Tuesday, January 05, 2016
Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: Series Primer
So, who here has never seen Star Trek (1966 – 1969)?
If you are a reader of this blog on any sort of regular basis -- and of my generation, perhaps -- you are likely a regular Star Trek watcher, at least, if not an out-right fan. I count myself, obviously, as a fan and admirer of the original series, and the entire franchise too.
On September 8, 1966 -- nearly fifty years ago -- Star Trek aired for the first time on NBC-TV (after MGM and CBS passed on the property), and so I will be devoting significant space on the blog throughout 2016 to celebrate this momentous anniversary.
The first question, of course, might be: what is the context that brought Star Trek into the world?
That tales begins with Gene Roddenberry (1921 – 1999), series creator, producer, writer, and so-called “Great Bird of the Galaxy.”
To conceive Star Trek, Mr. Roddenberry drew upon a variety of historic literary works, such as those by Jonathan Swift, C.S. Forester and A.E. Van Vogt.
Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels provided Roddenberry the idea of a two-pronged narrative: one that functioned as adventure first, social commentary second. From Forester’s Hornblower tales, Roddenberry drew his main character: a stalwart (but lonely) captain operating alone on the frontier, commanding respect from both his crew and adversaries. And Van Vogt’s tales of the spaceship Beagle provided the outer space veneer of Star Trek.
From the film and TV world, Roddenberry drew inspiration from Rocky Jones: Space Ranger (1954), Wagon Train (1957-1965) and Forbidden Planet (1965).
Roddenberry’s unique genius, however, was his addition of new sophistication to these tales of adventure and science fiction, and -- even more than that – his pulling together of all the diverse antecedents under one crucial umbrella of philosophy.
In particular, Roddenberry imagined man of the 23rd century as a being who had not only developed interstellar technology (via the warp drive), but had evolved to be less savage, less violent, less argumentative in nature. Humanity had evolved since the 20th century and was able to face the universe at large not with fear or suspicion, but with curiosity and reason.
Roddenberry did not create Star Trek alone, of course.
A number of talents brought the series to life, including the late, great writer/producer Gene Coon (1924-1973), who developed such concepts as The Prime Directive and highlighted character interaction. The cast -- including William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, De Forest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nicholls, George Takei and Walter Koenig -- brought the series’ personalities to vivid and immortal life too.
In terms of plot, Star Trek involves the starship Enterprise and its crew, operating in the distant future, encountering aliens on strange new worlds and exploring new civilizations. Today, we associate the Enterprise and its personnel with Starfleet, The United Federation of Planets, and even alien races such as the Vulcans.
But as we go back and re-watch Star Trek in its first steps, one can see that all these details are not yet ironed out. It’s a strange paradox of Star Trek, actually. The first season is often regarded as the best in terms of overall quality of storytelling, and yet in terms of terminology and continuity, it is at its weakest.
For instance, Starfleet Command is referred to UESPA (United Earth Space Agency), Space Central, Earth Command, and Space Command in early episodes. It is not until episode #15, “Court Martial” that the term “Starfleet Command” comes into the lexicon.
Similarly, Spock is referred to as a “Vulcanian,” not a Vulcan, throughout the first season. One story -- the eighteenth in the first season, -- “The Squire of Gothos” sets the voyages of this Enterprise as occurring at some point in the 27th century!
The Enterprise also is powered by lithium crystals in early first season episodes such as “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and “Mudd’s Women,” before Dilithium crystals become the standard in later stories.
Characters seem to shift a bit in the first season as well. Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) starts out barking orders in a very loud voice (“The Corbomite Manuever), before becoming a calmer, more even-toned character. Mr. Sulu (George Takei) changes jobs from ship’s physicist to helmsman in the first season, and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) changes uniform colors, from gold to red in early episodes. It is clear that these aspects of the franchise are still being worked out.
Despite such specific vacillations in terms of continuity, Star Trek is, by and large, brilliantly-written from Day One. The stories are vivid and colorful, the performances dynamic, and most importantly, the ideas contained within these stories remain timeless and stimulating. My son, who is 9, and into Minecraft and Terraria, has become an ardent Star Trek fan on my latest re-watch. The stories -- about human nature and friendship -- endure because they stir the mind and the heart simultaneously.
Also, and scholars, critics and fans write about this far more infrequently, Star Trek is also often funny and, well, kind of kinky. The characters boast a sense of humor about themselves and their adventures, and the series is highly sexual. Later incarnations have shorted the kinkiness, to some extent, and that’s a shame, since sex is a significant aspect of human nature.
The original series, clearly, remains Star Trek’s foundational text: the Old Testament to The Next Generation’s New Testament, perhaps.
In these seventy-nine 1960s episodes, we meet Vulcans, Klingons and Romulans – all of whom continue to figure into the franchise to this day. We are also introduced to the Mirror Universe, Khan, tribbles, time travel and other standards of the Trek universe.
We also encounter spaceship designs (exterior and interior) that have influenced TV and movies for decades, and encounter instrumentation -- communicators, phasers and tricorders -- that have inspired a generation of engineers and their inventions.
In upcoming episode reviews, I will study character development, universe inconsistencies, and most importantly, the optimistic philosophy of Star Trek. Before starting the episodes reviews, next week, I will gaze, this Thursday, at the concept that I believe characterizes Star Trek the most: identity.
Next Tuesday in this space, the human adventure begins with the very first Star Trek episode aired, “The Man Trap.”