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Boldly going where nobody realized 'Star Trek' had gone

God bless William Shatner, the sultan of camp. He's managed to make a career out of mocking his own earnestness as Captain James T. Kirk -- so much so that, in self-ridicule, he somehow commands respect.

So he does, in a backhanded way, hosting ''How William Shatner Changed the World," a two-hour special that premieres Sunday night on the History Channel. It's easy to sniff, as one colleague did, that the special should really be called ''How Gene Roddenberry Changed the World." Still, Shatner redeems himself nicely with self-mockery. And he works well as a stand-in for those of us who are technologically clueless. The best thing about this special is that it isn't earnest -- which makes it accessible to the masses.

Geeks, though, should be particularly cheered, since this special gives dignity to Trekkies everywhere. It makes a fairly convincing case that the technology on the original ''Star Trek" inspired ideas from NASA's Deep Space robotic probe to the PDA -- and that the ''Next Generation" spinoff led to such gizmos as the iPod.

As proof, we get good-humored testimonials from the sources themselves: scientists and inventors who talk about how tools and gadgets from ''Star Trek" -- amazing visions with absolutely no grounding in 1960s science and technology -- inspired them to make a new reality.

Former Motorola chief engineer Martin Cooper recalls watching Kirk pull out a communicator that looked quite a bit like the modern flip phone. ''To me," Cooper says, ''that was an objective."

The series doesn't just deal with technology; this is more of a general theory of everything, which credits ''Star Trek" with the search for extraterrestrial life and modern visions of racial harmony. It's a little much, but then, we get some fairly impressive testimonials here, too. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut, reveals that Lieutenant Uhura inspired her so much that, onboard the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992, she started her transmissions with Uhura's line: ''All hailing frequencies are open."

What's perhaps most fun is the insider's peek into the origins of ''Star Trek" technology. Transporters, it turns out, were born of necessity: The company building the shuttle craft models was late delivering the goods, and the writers had to get the characters from ship to planet. The cylindrical medical scanners Bones used, which inspired non-invasive tools such as the CAT scan and MRI, were salt shakers, recycled to save the prop department money.

It all goes to bolster Shatner's point, screamed from a California rock formation that once doubled as a foreign planet: ''We made it all up!" To what extent the ''we" included Shatner is unclear, and his shtick gets a little bit old. But, as usual, he wears the self-aggrandizement well. After all, ''Star Trek" gave us Shatner, too. And without him, TV wouldn't be the same.

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