Phasers on Stun! by Ryan Britt is a new cultural history of Star Trek.
In his new book Phasers on Stun!, author and prolific pop culture journalist Ryan Britt sets himself a big task: to prove, as the book’s subtitle has it, that “the Making (and Remaking) of Star Trek Changed the World.”
Declarations that “Star Trek changed the world” are common in fan culture. I’ve made them myself. When I was a new fan circa 1985, I would make impassioned statements in my own, typewritten fanzine (total circulation of 2, my best friend and myself) about Gene Roddenberry’s Vision and Star Trek’s Call To A Better Future and all those other high-minded sentiments we Trek fans love, by turns, to espouse or eschew.
Of course, Ryan Britt is no teenage fan hunting-and-pecking uncritical raves. The articles he writes for sites like Inverse and Den of Geek—not just about Trek, but about other science fictional universes (including Dune, the subject of his next book)—are unfailingly informative, thoughtful, and funny. His first book, Luke Skywalker Can’t Read And Other Geeky Truths (2015), is, as I called it for The Sci-Fi Christian, “a fast and fun, light-hearted but earnest invitation to embrace geek culture—loudly, energetically, and sometimes even with disproportionate passion.” Britt is one of the few authors I’d desperately love to write like when I grow up.
But when I cracked open Phasers on Stun! I wasn’t sure even Ryan Britt could convince me, in a factual and logical way, that Star Trek “changed the world.” “OK,” I thought as I settled in to read. “Prove it.”
Phasers on Stun! makes a strong case for Star Trek as an agent of change
Phasers on Stun! moves through the franchise’s history mostly chronologically. The final few chapters adopt more thematic approaches—for example, a survey of LGBTQ+ representation, from George Takei asking Roddenberry to create a gay character through the several LGBTQ+ characters in Star Trek: Discovery.
In most chapters, Britt makes usually compelling and always entertaining cases that Star Trek has, in fact, changed some aspect of the world we know.
In Chapter 2, for instance, he argues the original series “may have made science fiction mainstream” (p. 55). In Chapter 4, he proves “fandoms” as we understand them (with the exception of Sherlock Holmes fandom) owe their existence to Trek fandom. He highlights “Star Trek’s progressive influence on NASA” in Chapter 5 (p. 120), and in Chapter 7 insists that while “Star Trek didn’t directly save the whales” (p. 165), the impact of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home on public environmental awareness shouldn’t be underestimated.
For his part, Britt doesn’t underestimate Star Trek’s mixed record of progress. While, in Chapter 10, he praises Star Trek: Deep Space Nine for having “pushed the entertainment industry in America toward progressive change” by casting Avery Brooks as its lead (p. 222), he doesn’t do so without having previously explored racism in Star Trek’s past, despite its presentation of a future in which racism is largely absent. Nor does he pay tribute to Star Trek: Voyager, in Chapter 11, for the inspirational legacy of Captain Janeway—”singular not just within Trek, but across science fiction in general” (p. 237)—without calling out the franchise for succumbing to sexism throughout its history.
For all that it touches on serious matters, Phasers on Stun! is a lot of fun. Britt’s enthusiasm for Star Trek shines on every page. He not only quotes from interviews he conducted with Trek stars, behind-the-scenes creatives, and fans, but also sometimes shares the circumstances that made those interviews memorable. The book often feels like the convention of Star Trek fans’ dreams, with one great guest after another.
And as he did in Luke Skywalker Can’t Read, Britt often livens up his pages’ margins with footnotes full of trivia, fannish speculation, and pet peeves. (“The fact that [Frank Gorshin is] in one of the most famous episodes of Star Trek is simply not talked about enough,” pp. 70-71).
In the end, despite that subtitle, Britt does not render any heavy-handed judgments about the importance of Star Trek. As he regales us with story after story of how the franchise has effected changes both small and large, readers will be hard pressed to escape the conclusion Britt at least very strongly suspects Star Trek has, in fact, changed the world.
But Britt takes seriously Star Trek as both a creative and a commercial enterprise. He doesn’t apologize for Trek’s dual nature. Indeed, he shows how—as it is for Spock, a character to whom Britt logically returns as a Rosetta Stone for comprehending Trek—its dual nature is perhaps Star Trek’s greatest strength.
In the closing pages of Phasers on Stun!, however, readers realize Britt’s true is not whether Star Trek has changed the world, but whether and how it changes us.
Given the times in which we live, that question is as consequential, urgent, and potentially rewarding as it was when Star Trek premiered—and keeping it before us is the greatest contribution Phasers on Stun! makes.