Phasers on Stun: A fun and informative tour of the ever-expanding Trek universe

Phasers on Stun by Ryan BrittPhasers on Stun! by Ryan Britt

Phasers on Stun!: How the Making (and Remaking) of Star Trek Changed the World Kindle EditionPhasers on Stun!,
by Ryan Britt, is a breezily informative and fun look at the many (and I mean many) incarnations of Star Trek over the decades since it first appeared on television in the late 60s. While it’s true there isn’t a lot new to say about the original series, and to a lesser extent The Next Generation, Britt still manages for find a few nuggets to offer something fresh to fans, while the later materials covers ground that is far less trodden.

Moving chronologically, Britt begins with several chapters on the original series — its creation, the writing, its politics, and finally its cancelation and the “birth of Star Trek fandom.” From there he moves between the creative output of the franchise and its relation to American society (each being shaped by the other). Included in the discussion are all the films (though some get more time than others) and nearly all the TV shows (The Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise, Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks), with only the most recent missing in action: the just released Prodigy and the yet-to-be-released (as of this review’s writing) Strange New Worlds. With regard to social critiques, Britt discusses politics, gender issues, representation of non-white and non-cis characters, and the mystery of Trek’s enduring “immortality.”

Besides the primary sources, and various secondary sources, Britt also calls upon the many interviews he’s conducted over ten-plus years with people connected in a host of ways with Star Trek: writers, actors, directors, etc. In fact, he begins with an engaging personal anecdote about his first interview with William Shatner that was interrupted by Britt’s crying baby daughter and peppered with parenting advice from Shatner. It’s an appropriate entry into his subject, given that he later argues that “Star Trek’s power is in its humanist strategy”, which he says is encapsulated in a quote from Captain Picard: “We are what we are … But we’re doing the best we can.”

One of the better aspects of Phasers on Stun! is not what Britt says happened in the Star Trek universe but what didn’t happen. He does an excellent job of either debunking some of the lore that has grown up around the show or in taking a more nuanced look at some the praise its garnered over the years for just how progressive it was. As an example of the former, Britt notes that with regard to the network rejecting Roddenberry’s first pilot (later seen as “The Cage”), “the idea that Majel Barrett’s Number One was too feminist and too progressive for NBC is almost certainly a myth perpetuated by Roddenberry himself … It’s far more likely — as others have stated — that the network didn’t like the fact that Gene cast his mistress as one of the leads.”

Ryan Britt

Ryan Britt

As an example of the latter, Britt praises Roddenberry for the diverse casting of the original show, but accurately reminds the reader that the diverse cast showed up in the second version of his creation. The original pilot was nowhere near as diverse. He also highlights the more-than-a-little disturbing fact that the famous Kirk-Uhuru kiss, often lauded as the first interracial kiss on television, was not portrayed as voluntary (the two are forced to kiss by telekinesis). As Britt puts it, “Any way you slice it, a Black woman being forced to kiss a white man isn’t exactly progress.”

This willingness to cast both a laudatory and a critical eye runs throughout the book Roddenberry is rightly praised when appropriate, but this is no hagiography; Roddenberry’s addiction troubles, womanizing, self-mythologizing, and willingness to take credit for accomplishments not entirely his own are also well charted.

In the context of Trek’s civil rights credentials, again, Britt gives credit when due, but also points to how long it took to arrive at some LGBTQ+ representation, pointing to how it appears Roddenberry himself killed a TNG script portraying gay crew members on the Enterprise. It took until 2005, nearly 40 years of Trek, to get “one explicitly gay character.”

Mixing fannish love of the show and its creators with journalistic detail and research, Britt offers up a work that is equally fun and informative and takes us all the way to the very chronological edge of the Trek universe, including the “non-heroic” Picard and Lower Decks. Given that Prodigy just may be my favorite new Trek since the original show, and that I’m eagerly looking forward to Strange New Worlds, and given as well that Star Trek shows little sign of vanishing into the black hole of canceled television anytime soon, I look forward to a revised edition of Phasers on Stun! in a few years.

Published in May 2022. Written with inside access, comprehensive research, and a down-to-earth perspective, Phasers on Stun! chronicles the entire history of Star Trek, revealing that its enduring place in pop culture is all thanks to innovative pivots and radical change. For over five decades, the heart of Star Trek’s pro-science, anti-racist, and inclusive messaging has been its willingness to take big risks. Across thirteen feature films, and twelve TV series—including five shows currently airing or in production—the brilliance of Star Trek is in its endless ability to be rethought, rebooted, and remade. Author and Star Trek expert Ryan Britt charts an approachable and entertaining course through Star Trek history; from its groundbreaking origins amid the tumultuous 1960s, to its influence on diversifying the space program, to its contemporary history-making turns with LGBTQ+ representation, this book illuminates not just the behind-the-scenes stories that shaped the franchise but the larger meaning of the Final Frontier. Featuring over 100 exclusive interviews with actors and writers across all the generations, including Walter Koenig, LeVar Burton, Dorothy Fontana, Brent Spiner, Ronald D. Moore, Jeri Ryan, and many more, Britt gets the inside story on all things Trek, like Spock’s evolution from red devil to the personification of logical empathy, the near failure to launch of The Next Generation in 1987, and how Trekkie outrage has threatened to destroy the franchise more than once. The book also dives deep with creators like Michael Chabon (co-creator of Star Trek: Picard) and Nicholas Meyer (director, The Wrath of Khan). These interviews extend to the bleeding edge of contemporary Star Trek, from Discovery to Picard to Lower Decks, and even the upcoming highly anticipated 2022 series, Strange New Worlds. For fans who know every detail of each Enterprise bridge, to a reader who has never seen a single minute of any Star Trek, this book aims to entertain, inform, and energize. Through humor, insight, archival research, and unique access, this journey through the Star Trek universe isn’t just about its past but a definitive look at its future.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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