Jefferies Tubes #1: The Rules of Acquisition

By Maria Jose and John Tenuto - June 29, 2012

Please join StarTrek.com in welcoming our newest guest bloggers, Maria Jose and John Tenuto. They're sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, specializing in popular culture and subculture studies, and will be writing our latest guest blog column, Jefferies Tubes. In it, they'll crawl around the corners of the Star Trek fan universe, sharing anecdotes, history and little-known stories. Today, in Jefferies Tubes #1, they look at the connections between Star Trek and the home shopping phenomenon.

Home is where the heart is, but the stars are made of latinum. (Ferengi Rule of Acquisition Number 75)

The executives of QVC must have been happy on September 11, 1991, when they premiered a Star Trek-themed show with guest James Doohan. The program ended 20 minutes early because every product, from autographed plaques to communicator replicas, sold out in record time. That show was the beginning of a decades-long partnership between Star Trek and the home shopping channel QVC that resulted in almost 150 hours of live, monthly programs eventually known as The Star Trek Universe.

Interestingly, QVC has produced more hours of nonfiction Star Trek television content than any other source. The Star Trek Universe was part living catalog, part convention, with QVC hosts interviewing Star Trek celebrities while also selling memorabilia that could be purchased by fans at home. Reflecting on the QVC/Trek connection yields potent memories and nostalgic lessons about 1990s Star Trek zeitgeist.

Interviews and Revelations

Good customers are as rare as latinum. Treasure them. (Rule of Acquisition #57)

The Star Trek Universe boasted a diverse collection of guests, from actors William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes to artists and producers such as Robert Justman and Michael Piller. The QVC Star Trek shows were usually two and three hours, without interruption except for programming notes or contests, and the format lent itself to in-depth conversations between the hosts and celebrities. To its credit, QVC often assigned Steve Bryant, Lisa Robertson, and Bob Bowersox to hosting duties, all genuine fans themselves. Their fan creds were evident in the enthusiasm and knowledge the hosts demonstrated in asking questions of the celebrities. Indeed, these interviews of actors and producers who have since passed, such as Mark Lenard or Michael Piller, represent rare, lengthy conversations with important contributors to Star Trek’s success.

When Ricardo Montalban appeared on the February 18, 1992 program, his presence at conventions was an unusual treat and for many fans the QVC show was the first time they had heard Montalban discuss his Star Trek days in such detail. His three-hour appearance is filled with trivia gems, including the uncomfortableness of his Khan wigs to his description of how learning that Nicholas Meyer was the director was what really sold him on returning to the role for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  Montalban also detailed the challenge of acting without William Shatner present, as most his scenes were filmed at unusual times to accommodate his Fantasy Island schedule. “I tried to imagine how William Shatner would read the lines. Because I couldn’t hear his voice, (only) the script girl’s voice. It was very difficult to do.”

In a poignant 1993 QVC program, Majel Barrett Roddenberry made one of her first television appearances after her husband’s passing a few years earlier. She shared many rare photos of Gene Roddenberry as a tribute to the Star Trek creator. She said, “On the lot of Paramount Pictures, there is a building, Stage 8, where the life of the U.S.S. Enterprise takes shape. Here the future unfolds. Science preserves not destroys humanity and the Captain sets course for a dream. It is a future that Gene Roddenberry could never hope to see in his lifetime. And yet he knew, as we all do, that without the dream, no one would ever see it in any lifetime.”

Interactivity and News

Free advice is seldom cheap. (Rule of Acquisition #59)

Twenty years before fans could follow celebrities on Twitter, about the only interactive experiences Trekkers could hope for were at the occasional convention. Through phone calls and faxing, though, The Star Trek Universe allowed fans another way to connect with their favorites. Fan questions often elicited news about episodes or the next feature film or helped quash some rumor circulating through the grapevine.

Indeed, when QVC first premiered its Star Trek program, most fans had never heard of the Internet. News about Star Trek was relegated to word of mouth or bimonthly fan club publications. However, the frequent QVC Star Trek programs quickly became a major source of news and an important component of Paramount’s marketing. For example, the second trailer for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country had its television premiere on QVC. Michael Piller served as an ambassador of good will for Deep Space Nine and Voyager, appearing a few days before both debut episodes and sharing exclusive peeks at future episodes and behind-the-scenes footage.

Exclusive Items

Never spend more for an acquisition than you have to (Rule of Acquisition #2)

Of course, the primary purpose of The Star Trek Universe was to marry fans with memorabilia. QVC offered many exclusive items and timed certain episodes around events such as the 25th and 30th anniversaries or feature film premieres. Arguably the most popular item was the soundboard TNG style communicator pin which sold in the hundreds of thousands. Autographed plaques were another big seller, as fans were assured that the signatures were authentic. The “All Good Things” season-seven TNG plaque featured an exclusive trading card showing LeVar Burton without his visor during a behind-the-scenes moment from the famous last poker game sequence. Some items, such as the titanium delta insignia jewelry, speak volumes about the fashion sense of the 1990s and are probably best left on a collector’s shelf until big shoulder pads and big hair return.

Borrowing from Nog’s Great Material Continuum as a river metaphor, there are ebbs and flows of mainstream popularity for Star Trek when it commands more or less attention. The sheer amount and popularity of QVC Star Trek shows of the 1990s is one symbol of how mainstream Star Trek had become during that decade.  As Star Trek sequels waned in ratings and box office receipts during the 2000s, the QVC shows also faded.  Yet, Star Trek returned reinvigorated with J.J. Abram’s new feature film and, considering the 20-year connection between QVC and Star Trek,  it was perhaps inevitable then that The Star Trek Universe also returned for several shows during May of 2009 to QVC’s U.S. and U.K. channels, offering a mix of nostalgia products and new feature film items.

Will 2013 bring yet another resurgence of Star Trek home shopping?

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Maria Jose and John Tenuto are both sociology professors at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, Illinois, specializing in popular culture and subculture studies. The Tenutos have conducted extensive research on the history of Star Trek, and have presented at venues such as Creation Conventions and the St. Louis Science Center. They have written for the official Star Trek Magazine and their extensive collection of Star Trek items has been featured in SFX Magazine. Their theory about the “20-Year Nostalgia Cycle” and research on Star Trek fans has been featured on WGN News, BBC Radio, and in the documentary The Force Among Us. They are currently researching all known paperwork from the making of the classic episode "Space Seed" and are excited to share some previously unreported information about Khan's first adventure with fellow fans next year when the research is complete.  Contact the Tenutos at jtenuto@clcillinois.edu or mjtenuto@clcillinois.edu.

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