Ever since Star Trek first aired on television in 1966, the series has had a strong influence on pop culture. In 1976, due to the show’s rising popularity in syndication, Topps released a series of collectible trading cards featuring full-color images from the classic television series created by Gene Roddenberry, as well as synopses and information on the cast and crew of the Starship Enterprise. This first-ever compilation includes the fronts and backs of all 88 cards and 22 rare and hard-to-find stickers (which were originally sold one per pack), as well as text and commentary by Star Trek insiders Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann―guaranteed to please the die-hard Trekkie as well as a whole new generation of fans.
Praise for Star Trek: The Original Topps Trading Card Series
“If you’re like me, most of those cards are long gone by now, so I’ve loved the hardcover books devoted to the company’s various product lines.” ―USA Today’s Pop Candy blog
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Star Trek: The Original Topps Trading Card Series
By Paula M. Block, Terry J. Erdmann, Clarissa Wong
Copyright © 2013 Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann
All rights reserved.
EXPLORING THE WAXY FRONTIER, 7,
THE CARDS, 15,
STICKER SHOCK, 192,
THE STICKERS, 193,
EXPLORING THE WAXY FRONTIER
Star Trek — the original TV series — died young. After three short years, from 1966–69, creator-producer Gene Roddenberry’s “Wagon Train to the stars” (as he referred to it in his original pitch) succumbed to the burning arrows shot by traditionalist network executives. NBC buried the corpse on Boot Hill and moved on to what it felt were more viable shows. But a funny thing happened at the burial grounds.
Somebody dug up the corpse.
Imaginative programmers at Kaiser Broadcasting, owner and operator of a string of UHF television stations across the United States, resurrected Star Trek. Kaiser was intrigued by the passion of the show’s audience during its network run, particularly the massive letter-writing campaign that had prompted a reluctant NBC to green-light the series for a third season. Sensing an opportunity, Kaiser nurtured its viewers’ enthusiasm by running uncut episodes — just before the dinner hour — in major markets like Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Detroit, and Cleveland. The effort paid off. Young viewers in those cities rushed home from school, dropped their books, and tuned in, day after day after day. Soon other independent stations, noting Kaiser’s success, were lining up to broadcast Star Trek.
Within a few short years, Star Trek was recognized as the first television series to become more popular in syndication than it had been in its initial run. But the success didn’t stop there. Devoted fans began creating their own versions of their favorite characters and scenes. They wrote and self-published mimeographed and offset-printed fanzines with titles like Spockanalia, Menagerie, and Warped Space, each filled with brand-new stories about the crew of the Starship Enterprise.
Like members of any good cult, they also felt the need to gather together and meet other die-hard fans. For the first time ever, on January 21, 1972, at New York’s Statler Hilton hotel, a small group of fans put together a Star Trek convention — drawing a crowd of more than three thousand people. Before long, legions of Trekkies across the country started their own fan clubs and hosted their own conventions, providing myriad opportunities to meet new friends, to create costumes inspired by the show, and to collect autographs from their television idols.
Meanwhile, the corporate world realized it was missing a huge opportunity by not licensing Star Trek paraphernalia. The Mego Corporation quickly made up for lost time and released a variety of Star Trek action figures and pseudo-high-tech gizmos. Also, a few brave publishers had supported Star Trek from the very beginning (e.g., Ballantine with the iconic The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield in 1968, and Bantam with its episode adaptations penned by science fiction writer James Blish, starting in 1967). With the new burst of popularity, the publishers broadened their lines and added original fiction and “Fotonovels.” Gold Key, which had landed the license for Star Trek comics in 1967, kept its presses running until the end of the 1970s, when others stepped in to meet the demand for new illustrated adventures aboard the Enterprise.
By 1976, the defunct television series seemed to be just about everywhere. The Star Trek phenomenon was most evident in bookstores, especially with the impressive release of the encyclopedic Star Trek Concordance by Bjo Trimble with Dorothy Jones Heydt. At the corner newsstand, a brand-new magazine called Starlog targeted fans of media-based science fiction. On Saturday morning television, children were bombarded with commercials for new Star Trek toys. And on Saturday Night Live, the hottest new television show, adults were watching “The Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise,” an uproarious spoof that proved how entrenched Star Trek was in America’s mass consciousness. From Spock groupies to the nation’s entertainment reporters to the ordinary folks at the office watercooler, it seemed everyone was a fan. Star Trek even made its presence known in the space program when NASA bowed to public demand and christened its prototype space shuttle Enterprise.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood took notice. Paramount Pictures had already toyed with the notion of a revival by distributing twenty-two episodes of an animated Star Trek series from 1973-75. And now, behind the studio’s famous wrought-iron gates, plans slowly began to take shape for a new live-action Star Trek movie.
Without a doubt, Star Trek was hot at last. And that made Len Brown a very happy man. At the time, Brown was creative director for the Topps Company, the country’s leading manufacturer of sports and entertainment-themed trading cards. “I was a big Star Trek fan,” he admits. “[In 1966] the network showed us the first episode in a screening room, and I loved it! I couldn’t wait for it to come on television!
“Unfortunately, the ratings weren’t that good,” he recalls with a sigh. “We were primarily a manufacturer of children’s trading cards — that was our strength — and we thought this was a great show, but we felt kids weren’t going to understand it. It wasn’t Lost in Space. So we passed it by. And, of course, Leaf ended up getting the rights.”
“The Leaf set, produced in 1967, is the starting point when you talk about Star Trek trading cards,” explains Brown’s coworker Gary Cerani, who wrote and edited many movie and TV tie-in card sets for Topps over the years. Like most trading card aficionados, Gerani is well aware of the black-and-white Star Trek set manufactured by Leaf Brands. Infamous for the bizarre text that appeared on the back of the cards — which had little to do with the photo on the front — the set was released in limited quantities and quickly disappeared from the marketplace.
A different set of cards, made in 1969 by A&BC Chewing Gum in Britain, was, oddly, based on only one Star Trek episode, number 10, “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” It was never distributed in America. But with the advent of online auction sites like eBay, collectors worldwide have rediscovered the cards. The scarcity of the fifty-five-card set enhances its price tag, with individual cards today selling for ten dollars and up.
Len Brown remembers, “After the show got canceled, it never went away. It had a higher presence than ever. It was continually showing in reruns on local New York stations, sometimes twice a day. And then the Star Trek conventions started. There was this whole buzz about the show ten years after the fact!”
Although Topps wasn’t known for doing “retro” card sets — that is, trading cards based on shows that were no longer in their first run — Brown was thrilled that the groundswell in interest gave him the opportunity to go after a Star Trek license, even at this late date. But instead of immediately locking up a licensing contract, Topps waited to see if the rest of the world would react with equal excitement.
Thus, in 1976, the market seemed ripe for a well-conceived, full-color Star Trek trading card set. In fact, according to Gary Gerani. “During that same period, Space: 1999 came into existence, in reaction to the Star Trek syndication phenomenon,” he says. “And one of our competitors got the rights to that TV show. But Len Brown was smart enough to go to the real source of all the interest — which was Star Trek itself.” As a result, Topps contracted with Paramount to produce a new set of Star Trek trading cards.
Gerani quickly set to work gathering the requisite images and writing the accompanying text. With the memory of Leaf’s peculiar take on the characters still fresh, “I tried to keep it straightforward,” Gerani states. “I wanted the tone of the text to match up with fan expectations. I knew that Star Trek was taken seriously by the people who loved it.”
Surprisingly, the most daunting task was locating the appropriate imagery for the set. At the time, says Gerani, Paramount had little in the way of episodic photography. As was the practice in those days, after the show’s cancellation, the studio had disposed of the bulk of its Star Trek-related support materials. Destined for the dumpsters, some publicity photos found their way into the hands of collectors and avid fans. “All Paramount had left on the lot were some four-by-five transparencies of the main characters standing around, or sitting on the bridge,” notes Gerani. “They were apologetic, but we assured them, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll take care of that,’ because we knew that the collectors would be more than happy to provide us with images from every single episode.”
Gerani’s selections definitely pleased the target audience. “Topps did an amazing job choosing this imagery way back when,” enthuses James Sawyer, collectibles savant and toy manager for the Earth Collectible Toy Mall in Cincinnati. “Judging by the shots used, I knew somebody on the card-design team had to be a Trekkie. Who else would include cool close-up pictures like the shot of a cordrazine-crazed McCoy [card number 46 from “The City on the Edge of Forever”]. What a great card!”
Sawyer, whose loving commentaries on Star Trek collectibles can be found on a website called, appropriately, A Piece of the Action, is actually a second-generation Trekkie. “Being born in 1978,1 missed the debut of the Topps set by a couple of years. I didn’t find out about it until sometime in the late 1980s. I remember finding a few stray cards at a local flea market and immediately being smitten. I collected non-sports cards pretty heavily throughout the ’80s and ’90s, and I grew up loving The Original Series. So discovering those two loves rolled into one was like finding a Reese’s cup of geekiness.”
“I was thirteen years old when the set came out,” says Steven M. Charendoff, president and founder of Rittenhouse Archives, a manufacturer of science fiction, fantasy, and comic book trading cards and related collectibles. Like Sawyer, Charendoff’s passion led him to a career in collectibles, particularly trading cards. “I think I came out of the womb with a trading card fix,” he says with a chuckle. “In 1976, I was collecting just about every trading card set, be it baseball, football, basketball, hockey, or entertainment. I would buy them by the box, sometimes by the case. I was already a fan of Star Trek because of those after-school reruns, so I was really happy to see the Topps set. It was cool to have trading cards with pictures of the characters — to have a card with a picture of Kirk or Spock on it! And the stickers were cool, too.” Today, Charendoff’s Rittenhouse Archives holds the license for all-new sets of Star Trek trading cards.
The original Topps Star Trek set consisted of eighty-eight cards, plus twenty-two unique stickers; there were five cards in each wax pack, plus one sticker and a piece of Bazooka bubble gum. The card commentary spotlighted only forty-one of the series’ seventy-nine episodes. The rest of the cards were devoted to the main characters or the alien guest star of the week.
Why were only forty-one episodes mentioned? Neither Brown nor Cerani can recall Topps’ rationale, although Brown offers a supposition: “At the time,” he says, “the practice was that if you had a successful product — as with the Star Wars cards that we did — you produced a second series of cards right away. So maybe that was what we had in mind — we were saving some for series two.”
But sadly, there never was a second series.
“The set didn’t make much of a splash,” admits Brown. “It was a disappointment to the company, and I felt bad, because I’d pushed them in that direction. Topps was very cautious then. When they issued a new product, they’d ship it into just a portion of the country. They wouldn’t go national unless they felt the product merited that kind of release. But I doubt that we sold as many as two thousand cases of the Star Trek cards.” Therefore, the cards never received full distribution. And they never made it beyond Topps’ most tried-and-true venues: the hobby shops, the five-and-dimes, and the mom-and-pop corner stores … where too many of those boxes just gathered dust.
Ironically, the key to selling more cases might have been easier than Topps initially thought. On Labor Day weekend of 1976, the Star Trek Bi-Centennial-10 convention celebrating the tenth anniversary of the series’ original television premiere brought more than twelve thousand fans to the Statler Hilton in Manhattan — four times the number of followers who had come to the first Star Trek gathering in 1972. During the show, Trekkies spent heavily on Star Trek merchandise. But Topps hadn’t considered setting up a table to sell their product. “It wasn’t Topps’ way,” says Brown. “They didn’t promote at conventions, except an occasional sports event. It was only after our competitors started doing it that we began paying attention to the way fans flocked to these conventions.”
“I think Topps used to view conventions as little pockets of crazies,” adds Gerani. “They didn’t take them seriously.”
The Star Trek trading card set was by no means a flop. It just wasn’t as big a success as Topps had hoped it would be. But in 1979, Topps had enough faith in the Star Trek brand to take a chance on the long-delayed Star Trek motion picture they’d promoted on the backs of the 1976 set. The success of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 was the big motivator.
“We were rolling in dough from the Star Wars cards,” Brown recalls. “And the Topps executives who’d said, ‘Aw, kids don’t like science fiction movies,’ swallowed their words. We were able to say, ‘Look, now Star Trek’s a motion picture!.’ So we took another chance.” Brown pauses to laugh. “And it didn’t do well either!” he says. “We had our heads handed to us twice.”
Star Trek’s delayed success is not unique. Many works of art are underappreciated upon their unveiling. Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was savaged by music critics. Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and MGM’s expensive gamble The Wizard of OZ initially were box-office flops. Over time, the Star Trek card set from Topps has come to hold a special place in the hearts of fans; accordingly, it also commands a handsome price on Internet collectors’ sites. Notes James Sawyer: “This set still sits on top of the mountain. That isn’t to say that the other trading card companies haven’t done great things since then. But most of them make card sets with collectors in mind. That’s their target market. But the ’76 Star Trek cards? Those weren’t made for collectors. They were made for Topps’ primary audience: kids. They were making a good product that they believed children (and fans) could enjoy. And the quality and love that went into making this set really makes it stand out. Like the show it was based on, over the years the 1976 Star Trek card set has become much more than its original creators ever imagined it would be.”
To add to the “much more” factor, we’re pleased to announce that an unfortunate omission has been rectified. Curiously, Lieutenant Sulu (George Takei) did not appear in Topps’ 1976 card set. But the time has come to give Sulu a card of his own. You’ll find it in the back, along with three more never-before-published cards created just for this book.
Take us out, Mr. Sulu!
(Continues…)Excerpted from Star Trek: The Original Topps Trading Card Series by Paula M. Block, Terry J. Erdmann, Clarissa Wong. Copyright © 2013 Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann. Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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