Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Setting the Template: The Original Star Trek

The crew of the original Star Trek.

It’s too bad the makers of Star Trek Into Darkness didn’t actually pay attention to the TV series the new movie is based on. If they had they might have recognized that what made the original Star Trek so special was its originality. So why on earth did they decide to not only revisit the premise of the terrific season one episode “Space Seed” that introduced Khan (Ricardo Montalbán), a genetically altered super-solider, from the Starship Enterprise’s past, but also to crib so much of the excellent second movie in the Star Trek film franchise, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which brought Khan back to face Captain Kirk and his crew anew? The result: a pale film, one that failed to do justice to the show and even the first new re-boot of Star Trek (2009).

What made the original TV series so lasting, I think, is that it really was like no science fiction series that came before. Prior to Star Trek’s debut in 1966 (it ran for three seasons until 1969), the few glimmers of intelligent science fiction on TV were manifest in the original Twilight Zone (1959-64) anthology show and little else. Thus when Gene Roddenberry conceived of the series, which he initially pitched to NBC as “a Wagon Train to the stars,” figuring the suits would respond better to the western TV show reference, he made sure it was an intelligent, complex show that spoke, in disguised futuristic science fiction terms, to the issues of its time, like racism, war and gender differences. So lasting was the show’s groundbreaking impact, in fact, including in its depiction of American television's first interracial (albeit tame) kiss, that when Nichelle Nichols, the African-American actress who played Lt. Uhura on the show, and whom I once had the great pleasure of meeting, mused about leaving it, none other than the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. urged her to stay with Star Trek, citing Uhura’s value as a role model for young African-Americans.

Star Trek was actually one of the first television shows I ever watched. We didn’t get a TV in my family until I was almost seven, when we moved into a duplex in 1966 – my parents were likely saving up for that house and a TV set would have been a luxury at that point – so I initially encountered the show towards the end of its first season. I was already beginning to delve into science fiction, as a source for reading material, so my mother, probably knowing that, asked me to check out this TV show that was supposed to contain an advertisement for B’nai Brith, a Jewish community organization with which she was long involved, and let her know when the ad ran. Funnily enough, I never saw the B’nai Birth ad (did it actually exist?) but I was instantly hooked on the show. My first memories of Star Trek were the green skinned dancing girl (in the two part "The Menagerie" episode, which introduced Captain Pike, Captain James T. Kirk’s predecessor as Enterprise Captain) and the human chess pieces (I’m not sure which episode they were on). And Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Janice Rand on the show) was one of my first TV crushes, along with Yvonne Craig’s Batgirl (aka Barbara Gordon) on the campy Batman series which aired around the time of Star Trek.

As I got older, and revisited Star Trek, I began to appreciate its complexity and smart use of some of science fiction’s greatest themes, alternate worlds, time travel, dystopias, extraterrestrial encounters, all a far cry from the silliness of a show like Time Tunnel or even of the hokey looking aliens on The Outer Limits, which I didn’t see until years later and found to be a derivative, flat show, very unlike The Twilight Zone, to which it was often compared, likely because both series were anthologies. (Then as now, critics and fans alike prefer semantic short cuts to comparing shows which are not all that similar in fact.)

Star Trek was singularly unique – to this day, in fact – in its use of science fiction writers on the show, assuring that the talented likes of Harlan Ellison ("The City on the Edge of Forever"), Theodore Sturgeon ("Shore Leave," "Amok Time"), Robert Bloch ("Catspaw," "Wolf in the Fold"), Norman Spinrad ("The Doomsday Machine"), Jerome Bixby ("Mirror, Mirror," "By Any Other Name"), David Gerrold ("The Trouble with Tribbles") and Richard Matheson ("The Enemy Within") brought sophisticated contexts and ideas to a medium which had generally treated SF like kid’s stuff that didn’t tax the intellect. Not coincidentally, those episodes were among the best of the overall series, though the show's staff writers such as Gene L. Coon ("Arena", "Space Seed", which he co-wrote) and D.C. Fontana ("Journey to Babel") also wrote some fine episodes. I’d estimate that about a third of the show’s 79 episodes were stellar, another third worth seeing and the rest, forgettable fluff, the latter mostly in the series’ third and final season when NBC had pretty much washed its hands of the show after constantly shifting its time slot to its detriment. (Harlan Ellison dug up proof once that the network had even wanted the half human, half Vulcan Spock (Leonard Nimoy) to look fully human minus his distinctive pointy ears, though NBC never copped to it, he wrote, and fired some poor shmo who took the rap for NBC’s lack of imagination. The first pilot of the show didn’t actually feature Spock as a character at all; that version of Star Trek, which the network passed on, cast Majel Barrett, Roddenberry’s wife, as the Enterprise's first officer, instead of Spock. She later popped up on the actual series as Nurse Christine Chapel.)

But it was Star Trek’s overall vision, I believe, that made and makes it so watchable to this day. From its use of Uhura, at that point one of American TV’s few African-American characters and reportedly the first black female portrayed on TV who was not a servant, to the introduction of Pavel Chekhov (Walter Koenig) in the second season, a younger actor meant to appeal to the teen demographic but also a key Russian character at a time when the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was quite chilly, Star Trek seemed determined to be groundbreaking. (Diahann Carroll’s sitcom Julia, the first TV show with a black lead, didn’t come along until 1968.) And making the series a utopian vision of a future, the 23rd century, when all countries on Earth got along – if not the races in the wider universe – was a strong rejoinder to a world and an America so bitterly divided on so many levels.

From "The Trouble with Tribbles"
The show, too, evoked many moods, from the humour of "The Trouble with Tribbles," those furry creatures who wreaked comic mayhem wherever they went, to the darkness of the alternate Earth of "Mirror, Mirror" to the very moving denouement of "The City on the Edge of Forever," in which Kirk had to let the woman he loved die lest Earth’s history be altered forever. Paramount, too was the very enjoyable banter and repartee between its three leads, the supremely and often irritatingly logical science officer Mister Spock, the emotional Captain James Tiberius Kirk (William Shatner) and the cantankerous, old fart Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) who never quite adjusted to the futuristic technology of his time. (I can relate.) Their triumvirate and the insults and words slung at each other were a hoot but also a touching indicator of the love and respect they genuinely had for each other. (It was also the one aspect of Star Trek Into Darkness that still resonated.) The multiracial and multicultural supporting crew, including, besides Uhura, whose first name, Nyota, was never mentioned on the show but only in a later movie, Chekhov, the Scottish engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), and the Japanese helmsman Hikaru Sulu (George Takei, who recalls that he was supposed to be less specifically Japanese than a representation of Asia as a whole) added much to the show, at a time when U.S. TV really didn’t reflect the full, diverse panoply of American society.

I also liked the geo-political realities of the series, from the Romulans, the mysterious stand-ins for Red China (as it was then commonly known; President Nixon had not yet visited there) to the Enterprise's perpetual nemeses, the Klingon race, who may not have looked as alien as they do on the later Star Trek series'  but, to my mind, were much more entertaining. Star Trek really had an all encompassing worldview, with the Starship Enterprise’s mandate, as uttered in the show’s opening credits, “to explore strange new worlds and civilizations,” which it did. (The ensuing phrase, the poetic “where no man has gone before” was, unfortunately, later changed to the prosaic “where no one has gone before,” which I’d argue was an unnecessary example of political correctness. As with astronaut Neil Armstrong’s phrase referring to "mankind," "man" meant men and women.) The show was very low budget by our twenty-first century special effects standards – some of its more egregious faults, from the sloppy, obvious matte shots of the Enterprise, photographed against deep space, to the scene in the suspenseful episode "Shore Leave" where you were able to see the chain holding a supposedly menacing tiger, have been cleaned up in the re-mastered DVD versions of the show – but it didn’t matter as much as it might have as its rewards were so many.

Spock, Kirk and McCoy.

Of course there were no shortage of clichés on the series, from the unnamed extras, usually wearing red shirts, who routinely died whenever a landing party beamed down to an unknown planet – writer John Scalzi’s science fiction novel Redshirts directly addresses that plot point – to the show’s pre-feminist view of women (the Enterprise’s females, including Uhura, for that matter, were ‘babes’ who always wore miniskirts and sported excessive makeup, unlikely for the serious jobs they as part of the Enterprise crew would be carrying out in a realistic future.) And the communicators, bulkier versions of today’s cell phones, used by the crew, would have been supremely impractical for day-to-day use in Star Trek’s universe. There’s also the sticky business of the series’ Prime Directive, a prohibition on the Enterprise’s ever altering or affecting the natural development of the worlds and societies they came into contact with, except that’s what they did in week in and week out on the show. The Star Trek films, including Star Trek Into Darkness, were more likely to deal with that inconsistency head on.

On the other hand, I think the show’s use of the concepts of the transporter beam, which scrambled and then reassembled human molecules so we could be sent down to other planets, and the Romulan cloaking device, which rendered their ships invisible to enemy eyes, are as neat now that I’m an adult as when I was a young boy devouring the show. The phasers are pretty cool, too. I don’t even mind Shatner’s overemphasizing of his dialogue, a tad pretentious, I’d say, since Kirk is such a likeable, compelling character nonetheless. (Leonard Nimoy was clearly the better actor.) There was also the hometown pride of Shatner being a Montrealer, though I didn't know anyone who knew him personally, just his mother, who was taught by my father.

Nichelle Nichols as Lt. Uhura
The show surmounted all its flaws because of what did work on Star Trek, from the intelligent storylines to the deft futuristic touches dotted throughout the series. The later Star Trek shows were slicker and better made but I never found them to be as interesting as the original, despite Star Trek: The Next Generation’s creation of a great new Captain (Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart) and the complex android Data (Brent Spiner). The Trek shows, after that, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise, didn’t even offer those types of great characters. Maybe it’s a function of my growing up with the first Star Trek series at a time when cultural imprimaturs had a deeper impact on me, but it’s really only the original show which I can revisit on a regular basis and still enjoy as much as when I first watched its best episodes. From its stirring Alexander Courage score, whose reference in the Jim Carrey movie The Cable Guy (1996) was that movie’s only decent joke, to its somewhat retro but also sixties look, Star Trek, unlike its more calculated successors which came into being precisely because what had once been a cult was now a full fledged movement, was the equivalent of the little show that tried and eventually succeeded resoundingly in terms of its later influences. (It was also one of the pioneers of a fan base, inside and outside the SF writing community that was militant in fighting for the show’s survival, something that is almost commonplace today whenever a fan favourite is in imminent danger of cancellation; though Star Trek fared better with its full three season run, compared to other shorter lived SF shows such as Firefly (2002-03) and Jericho (2006-08).) Norman Lear’s All in the Family may have begat Maude and The Jeffersons, which begat Good Times, but Star Trek, astonishingly, gave birth to five TV series' in all (including an animated show), twelve movies (and counting), an actual NASA space shuttle called The Enterprise and several key catchphrases, including Spock’s Vulcan salutation ”Live Long and Prosper,” whose hand gestures, interestingly, was appropriated by Nimoy from the Jewish Priestly Blessing given in synagogue by the Kohanim.

Truth is, without Star Trek paving the way and setting the template for smart adult SF on TV, nothing of quality that followed, J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 (1994-98), Joss Whedon’s Firefly, Ronald D. Moore’s re-boot of the 1978 series Battlestar Galactica (2004-09), would have been possible. Those shows might have been more sophisticated, intricate and nuanced than Roddenberry’s creation, but by going where no SF show had gone before, Star Trek was the series that changed TV forever – and for the better.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute and the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.


  1. "The first pilot of the show didn’t actually feature Spock as a character at all; that version of Star Trek, which the network passed on, cast Majel Barrett, Roddenberry’s wife, as the Enterprise's first officer, instead of Spock. She later popped up on the actual series as Nurse Christine Chapel.)"

    Well, that's just not correct. Leonard Nimoy and Majel Barrett are both in the "The Cage," the series' first pilot episode.


    And the interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura doesn't really deserve credit, because they didn't kiss voluntarily. It was coerced by the telekinetic aliens in the episode "Plato's Stepchildren."


    1. Critics at Large's Shlomo Schwartzberg replies: "I should have written that Spock wasn't as major a character on the Star Trek pilot as he was in the series. It's been awhile since I saw The Cage. But whatever the context of the interracial kiss, it still counts since it happened. I always had a quarrel with the tentative nature of Kirk and Uhura's kiss, likely because they were too self conscious that they were making television history, but it's still a significant moment in the show, forced kiss or not.

  2. The Spock of the original pilot acted quite differently from the Spock of the eventual series.

    I think Majel Barrett's "Number One" character in "The Cage" would have been terribly memorable in its late-1960s context had that crew contingent been picked up by the network.