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‘Star Trek’ boldly went where no show had gone before

The “Star Trek” cast, circa 1968: (front, from left) DeForest Kelley, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy; (back, from left) James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Majel Barrett, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei.
The “Star Trek” cast, circa 1968: (front, from left) DeForest Kelley, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy; (back, from left) James Doohan, Walter Koenig, Majel Barrett, Nichelle Nichols, and George Takei.Paramount

C aptain James Tiberius Kirk of the USS Enterprise has always been a crack shot with his phaser. But what’s his aim like with a baseball at Fenway Park?

We’ll find out soon.

“I’m gonna throw a curveball that drops right at the plate,” said William Shatner, 85, best known for playing Kirk in the original “Star Trek” television series and in several films. The actor and performer is gearing up for an August trip to Boston for the annual pop culture convention Boston Comic Con, with a detour to Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game and receive a proclamation from Mayor Marty Walsh. “The mayor is gonna try and hit my pitch,” Shatner joked in a telephone interview from Los Angeles.

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Shatner is a busy man these days. He’s crisscrossing the country to throw out baseballs, attend conventions, and meet with fans at a pivotal time in his former character’s life: the 50th anniversary of “Star Trek.”

These are the voyages of the starship Nostalgia. Its one-year mission: to explore why “Star Trek” endures and resonates, to seek out fans old and new, to boldly go where no science fiction franchise has gone before.

To be sure, “Star Trek” has fans galaxy-wide, so expect plenty of hoopla. But Boston has an especially dense network of fans and connections to “Trek” — from cast members with hometown ties, to locally made video games, to devotees who claim the sci-fi series changed their lives.

That “Star Trek” has survived, no one is more surprised than Shatner. He called his show “moderately successful” when it first aired on NBC on a Thursday evening, Sept. 8, 1966. “[For it] to remain in the public consciousness and for you and I to be talking about it 50 years later is a phenomenon beyond belief,” Shatner said.

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Over the intervening light years, the venerable science fiction show has seen four major TV spinoff series and a baker’s dozen of movies — including a new film in the series, “Star Trek Beyond,” which opens Friday. There have been novels, comic books, video games, an animated series. As far back as the 1960s, dedicated fans, called Trekkies or Trekkers, have gathered at conventions, collected merchandise, and dressed in costume.

A big part of the serial’s appeal was Mr. Spock, who is from the planet Vulcan, by way of the Hub. Leonard Nimoy, who portrayed the iconic, half-human, half-alien character, was born and grew up in Boston’s West End in the 1930s and 1940s. “I saw Ted Williams hit home runs at Fenway Park. I learned to sail on the Charles River. I sold newspapers at the corner of Boylston and Arlington,” Nimoy said in his 2012 commencement speech at Boston University, which awarded him an honorary degree. His acting career began at age 8 at the Elizabeth Peabody Playhouse, a West End community center. It was there Nimoy caught the eye of a drama professor from Boston College before moving to California to pursue his acting career. Nimoy died in 2015.

“Boston was good to him and shaped his work ethic. A village raised him. A lot of people helped him,” said Adam Nimoy, a filmmaker whose documentary about his father and the enduring appeal of the Mr. Spock character, “For the Love of Spock,” will be released on Sept. 9. He said his father wanted to “transcend his Russia immigrant background” and get out of inner city Boston. “Like Spock, he was the quintessential outsider.” Nimoy and Spock had “parallel experiences.”

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In February, Shatner, who “became very fast friends” with Nimoy, published “Leonard: My Fifty-Year Friendship With a Remarkable Man,” a memoir chronicling that relationship. Shatner has another connection to the city: Nerine Kidd, his third wife who died in 1999, was also raised here. “I feel close to Boston,” he said. “In a way, Boston is my town as well.” (If you miss Shatner at Boston Comic Con, he’s also bringing his one-man show, “Shatner's World: We Just Live In It,” to Lynn in October.)

Though Nimoy did appear in J.J. Abrams’s previous two franchise films “Star Trek” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” neither Shatner nor Nimoy appear in “Star Trek Beyond,” wherein a sneak attack causes the Enterprise and its crew to crash-land on a — yes, another strange new world. But fans attending Boston Comic Con at the Seaport World Trade Center will find other stars, such as Karl Urban, who plays Dr. McCoy, a.k.a. “Bones,” in the new trilogy, and Paul Forest, a Spock impersonator known as Spock Vegas.

For some fans, their first love remains “The Original Series,” or “TOS,” which only lasted three seasons. At the time, science fiction was typically about monsters, disasters, and humanity’s failure to get along, said Suford Lewis, 73, of Natick, who remembers being attracted to the show’s “hopeful vision.” When, in late 1967, the network threatened to cancel “TOS,” Lewis became involved in a campaign that successfully kept it on the air for one more year. “It was then that we realized that ‘Star Trek’ had inspired huge numbers of people who were mostly not science fiction fans at all but were inspired by [creator Gene] Roddenberry’s vision of the future,” said Lewis, who has worked in the computer field for 40 years. “The meme had escaped into the world at large and inspired everyone.”

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Few shows on TV had a multiracial, multinational cast, let alone a forward-looking vision. The “Star Trek” universe promised that “as humans we can rise above racism, genocide, trashing of our planet, and more, not only to survive, but to thrive with other worlds, other universes,” said Garen Daly, festival director and producer of the Boston Science Fiction Film Festival and Marathon. “The future is the best of humanity, curious, smart, and inclusive.”

For Matt Bucy, a cinematographer and real-estate developer from Vermont, “Star Trek” was his “go-to” program as a teen and “the only show that addressed my anxieties growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, gay and sensitive to injustices prevailing in American culture.” Bucy expresses his fandom in what some might consider an extreme way: He’s director of photography and co-producer of a fan-created Web series called “Star Trek Continues.” Shot in Georgia, the show recaptures the look and spirit of “TOS.” (Vic Mignogna, who plays Captain Kirk in “Continues,” will also be on hand at Boston Comic Con.

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Some mix and match eras of “Trek” fandom. Two million players have tried “Star Trek Timelines,” a mobile video game launched by Framingham-based company Disruptor Beam earlier this year that lets players pick and choose iconic starships and crew — Kirk, Spock, Janeway, Worf, and Data — from across the “Star Trek” universe. The game “brings together all the TV shows and 50 years of ‘Trek’ into one game,” said Disruptor Beam CEO and founder Jon Radoff. “[It’s] just one example of how ‘Star Trek’ has come to life for fans outside of the TV screen.”

Other fans, like Debbie Blicher, 52, an editor and “mother of two young Trekkies” from Sudbury, appreciate the show’s “values, like altruism, adhering to a code of ethics, idealism, inclusion.” “Trek” taught her that people with flaws could be loved by others and could overcome their obstacles. “I have friends who say I’d be a terrific Klingon.”

All this enthusiasm and loyalty has kept the franchise going. The fans keep Shatner going, too. “I harness their energy,” he said. “ ‘Star Trek’ gave me the opportunity to see the world in a way that I wouldn’t have.”

To “Star Trek,” and its fans, may you live long and prosper, for another 50 years.

Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com or on Twitter @ethanfreak.