It's easy to think that Star Trek inspires either adoration or loathing that you love it so much you say your wedding vows in Klingon, or you pity those who do. But most who have read even this far know there's another class of Trekker the closeted ones. These are people who aren't telling co-workers they plan to see Star Trek: Nemesis, the 10th Trek film, which opened in the U.S. last week and debuts in Europe over the next few weeks. They won't admit they watch Enterprise, the sixth sixth TV series in the franchise. They tell buddies they are going to Vegas for blackjack and bourbon but instead dwell in the celestial sanctuary of Star Trek: The Experience, an indoor theme park that has drawn 2.3 million visitors since opening in 1998. They may even find urgent business reasons to be in London this week when "Star Trek The Adventure" the largest-ever interactive exhibition of sets, props and costumes begins its world tour in a massive tent in Hyde Park.
We know these closet nerds exist, because the enterprise still thrives. Though showing its age after 664 TV shows and a 35th birthday last year, the franchise still generates perhaps $200 million a year in revenues when you add up movie grosses, TV ad sales and what's spent on books (500 have been published), DVDs and tchotchkes (Trek ornaments are always among Hallmark's top holiday sellers). Paramount claims merchandise sales have exceeded $4 billion over Trek's lifetime; 470 people have actually paid $5,000 apiece for a life-size replica of the villain Locutus. The newer series haven't done as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation, but last year U.S. cable channel tnn reportedly paid $364 million for the rights to show reruns of various Trek episodes, even though they have already been aired dozens of times.
With their built-in audience, the nine previous Trek films grossed an average of $181 million in inflation-adjusted terms and collectively made $1.2 billion nearly 30% of it from loyal crew members overseas, particularly in the U.K. and Germany. And Nemesis is better darker, more surprising than the average Trek. Of course, it won't make as much as, say, Spider-Man. Yet Star Trek has outlasted other brands over the years. (Suck a phaser, Batman.) How does Trek survive? The oft-cited answer is that freakish Trekkies fans who saved the original series with passionate letters and today maintain an eBay market of 25,000 Trek items still sustain the franchise. Wrong. Trek hasn't been a cult enterprise in years. It is, instead, a humming mainstream business that responds quickly to changes in mass culture. That's why the new film and TV show depart from the softer story lines of the '90s. Since Sept. 11, Star Trek has basically become an action franchise again. It's even trying to be sexier. But Trek's creators must constantly ask themselves how to draw new consumers without alienating old ones. It's the Cher problem: How many times can you reinvent yourself?