Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between

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Star Trek Redux

A few more thoughts occurred to me, now that I’ve finished the complete Star Trek original series. First, surely Paramount and Desilu have realized they made a monumental error when they canceled the show after its third season.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but now it’s abundantly clear that the show was really coming into its own as the third season drew to a close. The writers were becoming more imaginative and expanding their story lines beyond the bounds of provincialism that dogged the first two seasons. In fact, the final two episodes, “All Our Yesterdays” and “Turnabout Intruder” were two of the best episodes of the whole series, both in terms of the science fiction concepts they explored and the quality of the acting. Shatner did an impressive job acting as a slightly mad, power-hungry, jilted woman in “Intruder,” and Nimoy was amazing in “Yesterdays” as Spock slowly reverted to a more primitive Vulcan. One can only imagine what amazing episodes would have been produced if the short-sighted studio execs had let the Enterprise complete her five-year mission.

Also included in the DVD set was the original pilot, “The Cage,” starring Jeffry Hunter as Captain Chris Pike. Hunter was a very credible captain for the Enterprise, and I think the series would have done fine had he remained in that role (though it is hard to imagine anyone other than Kirk as captain of the Enterprise!). It was also clear from that pilot that Gene Roddenberry was well ahead of his time. He made an effort (within what the studio would allow) to point out the foolishness of racism and to create a world in which all races were equal. (He fought the studio very hard to keep Michele Nichols on, even though the “suits” pressed to have her removed from the show.)

He took similar pains to confront the rampant sexism of the time. Even though Pike made a comment about “still not being used to having women on the bridge” (a sign of the times), the second in command of his Enterprise was nonetheless a woman (Majel Barret, who would become Roddenberry’s wife and would later serve as Nurse Chapel; she was also the voice of the computer in Star Trek: The Next Generation). All the Enterprise women on that pilot wore pants, just like the men, something that makes a whole lot more sense than miniskirts when dealing with space exploration (or just about anything else, for that matter). One can almost hear the studio suits demanding that if Roddenberry wanted the go-ahead for the show, the female command officer had to go and all the women had to wear miniskirts. They got their way on that one.

However, Roddenberry got the last laugh. Even though the two top command officers in Next Generation were male, several episodes of that series featured female captains (as did Star Trek: Voyager), and the captain of Deep Space Nine was black. And the women wore pants.

In Next Generation, Roddenberry resurrected terminology that was used in the original pilot but never again used in that series. Pike called Barret “Number One,” which Captain Picard used in Next Generation to refer to Riker. Pike also used the term “engage” for engaging the warp drive, another term that never made it past the pilot but appeared years later in the Next Generation lexicon.

Finally, it was interesting to see in the pilot that neither Roddenberry nor Leonard Nimoy had pinned down Spock’s unique character. In that episode, Spock seemed to show emotion, shouting at times and even once smiling as he observed a strange “singing” plant. By the time the series was given the go-ahead and filming began with Shatner, Spock had become characterized as an emotionless, logical Vulcan, a characterization that the writers ultimately hammered on ad nauseum.

For those Trekkies out there, I’ll no doubt have more to say once I’ve watched every episode of Next Generation (which I now have on DVD!). For the non-Trekkies, I’m done posting about Star Trek for now!


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Star Trek

“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 split an infinitive where no infinitive has been split before!” (And do it with 1960s era patriarchal language!)

I recently purchased the complete DVD set of the original Star Trek television show, something I’ve been meaning to do for some time. I remember watching the show as a child. It was my all-time favorite, and I looked forward to it each week with eager anticipation. How important was it? One of my most vivid childhood memories was the time my step-father changed the channel right at the climax of one episode, when the Enterprise was in hot pursuit of a Romulan ship. I was devastated. And very angry!

Funny, the things we remember. It seems moments of heightened emotion stick with us, no matter how insignificant the instigating factor.

At any rate, I do remember how that show inspired me. It truly was ahead of its time in many ways. Imagine! Traveling through space at several times the speed of light! Visiting far-flung worlds and alien civilizations! At the dawn of the space age, this was indeed heady stuff, and it filled my young mind (as it did many others) with visions of the possible.

So there is a soft spot in my heart for the show and its iconic characters, and I thought it would be fun to watch all the episodes again. And now that I have done exactly that, there are a few observations I can make.

1) During the first season, especially the first few shows, the absolute best actor was Michele Nichols (Uhura). Out of all of them, she was absolutely, utterly believable. It’s a subtle thing, but while the other actors seemed like just actors for the first few episodes, Nichols made me believe she was indeed the Communications Officer on a Starship. If you watch her expressions and her body language and listen to the inflections in her language, she WAS Uhura, and she WAS on a spaceship. I didn’t see it at the time, but it’s very obvious now. Everyone (including me, in one of my first crushes) was taken by her beauty, which perhaps made us miss the quality of her acting.

Of course, later the other actors inhabited their character just as well. Leonard Nimoy, in particular, really did an astounding job making us all believe he was an alien, with an entirely different way of thinking. Even now, with the benefit of many years of watching actors act, I am impressed with what he was able to do.

2) Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy often behaved like idiots. This was the writers’ and producer’s fault, of course. Though I didn’t notice it at the time, it was certainly glaring with this recent viewing. McCoy had a real chip on his shoulder regarding “emotion” and Spock’s lack thereof. At times the writers went out of their way to inject tension between those two characters where there should have been none. It was a very transparent plot device, and as far as I can see it failed most of the time.

Kirk acted like a cowboy in a barroom brawl half the time. I suppose that should be no surprise, since westerns were the most popular form of TV drama at the time, and Roddenberry sold the show to the studios as a “western in outer space.” But seriously, can you imagine the captain of Starfleet’s flagship (or ANY ship, for that matter, ocean-going or star-faring) getting in as many fights as Kirk did? Or resorting to physical violence as a first option more often than not? It seemed like he was in a fistfight in nearly every episode. A real captain that acted like that would be out of a job pretty quickly.

But where he really came off as an idiot (and a sort of hormone-crazed Casanova) was in the many times he fell for and/or seduced some alien woman. The one that really took the cake was in season three, when he fell in love (almost instantaneously) with the android creation of Methuselah, stayed in “love” with her even after he learned she was an android, and begged her to come with him on the Enterprise. Seriously? It was like elementary school puppy love. Ridiculous.

3) I won’t go too much into the absurdity of the command crew always being the ones to beam down to a planet, often directly into danger. The realities of episodic television require a finite set of established characters, after all. Still, on a ship with, supposedly, 400 people, it really stretches credulity to have the captain, first officer, chief medical officer, chief engineer, and head navigator be the ones to beam down every single time (occasionally accompanied by a nameless, red-shirted security guard, if the plot called for someone to be bumped off).

4) Although the show sparked my young imagination, and that of many other people, in retrospect it actually was very provincial. Yes, there were a few episodes, especially in the third and final season, where the show’s writers stretched their imaginations, as well as the boundaries of established science, and explored higher concepts. Too often, though, the show remained lodged in a mid-20th century, American-centric, patriarchal mindset. Frequently the characters compared some element of the action or another civilization’s culture to “20th century Earth,” as though nothing else substantial had occurred during the intervening 200 or so years, either on Earth or on any of the hundreds of other populated planets in the Federation.

And in too many episodes, the plot placed the characters directly into recent Earth history (usually the 20th century). There were episodes with Chicago gangsters, the Nazis, the Cold War, the Depression, the Roman Empire, hippies, a dystopian world of “yankees” and “communists,” the wild west (shoot-out at OK Corral), Abraham Lincoln, and so on. It seemed like the writers were generally incapable of imagining anything beyond their own recent historical and personal experience.

All that being said, there were some moments of brilliance and imagination. Multiple universes! (It was a very new concept in theoretical physics at the time.) Human-like androids! The dangers of time travel! It’s old-hat science fiction now, but at the time these were pretty cool concepts. And, of course, there was “The Trouble with Tribbles,” everyone’s favorite episode (including mine). Star Trek: Deep Space Nine revisited the tribbles episode in a very fun and creative way. It’s well worth watching.

I still have four episodes to watch, and after that I have the complete DVD set of Star Trek: The Next Generation (which was everything the original wasn’t), so I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts on this iconic franchise. And, of course, I welcome reader input. I’m sure there are some trekkies out there with strong opinions on what I’ve said so far!