Star Trek debuted on this day in 1966; some are observing “Star Trek Day”. My natural thing to do on such an occasion is a blogpost.
I’m old enough to just wanna call it Star Trek. “The Original Series” or “STOS” stick in my craw, but I understand the need for it, as the Star Trek universe, like all universes, keeps expanding. The original show meant a great deal to me in my youth. My high school friends and I were not asthmatic, glasses-wearing, pocket-protector science fiction nerds; we were cinema/ television/ dinosaur rock/ drama club nerds. Yet we hardcore bonded over this show. One of the keys to its success I think lies in that broad appeal. It’s not just a bunch of buzz words, creatures and imaginary devices. It’s about extremely vivid and well drawn characters who move through that world.
In 1968, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry wrote a book The Making of Star Trek. I picked up a paperback copy of it at a yard sale when I was a teenager, and it offered insights to the show I genuinely treasured. He revealed that he used the old fashioned term “space opera” to describe the show, tying it back to popular franchises of the ’30s like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. The phrase lets us know that while it is about imagination and invention, it is also theatrical, even melodramatic. In fact, that is key. Stories will be told in a BIG way. Another thing he revealed was that he was largely inspired (as was Patrick O’Brian later) by C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books, updating the 19th century seafaring world to outer space. The recognizable naval culture in Star Trek (forgive me) anchors it in something we can relate to, even if we weren’t all in the navy. It makes it all seem real. The officers have procedures and workplace norms that have clearly evolved out of ones we know about from the real world. Voyages of scientific discovery. You stop at a new place, and a small “away team” gets off the ship and has a look around, recording what they see, then inevitably gets into trouble. And there is a language and a protocol for the entire process. A third element also has to do with realism. Roddenberry made a point of basing his speculative franchise on real science. He didn’t just (like a lot of science fiction and fantasy creators) just say the characters possess these miraculous machines. He researched what might be possible, and justified his depictions in physical terms: in the future, scientists and engineers may be able to harness atomic energy to do this, this and this.
A fourth element I’ve always loved about the show (I can’t remember if Roddenberry articulated it in the book or not) is its sociological vision of mankind’s future. It is CLEARLY inspired by projections based upon the existing model of the United Nations, which experienced a kind of apogee of popularity among Americans in the 1960s, thanks to all sorts of Kennedy initiatives, including related ones like the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. In Star Trek, it’s not just that there is an intergalactic alliance called the United Federation of Planets. But MANKIND has long since worked out its problems, too. The bridge of the Enterprise is staffed with people from all over the globe, not just white men, but an Asian guy, and a woman from Africa! The presence of a Russian indicates that the Cold War is also far behind in the rear view mirror. Yes, the show relies on a vaudeville show’s worth of comical foreign accents, but it is a laudable (and giant) baby step for its time.
For a time, Roddenberry and his admirers prided themselves on the show’s advances over the movie science fiction of the 1950s. Both because of many of the advances we have described, but also by just simply being better and smarter. The fact that Star Trek is in gorgeous color is another of the improvements. But with the passage of time something interesting and a little amusing has happened. Back then, one might have said the difference between Trek and ’50s sci-fi was like night and day. In 2018, we still concede that, yes, that’s right…but it is a night and a day from the same month 50 years ago. In other words, the differences have receded somewhat. It appears to be more of the same fabric with what had gone before it. There have since been so many advances in special effects, and storytelling complexity, and so forth, that when we go back and watch the Original Series, and see those old Desilu soundstages, and the paper mache boulders, and the Halloween make-up, it all seems roughly like charming, old-fashioned theatre. (And having participated in lots of science fiction theatre, and lots of college level and public access television production I can tell you that’s about what it is).
I am too young, by the way, to have watched the Original Series during its original run on NBC. Don’t get any funny ideas! I watched the show (every episode, many times) in syndicated reruns during the 1970s and early ’80s. I am old enough, however, to have watched Star Trek: The Animated Series when the episodes premiered in 1973 and 1974. That was my earliest participation in a contemporary Star Trek series. Produced by Filmation, it certainly had the most distinguished writing stable of any Saturday morning cartoon. The producers drew from the unproduced scripts from the Original Series, some of them by the top science fiction writers of the day!
The Original Series ran 1966 through 1969, when I was very much alive, but a toddler. I have already gushed at length on my thoughts of the abilities of Mr. William Shatner, with hyperbole I only occasionally feel the need to walk back. Part of the joy of the show though is the ensemble. There is the Emmy winning Leonard Nimoy as the Vulcan Mr. Spock, forever a standard bearer for all nerds everywhere. Nimoy was one of the few in the cast who broke beyond Trek‘s ironclad force field to do some other stuff. He was a regular on Mission: Impossible (1969-71), was in a cool episode of Columbo (1973) and in movies like the western Catlow (1971) and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). In later years we learned about his Jewish identity and the esoteric origins of the Vulcan hand-greeting. Irascible DeForest Kelley had less luck, although you can also see him before and after Trek in other things, including the not-to-be-believed Night of the Lepus (1972). Like many, I’ve always adored James Doohan’s dime store, Scotch-drinking Scotsman “Scotty”. The coolest thing about him (other than his entertaining performances) is that he was a Canadian soldier who literally stormed the beach at Normandy on D-Day and was wounded in the process! He was a literal war hero! As I was with Doohan, I was shocked to hear Walter Konig in interviews without his accent for the first time recently. I watched him an episode of Shatner’s talk show. How weird to see the long-haired “Chekhov” as a mild mannered bald old Jewish man! George Takei, of course became one of the most famous of the bunch in later years, coming out of the closet as a gay man, and amassing close to 3 million Twitter followers, with his dry, hilarious quips which one can’t help hearing in his bemused voice. And the ground-breaking Nichelle Nichols, whose historic significance only dawned on us later. Part of the beauty of her presence there (beyond her literal beauty) was the very matter-of-fact nature with which she is included as part of that ensemble. In later years, there would be African-American female CAPTAINS in the Star Trek universe, but just having one be a valued part of the team was a major breakthough in 1966. (Her brother, Thomas Nichols, was one of the unfortunate victims of the Hale-Bopp Cult mass suicide in 1997, an event that still makes me queasy.)
When the first Star Trek films came to the big screen, the events were unabashedly emotional for us, who’d grown up with the show as a sort of cherished memory. When it came back to life in 1979 it seemed too good to be true. In time, I’ve come to share the point of view of critics of the day that Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a fairly bloated snooze (compared with all that came after). But at the time! To be immersed in a cinema, with the entire Star Trek universe, with our favorite characters, and better special effects projected onto a big screen! Every moment, every line was exciting. That’s the point that has fallen by the wayside in ensuing decades. It’s about the fetish. The great Robert Wise (a brilliant film-maker, after all) knew this. Linger on The Enterprise, give us an eyeful of, I don’t know, the new engine. The fans are starving for it. They at least will not be bored.
Not unpredictably, given that I loved the Original Series and the spinoff movies so much, I initially found myself extremely resistant to The Next Generation when it premiered in 1987. I found the acting style extremely bland and subdued, not at all in the melodramatic spirit I so cherished in the Original Series. A lot of people, including Star Trek fans, touted this as an “advance”, claiming that it amounted to “greater realism”. But quotidian performance was never what I was seeking from the show. In fact, let’s just say it’s never what I’m seeking from anything ever! And it was all too harmonious — no crusty old racist doctor to churn up tension. Beyond this, there seemed to be way too many main characters, about a hundred of them. Okay, there were no less than THREE empathetic women whose job was to empathize and talk about feelings: a doctor (Gates McFadden), a “Counselor” (Marina Sirtis), and a bartender (Whoopi Goldberg). Whoopi Goldberg! She was clearly only there because she wanted to be on Star Trek! But a few years later, around the time the series was wrapping up, I devoted time to the series, watched pretty much all of it, and it grew on me. Fresh from film school, I thought of writing a spec script for the show, but then it went off the air. So then I studied Deep Space Nine, which I didn’t like nearly as much. I loved Voyager, starring the great Kate Mulgrew much more, but by that time, the idea of writing for TV had grown cold — I was busy starting a theatre company.
I have very much enjoyed the new cinematic Star Trek prequel reboots in recent years. And we loved the first season of Discovery so much we devoured it! All told, this is a franchise that appears to do nothing without a lot of careful, intelligent thought, with generally superlative results. I celebrate it today without embarrassment. It deserves to be celebrated.