Note: The following is adapted from a blog post I once wrote for a Star Trek fan film. It has been updated to reflect current times.
Confessions of a Star Trek Prop Nerd
Back in the Dim Time, when Vietnam was bursting into our living rooms in full color, Austin Powers still had his mojo, and away teams were called “landing parties,” Captain Kirk needed three things on every trip to a hostile planet: a pretty yeoman and two expendable redshirts. And the prettier the better (the yeoman, not the redshirts).
But he also needed a phaser, a communicator, and a tricorder. I realize that’s more than three things in most states (almost six!), but the point is that no landing party was ever complete without those icons of 1960s 23rd-Century technology. Every incarnation of Star Trek has had its own iteration of them, and no Trek cosplayer feels complete without them — be they platinum, plastic, or paper maché.
My own love affair with the original landing party props goes back to the Nixon Administration. While Tricky Dick was busy telling America that bugging the Oval Office was just a fun icebreaker at parties, I was busy seeking out new life and new civilizations with my AMT “Exploration Set.” It was a cheap little plastic kit of hilariously undersized and poorly rendered knockoffs, but they fit my child-sized hands perfectly. It would be years before I noticed the glaring discrepancies between what was used on the show and what I’d spent my allowance on at Woolco’s. And decades more before I discovered that the eye-popping technology I fawned over on TV consisted of some pretty cheesy props burnished with dark lighting and imagination.
And yet, my loss of innocence regarding movie magic, honed to a cynical edge by 11 years of working on everything from horror films to Miami Vice — did nothing to dissuade my prop-jonesing inner child from scheming to launch my own nuclear program so I could take over the world and finally have all the phasers, communicators, and tricorders I wanted.
But with the dawn of the new century came the Internet, and I soon discovered there was a whole community of tens, nay twenties, of similarly obsessed prop nerds who were willing to chat into the wee hours about which way the plastic texture grain is supposed to run on communicators. (Across, not up and down, you unwashed Philistine! Don’t make me hurt you.)
But meanwhile, Paramount wasn’t feeding our habit. There were lots of unlicensed props and kits out there, mostly of middling accuracy and quality, selling for hundreds of dollars apiece at conventions and online. But few officially licensed alternatives were available. We Trekkies languished in a propless desert, our Treknological hopes and dreams withering in the hot sun like an artisanal margherita hell-pizza topped with the tears of orphaned puppies and kittens. (And sun-dried tomatoes. I love those.)
But we had gritty pluck, steely determination, and eBay. Like fevered, greedy dwarves toiling deep in their mountain strongholds, we gathered in dark, smoky chat rooms. We swapped photos, blueprints, and techniques. We shelled out our hard-earned money for small runs of machined phaser nozzles, plastic tricorder shells, and perforated brass communicator lids. We argued minutiae late into the night and trafficked phaser porn by day. We all shared the same obsession: our own landing party props, identical to what we saw on the show, a living piece of Star Trek to hold in our sweaty, Doritos-dusted mitts.
And then, in 2005, the Earth shook, dogs and cats briefly set aside their profound religious differences, and Viacom split. Its CBS unit went one way with the Star Trek TV franchise, and its Paramount unit went the other with the Trek films and J.J. Abrams’ worst work ever (seriously, the worst episode of Fringe was exponentially better than Star Trek Into Dumbness).
Around this time, Trek licensing bloomed. Seemingly overnight, companies like Art Asylum, Diamond Select Toys, and Master Replicas were making wonderful props. For a lot less money than you can blow on a convention weekend, you could buy a pretty accurate phaser, tricorder or communicator with electronics that put those old-timey convention specials to shame. Even niche licensees like John Long and Masterpiece Models produced accurate kits at reasonable prices, the former even producing a communicator kit that was literally recast from an original, screen-used prop owned by that special-effects titan and Star Trek demigod, the late Greg Jein.
Today, the same advances in electronics that have made the original communicator a quaint, obsolete notion of the future have unleashed on the world — a working communicator! The Wand Company, maker of TV remote-control sonic screwdrivers and the greatest mass-market phaser replica ever produced, has released a Bluetooth communicator that pairs with your smartphone. Sure, you can’t actually beam up with it (because physics), but your wife can totally use it to remind you to pick up a bucket of gagh at P.F. Kang’s.
And stand by for real tricorders, too. The self-same Wand Company, after years of delays, is poised to release its working tricorder. It will take and process environmental readings, play back every captain’s log from The Original Series, and even let you record your own logs—among numerous other functions. And that ability to record, sense, and compute is the reason it’s called a tricorder to begin with.
So whither the obsessed Trek prop nerd in this magical century of affordable, accurate, truly functional Star Trek props? Well, online prop and cosplay communities such as The RPF are busier than ever with talented makers and enthusiastic role-players. The online treasure-trove of communicator info, herocomm.com, has recently resumed operations. Online places like Make: Magazine, Instructables, and even YouTube make it downright easy to learn to make your own piece of Star Trek — or your own anything, for that matter. And high-tech maker spaces in communities everywhere are giving all of us the tools to boldly go all-out in Trekifying our world.
As long as you don’t mind parting with your hard-earned scratch for the sake of soothing your prop itch, there’s a virtual universe at your fingertips. After all, the whole reason we love to collect props and dress up in uniforms is that it provides us with a tangible piece of an idealized future, a way to commune with a noble vision of humanity and touch our greatest aspirations. That, and meet hot Orion slave girl cosplayers.
So… psst… wanna buy a phaser?
The author is an attorney, writer, and maker living in the Washington, D.C. area. He still thinks trading phaser porn online is okay between consenting adults.