Star Trek: Voyager,” which aired in 1995. Voyager’s fifth season was also the only one in the entire franchise that passed the Bechdel test, which is a test that asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk about something other than a man, and both women are required to be named.

Bruce Drushel, an Associate Professor of Media and Culture at Miami University and also a panelist at the colloquium, said that the reboot movies have also taken away females’ importance by taking away their rank stripes because the new uniforms have short sleeves.

Throughout the panel, Nichelle Nichols was lauded for her work with “Star Trek,” as well as her future work recruiting actual astronauts for NASA’s space program. She helped to list Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Guion Bluford, the first African-American in space. This was just one example of how the “Star Trek” franchise had a huge cultural impact.

The fiftieth anniversary of “Star Trek” will be celebrated by a new show airing online by CBS.