We sit at the edge of over 20 new Star Trek spin-offs, everything from the second season of Star Trek: Discovery to a yet unnamed Star Trek Picard series. It is hard to imagine a time when every department store aisle was not filled with Star Trek spin-offs. From cereal to bedsheets Star Trek is everywhere.
It was not always this way.
“Star Trek” was slow to launch. Spin-offs started extremely modestly compared to the warp speed we see today.
During the shows, original run spin-off merchandise was hard to come by for early fans. This was due in part by the fact that television properties, unlike today, were not considered good candidates for spin-offs in any form. This expectation came much later, thanks to Star Wars which fully cemented and realized the spin-off juggernaut that we see today.
Those first Star Trek fans that witnessed the birth of a cultural phenomenon were offered very little that they could bring home to show their love of the iconic show. Besides the quick-to-produce t-shirts and buttons, the first merchandise was the usual “Rack Toys.” Rack Toys are those cheap toys that are found in dollar stores (traditionally grocery stores, drug stores, and dime stores) these toys bear little resemblance to the property that they are tied to. While these examples did not come out until the early 70s, some examples of these early toy spin-offs, include a parachuting Kirk and Spock rubber “figures” and guns that looked nothing like the iconic Phasers seen in the show. Nothing says Star Trek like a parachuting Spock.
Uniquely Star Trek
Two spin-off products that were available while the show was finding its way during its original run are unique even until today. The first were AMT model kits. Model Kits are obviously not unique, but the licencing deal that Gene Roddenberry cut with AMT certainly was. Part of AMT’s licencing fee included providing models for the show. Some of these first AMT models can be seen in episodes, “The Doomsday Machine” and the popular “The Trouble with Tribbles.” AMT models most significant contribution to the show was building the now iconic shuttlecraft, first seen in the episode “Galileo 7.” AMT designed and built not only the model kit to be devoured by these early fans, they built the full-scale prop used in the episode itself. This was one way Gene Roddenberry was able to finance the vision he wanted for the cash-strapped show.
The second spin-off item available to fans while the show was still in its first run was the book The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield and Gene Roddenberry.
This book first released in 1968 helped establish everything we now take for granted in Star Trek. While spin-off merchandising was still unexplored territory so too was opening up the behind the scenes story of how to create a hit TV show. This book did just that, it is part how to write for TV book and part Star Trek history. The book documents the rich backstory and incredible level of detail that Gene Roddenberry poured into the show. From the set design by Matt Jefferies to Gene’s consultations with DARPA the deep state defence contractor.
These two firsts helped establish Star Trek as something unique in television and built the fan base it continues to enjoy. From these early spin-offs, we now have highly detailed Star Trek blueprints and technical manuals right up to cut away model kits of the Enterprise itself. Both of these early works the unique licencing deal and the making of book were unheard in annuals of pop culture and remain unique to Star Trek.
The first true media spin-off of Star Trek was found in print. As mentioned fans craving more Star Trek could find it in the bookstore. From making of books to original novels and episode adaptations. Long before home video was an option and even before the episodes could be found endlessly in syndication. Episode adaptations by James Blish were available to fuel fan imaginations. These adaptations often based on early draft scripts were first released in 1967 while original episodes were still airing weekly.
Some of this early print was found in Gold Key comics. While reading these comics, you were frequently left wondering if the people who wrote them had even seen the show. Indeed it turns out that the comics were produced in Italy and were written and drawn by people who had not seen an episode. All they had to work from was some photos sent over from the show.
Star Trek has a long and rich history in the printed word.
1972 – The Convention is Born
Another first in pop culture was the Star Trek spin-off conventions. While Sci-Fi conventions had been around for years, Gene Roddenberry had even promoted his new series at such conventions. Star Trek was the first television show to receive its own dedicated convention. Just 3 years after the last original episode aired the Star Trek Lives! Convention blew away every expectation in 1972. These conventions and their offspring continue almost unabated.
The most iconic toy merchandise in a landscape of both limited choice and half hatred attempts were found in the now classic Mego Star Trek figures. These figures first released in 1974 a full eight years after the show initially aired were a runaway hit for both Star Trek and Mego. Mego Corporation was a true pioneer of the action figure genre all through the 70’s.
The company went bankrupt and closed its doors in 1982, yet just a few months ago in July 2018 Mego Corporation has returned. Many of these early Star Trek figures can now be bought again at retail, but this is a story for another day.
After the loss of Mego, toys continued to flounder as spin-offs. Few licenses found success through the movie years in the 80’s.
Even Galoob’s line based on the release of Star Trek: Next Generation in 1988 fell flat. Toy spin-offs finally found success again in 1992. In 1992 a full 5 years after the primer of Star Trek: Next Generation Playmates Toys released its first action figures. Toys have continued to find success since then through various licenses.
Star Trek Returns to the Screen
Star Trek: The Animated Series
The first true spin-off of Star Trek after print was Star Trek: The Animated Series. For the first time, Gene Roddenberry’s vision could be seen on TV again with new episodes. The show featured many of the same writers, producers from the live action series. In addition, almost the entire cast returned to voice their characters. The series produced by the now iconic Filmation Animation Studio, lasted only 2 seasons.
The animated series managed to correct a few of the original show’s flaws, like including 2 entrances to the bridge. Being an animated show, the production was able to utilize many elements that were too costly to include in the original series. These include more complex aliens like the three-armed alien bridge crew. The series also features a plot device most associated with Star Trek: Next Generation – the Holodeck. Plans to include a Holodeck go back to the original series but were deemed too costly to realize.
False Start: Star Trek Phase II
By 1974, it was clear to Paramount Pictures that more Star Trek was needed to fill the demand. Rumours of the show’s return were everywhere. Paramount’s first attempted following the cancellation of the animated series was the never-realized Star Trek: Phase II television series. Scripts were written, sets were built, but something happened on the way to V’Ger. Star Wars exploded in 1977, thus, the new TV series turned in to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Star Trek: The Motion Picture launched what became the continuation of new adventures with the original TV crew. In all, 6 movies were released between 1979 and 1991 featuring the 1960s cast.
While the 80s proved Star Trek was still popular and viable, yet another spin-off came in the form of Star Trek: Next Generation. Set 80 years after the events of the original crew’s adventures, Captain Picard and crew set out to explore strange new worlds.
In all, 5 spin-off series have come from such humble beginnings. Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Enterprise and finally Star Trek: Discovery.
The Future is the Undiscovered Country
Who knows where it will end? With a premise as rich as Star Trek, it is hard to imagine it ever could. One could easily envision almost any genre working within the Star Trek frame. A Star Trek series could make an impressive, futuristic backdrop to a crime police drama for example.
Case in point – CBS All Access (CBS’ streaming service) has just optioned the first official Star Trek comedy series. The newly announced series Star Trek: Lower Decks will be a half-hour animated comedy series. It seems at least for now we have come full circle, with the latest Star Trek spin-off going back to the first spin-off as an animated series. Hopefully, this one will last a lot longer than first.
No release date has been announced for Star Trek: Lower Decks, so until then catch the latest Trek on Star Trek: Discovery returning January 17th 2019