Fifty years of Star Trek

Star Trek made its television debut 50 years ago this week, on September 8, 1966, when the episode “The Man Trap” aired on NBC.

(For the pedantic-minded, yes, “The Man Trap” was number six in production order, and the actual first episode of Star Trek should have been “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” but NBC decided to instead debut the show with a “monster of the week” first episode. And that’s not even getting into the matter of first, unused pilot episode “The Cage” which wasn’t broadcast in its entirety until 1988.  Okay, I’ll stop now!)

star-trek-crew-and-enterprise

I wasn’t born for another decade, in June 1976, but in the early 1980s when I was a young kid I regularly watched reruns of Star Trek on Saturday evenings on WPIX Channel 11. I was a science fiction fan, and the show was such a thrill for me.  At the time, the concept of an ongoing sci-fi TV series that aired a “new” episode every single week was just so revolutionary.  It’s almost inconceivable these days when there are numerous genre shows on the small screen, but when I was a kid Star Trek was literally one-of-a-kind.

(It’s really no wonder that a couple of years later I also became a huge Doctor Who fan once I discovered repeats airing Monday to Friday on PBS stations.)

I honestly don’t remember my first episode of Star Trek. I have very fuzzy memories of a young me watching Captain Kirk fighting the Gorn (“Arena”) and of Kirk and Spock communicating with the Horta (“Devil in the Dark”), but I certainly couldn’t swear with any certainty that either of those was my absolute first exposure to the show.  The point is that as far back as I can recall, I was watching Star Trek, and enjoying it.

kirk-vs-gorn

It is interesting to have re-watched many of those episodes over the past decade and a half, to revisit them with adult eyes. Some of them are still classics, while others have not aged well.  And, no, I am not referring to the low budgets or the dodgy special effects.

When you are six years old “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” probably seems an insightful examination of racism; when you’re in your 30s it comes across as a heavy-handed, clunky allegory. When you’re a kid “A Private Little War” strikes you as a tragic tale of good men forced into conflict; when you’re an adult you realize that it’s actually a  defense of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

In the decade after Star Trek’s original three season run concluded, its creator Gene Roddenberry was a regular of the sci-fi convention circuit, and he worked hard to propagate the myth that the series was extremely progressive and forward-thinking. This was true to a degree, but certainly not as much as Roddenberry would later claim.  As with any series that was crafted by a number of different writers, Star Trek’s politics were all over the place.  Roddenberry himself could be maddeningly inconsistent, at times genuinely liberal, and at others decidedly right-of-center.

The show is, in hindsight, not nearly as diverse as it could have been, with the three lead characters of Kirk, Spock and Doctor McCoy all played by white males. There is a good deal of  sexism & sexual titillation in many episodes.  Yes, Star Trek did show men and women serving alongside each other in a military organization.  But most of the females in Starfleet were relegated to secondary roles.  The women of Star Trek were often characterized as emotional & irrational, and many of them were clad in extremely revealing outfits.

star-trek-orion-slave-girl

I doubt it’s any accident that one of the things that everyone remembers about Star Trek are those green-skinned Orion “slave girls” portrayed by Susan Oliver and Yvonne Craig.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with being sexy.  But as they say, everything in moderation.)

It is also unfortunate the most of the crew of the Starship Enterprise was underdeveloped. By today’s standards Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov are very one-dimensional.  But that was an inevitable reality of the model of American television in the late 1960s.  Watch any prime-time drama from that era and you will see that it is made up of stand-alone episodes that are primarily driven by plot, with extended story arcs and long-term characterization nonexistent.

Nevertheless, for all its flaws, Star Trek was still groundbreaking. It was the unexpected beginning of a decades-long franchise, one that in its various incarnations over the next 50 years would genuinely become more and more progressive.  The original series was the necessary foundation upon which all of the subsequent TV series and movies were built.

spock-kirk-and-mccoy

Even today, fifty years later, there are aspects of the original Star Trek that hold up. The lead trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy works very well, due to the genuine chemistry that existed between actors William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley.  You definitely see these three men as colleagues who, despite their differing world views and their often passionate arguments over ideology & methodology, possess a genuine rapport & friendship.

I’ve sometimes heard it suggested that Kirk, Spock and McCoy are a Freudian Trio.  Kirk is the ego, the leader.  Spock is the superego, reason.  McCoy is the id, emotion.  Whatever the case, it made for compelling drama.

The writing on Star Trek could also be very good. Despite his flaws, Roddenberry certainly devised a wonderful concept, and his plots could be intelligent & imaginative.  Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana are the two writers who probably deserve the most credit for taking Roddenberry’s vision and developing it into a compelling, nuanced, three-dimensional universe.  Other talented writers who contributed quality plots & scripts to Star Trek are George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, David Gerrold, Norman Spinrad and Jerome Bixby.

The costumes, props, sets and models created for Star Trek were also striking & original. The designs conceived by Matt Jeffries and Wah Chang are now iconic.  The Enterprise itself, the crew’s phasers & communicators, the Klingons’ cruisers, aliens such as the Gorn and the Salt Vampire; all are instantly recognizable.

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For a television show that lasted a mere three years, constantly teetering on the edge of cancellation, the original Star Trek has had a seismic impact on popular culture. It has simultaneously served as escapist fantasy while providing a lens through which to explore the social & political controversies of the last half century.

Of course there’s also plenty to say about the Star Trek movies, and The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine, and so on, but I think I’ll save those for another time.

By the way, one of my favorite WordPress blogs is the m0vie blog. Among the numerous reviews, its author Darren has written some incredibly detailed, insightful, thought-provoking analyses of the Star Trek franchise. I encourage everyone who is a fan of the series to check it out.

Leonard Nimoy: 1931 to 2015

Leonard Nimoy passed away on February 27th at the age of 83.  It’s odd when someone you literally grew up watching on television and in movies dies.  In the last two days others have written extensively about Nimoy’s numerous, varied accomplishments throughout the decades.  I would certainly recommend taking a look at the piece by Darren at the m0vie blog.  Darren has written some of the most insightful, intelligent reviews of Star Trek that I have ever come across, so of course he offers a worthy appraisal of Nimoy’s life & career.

For my part, I am going to just offer some brief thoughts on Nimoy’s amazing portrayal of the character of Spock on the various incarnations of Star Trek, the science fiction series created by Gene Roddenberry and developed by a variety of talented writers such as Gene L. Coon & D.C. Fontana.

Star Trek VI Spock

Leonard Nimoy did amazing work bringing Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human First Officer of the Starship Enterprise, to life. The original Star Trek was broadcast from 1966 to 1969.  This was an era when television series were extremely episodic, characterization was one-dimensional, and there weren’t any sort of extended arcs that developed long-term subplots or depicted the evolution of the characters over a period of time.  Within these constraints, during three wildly uneven seasons of Star Trek, Nimoy nevertheless succeeded in communicating the continuing struggles of Spock to reconcile his Vulcan and human backgrounds, to adhere to the Vulcan ideal of non-emotion while finding a place among a crew of highly emotional human beings.  Spock was in a number of ways the perennial outsider.  He was a character who I expect a great many viewers could identify with.

The chemistry between the three leads in Star Trek was very apparent.  Nimoy as Spock, William Shatner as Captain Kirk and DeForest Kelley as Doctor McCoy all possessed an excellent rapport.  Whereas Spock represented logic, McCoy was the personification of human sentiment, of acting upon feeling, and the two had a very contentious friendship.  It fell to Kirk to listen to Spock and McCoy’s two disparate world views and to strive to find the correct balance between intellect and emotion that was necessary to resolve each episode’s crisis.

Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock was often very moving.  Certain moments invariably stand out, such as from “The Devil in the Dark” written by Gene L. Coon, broadcast on March 9, 1967.  That episode was one of the best examples of Roddenberry’s hopes for a future where humanity would learn to embrace tolerance, understanding and open-mindedness.  Coon’s script sees the Enterprise crew working to prevent a mysterious, deadly alien from destroying the Janus VI mining colony.  As the episode progresses, we learn that the Horta is no savage, mindless killer.  Rather, it is a mother attempting to prevent the accidental destruction of her nests of eggs by the miners.

Spock’s mind meld with the Horta, when the truth about the entity is uncovered, is one of the most iconic moments from the original Star Trek.  Nimoy’s acting in it was an absolutely crucial component in making this scene genuinely believable, in helping to convince the audience that a living rock pile that resembled a giant pizza pie was a thinking, feeling, sentient being.  It is one of the best examples I know of where intelligent writing and quality acting more than overcame the hurtles of primitive special effects and a shoestring budget.

Just a week ago I was watching “The Enterprise Incident” written by D.C. Fontana, originally broadcast September 27, 1968.  I think that “The Enterprise Incident” is one of the most morally complex, cynical episodes of the original Star Trek.  Fontana’s script sees Starfleet sending Kirk and Spock on a covert mission to steal a cloaking device from the Romulans.  In the process they violate the treaty with the Romulan Empire and engage in overt acts of espionage.

(There are some fans of the series who believe that the sixth Star Trek movie and the 1990s spin-off series Deep Space Nine portrayed Starfleet and the Federation in an unfavorable light contrary to Roddenberry’s original intentions.  I would argue that certain episodes of the original series such as “The Enterprise Incident” demonstrated that there was always a morally ambiguous, harshly pragmatic side to those institutions.)

Star Trek The Enterprise Incident

“The Enterprise Incident” features one of Nimoy’s best performances from the original series. Spock’s stoic devotion to logic and duty is apparent in his carrying out his orders and performing Starfleet’s dirty work.  At the end you also witness the tangible regret that he feels at having been required to assume the devious role of a spy & double agent, in deceiving the Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville), who he had developed a genuine fondness for, in order to help Starfleet achieve its goals.  At the end, reflecting on how all of Starfleet’s machinations have probably only achieved a temporary strategic advantage, Spock acknowledges to the Romulan Commander “Military secrets are the most fleeting of all. I hope that you and I exchanged something more permanent.”  Nimoy’s delivery of the line was very effective and thoughtful.

Nimoy’s wonderful portrayal of Spock continued within the Star Trek movies. Spock’s striving towards the purging of all emotion, only to realize the emptiness of pure logic, was one of the few strong points in the uneven Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Although his character was not a central focus in The Wrath of Khan, Spock’s sacrifice the save the Enterprise at the end of was incredibly moving.  Under the superb direction of Nicholas Meyer, Nimoy and Shatner played the scene perfectly.

Nimoy slipped into the director’s chair for the third and fourth movies, doing quality work.  In the later, The Voyage Home, Nimoy’s performance as the resurrected Spock, once again seeking to find the balance between his dual heritages, was very good.  Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country saw the characters of Spock and Kirk at odds with one another over the possibility of a future where the Federation and the Klingon Empire could be at peace.  Once again directed by Meyer, both Nimoy and Shatner turned in solid performances as Spock and Kirk contemplated the idea of growing old, and of the universe moving on without them.

On a more personal note, as someone who is Jewish, as a child I remember being pleasantly surprised when I learned that Leonard Nimoy was of that faith.  Nimoy very much embraced his heritage, and was proud of his Judaism.  Yet he never let that pride blind him.  He recognized the importance of people from different backgrounds working to find common ground and understanding.  As the co-writer of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Nimoy was inspired by looking at the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as the hostility between Israel and the Arab nations of the Middle East, and by his hope that these different peoples could one day learn to peacefully co-exist.

Nimoy’s character Spock often expressed the sentiment “Live long and prosper.”  Those are certainly words that Nimoy himself lived by.  He will be missed.

Does Sci-Fi Get The Respect It Deserves?

I have been a science fiction fan since I was a kid.  There has always been something magical about the genre for me.  One of my favorites growing up was the original Star Trek television series, which was in reruns on Saturday nights in the late 1970s and early 80s.  I looked forward to catching a “new” episode of that each weekend.  I was too young to see the first Star Trek film in the theaters, probably a good thing, in retrospect, given that it’s a long, ponderous movie that really needed a lot of fine-tuning and editing.

But by the time Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan hit the big screen in 1982, I was six years old, and my father took me to see it.  To be perfectly honest, I was not thrilled by it.  The movie was too dark & downbeat for me, and it ended with Spock dying.  Over the years, though, I often heard it referred to as the absolute best film of the entire series, and I just could not understand why.

Fast-forward to 2002, and the two disk DVD “director’s edition” of Star Trek II came out.  On an impulse, I purchased it, because despite my original impression of it, I never actively hated the film.  It had been years since I had last seen it, so I thought this would be a good time to look at it with a fresh perspective and see what all the fuss was about.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan DVD
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan DVD

Well, what a difference twenty years can make!  I was completely blown away when I re-watched The Wrath of Khan.  There were so many themes in it that I had not picked up on when I was a kid.  Dealing with death and loss, growing old, morality and science, the all-consuming passion of vengeance, making the decision whether to dwell in the past or to move on to the future, and much more.  Since then, I’ve viewed it on several subsequent occasions.  Each time, I get a little bit something more out of it.

So much of the film is of the highest quality.  The script by Harve Bennett & Nicholas Meyer is crisp, intelligent, witty, and thought-provoking.  James Horner’s’ soundtrack is stunning.  And the directing by Meyer is riveting, dramatic, and absolutely top-notch.   I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that Meyer succeeds in obtaining one of the best performances out of William Shatner in his entire career, no easy feat.  And the acting by Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Ricardo Montalban is likewise top-notch.

Last week, I watched The Wrath of Khan again.  And something occurred to me.  Yes, it is a great science fiction film.  But, I realized, it is also an excellent film, period, regardless of genre.  This got me thinking.  Science fiction really gets very little respect of acknowledgement among so-called legitimate film “critics.”

I was curious, so I looked up the Academy Award nominees for 1982.  The frontrunner of the year was, unsurprisingly, Ganhdi, a good if overly long film.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial had received several nominations.  But not a single nod to Star Trek II, not even in the technical categories.

What do you mean we didn't win an Oscar?!?!?
What do you mean we didn’t win an Oscar?!?!?

Nowadays, the Academy Awards do make at least a passing effort at trying to acknowledge more “mainstream” films, having increased the potential number of best picture nominees to ten.  Even so, the way the Academy members actually vote, the probability of film such as Star Trek II being nominated, much less winning, a Best Picture Oscar is very low.  Witness the most recent awards, where The Artist was swept up six Oscars.  Brilliant film, yes, but the equally great, very funny comedy Bridesmaids didn’t even warrant a nomination.  (Of course, the manner in which voting is tabulated for the Oscar nominations and actual awards is apparently so convoluted that it makes filling out your taxes seem simple by comparison.  So for all we know Bridesmaids just narrowly missed the cut-off.)

What is the point of all this?  I am actually not sure.  Part of it is my lamenting that those aforementioned critics often believe it is impossible for a film to be both popular and of high artistic merit.  Especially when it comes to science fiction.

Then again, hindsight can be twenty twenty.  The history of film criticism, and the Academy Awards in particular, is rife with “What the hell were they thinking!?!” moments that totally stupefy you.  One of the most infamous was when How Green Was My Valley won Best Picture for 1941, beating out Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a film now regarded as one of the absolute all time greatest movies ever made.  So who knows how history will judge?

In the meantime, regardless of how such-and-such critic opines concerning cinematic fare, or what movie wins what awards, I will be watching what I feel like watching.  And that includes science fiction, thank you very much.