Monday, March 3, 2014

Star Trekking: The Original Series (1966-1969)

"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before."                    

I was never a Star Trek fan growing up.  Don't think I was biased for Star Wars or anything, I simply never caught it.  Most of what I knew of the Trek series, fandom, and cultural impact came from my mom, who grew up watching the show and had a real love for it.  I didn't become all that interested in the series until the 2009 film directed by J.J. Abrahms was released, and I just loved it.  I knew the characters on a superficial level, but I hadn't actually watched an episode in full.  So that year I decided that no matter how long it took, or how much I liked or didn't like it, I would watch the entire Star Trek series.  At least, I'd watch the originals. And maybe The Next Generation. Oh, and I've heard Deep Space Nine is pretty good.  But after that? We'll see.

So here I am, finished with the Original Series and the films featuring the original cast.  It's been a roller coaster ride for sure, but it's one hell of a show.  I can totally understand the impact it's had on millions of people around the world and can proudly call myself a fan of this cheesy, thought-provoking, low-budget, groundbreaking show called Star Trek.

Star Trek may turn off many viewers used to the modern age of television and media.  Sleek, polished, and CG-laden, people tend to forget that the style television used to feel more like a live stage show.  That is precisely the mindset one must have before getting into Star Trek; lighting is terrible, acting has a tendency to be hammy (this is Shatner we're talking about), and the sets and props look like they were fashioned out of paper mache and garage sale knick-knacks.  Needless to say, some suspension of disbelief is necessary.

Don't get me wrong, I actually like the campy feel of the sets, and I really like the bright look of the costumes and the design of Enterprise herself.  The show is saturated with color, attempting to show off just what these new-fangled color TVs can really do. The alien designs can be a bit hit or miss (the subtler the make-up or effect, the better), but there's alway something fun about them just the same.

The strength of this show is the writing, whether about the stories, characters, or "hidden" subtext.  No budget limitation can affect good dialogue, and while some episodes may have a bit too much dialogue (resulting in a classic case of telling and not showing), the writing remains sharp throughout. Like many television shows of the '60s, there are no multi-episode arcs to be found in Star Trek; every episode is self-contained (minus The Menagerie). That's actually one of the reasons it took me so long to get through the damn show; I'd never binge-watched because at the end of the episode, I was totally satisfied.  There was a basic formula; the Enterprise gets a distress call or visits a faraway planet in the name of the United Federation of Planets, something goes wrong, and the crew must find a way to escape before the time runs out; and time is always about to run out.  This is an effective formula that doesn't grow too tiring because every story is very different; The Gamesters of Triskelion and Plato's Stepchildren have essentially the same story beats, but you'll cry at the end of one episode and feel triumphant at the end of the other.

James T. Kirk (William Shatner) Captains the Enterprise through its various adventures, and he's a great leader most of the time.  Looking like a supermodel compared to today, William Shatner adds a theatrical and large scale Importance to the show that overshadows any of its inadequacies when it came to the budget. Though he famously overacts sometimes, he essentially caries the show on his shoulders, and he does so quite well.  He can also be charming and funny as well as commanding and dramatic.

Spock, the alien science officer (Leonard Nimoy), is Kirk's righthand man (and as the series develops, his best friend as well).  Though I'm sure I don't need to explain it to anyone not living under a rock for the last 40 years, Vulcans are unemotional and think logically "like a computer." But Spock is half human, though he chooses to call himself a Vulcan, mostly speaking in a matter-of-fact monotone. We see Spock lose his composure only a handful of times, and the most powerful of those times are moments where he wasn’t under some kind of strange influence or alien drug; they are from moments where he slips out of character for just a moment to do something spontaneous, irrational, or joyous.  My personal favorite is a moment where Spock thinks he’s killed Kirk at the end of Amok Time.  He doesn’t break down, cry, or act in any way out of the ordinary until he sees that Kirk isn’t really dead.  He grabs him, smiles broadly and yells “Jim!” If you’d been following the show up until this point, you’re heart’s got to melt just a little when that happens.

Leonard "Bones" McCoy is the Chief Medical Officer on board the Enterprise, and he lets you know it in nearly every episode ("Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a [INSERT ANYTHING HERE] essentially being his catchphrase).  The chemistry between McCoy, Spock, and Kirk gives the show its heart.  Though the show had god-knows-how-many-writers throughout its run, these three characters all have a distinct voice and act according to who they are and not what the plot requires of them.  The struggle between McCoy's old fashioned sentimentalism clashed with Spock's textbook logic gives the characters great tension, usually met at some middle ground by Kirk.  Episodes where Kirk is absent create the best interactions between Spock and McCoy because there's no one to meet them half way and make a decision. The best example, in my opinion, is found in The Galileo Seven, where Spock and McCoy are in a small shuttle without enough fuel to reach the ship and must decide wether or not to leave crew members behind in order to save the rest.

The supporting cast is made up of people of various ethnicities and nationalities, which was very unusual for 60s TV.  Actually, it was unheard of.

Scotty (James Doohan) is the ship's chief engineer, and with a thick Scottish brogue, he adds some humor and personality to the often serious nature of the episodes.  He begins to take on more of an important role as the series progressed, but the only major changes made to his character involved his hair style and his gut.

Lieutenant Uhura is the ship's communication's officer, and her portrayal by African American actress Nichelle Nichols marks a major stepping stone for racial equality among television roles. In fact, at one point when Nichols was thinking about leaving the show, Martin Luther King Jr. asked her PERSONALLY to stay on the show due to the importance her character had in relation to the Civil Rights Movement.  Creator Gene Roddenberry simply stated that the show takes place in the future, and in the future there is no racism.  It only makes sense that the Enterprise would have a black woman as a part of the main crew.  Nichols was admittedly not the best actress at the start of the series, but she got much better as the show went on.

Speaking of which, Japanese American actor George Takei portrays Lieutenant Sulu, the helmsman.  He succumbs to no Asian stereotypes throughout the show's run, not prone to comic relief or even a major mentioning of his ethnicity.  He wasn't exactly given much personality or development, but he did get to shine in episodes where something strange would overtake the crew and make them lose their inhibitions, such as the case in The Naked Time.

Getting a bit more development throughout the run of the show was Ensign Chekov (Walter Koenig).  With a thick Russian accent and a hot-headed personality, Chekov is usually the first crew member to speak his feelings and insult the enemy.  The youngest in the crew, Chekov always struck me as someone who was there to give a little more spontaneity and life to the show. Interestingly enough, not much resistance was met from the network despite real-world Cold War tensions.

When it comes down to it, there are two prevailing factors that elevate Star Trek from being fun, silly, 60s sci-fi to being great television. First is the subtext within the best episodes, whether it's Cold War commentary or Civil Rights metaphors.  The third season unfortunately makes some of its commentary too overt and obvious, but there are gems like Balance of Terror and Space Seed which tell a great story AND contain good subtext.  The second factor is the character interactions, which remain consistent and engaging throughout the show's three year run, especially in the case of Spock, Kirk, and McCoy.  They balance each other out and work as a unit, and when one of them is missing from an adventure, the other two feel lost.


You can pick apart certain things that don't work about the show, and it's certainly easy to mock if you're in the right mindset.  The awkward action scenes with the obvious stunt doubles are hilariously choreographed.  The editing is choppy. The before-the-commercial-cliffhangers are overly exaggerated.  Shatner's acting has been parodied in hundreds of ways, and for good reason sometimes.  The visual effects are laughable, iconic or not, (I personally really liked some of the new CG effects added to the special editions of the episodes, which keep the same feel as the original effects while giving them some polish. Essentially, the new effects have the very opposite effect of the additions in the Star Wars special editions).  Although no two stories are the same, some repetitiveness is inevitable.  Sometimes the supporting cast is left with nothing to do while the main three are on a mission, and it's distractingly obvious because we keep cutting back to them and they state, "There's nothing we can do." And especially true for season one, some of the humor is corny beyond belief.  The bunny below is featured in Shore Leave, probably my least favorite episode.

Some weaknesses of the show are directly correlated to the time period it was made in, but in many ways it was way ahead of its time.  Look, an iPad! A cell phone! A desktop computer! A bluetooth! Some of the tech in Star Trek is ridiculous (man, that Tricorder can do everything, can't it?), but some of actually became reality years later.

I always associated the show with being aimed at children, and I can see why a child might find the show appealing. But the stories rarely cater to children or even families really, usually involving sophisticated dialogue, unsettling death scenes, Nazi imagery (there's a Nazi planet episode in season two that had my jaw firmly planted on the floor), and even a few disturbing images.  Not to mention the ideas and philosophical context of the episodes would go right over kids' (and I'm sure some adults') heads.  In addition, Star Trek episodes didn't always have happy endings; though the crew would always get away from whatever threat they were facing, they'd sometimes lose a friend or discover something they didn't like about themselves or humanity, or ask themselves if they could have solved the problem a different way.  It's melancholy stuff to be sure.

Trek's strengths come from the fact that the actors and writers take the subjectively silly subject matter and characters seriously, even though they probably didn't need to.  This could have just been another paycheck for all those involved, but it was something they really put their hearts into.  It doesn't surprise me at all that this series sparked five spin-off series, 12 movies, and millions and millions of diehard fans.

Is the show perfect? No, but to judge it on that kind of merit kind of misses the point.  Star Trek is about a feeling, whether it's nostalgia for someone who grew up with fond memories of the show or someone like me, who can discover it now and it still generate interest.  It's even an important show in some ways, pushing the boundaries of racial equality into the future, (did I mention it contains the first black/white interracial kiss ever on scripted television?).  It's kind of sad that we never got to see those last two years of the crew's supposed five-year mission, but I guess it leaves a lot to the imagination. Star Trek contains a kind of timelessness that elevates it to being truly classic television, and escapist as it might be, it might just bring you down to earth.