Las Vegas Sun

December 7, 2021

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Boldly going … and going … and going …

Josh Catalfo has been hooked on "Star Trek" since Capt. James T. Kirk tangled with the Gorn on Stardate 3045.6.

Surely you remember the episode. It was called "Arena" and it first aired almost 31 years ago, on Jan. 19, 1967.

Kirk, commanding the USS Enterprise in its first season, is chasing after a spaceship that had just annihilated a Federation outpost. Just as the Enterprise is about to close in, both ships lose power and their captains are transported to a primitive planet. There, they are directed by a race of aliens called the Metrons to engage in hand-to-hand combat to the death. The losing captain's ship and crew will be destroyed. Both are told that there are natural resources on the planet with which to build a weapon to destroy the other.

The Gorn is a strapping reptilian with a bad attitude. Kirk is, well, Kirk. Our hero knows he's fighting a losing battle when he rolls a boulder over the Gorn, who walks away unscathed.

As the brains-against-brawn battle unfolds, Kirk puts the puzzle together, collecting sulphur in a hollow tube and a flint rock to create a spark. With the Gorn closing in, Kirk points his makeshift cannon at him and strikes the rock perfectly, discharging the weapon and critically wounding his opponent.

Kirk then grabs a knife, prepared to turn his adversary into creamed Gorn, but -- here comes the "Star Trek" twist! -- he proclaims to the Metrons that he won't kill him. The Metrons see this as a positive thing and let both ships go.

Why was this so important to Josh Catalfo? In an era when the big screen produces a gross-out slasher series (a quartet of "Alien" films), an evil Empire (the "Star Wars" trio) and other intergalactic carnage ("Independence Day" and "Starship Troopers"), Catalfo and a legion of fans believe "Star Trek" to be a thinking man's science fiction. Or, in more Star Trekkian terms, a thinking person's science fiction. The hero is committed to nonviolent solutions to conflict.

Not that "Star Trek" hasn't had violence; Kirk punched out many a Klingon in his escapades.

It's just that fans enjoy the way the series and its spinoffs have maturely explored 20th century issues in 24th century settings. Through its well-chronicled run, "Star Trek" has explored man's inhumanity to man, racism, sexism, communism, fascism, capitalism, homosexuality, religion, bigotry and a vast array of technological issues.

Fans have longed for the opportunity to be immersed in that hope-filled "Star Trek" universe. The Las Vegas Hilton and Paramount Parks are hoping Star Trek The Experience, a themed attraction opening this weekend, will accomplish that.

The Experience opens to the public at 11 a.m. Sunday after a VIP party Saturday and a fan preview after midnight. Located at the resort's new SpaceQuest casino, The Experience gives visitors the opportunity to become part of a "Star Trek" story line. There's also a museum of "Star Trek" artifacts, a motion-simulator ride, a themed restaurant and a space freighter full of franchise collectibles.

Some "Star Trek" fans engage in a never-ending debate about which series is the best, the original "Star Trek" and its six motion pictures, starring William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, or the three productions the original replicated.

Of those three, "Star Trek: The Next Generation" is the most revered. It lasted seven seasons and it made the transition to the big screen in "Star Trek Generations," a film starring most of both casts in an unofficial hand-off to the crew headed by Patrick Stewart as Capt. Jean-Luc Picard. The second "Next Generation" film, "Star Trek: First Contact," was one of 1996's biggest box-office draws.

The two newest shows, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager" are still in production, although insiders say "DS9" is a year away from ending its run. ("Trekkers" -- the term loyal fans apply to themselves -- refer to the shows by abbreviations: TOS -- The Original Series; TNG -- The Next Generation; and DS9.)

The DS9 crew, led by Avery Brooks as Capt. Benjamin Sisko, is set on a distant space station while "Voyager," piloted by Capt. Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) chronicles the travails of a starship flung to a distant galaxy attempting to find its way home.

One of the appealing aspects of the four series is that story lines have been written placing characters in each others' turf. Likewise, Star Trek The Experience views things as one universe. The timeline in the History of the Future, the museum display running along the queue line to the motion-simulator ride, incorporates stardates from every "Star Trek" episode and film.

The attraction itself uses a story line and characters from TNG and at the end of the mission deposits guests at DS9. Models of the different versions of the USS Enterprise are suspended from the ceiling.

But it's the stories and the characters that fans say make the series endure.

"I really like the human-interest stories in the science fiction setting," said Catalfo, who considers the original series with Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock to be the standard-bearer for the franchise. "The original series has better stories. They're character-driven, not technology-driven."

Catalfo's contribution to the furthering of "Star Trek" lore is to maintain a Web site -- one of more than 1,700 on the Internet today. Included in his mission is the production of photographs of his Gorn action figure in various settings around the world. He has had pictures taken at Yellowstone National Park, at Disneyland and -- one of his favorites -- at the Vasquez Rocks in a California state park near Palmdale, the film location for the "Arena" episode.

Another Web site contributor, Earl Green, argues that DS9 is the series that defines "Star Trek."

A promotional producer at WACY-TV in Green Bay, Wis., Green said watching Capt. Sisko go from anger to bitterness to despair to hope after his wife is killed in the pilot episode of "Deep Space Nine" exemplifies how life is lived in the "Star Trek" universe. It shows that humanity is still going to be in for some personal trauma despite technological advances that will make life easier.

Although Sacramento "Trek" fanatic Mark Holtz is also compelled by the character development of the show, he points out that "Star Trek" is a classic example of how science fiction can become science fact.

"You saw Spock handling a communicator back in the 1960s," said Holtz. "Today, lots of people have cell phones that work almost the same way. ... "Science fiction provides a pedestal for the inventions of the future."

Holtz also credits "Star Trek" with the resurgence of the science fiction drama.

"It helped open the door for other science fiction to get on the air," he said. '"The X Files' and 'Babylon 5' are probably on the air now because of the success of 'Star Trek."'

Another indication that "Star Trek" is an enduring part of popular culture is that it contributes to the language. What's your favorite "Star Trek" catch phrase? "Beam me up"? "Make it so"? "Engage"? "Resistance is futile"? Just about everyone knows what tractor beams, warp drive, tricorders, phasers and dilythium crystals are. NASA even saw fit to name its first space shuttle the Enterprise, even though the craft never made it into space.

"Trek" fans are split over whether the proliferation of memorabilia for the series is a good thing. Green looks at it as a means of gauging the popularity of the series.

"You can market 'Seinfeld,' 'Friends' and 'Touched by an Angel,' but I don't think there's going to be a Roma Downey action figure introduced any time soon," he said.

"There's a danger of mass merchandising," countered Catalfo, who owns 114 tapes containing the more than 500 hours of "Star Trek" ever filmed. "It's called 'the Disney effect.' You have one of the greatest family-wholesome, PC companies out there, but the merchandising develops a backlash. Now, a lot of people hate it because of the exposure."

None of the three Web site creators plans to be at the opening Sunday. Green cited the economics of a trip from the Midwest; Catalfo indicated he would come eventually; Holtz grew weary of the Hilton's constant delays in getting The Experience open and ended up scheduling a fan party for the debut of a new "Babylon 5" movie on the same weekend.

But Portland, Ore., fan Tom Barrett persevered through Hilton's delays and got lucky when he and some friends booked a trip into Las Vegas for the new year. Barrett said he made plans to attend the opening when it was scheduled last summer, but canceled them when the project was delayed by technical difficulties.

He and his friends made party plans in Las Vegas, then extended their visit when they learned The Experience was opening.

Barrett, a computer design engineer who enjoys "Voyager" because of the new life breathed into it with faster-paced episodes sparked by a rejuvenated Capt. Janeway, bought a $99 fan package and will be in line at midnight Sunday as part of the first public flight to boldly go where no one has gone before.

"I grew up with 'Star Trek,"' Barrett said. "Going to this opening seemed like a fun way to bring in the new year."

Will Star Trek The Experience live up to the expectations of the avid fan base? The designers of the attraction think so.

"It was a challenging undertaking," said Rick Solberg, principal architect for the Cuningham Group in Los Angeles. "It was a very technically advanced project. We asked ourselves, 'How do we transport a guest to the bridge of the Enterprise?' In the show, you just punch a button to do it, but it's not that simple."

Solberg said the sophistication of the Las Vegas guest has placed even greater demands on the designers.

"How do you one-up the last thing that was done?" he said. "How do I take this to the next level? The owners are swallowing hard to come up with the money to produce these attractions. They know the guest will be comparing you to other experiences they have had.

"And we had to make it absolutely correct, yet satisfy the local building and fire codes," said Solberg, whose company also worked on projects for Disney, Knott's Berry Farm, GameWorks Las Vegas and the Rainforest Cafes. "The realities of the construction and fire code environment are much different than the show environment. And we know that there are fans out there who know exactly how many paces it is from the front of the bridge to the back. They know exactly where the door to the turbolift is. We can't ignore this."

"They (the fans) will not be disappointed," predicted Gary Goddard, chairman and chief executive officer of Landmark Entertainment Group, which designed and produced The Experience. "There's a lot of cool innovation because it's a complete immersion technique."

Goddard explained that in Hollywood, set designers only have to build for what the camera sees. At The Experience, workers had to pay attention to detail and build a 360-degree set.

"It was more like building a starship than building a set," Goddard said. "When it works, you're completely unaware that hundreds of thousands of computer commands are going on all around you. It's very convincing, especially when you merge motion simulation with film with live actors with real-time special effects."

Goddard said one of the biggest problems The Experience may encounter is that fans will get so wrapped up in the timeline in the History of the Future display that they won't want to move along the queue line to the ride.

So will fans be happy with the product?

"I've seen the snazzy little Web page that has all the conceptual drawings and all the articles and I'm anxious to see how well they did it," said Catalfo. "But 'Star Trek' fans can be picky. If there's a picture hanging in the wrong place, they'll know it.

"But I doubt if they'll boycott Hiltons around the world over it."