“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. It’s 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.”
Howdy nerds (and occasional non-nerds)! Star Wars is the sci-fi juggernaut on everyone’s mind right now, but let’s not forget that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise (whoooo! *confetti*). And because this is my blog, I can gush about how awesome Star Trek is all I want! And you can’t stop me! Muahahaha!
No, but seriously, Star Trek is to American culture what Doctor Who (which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013) is to British culture. Even if the Original Series is often the butt of a great many cultural jokes, there’s a lot to admire about it, and it got this delightful, award-winning and record-breaking franchise going. And so I’m starting a new series of posts which will take us through the franchise! Screw six seasons and a movie, Star Trek has 28 seasons (30, if you include the shaky 70’s animated series) and 10 movies! And a reboot that…we may talk about…maybe…maybe not…
And so our inaugural post will be looking at the beloved Original Series which ran for three seasons from September of 1966 to June 1969. Because it’s awesome, its loyal fans brought the show back from the brink of cancellation in its second season with a frantic letter-writing campaign (which makes Firefly’s demise that much more painful since Fox basically said, “screw you fans!” while NBC said, “Aww, you guys are the best! Here’s a third season!”). Also, the fans became so crazed (in a good way!) that their fan conventions (initially considered insular fringe events) paved the way for massive present day fandom conventions like Comic-Con or Dragoncon.
Long story short, Star Trek endured. And boy are we glad it did!
The Original Series (1966-1969)
The Ship: U.S.S Enterprise (Constitution Class)
The Captain: James T. Kirk
The Premise: Captain Kirk (William Shatner), first officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Doctor McCoy (DeForest Kelley), and friends explore the galaxy on a five-year mission encountering life lessons, softly-lit women for Kirk to romance, and an absurd number of all-powerful (or at least ridiculously powerful) beings. Also a great many evil computers that Kirk talks to death.
The show is episodic, so every story is self-contained (common practice in television at the time), and it explored metaphysical questions, societal issues affecting mid-century America, and grand ethical dilemmas, but didn’t take itself so seriously that it couldn’t have fun when it wanted to. For every classic such as “The City on the Edge of Forever,” there were goofball stories like “Spock’s Brain” to keep things humble.
The Best Episodes: I mentioned “The City on the Edge of Forever” which is a heartbreaking time travel story in which Kirk and Spock travel back in time to Depression-era Earth to find McCoy who’s been accidentally injected with a high dose of medication that’s driven him mad. While there, Kirk falls in love (because, of course he does) with the beautiful Edith Keeler, an activist and social worker whose message of pacifism and peace appeals to the Starfleet officers until Spock realizes that, if they’re going to fix the timeline, Keeler must be allowed to die, lest she become a pacifist figurehead and delay the US’s entry into WWII, thus giving Hitler time to develop weapons of mass destruction. Written by the legendary Harlan Ellison (of Starship Troopers fame), this episode is elegant, complex, and just a wonderful story.
Other favorites include “The Doomsday Machine” in which Kirk and a traumatized Commodore Decker (a fellow ship commander and friend of Kirk) must find a way to destroy an immense planet-eating weapon before it causes more destruction. Decker, who’s suffering from crippling PTSD after watching his entire crew get killed, really gives this episode a great level of tension as he becomes more and more unpredictable.
“Balance of Terror” is a tense cat-and-mouse game of strategy in which Kirk must outwit a lone Romulan commander who, while charming and tactically brilliant, is responsible for the destruction of a number of outposts. It’s wonderfully written and features a villain you really can’t dislike.
Also, the series’ only two-parter “The Menagerie” has Spock facing court martial for breaking the only Starfleet general order that still merits the death penalty, when he hijacks the Enterprise and visits a forbidden planet to fulfill a friend’s last request. This one uses footage from the abandoned pilot “the Cage” to tell the tragic story of the Enterprise’s previous captain, Christopher Pike.
And, of course, who can forget “The Trouble with Tribbles,” which, while not exploring any deep concepts or dealing with gripping action, gave us the Tribbles!
Why It’s Awesome: The show was groundbreaking in a number of ways, which much more talented writers than myself have already explored in great detail, but its message of an optimistic future (which sounds cheesy in our era of gritty, depressing visions of the future) is one that we shouldn’t lose. War, poverty, racism, inequality, and greed are gone on Earth in this time, not because of a dictatorial government, but because humanity eventually got past their own weirdness and found a way to work together in unity. Utopias are so rare in contemporary fiction, its difficult to see it today as anything but an ironic satire, but the show’s optimism isn’t born of naivete. It’s set up as something we should genuinely work towards. And that’s what makes Star Trek awesome.
That got really serious…so here’s more Tribbles!
Anyway, the show itself has got a great ensemble cast and a team of brilliant writers who really know who to tell a gripping story (even if things get kooky now and again). Sure the acting is hammier than a pig farm sometimes, but that’s part of its charm! If you ever get a chance to check it out, take a look at the remastered episodes. They did a good job of updating some of the incredibly shaky effects (mostly the blurry exterior shots) without ruining the fun colorful feel of the show.
So, if you’re wondering what show to marathon next, you should definitely give Star Trek a rewatch! It’s fun, campy, and it may surprise you!
Next week (unless I get a chance to see The Hateful Eight, fingers crossed) we’ll be looking at Star Trek: The Motion Picture! (And stop groaning It’s better than you think).