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PORTAL: The Tech's exhibit includes a mockup of the famed 'Guardian of Forever.'

Back to The Future

A new 'Star Trek' exhibit at Tech Museum reminds us how much the show predicted about our culture and ourselves

By Richard von Busack

IT IS weird how deeply a Star Trek exhibition can work on the feelings, even if you're only an indifferent fan who still hasn't seen most of the original episodes. The first round aired on NBC 1966–69 and was past my bedtime. My affection for it at all is due to one man, screenwriter/director Nicholas Meyer, who has just published his account of everything he gave to the best films in the series, The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood.

Like a few other pop-culture series, Star Trek has a cumulative force from just having been around for so long. Opening Friday (Oct. 23), the Tech Museum's "Star Trek: The Exhibition" is centered around an IMAX revival of this summer's rousing hit and a display of models, sets and props of different eras in the franchise, with a timeline to keep it all straight.

Some of the pieces are originals, most are replicas fabricated by Premier Exhibitions of Atlanta. They include a fleet of Enterprises, a Borg cube the size of a big Christmas parcel, empty costumes in cylinders and a mockup of the transporter room. Visitors can have imaginary conversations with the Guardian of Forever, a donut-shaped portal—as we know, some 5 billion years old, neither machine nor living entity. It is surrounded with a sand-colored fiberglass desert, which has a warning sign not to walk on it with high heels.

The captain's quarters aboard Star Trek: The Next Generation are on display; on the table is an empty bottle of Chateau Picard, from Patrick Stewart's estate in Bordeaux. For an extra charge, those who have the spine for it can take a ride on one of a pair of simulators in shuttle form—one gentle, the other more authentically rough as it re-enters a particularly turbulent atmosphere.

The exhibit gives fans a chance to walk around the bridge of the classic-era Enterprise—dimmed and glowing with ultraviolet light. It is so unlike the clear, plain, hot three-point TV lighting of the 1960s. The rooflessness of the set doesn't make much of a dent in the illusion. The sound effects chirp away, creating their own narcosis. If they like, visitors can take a seat in Kirk's leather chair. I certainly couldn't do it myself—I got an uneasy feeling of blasphemy. The genial Roqua Montez of the museum, my guide on the advance tour, helpfully pointed out the positions where Spock would stand and the seats where Chekov and Sulu would sit. The set is circled by a walkway, with the panels displaying the gravity generation and dilithium crystals levels. Nice to note that the brave vessel will be locally built in some starship yard of the future; a battered plaque in one corner reads USS Enterprise, San Francisco, California.

Star Trek: The Experience is another one of those shows meant to hit baby boomers hard, even if there are similar shows in Las Vegas and right outside the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The appeal seems obvious; you can peer through the malaise of a melancholy present into the dreams that did come true. Star Trek's hand-held communicators are now held in everyone's hands. Surely the iPhone never would have been born if someone hadn't imagined having a tricorder. And tasers do pretty much what a phaser was supposed to do (too bad the difference between "stun" and "kill" isn't always clear on the real-life model).

As for the question of the science of it all: when I interviewed him 12 years ago, Lawrence M. Krauss, of The Physics of Star Trek, claimed that the answer was "a resounding 'maybe,'" to the possibility of warp drives. The exhibit has to take a more realistic approach to Einstein. Still, if and until that day comes, the Star Trek lore represents an unusually benign cult, offering a promise of immortality to the human race: not as Gods, but as wiser humans doing what they do best, going forth boldly.

STAR TREK: THE EXHIBITION opens Oct. 23 at the Tech Museum, 201 S. Market St., San Jose. Tickets are $19–$25. (408.294.TECH)

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