Star Trek Fifty-five Years Later

        2021 August 13

Star Trek 1966-1969

     I got on the Star Trek bandwagon when a friend suggested I watch the second half of "The Menagerie." That would have been 1966 November 24, just about fifty-five years ago. We had a black-and-white television set.

     I'm not sure what it was about the show that brought it closer to my heart than Lost in Space or The Time Tunnel or The Invaders or The Outer Limits or even The Twilight Zone, all good shows, but something special was there in this show. The interplay among characters like Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu, Checkov, and Chapel was something special along with the roles of their offices on the bridge, in Sick Bay, in Engineering, et cetera. The international flavor of the crew came across as a natural consequence of being there rather than forced tokenism. The crew worked together as a space team amid personality foibles and squabbles.

     As I watched the show over the years, I took no offense at its flaws. A friend described shows like Star Trek as "camp" where the flaws fit together. Everybody speaks English all over the galaxy. The transporter breaks all the time, but it almost never kills anybody. Things break a lot, but the ship somehow stays together. The United Federation of Planets is hundreds of "humanoid" life forms, but the crew of the Enterprise is almost all Earth-human.

     The Earth-centric view of the show I accepted because the audience of the show was entirely Earthbound. It was clear the view of the Star-Trek universe was expanding and changing, especially during the first season. It was the "United Spaceship Enterprise" and then, later, became the "United Starship Enterprise." Somehow I got the impression that Earth was one of many planets in the Federation, not special in any way, but there were continuous references to Earth and Earth history seems central to the Enterprise culture.

     The story that I came away with from the television show is that the diverse human crew came from many places, most of them had never been on Earth itself, but they kept their Earth-nation heritages. Checkov was Russian, Scotty was Scottish, Uhura was Swahili, and Riley was Irish, so Spock being Vulcan (or "Vulcanian" as they said sometimes) fit right in. As I watch the show again, I notice the Earth references are more pointed, but I see little evidence that the Enterprise crew members were from Earth any more than most of the so-called Irish people on our planet today lived in Ireland, or even visited there. As I recall, the Earth scenes on the show are from the Twentieth-Century, not the Twenty-Third.

     The laws of physics are suspect, good television if not good science. In one battle the Enterprise is hit and shows on screen as tilting to one side as a damaged ship on the water when, in fact, there is no up or down in space. Time travel, accelerated Scalosians, and gravity waves make interesting plots for a young, eager, space-scifi-happy audience. For example, when Gary Seven is working on the nuclear bomb in what looks like a Saturn V rocket there is the sound of geiger-counter clicking. (Viewers from my generation get a seriously-heightened sense of urgency and fear hearing that sound. There is even a fake-geiger-counter iPhone application that clicks faster with higher readings when a thumb is placed on the lower-left part of the screen.)

     Alien planets clearly have severe shortages of fabric evidenced by the sparse outfits worn by their beautiful women. I visited a Star Trek exhibit at the Smithsonian and noted how revealing those outfits were, a sneaky way past television censorship in those days.

     The bad guys were bad without explanation. Just as the Japanese and American Indians were generic bad guys in John Wayne movies, Klingons and Romulans were warlike races who hated us and that was the end of it.

     Captain James T. Kirk may have worked for galactic peace, but he was an able warrior when he needed to be. The Enterprise was armed with phasers and photon torpedos and the crew knew how to use them in battle. Captain Kirk also knew his way around women, lots of them, Earth-based human and alien, all good looking. We're never sure he had sex with them, but it sure seems that way on the show.

     Finally, there was the "Prime Directive" not to interfere with another culture's development. Somehow they found a way to rationalize violating it just about every time they met another culture, also part of the Star-Trek mystique. It's also funny that other planets followed Earth's history not just in generality but so specifically that one planet mixed ancient Rome and modern television. (The Chicago gangsters and Nazi Germany were brought by Federation visitors violating the Prime Directive.)

     The technology was funny. They could travel at warp speeds, sensors could identify two humanoids on a planet, but they still relied on human ears recognizing a voice as identification and the timers were rolling digits like my twentieth-century-automobile odometer. I understand the transporter was invented so the show producers wouldn't have to spend the time and effort to do ship landings with people disembarking and boarding.

     I loved the show then and I love it today.

     As I see the flaws and foibles, the incomplete portrayals of settings and cultures, I choose to embrace Star Trek as a television show painting with a broad brush. It's fun to watch with personal tension and intriguing settings and technology. "Warp five" and "beam me up" and "phasers on stun" have become part of our culture.

     There are sequels and spin-offs. I explain it, "The Next Generation kept the ship, Deep Space Nine kept Star Fleet, and Baywatch kept the outfits." I have come to appreciate and to admire The Next Generation (TNG) after dragging myself through the first two seasons. I feel the second, fourth, and sixth movies do a wonderful job of keeping Star Trek alive while I found all the subsequent movies, TNG and "reboot," disappointing.

     Star Trek Continues was an effort to recreate the original television show without adding anything, not a sequel, not a full-length motion picture, just more episodes of the show. I feel they did a wonderful job. My only complaint, which I make vigorously, is they only made eleven new episodes when I was hoping for at least another eighty to match the original. Star Trek Continues kept the spirit of the show, including its flaws and foibles, not a sequel, not a spinoff, but more of the original.

     There is a so-called "remastering" of the original show. I keep copies of both original and remastered Star Trek. I find the remastered visual effects more satisfying, no insult to the original versions where they did so well with what they had in 1966. In my opinion after watching them once, whoever remastered it took nothing from the original spirit and spunk of the show. What looked good on a twenty-one-inch black-and-white television set, and maybe on a nineteen-inch color set a decade later, isn't as good as today's computer-generating images (CGI) on a larger screen with higher resolution. (They took away Sulu's rolling-odometer chronometer and replaced it with digital digits, probably the right thing to do, but, alas, I felt a certain sadness seeing that change.)

     I resist appending "the Original Series" (TOS) to the name of the show. There are sequels and spin-offs with their own names. (As another example, I have a pair of 1957-vintage Quad ElectroStatic Loudspeakers (ESLs) in my living room. There was a newer Quad loudspeaker called ESL-63 for 1963, the year it was supposed to come on the market. I don't call mine ESL-57 like some do, just ESL. The first Star-Wars movie was Star Wars which was later subtitled "A New Hope," but I still call it Star Wars just like it was in the theater in 1977. Similarly, I prefer to call the original show Star Trek just as it appeared in the newspaper TV page in 1966.)

     My favorite episodes are "City on the Edge of Forever," "Amok Time," and "The Trouble with Tribbles," in that order and my least-favorite episodes are "The Lights of Zatar" and "The Omega Glory." While those choices are obvious to me, other Trekkies make quite-different choices of their favorites, which speaks for the richness and depth of the show.

     In summary, the show was what it was, it is what it is, and I don't want to change it. The remaster was totally respectful of whatever it was and is, but I resist any attempt to change anything else. The James Blish books and Star Trek Continues both respected Star Trek for what it was and is. I'm proud to be a Trekkie for fifty-five years.

A Brief History

     This is my super-brief history, not much on details, but my general idea of what started and ended Star Trek and what would create a spirit strong fifty-five years later.

     In 1966 Gene Roddenberry and some friends had a vision. They made a pilot "The Cage" which didn't get far. I'm told CBS said they already had a space-science-fiction show with Lost in Space. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez took an interest in the show, they formed DesiLu, and a there was a second pilot "Where No Man Has Gone Before" which was accepted and the show became a reality.

     Not to waste the effort making the first pilot, "The Menagerie" was a two-part Star Trek story where the Star Trek characters spend half their time watching Star Trek. I love how they made the same ending so different in "The Cage" and "The Menagerie."

     So what ended the "five-year mission" after only three seasons? In those days television shows were broadcast once and that's it. If the show was Thursday from 8:00 to 9:00 pm then one had to be in front of a TV Thursday evening to watch it. I understand the show was set for Monday 7:00 to 8:00 pm, the prime time of prime time when, at the last minute, Rowan and Martin's Laugh In got Monday evening 7:30 to 8:30 pm and nothing was available except for Friday night 10:00 to 11:00 pm.

     Who watched Star Trek? Teenage males were the primary age group for Star Trek and how many young men are going to be home and awake Friday night at ten o'clock? Not many, sad to say, and the writers and producers creating and funding the show got the message. What was left was a lesser third season that didn't have enough viewers or momentum for a fourth season and the show went off the air only to continue in reruns. Worse yet, the fifty-two-minute episodes were cut to fit in shorter time slots with more commercial advertisements. (Shows these days are only forty-two minutes meaning one-fifth of what we saw in the original broadcasts didn't appear in the rerun-syndication episodes.)

     There were full-length movies several sequel television shows, a terrific spoof, so-called "reboot" movies, and a recent, online version where the original show continues,

     I have a personal connection with the show. My mother grew up in Montréal and went to high school with Bill Shatner. After she graduated from McGill University and moved to the United States for her graduate studies, my grandmother remained friends with Ann Shatner who was appropriately proud of her TV-star son. (Alas, when I met William Shatner at a meet-and-greet he remembered neither my mother nor my grandmother.)

     In 1977 a blockbuster movie Star Wars appeared with long lines for a month. (I waited for the lines to go away and then went to see the movie, which was terrific. The only movie I waited in line to see when it first came out was "2001: A Space Odyssey.") Star Wars became a huge phenomenon threatening to obliterate all other space movies and television shows, but Star Trek and Star Wars have managed delightfully to coexist as part of our entertainment culture. I see them as complementary rather than competing with each other.

     Star Trek was what it was and is what it is. It shares the cultural stage with Star Wars and 2001 and the Alien movies just fine.


The Movies 1979-1991

     After a decade, Hollywood came out with a full-length motion picture called Star Trek The Motion Picture. It was bigger with a bigger plot and bigger graphics. The six movies continued and refined the Star Trek story.

     With the same Federation characters we are introduced to an Earth-centric Star Fleet with the Golden Gate Bridge as backdrop. (Do we really expect that beautiful bridge to survive two or three centuries of San Andreas earthquakes?) We learn that James Tiberius Kirk is from Iowa.

     We are introduced to some of the Klingon lore including their language and, somehow, their cloaking device that we thought was only Romulan. The seeds of Federation-Klingon cooperation are clearly sown.

     Two of the four movies are about a large, scary alien force coming directly to Earth to destroy it. Kirk has an apartment in San Francisco. There is a shift from Earth history to Earth-centric plots.

     My own judgment is that the even-numbered movies are all better than the odd-numbered movies. I found "The Wrath of Khan" my favorite, maybe the best Star Trek ever and the first movie lacked the spirit and life found in the television show or the other five movies.

     There are some minor plot inconsistencies in the movies just as there were in the television show. Just as with the television show the inconsistencies don't spoil the fun of watching the movies.


The Next Generation 1987-1994

     There appeared a new show, The Next Generation. The first few episodes I saw were disappointing. I found myself resenting the "Star Trek" prefix on the show's title. There was an episode where the whole story was an amorphous creature captured and killed a crew member and her memorial service. The original show would have had an space battle, a clash of personalities, and some kind of system malfunction. Another episode had a planet wiped out by a crystaline entity that was familiar and yet had almost never been seen before. The android Data's attempts to be human seemed a poor re-creation of the original Spock. A truly lovely episode "The Inner Light" was terrific television, but had virtually nothing Star Trek in it.

     One younger friend said the new show was terrific and he preferred it to the original. The Latin "Non gustibus non est disputandum" means "There is no disputing taste," but my what I saw was clearly inferior to the real Star Trek. Then a friend closer to my own age said, "Adam, the show is really good, but you have to endure the first two mediocre seasons to get to the five really good ones." He didn't try to say it was better, I don't think he thought it was better, but he said it was definitely worth the investment in watching it. So I watched all seven seasons.

     The first two seasons were frustratingly awful. Human hostages are taken by grabbing them in a transporter beam, Data's attempts at humanity are annoying and embarrassing to watch, the holodeck and its failures are major plot elements, a mind-reading counselor makes negotiation episodes boring, and their concept of the Prime Directive was completely mixed up. The show is introduced with the tedious, annoying character Q who starts the first episode with a trial of humanity in the show when we have yet to get any idea of who that humanity might be. I also found Counselor Deanna Troi's mother Lwaxana is also especially annoying. There are several examples of annoyingly-bad perspective.

     In its third season The Next Generation unfolds. Data is no longer a Spock substitute but has his own mind and voice and the other characters grow and develop well. The Klingon officer Worf is a wonderful character on the show. Captain Jean Luc Picard is himself a fascinating character with extraordinary insight and judgment. One example has Picard confining a rogue Federation officer for attacking the Cardassians. Picard knows the officer's suspicions are correct and warns the Cardassian ambassador that he knows they're correct as the two part ways.

     Appropriate for a sequel, things left to the viewer's imagination in the original show are developed more fully. Through Worf we see our now-allied Klingons in far more detail with their warrior heritage contributing to their strong character. Towards the end of the seven-season run it becomes clear that the Romulans will become friends as well.

     There are lovely, sweet emotional touches throughout the series. The Ten-Forward bartender Guinan played by Whoopi Goldberg is an intriguing and sensitive character.

     While the crew is much more galactically-cosmopolitan with all kinds of humanoids in the crew, the Earth-centric attitude of the Star-Trek movies expands. Picard is from France and Riker is from Alaska, not just by heritage but by actual, physical upbringing. When the Borg attack the Federation with overwhelmingly-superior force, they head straight past Mars and the Moon for the blue planet I call my home.

     I'm disappointed by Picard's lack of warrior ability. He seems unable to defeat anything more than an unarmed freighter. The one time Picard's Enterprise is nose to nose with a Romulan warship the Romulans retreat because a large Klingon Bird of Prey decloaks behind the Enterprise, a mama bear appearing over the hill to defend her puny cub. The only major victory is over the Borg by infecting their collective mindset with a dose of individuality. The Enterprise is nearly conquered by dirt from a planet and Welsey's high-school science experiment.

     The fragility of the Enterprise also frustrates me. It seems most episodes have imminent warp-core breach, failure of life support, communications failure, and inability of the computer to do anything about it.

     At the end of three seasons of Star Trek I would eagerly watch a fourth and fifth (as I watched the movies and Star Trek Continues) and at the end of seven seasons of The Next Generation I would eagerly watch an eighth and ninth.

     The Next-Generation movies seem to have everything blowing up with the main characters facing one outrageously-narrow escape after another until Data blows himself up to save the universe at the end of the last movie Nemesis, kind of like Spock's death in The Wrath of Khan.

     Without claiming any superiority of Star Trek or The Next Generation I'll suggest that those who enjoyed the former should plow through the first two seasons of the latter to enjoy five seasons of a worthy sequel to the original television show.


GalaxyQuest 1999

     Just before the turn of the Twenty-First century a wonderful movie came out, the Star Trek equivalent of the Star Wars spoof Spaceballs. It was called GalaxyQuest with Tim Allen as Shatner and Kirk, Alan Rickman as Nimoy and Spock, and Sigourney Weaver as Nichols and Uhura, but with different names. The actors on a long-gone television show GalaxyQuest find themselves taken by aliens called Thermians who saw the show to defend them against their own enemy Sarris. Seeing the small, toy model ship on the show, the Thermians build a full-size, full-power version of the NSEA Protector.

     Without ever mentioning Star Trek or any characters in Star Trek the movie brings much of the joy of the original show and adds its own delightful humor. Yes, I highly recommend it. There is a sequence on a planet's surface filmed at Goblin Valley State Park in Utah, an intriguing and incredibly-beautiful place.


Reboot Movies

     I have a full, longer piece on why I didn't like the so-called "reboot" movies. The short version is it seemed a desperate attempt in the Quest for More Money out of the Star Trek name.

     I was especially "bummed" at how shallow these two movies were. It seems somebody who never saw Star Trek got two or three sentences about each main character in the show and wrote a script with no real understanding. It would have been wonderful to have a real prequel about the different places and times these individuals came from and how they came together on the Enterprise. Oh, well.

     From my own web page on the reboot movies: I remember Bill Cosby, in one of his early "childhood" routines, talking about the best monster film ever. It had the mummy, Frankenstein, the wolfman, "everybody was in it." The frightened children in Cosby's monologue hid under the seats so long "our backs were covered with black Jujyfruits" (or something like that). What a wonderful way to portray the mind of a child going to scary movies in the theater! In fact, each of these monsters has his own lore and mythology separated by centuries and continents, so they would never meet each other in real life. Only the monster-fan child would think a movie with all three (and maybe a few more, like Dracula) was a good movie. As an adult movie viewer, I expect more dramatic unity from my movie experiences, some allegiance to the original mythology.


Star Trek Continues

     I don't know what possessed Vic Mignogna and his friends to recreate the original show. As I understand, these folks built their own sets, wrote their own episodes to continue the original show, and, with a wink and a nod, got Paramount to look the other way (not quite permission, but forgiveness is good enough). I'm sure I wasn't the only Trekkie to send them money.

     The episodes generally took off from the original show including a return of Apollo, Kirk's old girlfriends coming back to haunt him, and even a continuation of the parallel universe where the Federation is an evil empire.

     All the episodes are available online and they are a joy to watch. It takes a few minutes to get used to difference faces playing the same old characters with all their spunk and sizzle.

     My only lament is they stopped after just eleven episodes. After building all those sets and getting such a good cast, not to mention accumulating a community of fans, it would have been great if they had continued their continuation for another eighty episodes.


Joy 1966-2021

     Fifty-five years later Star Trek is joy to me, from re-watching the original three-season series to the movies, the first sequel, a terrific spoof, and some continuing episodes in the spirit of the original show.



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