Appellate Judge James A. Stewart composed this review on his tricorder. That's just one example of how Star Trek technology has become a part of everyday life.
"I thought all the Star Trek fans were just weird guys that needed to get a life. I didn't think they were inventors of the modern world and everything in it…So how come that happened?"—William Shatner
It's not often that the average person takes the time to appreciate the impact William Shatner had on the world. From his rendition of "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" that put a cap on the Swingin' Sixties to his memorable recent stint as a game show host that signaled the beginning of the end of the prime-time game show trend, Shatner's career is one that…aw, forget it. That's not quite what the folks at Allumination Filmworks meant when they titled their TV documentary How William Shatner Changed The World. Here's how Shatner himself puts it:
"Is it just me or has everything just gotten futuristic? Everybody has a cell phone stuck in one ear and an iPod in another. We're all constantly surfing the net, downloading this e-mailing that…I made it happen—or rather Star Trek did. You heard me right. Star Trek changed the world—and I'm going to prove it."
The thesis here is that many of the technological innovations of the late 20th century were developed by scientists who grew up on Star Trek and its numerous spinoffs. It's enough to make me regret that my favorite sci-fi shows tended to be the anti-technology ones like The Avengers, which pitted a man who drives antique cars against evil Cybernauts and laser beams created by mad scientists, and The Outer Limits, which pitted anyone exploring the stars against the monster of the week. I've watched Trek and its sequels (though I steered clear of Enterprise after one or two viewings), but it was never my favorite sci-fi show. If I'd have spent more time watching Star Trek, the show with all the neat gadgets, I might have invented a teleporter or something.
Facts of the Case
How William Shatner Changed The World, a Discovery Channel documentary now out on DVD, makes the case for Star Trek's influence on a generation at NASA and in Silicon Valley. The documentary tracks the evolution of Star Trek from the 1966 original to the 2005 cancellation of Enterprise, while showing how computers and other technology developed in the same timeframe.
The point is made through interviews with people like Dr. Marc C. Rayman, chief propulsion engineer at NASA, whose ion propulsion drive inspired by a Trek episode is sending robotic probes into space; Dr. Mae C. Jemison, who was inspired to become the first African-American woman in space after seeing Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek; Martin Cooper, inventor of the cell phone, a variation on the communicator; and Seth Shostak, the head of SETI, which searches for life in space.
While writing this, I noticed that James Doohan's ashes had just been prepared for a journey where one Star Trek figure's ashes had gone before—into space, according to an Associated Press account. Series creator Gene Roddenberry's ashes preceded him in 1997. Now there's proof that Star Trek made an impact!
Still, How William Shatner Changed The World is an interesting look at the ways fiction and reality intersect, and at the technological innovations since 1966—roughly my own lifespan. William Shatner's tongue-in-cheek boasting bluster—wouldn't you be cranky if you had a fan club out there that already had grand designs for your ashes?—proves to be surprisingly agreeable. The scientists, while telling us about their lives and inspirations, also show a surprising enthusiasm for getting silly while demonstrating real-life holodecks or showing the frustrations of waiting for the Klingons to ring us up.
The show has a retro feel to it, imitating (and showing clips of) features of the "Kitchen of the Future" variety. Along with lots of clips from Trek and other 1950s and 1960s pop culture, there's a nifty space hi-fi beat behind just about everything. Since the clips come from a variety of sources, there's occasional graininess, but the overall documentary comes across cleanly. The soundtrack comes across decently, too.
While the documentary shows us people whose contributions are clearly beneficial, it also introduces us to Dr. Kevin Warwick of Reading University in England, who is working on implants that would connect humans directly to the Internet, making us all Borg, so to speak. Um, Dr. Warwick, the Borg were the soulless baddies, remember? We don't want to be like them. Too bad no one introduced him to the anti-technology sci-fi experience the jocks on online radio station BBC 7 fondly recall: hiding behind the couch as the Daleks menaced Doctor Who. Maybe it's a good thing I did prefer watching a Luddite like John Steed go after mad scientists. I may not have solved the rush-hour traffic problem with a teleporter, but at least I've never tried my hand at building Borgs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Amusingly enough, my computer started having an odd fit when I started writing this review, repeatedly popping up with programs that I've never used and didn't particularly want to start using at that particular moment. Thus, it demonstrated the counter argument—that most of these nifty gadgets have bugs that would astonish Chief Engineer O'Brien, even after a stint on Deep Space Nine.
I'll also note that the running time here is less than 90 minutes—as opposed to the approximately two hours promised on the DVD case—and there are no extras, save for a text bio of William Shatner. That's disappointing, since people who crave nifty gadgets also crave lots of neat bonuses on their DVDs.
How William Shatner Changed The World will no doubt tickle the fancy of anyone who enjoys sci-fi flicks or shows, even the anti-technology ones, from the 1950s and 1960s. It's a fascinating documentary that should make you think twice before you dismiss TV science fiction. If you're in Generation X, it'll remind you how life has become so much more complicated since you were born.
I will take issue, though, with the bare-bones DVD release. C'mon. Anyone who likes gadgets half as much as the people this documentary celebrates must like DVD extras as well.
The documentary's not guilty, but Allumination Filmworks is guilty of skimping on the extras.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Allumination Filmworks
• William Shatner Text Biography
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