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My Tour aboard the Enterprise

February 5th, 2008 | Derek Johnson

I was in LA last month to do some research for my dissertation on media franchises.  In addition to my time in the archives and my interviews with executives and producers, I decided that as a part of my “research”, my last stop before heading back to Wisconsin would be to go with my friends Scott and Holly to the Queen Mary Dome in Long Beach to visit the first leg of Star Trek: The Tour, the exhibit currently making its way across the US.  You know, one of those sacrifices you make for your work. 

Okay, so I was looking forward to it all week.  But at the same time, I was really apprehensive about the whole thing, convinced that the hour or so I thought we’d spend there would be no where’s worth the ridiculously high ticket price (even with the student discount).  

 Captain on the bridge!

But four hours – and several awkward yet kinda awesome pictures – later, I found that I’d actually seen a number of pretty interesting things…

I knew that Paramount had auctioned off hundreds of props and models still in its Star Trek warehouses in a massive cash grab at Christie’s in 2006.  (In my opinion, those iconic objects and set pieces that drew the largest bids, like the shooting model of the Enterprise from the movies, should be preserved in a museum, not one wealthy fan’s living room – but that’s a topic for another day).  So I wasn’t expecting much of value to be left to be displayed at this exhibit.  In large part, I was right.  Aside from a few phasers and communicators, the most recognizable of ships and props were no where to be found – although they did have a great selection of costumes, including Ricardo Montalban’s Khan duds from Star Trek II. 

But what the tour really had to offer was a space for encountering all this stuff.  While the majority of the exhibit was just an open space with display cases, the most striking part of it was a corridor made up to look like the Next Generation interiors.  From there, you could peer into Picard’s quarters and into sickbay to see props and costumes displayed in their “native” environments.  I figured that the walls surrounding me were recreations, and not real sets, but for the 100 feet or so they spanned, they created a pretty immersive space. 

 

Then there were the “photo ops”: sets in which visitors could pose for pictures.  These included the transporter room and the bridge of both Kirk’s and Picard’s Enterprises.  These were most certainly reconstructions, and not the real sets once occupied by the series’ stars (if you looked closely at the first picture in this post, I’m sure you saw like we did that the hooded viewer Spock often peered through was painted white instead of black and inapppropriately placed at the engineering station to Kirk’s left, rather than the science station to his right).  But it was still fun to sit in the big chair. 

Naturally, the tour organizers had their own cameras mounted in these locales were charging $17-25 for prints of pictures taken with their automated system, but they were surprisingly cool with letting us hold up the line to take several of our own shots.  As part of this system, tour employees often did their work by manning posts like the transporter chief’s station.  Another thing I really got a kick out of is that someone in charge of designing this exhibit had used the fictional “LCARS” computer interface design from the Next Generation era as the model for the computer interface that tour employees had to use to make that picture-taking system work.  It’s kind of weird for employees’ on-the-job training to include 24th century operating systems, but I guess they were probably just glad it wasn’t Vista.  (But someone should have told them that interface was anachronistically out of place on Kirk’s Enteprise).

Without a doubt the exhibit could have been much cooler (if you’re allowing that coolness is even possible here, that is), especially if more of it had been designed in the style of spaces from the series, instead of the open-air sense of just being in the Queen Mary Dome.  But the exhibit demonstrated to me that there’s at least some potential in media spaces like these, and I’d like to see other long running motion picture and television franchises try to pursue similar endeavors, to preserve more of these cultural artifacts and put them in close proximity to audiences.  It’s not as good as a museum, of course, and seeing recreations isn’t as good as seeing the real things, but if there’s money in these kinds of events, maybe media companies will think twice before throwing the originals away, just to be recreated later, and once again before auctioning them off to the highest bidder. 

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  1. February 5th, 2008 at 21:11 | #1

    Derek, wonderful post and pictures. As a fellow fan of Trek’s diegetic spaces and hardware spanning the many series and motion pictures, I’m jealous.

    But I’m curious: were the corridors, rooms, props, and other artifacts presented to you as *production* spaces, that is, (in)complete with lights, cameras, and other framing industrial paraphrenalia? The Enterprise bridge, for example, has floating walls that can be pulled away to allow more flexible shooting setups (I’ve often reflected on how exigencies like these shaped the final circular, modular set design). The same is true of any other Trek set; it existed profilmically as an incomplete arrangement of walls, a Potemkin village interrupted just off-camera by the darkened space of soundstage and an arrangement of technicians, assistants, and other “crew” who were a sense the repressed “real” of Star Trek.

    It sounds as though the exhibit you toured was “finished,” and hence “closed,” in a way truer to the imaginary experience of viewers than the actual reality of Trek’s manufacture. If this is so, is there something important to be said about the ideological function of such tours in commodifying not just the physical artifacts of Trek, but the concretized fantasies of its audience? Because these spaces never existed in quite the seamless way your images and reporting suggest, their reification now seems an important phase in the ongoing transubstantiation of the franchise: the corporate colonization of our fannish imaginaries. In this case, the various “continuity errors” you spotted — the misplacement of Spock’s viewer, or the inappropriate periodization of the LCARS interface — seem less like laughable goofs on the part of Trek’s corporate owners & curators, and more a kind of diversionary tactic: a red herring, intentional or not, leading us away from the contradictions and ideological seams which imperfectly suture Trek’s fictive superstructure to its industrial base, and toward a game of reading which is, lamentably, already a misreading.

  2. Derek Johnson
    February 6th, 2008 at 06:37 | #2

    thanks for the great response, Bob. These spaces definitely weren’t laid out like production spaces at all – there wasn’t a light or C-stand to be found. They definitely didn’t have the “wild” walls that the real sets would have had. However, they weren’t as closed or sutured together as my pictures suggest either: just as the pictures we seen on TV do not suggest it. Each location had an open wall through which other visitors could look from the darkened space outside (and take more pictures, if they wish; I’ve added another image at the bottom of the post to show you what I mean). For example, if I look embarrassed sitting in Kirk’s chair, or you’re disappointed I didn’t strike a more Shatner-esque pose, it’s because the illusion wasn’t completely closed. A third of the bridge walls were missing and there were dozens of people watching me from the outside, making the illusion imperfect.

    While I think that attention to continuity errors don’t have to tie us to a game of illusory in-world reading irrespective of industrial concerns (I, for example, immediately began to wonder what happened at the level of producing this exhibit to so misplace Spock’s viewer or what it must have been like to train hourly employees to use LCARS), I think you make a truly compelling point about the misrepresentation and misreadings that would occur if more of the exhibit had been presented in the style my corridor pictures suggest and my conclusion calls for. I wonder, then, whether we’d need to consider video games and other texts that allow fans to explore 3-D representations of franchise spaces in a similar light. In those cases, the reconstructed virtual sets really are finished and closed. Or – is the modular programability of a video game such that the wild walls are always moving in real time with the player, leaving an opening for us to look in through the screen? Like all ideological projects, I think that these fictional spaces are ultimately pretty hard to firmly close up.

  3. February 6th, 2008 at 07:18 | #3

    Thanks for expanding on this; that final image does help to frame the weird heterogeneity of the tour space.

    I agree that playing spot-the-continuity-error is not necessarily or exclusively a taking of the fantasy lure; as you point out, such errors can almost always be traced “outward” to the production context (e.g. in reminding us that most films are shot out of sequence, or that multiple hands go into the apparently singular “authorship” of a franchise text) and hence can work in subversive, against-the-grain readings. (My thinking right now is mired in binaries of fan studies circa early 90s, as we’re working through Fiske and Textual Poachers in my Fan Culture course.)

    And your point about videogames and other interactive “realizations” of the Trek universe is right on the money. I remember how excited I was to tour the Next Generation Enterprise using the CD-ROM that came out in the 90s. Looking at it and similar experiences like the Elite Force games, I see that much of the pleasure came from navigating the familiar corridors and getting a sense for how the vessels “really” fit together; the seamless closure itself was the point.

    But I do hope we’ll see a good Shatneresque shot of you some day! Extra points for torn shirt …

  4. February 6th, 2008 at 09:53 | #4

    but I guess they were probably just glad it wasn’t Vista
    nicely put

    I’d like to see other long running motion picture and television franchises try to pursue similar endeavors
    Amen to that. When I went to the Star Wars exhibit in London, that was great, though no sets, only costumes and props. There are, of course, the real life pilgrimage possibilities (you really should share that great pic I got of you at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver [aka BSG's Earth pre-destruction]), but in an age when ARGs, video games, etc. try to place us into the diegetic universe, it seems odd that there are still relatively few sets to sit in.

  5. February 6th, 2008 at 13:01 | #5

    Jon, you write: “In an age when ARGs, video games, etc. try to place us into the diegetic universe, it seems odd that there are still relatively few sets to sit in.”

    An increasingly common phenomenon in an era where digital production methods are rendering material settings a thing of the past? Some Baudrillardian or “Virilio-ian” point here about the colonization of reality by the diegetic, even as the diegetic’s material base evaporates into pixel play?

    … “Message, Spock?”

  6. February 6th, 2008 at 13:31 | #6

    yet Bob, after coming home from Vegas last week, where I got to explore the wonders of New York, Paris, Venice, Luxor, and Rome in their casino-ized versions, I’m reminded that Americans still love their tangible simulacra too :-)
    But, yes, point well taken. And perhaps the difference is that the simulacra need to be repurposed — one doesn’t go to the Venetian in Vegas to see Venice and know what it feels like, one goes to shop and gamble with Venetian elegance. Or one goes into a restuarant with bamboo, and may feel it’s a better ambience for south east asian cuisine, yet might feel a little dumb if one went to such a locale simply for the experience of south east asia. Simulacra need to be on the side, so it seems, not the main course?

  7. Estefania Pickens
    October 10th, 2008 at 15:44 | #7

    i was doing a search for pictures of the vegas star trek experience, and your website came up. i start scanning through and who do i see? my friends scott and holly! no way! :)

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