''The Twilight Zone,'' ''Star Trek,'' and ''Planet of the Apes'' all made the list, but who made number one?

By David Hochman
October 16, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

1 Star Wars

We didn’t know how desperately we needed it till it showed up. But from the moment the original Star Wars switched on its paradigm-shifting tractor beam in May 1977, audiences were hopelessly in thrall to the power of George Lucas’ sunny sci-fi fable. Folks lined up for hours at the mere 32 theaters initially showing the film, some emerging, giddy and grinning, only to get right back in line.

And why not? Full of adventure, romance, self-sacrifice, and hissable, unambiguous villainy, Wars was an Rx for a cynical audience numbed by everything from Vietnam to Watergate to drugs. Outside, the world was going to hell. Up on the screen, Luke Skywalker was going to Alderaan, to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like his father. And everybody on our planet wanted to go with him.

For science-fiction buffs, the rush was especially intense. Hollywood, at that point, had all but abandoned the genre. But with Wars, Lucas took some of fandom’s favorite tropes (talking robots, evil-potentate fathers, rocket jockeys) and transmuted them from corny to cool — thereby turning a backwater into the very definition of moneymaking mainstream entertainment.

The sequels — The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) — brought increasingly sophisticated visual splendors to progressively pulpier plots. But they spawned a whole constellation of spin-off merchandise whose totemic lure has held so strong that, two decades later, Lucas is set to launch the first of three prequels. What he anticipated was a modestly popular series that would let him create toys for kids who’d grown up without heroes. Instead, Lucas engineered a universe so thoroughly imagined, so appealingly mythic, that people don’t want simply to visit it. They want to live there.

2 Star Trek

”A Wagon Train to the stars.” That’s how Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to TV execs in 1964. But though his hero, Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), was a classic space cowboy — Buck Rogers for baby boomers — it was clear right away that Roddenberry had more on his mind than laser shoot-outs.

Set in the 23rd century, Trek dared to imagine a future in which the human race had evolved in perfect harmony. Such optimism had obvious appeal in an era of anxiety and unrest. But Trek wasn’t just about escapism — it gave viewers a fresh perspective on their own world, with morality plays that were thinly veiled versions of 20th-century Earth problems. Of course, Trek found plenty of action as well. There were Klingons and Romulans, phasers and photon torpedoes, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and his Vulcan nerve pinch. And, of course, the two-fisted Kirk kicking alien butt.

Yet Trek failed to succeed in its own time, getting canceled after three seasons. Only in syndication did its impact mature. In hindsight, the growth of the franchise — eight feature films (with a ninth on the way), three prime-time spin-off series (including the wonderfully complex Next Generation), countless books and paraphernalia — seems inevitable. Echoes of Trek can be found in every corner of our culture: Witness the Trek-themed attraction in Las Vegas, or NASA naming a space shuttle Enterprise. Trek didn’t just show us the future — it fashioned our future in its image.