When the starship Enterprise embarked on its five-year mission on September 8, 1966, few could’ve anticipated the cultural phenomenon it would launch. Over the next 50 years, the Star Trek franchise became one of the torchbearers of science fiction through a multitude of televised series and blockbuster movies. To mark the golden anniversary, EMP Museum hosts Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds. The exhibit is a Trekkie paradise full of famed props from various incarnations of the franchise, but those less invested in the Star Trek universe might find it to be lacking substantive depth.
Exploring New Worlds hits all the major points of the series. The exhibit's design resembles a red alien planet, and James T. Kirk’s original captains chair serves as the focal point of a minor recreation of the Enterprise bridge. The surrounding displays include costumes for Captain Jean-Luc Picard, Spock, Uhura, Seven of Nine, a Borg, and the Khans (both from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn and Star Trek Into Darkness versions). The exhibit’s highlight comes via an expansive wall panel-spanning timeline (designed by students at Cornish) that shows how all the Star Trek series and films chronologically relate via engaging visual layout. Other notable details on display range from the intricate (a great model of the stage where the original series was shot) to the mildly disturbing (Data’s android head placed under a glass panel in the floor).
Exploring New Worlds also offers a few neat interactive aspects. Visitors can crawl through a recreation of one of the series Jefferies Tubes (the narrow tunnels crew members crawl through to get to a ship’s inner workings), give their imitation of Shatner’s iconic Star Trek II wail in the Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!!!!! Booth, and experience space age transportation in a room where the power of special effects allows patrons to use one of the series’ famed transporters to rematerialize in new location. These all give a little pep to the proceedings.
Each of the five TV series has its own display case, and there are additional sections dedicated to the cinematic universe and certain major species and storylines (Vulcans, Klingons, Borg, Gorn, the Mirror Universe, etc.). The label writers for Exploring New Worlds did a pretty terrific distilling character description or entire series into just a few sentences, but it still all feels like pretty basic, surface level.
Of course the EMP has special limitations, but it seems a bit too cursory to represent years of programming by one case with a costume (or two if you’re lucky) and a couple small props. More importantly, the exhibit fails to really explain why Star Trek matters or why it has resonated so deeply. There are a few blurbs that briefly touch on the franchise’s initial social relevance (touching on the progress in space technology in the 1960s and the show’s attempt to depict a diverse, untied utopia), but there’s ironically no sense of discovery. Outside of a few little production details (including Star Trek’s relationship to Lucille Ball), there’s not a lot that isn’t fairly obvious to glean from Exploring New Worlds.
It’s hard not to mentally compare Exploring New Worlds to last year’s EMP exhibit, Star Wars and the Power of Costume. By honing in on such a specific topic, the Star Wars exhibit highlighted the craftsmanship and thought put into each outfit (which make the Star Trek costumes look super chintzy by comparison). It illustrated hidden (or at least not glaringly obvious) levels of depth added by a department that’s often overlooked in the moviemaking process. Star Wars and the Power of Costume felt like an exploration; visitors could walk away having learned something. Exploring New Worlds doesn’t scratch that same thirst-for-knowledge itch. It’s merely a celebration, which isn’t a bad thing. With the core costumes and props on display, it’s hard to imagine any Trekkie coming away severely dissatisfied with Exploring New Worlds. But it’s just fan service.
Star Trek stated its mission was to “explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Exploring New Worlds doesn’t abandon that ideal, but there’s nothing particularly bold about the approach.
Star Trek: Exploring New Worlds
Thru Feb 27, EMP Museum, $27–$30