Remembering the Best and Worst of Star Trek
Star Trek — and we’re talking the original 1966-69 series here — was a lousy TV show. I was 11 years old when the series debuted on NBC and I thought it was a lousy show then.
That’s why I couldn’t stand the Trekkies even back before there was a name for them. My first run-in with a pre-Trekkie Trekkie was Vincent DePalma. In seventh grade, Vincent had his mother make a sparkly Star Fleet emblem for a corduroy pullover to make it look like the uniform blouses on the show. He wore it to school, which I thought was him begging to get his ass beat. He’d built a full-sized replica of the helm/navigation console from the Enterprise bridge in his basement. His father worked for Bell Telephone, and had gotten him banks of light-up buttons that really worked. His dream was to eventually recreate the entire bridge in his basement. He was a friend of mine, and I thought he was dweeb — at least when it came to Star Trek.
There were things about the show that drove me bats, even at 11, and drove me even battier when guys (and it was always guys) like Vincent DePalma treated Star Trek like a fifth gospel delivered by St. Gene of Roddenberry. For instance…
Those cheap-ass high school play-looking sets when they were shooting exterior scenes in a studio. The paper mache boulders were the worst, right after the caves with smooth linoleum floors.
And those God-awful uniforms. For the guys, those tidewater pants and unflatteringly-tight corduroy tops made me chafe just watching them. If Shatner’d had a big lunch that day, it showed. And while as an 11-year-old boy I appreciated the micro-mini skirts the ladies had to wear, you’d think that 300 years into the future servicewomen wouldn’t have to deal with wrestling into pantyhose to go to work. That’d be like our present-day women soldiers having to go to war in Daisy Dukes while the guys wear body armor and cammo.
Or that heap of a spaceship, the Enterprise — a vehicle only a crooked used car dealer could love. Oh, it looked cool, I give you that, but it only proved that three centuries hence, government contractors were still wasting taxpayers’ money on high-tech junk that didn’t work. Jeez, it seemed like every other week some damned thing on the United Starship Hunkajunk broke down.
Or the way Enterprise skipper Captain Kirk seemed to solve most dilemmas by punching some alien’s lights out and/or getting into an intergalactic hottie’s pants, only to have some snotty superbeing show up and condescendingly tell us that because ol’ Kirkie had stopped short of caving somebody’s skull in with a rock, there was hope for our species in a few kajillion years.
I could go on…and on and on and on.
And yet, I watched every damned one of those 79 original episodes, kept watching it no matter where NBC bounced it on the schedule, watched it right to the end when the network finally pulled the plug. And when it showed up in syndication not long after, I was there, again. In fact, where I lived, Channel 11 ran Star Trek twice a day: in the early evening, and another episode at 11, and I watched both. When Syfy picked up the original series some years ago and was bragging about running it uncut (in syndication it had often been trimmed to jam in another commercial or two), sure enough, there I was watching it again.
And you know something? I still thought it was a lousy show!
That was part of the attraction; it was often a show I loved to hate.
But another part of the attraction was (especially as I grew older and, I like to think, more perceptive) being able to see the show Star Trek could have been, and on rare, compelling, as-good-as-anything-else-on-TV-ever occasions, it managed to be.
Star Trek has been idolized and adored so long and so adamantly — with the Trekkies as the high priests leading the services — that a lot of cracks and blemishes in the Trek saga have been spackled and painted over by time, nostalgia, the success of subsequent spin-offs and films — and, in some quarters, blind worship. Take the role of series creator Gene Roddenberry, for instance.
Roddenberry is Star Trek‘s daddy, no question, and to fans — whether a fevered Trekkie or someone a bit more passively enthused — he’s the statue people pray to in the Trek church. Some view him as kind of a martyr — the guy who took it on the chin fighting NBC for his vision, who kept the Trek flame alive after cancellation, who gave the brand its philosophical heart.
All of which is true.
But — and this doesn’t take anything away from Roddenberry, because no Roddenberry, no Star Trek — the long-term success of Trek owes as much to others as it does to Roddenberry, who hardly had a golden touch.
He’d been a cop with the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950s when he’d started writing for TV under a pen name. The cops didn’t pay that well, and Roddenberry eventually left the force to focus full time on TV writing. He ran up a respectable tally of credits, including work for some of the more notable shows of the late 1950s/early 1960s, i.e. Have Gun — Will Travel, Naked City, and The Virginian. What he had a harder time doing was trying to land a series of his own. He kept pitching, but nobody wanted to catch. In 1963, he finally got a series he created on the air — The Lieutenant, starring Gary Lockwood (who would guest star on the Trek episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”) — but the show was cancelled after one season.
Where No Man Has Gone Before
Even after Star Trek and its evolving into one of the all-time great TV/film cults, Roddenberry couldn’t seem to hit the sweet spot a second time. He holds a position not unlike George Lucas with Star Wars — his one major hit becoming a money-making machine through the shows, films, and merchandise it spun off, but who couldn’t find success outside the brand (nor did he share in the Star Trek riches; unlike Lucas, Roddenberry didn’t retain ownership of the property). A number of pilots stiffed, and after the disappointing response to the first Trek feature film — Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), on which Roddenberry is listed as one of the producers — Roddenberry was relegated by Paramount, rights-holder to the franchise, to a creative consultant’s role.
And then there’s NBC, often portrayed as the villain in the demise of the original series, considered a network which neither understood nor appreciated what Roddenberry & Co. were trying to do.
Be that as it may, in its original run, Star Trek was an unqualified flop. The show debuted a ratings winner, but over the course of just the first season alone submarined, finishing out the 1966-67 season a feeble #51 out of a field of 94 shows. That was bad enough, but the show continued to slide throughout its remaining two seasons. Say what you will about NBC not really understanding Star Trek and monkeying around with its scheduling in the most lethal of ways, finally putting a stake through the show’s heart by sticking it in the graveyard Fridays at the 10:00 PM slot, but give them this: they stuck with a proven loser for three seasons.
One of the problems was that the show never accomplished what Roddenberry had hoped for: to use sci-fi — usually dismissed as kiddie fodder — as a platform for adult drama. The adults — even during the show’s first season with choice scheduling at 8:30 on Tuesdays — didn’t buy it, and even fewer bought it week by week.
I don’t know what the problem was. Maybe grown-ups of the time — despite the leggy Trek ladies (for the men) and a then-buff Shatner losing his shirt on a regular basis (for the women) — couldn’t get past thinking ray guns and space ships were for kids, no matter how adult the themes were. Maybe they couldn’t look past the paper mache rocks and other cheesy bits which went with the tight budgets.
One thing I’m sure of: the numbers continued to steadily slide from the show’s very first airing because the longer you stuck with the show, the more apparent the series’ crippling flaws became.
A wannabe independent producer I bumped into some years ago once told me that when your funds were as limited as his were, you made the movie you could make rather than the one you wanted to make.
Gene Roddenberry had come up with an admirably ambitious vision for Star Trek inculcated in the famous lines which series star William Shatner intoned at the beginning of each episode:
“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 go where no man has gone before.”
But Roddenberry didn’t curtail his ambitions just because the money to realize them wasn’t there. He only had $200,000 each week to create those strange new worlds and civilizations, and, for the kind of show he wanted Star Trek to be, that was chump change. Extrapolating for inflation, that’d be the equivalent today of the budget for a typical one-hour drama with no special effects or model work, no special make-up, and no costumes or weird sets. The Outer Limits, which was cancelled the year before Star Trek debuted, had had a similar budget, and they had regularly struggled even though the show was set in the present day. For two hundred grand, Trek couldn’t help but often look cheesy. That explains the crappy sets, the goofy alien costumes and make-up, and a steady reliance on strange new worlds and civilizations which often looked an awful lot like some aspect of this one.
There were times when Trek‘s adventures were like a trip through Disneyland. Where Disneyland has its Tomorrow Land and Frontier Land, Star Trek had Nazi Land (“Patterns of Force”), Contemporary Roman Empire Land (“Bread and Circuses”), Native American Land (“The Paradise Syndrome”), Gay 90s Land (“Return of the Archons”), Roaring 20s Land (“A Piece of the Action”), and Davy Crockett Land (“A Private Little War”). Then there are the two times the Enterprise traveled back in time to Earth in the then-present (“Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” and “Assignment: Earth” which was intended as the launch for a spinoff series which never happened), and a third trip back to the Great Depression (“City on the Edge of Forever”). And then there’s “Miri,” in which — camouflaged by some doubletalk about “parallel development” — the Enterprise visits a planet that’s the spitting image of 20th Century Earth, right down to the shape of its continents.
It also explains why most Star Trek aliens looked, well, just like us. And always spoke English.
For me, one of the episodes where the show’s threadbare quality really showed through was the third season ep, “Mark of Gideon,” and its story about a frighteningly overpopulated planet. The only part of the planet Gideon we get to see is the office of boss Gideonite David Hurst, and what we can see out his window: a bunch of people in green tights bumping into each other against a black backdrop. Even as a symbolic image, it looked worse than bad — it looked ridiculous.
Ok, they had money problems. But with a depressing frequency, the show wasn’t up to Roddenberry’s expansive vision creatively either.
Roddenberry had boxed the show in with the very devices meant to make planet-hopping storytelling easier. You’ve got this super-cool, faster-than-light spaceship, but now you must keep it from whizzing our heroes out of trouble at warp speed. Thusly, every other week you had poor Scottie (James Doohan), the ship’s chief engineer, foaming at the mouth about how some gizmo or another was going to overheat, break down, shut off, or blow up.
The only piece of space junk that misbehaved more than that hoopty the Enterprise was that damned transporter. Anything that could get characters into a situation so easily could also get them out of trouble with equal ease. So, the transporter had to fizz, spark, and break on a regular basis too. Communicators and phaser pistols were always getting lost, confiscated, or neutralized, subspace radio was getting interfered with… Hell, if flush toilets had ever been a key plot element on Star Trek, guaranteed they’d back up.
Ok, so they had money problems and maybe they hadn’t quite thought through some of the founding principles of the show.
But it gets worse.
Mark of Gideon
David Gerrold is a name familiar to devoted Star Trek fans. Gerrold penned “The Trouble with Tribbles,” one of the series’ most memorable episodes, and thereafter became a regular chronicler of all things Trek. While Gerrold has always been an unabashed fan of the show, he can also be impressively clear-eyed on how and why the series didn’t deliver on its creator’s vision. In The World of Star Trek: The Show the Network Could Not Kill! (Ballantine, 1973), Gerrold offers a fairly brutal autopsy of the show’s failures, and illustrates them hysterically in a scenario that combines all of those recurring lapses which represented the “…format’s degeneration into formula.”
Writes Gerrold, “A ‘formula’ story is the pat story, the easy story, the one that gets written by the book. It’s a compilation of all the tried and true tricks. It’s six devices in search of a plot…It’s generally a waste of time.”
“The Enterprise wasn’t exploring strange new worlds and going places where no man had gone before. Au contraire; it kept going to places that seemed way too damned familiar.”
In Gerrold’s hoot of a scenario — a veritable Greatest Hits of the shortcuts and cheap tricks Star Trek writers came to over-rely on — “…Kirk, Spock and McCoy get captured by six-foot green women in steel brassieres. They take away the spacemen’s communicators because they offend the computer-god that these women worship…Scott discovers that he’s having trouble with the doubletalk generator, and…the Enterprise will shrivel into a prune in two hours…it’s been more than two hours since Kirk’s last piece of ass and he starts getting twitchy…So (he) seduces the cute priestess — there always is at least one…the girl he has seduced decides that she has never been laid so good in her life and discards all of her years-long training and lifetime-held beliefs to rescue him…” And so on.
Put it another way. The first time our intrepid space explorers manage to turn a super computer’s logic in on itself, that’s kind of nifty (“The Return of the Archons”). But keep going back to that well (“The Changeling,” “I, Mudd,” “The Ultimate Computer”), and the show begins to have a been-there-done-that stale feel. The noisy finale of “The Apple” plays out an awful lot like the noisy finale of “Who Mourns for Adonis?” which lends “Plato’s Stepchildren” some ideas about aliens visiting ancient Greece. When Spock (Leonard Nimoy) loses his Vulcan cool in “The Naked Time,” it’s appropriately disturbing, but then he loses it again in “This Side of Paradise,” “Amok Time,” and “All Our Yesterdays,” and it gets to feel like “Here we go, again.” Superior aliens keep testing the Enterprise gang’s moral mettle with life or death versions of the SATs (“Arena,” “Spectre of the Gun,” “The Empath,” “The Savage Curtain”), while other E.T.s play with them the way a kid plays with ants and a magnifying glass (“The Squire of Gothos,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Bread and Circuses” “Day of the Dove”).
The Enterprise wasn’t exploring strange new worlds and going places where no man had gone before. Au contraire; it kept going to places that seemed way too damned familiar.
And that wasn’t the worst of it, not by a long shot. The worst shows were the moralizers, the episodes with a message that was often simplistic, heavy-handed, and about as subtle as a poke in the eye. “Let me see… Hmm, the one guy is black on one side of his body, and the other guy is white on that side, and they hate each other, and — … Oh, I get it! Prejudice is stupid!” (“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”). “Oh, so these tribes, the Yangs, and the Kohms, that’s really Yankees and Communists and if we don’t learn to live nicely together, we’re going to bomb each other back into the stone age” (“The Omega Glory”).
The only episodes worse than the moralizers were the ones were Star Trek tried to be topical, using its futuristic sci-fi vantage point to comment on the present day. Only for all its sage blabbing about cruising through the galaxy on a state-of-the-art battlewagon to make peaceful contacts, in episodes like “A Private Little War” and “The Enterprise Incident,” Star Trek fell right into line with atavistic Cold War thinking.
The Enterprise Incident
One of the most embarrassing of the topical eps was Star Trek‘s take on the hippy movement with “The Way to Eden.” The show’s take on what will be groovy 300 years in the future is painful to watch (and was painful back in 1969 when it aired), and more pained was its superficial grasp of what was going on in the 1960s. The moral of “Eden” seemed to be a Father Knows Best-like, “You can have your rock ‘n’ roll, kids, but listen to your parents.”
So, all this in mind, was that why I watched it? Just so I could make fun? Just so I could give Vincent DePalma a hard time every Wednesday during lunch about how Captain Kirk had boinked his crew to safety for the thirty-third time?
The thing about Star Trek was there were times when the show got it right, when it did what it aspired to do and did it beautifully. It didn’t happen often, but that’s what kept me hanging in there: hoping they’d do it again.
The Way to Eden
Most of my favorites come from the series’ first season. It was the only season where you actually got a sense of life on a starship: the crew get physicals (“The Corbomite Maneuver”), some fall in love and get married (“Balance of Terror”), they spend time in the gym and hang out in the rec lounge (“Charlie X”). There’s a wonderful background flow to those episodes that gets lost in subsequent seasons.
What also gets lost is a sense of adventure, in living up to the promise of “going where no man has gone before.” “The Corbomite Maneuver” was as intelligent an exercising of that mandate as the show ever produced. The ship has, indeed, gone where no ship has gone before, has contacted a wholly alien being, and is locked in a psychological poker game which ultimately leads to a meaningful contact. Similarly, “Devil in the Dark” combined suspenseful monster flick with the tragedy of the limitations of our human points of reference in trying to understand a life form as different from us as air is from earth.
“Gene Roddenberry didn’t get the adult audience he’d hoped for. But the kids saved his creation.”
Other episodes triumphantly did what sci-fi rarely does: provide a platform for human drama, but in a way that could only be told through sci-fi. I’m thinking here of “The Enemy Within,” with a sharp screenplay by sci-fi master Richard Matheson in which through a malfunctioning transporter (surprise!), Kirk is split into a good Kirk and a bad Kirk, with the interesting twist that much of the bad Kirk is what makes Kirk the capable skipper he is. Or “Charlie X,” with its painfully acute portrait of adolescent angst in a vehicle that presaged Stephen King’s Carrie by almost a decade.
But my favorite episode, and the one that I think was not only Star Trek at its best, but was just damned sharp television, was “The Naked Time.” The ship’s crew becomes infected with a disease that suppresses inhibitions and allows all their secret wants and fears to rise to the surface. Bit by bit, the infection spreads through the ship and the episode becomes a potent revelation of the difference between our public and private selves. One of the most powerful scenes in the episode — and the series — is Nimoy’s Spock coming apart as he retreats to an empty room to wrestle with the shame of his half-breed status, and the overwhelming pain of a tidal wave of emotion. Even better, is his face-off with Shatner’s Kirk, also infected, and who now begins to feel the ache of the loneliness and sacrifice of command. There’s a lovely moment after Kirk has regained his senses and he sits in his commander’s chair, eyes his pretty yeoman (Grace Lee Whitney) wistfully, and recalls what he’d said to Spock about having “no beach to walk on.”
There were other gems. Some were good ol’ sci-fi adventures (“Balance of Terror,” The Changeling”), and others were just plain fun (here you really have to give the show props; Star Trek did know how to loosen up and have fun in eps like “I, Mudd,” “Shore Leave,” “The Squire of Gothos,” “A Piece of the Action,” and — the best of the best — “The Trouble with Tribbles”).
They were just few and far between, and as the series continued on, they got fewer.
The Naked Time
Gene Roddenberry didn’t get the adult audience he’d hoped for. But the kids saved his creation. They were the ones who watched it in syndication and grew up with it, who kept the idea of Star Trek — which was stronger than the show itself — alive. They were the ones who started the fan clubs and the conventions and bought the merchandise that kept the brand of a failed TV series viable until Paramount decided to resurrect it 10 years after its cancellation to capitalize on the sci-fi craze ignited by the success of Star Wars. Finally, with the time and money and resources the series had never had at its disposal, what Roddenberry had meant Star Trek to be could, at long last, be.
– Bill Mesce