It’s 50 years to the day that Star Trek first transported onto NBC at 8:30… In celebration of five decades of the intergalactic pop-culture giant that followed, Jokerside takes a look at that classic first year…
Star Trek: The Original Series
IT WAS THE FIRST SERIES OF STAR TREK THAT SET A CRUCIAL LINK BETWEEN THE SHOW AND TIME. Three instances to be specific, and one of those, City on the Edge of Forever, remains a science-fiction classic. Time travel would return to Trek again and again… But it was just one of the staples of the franchise that came ready-made for exploration in the 29-part season that aired between 1966 and 1967. So much of what would become synonymous with Star Trek was set in those early days, but it’s just as well time travel was present and correct. Because pinning an anniversary on Star Trek could take Spock months of slingshot calculations.
“To boldly go…”
A key date was April 1964 when creator Gene Roddenberry pitched his draft for Star Trek draft to Desilu Productions, run by Lucile Ball and producer of her shows including I love Lucy and at that time The Lucy Show. The concept developed from the adventures of Robert April Captain of the S.S. Yorktown to the first pilot The Cage, centred around Captain Christopher Pike in the form of Jeffrey Hunter. The Cage was commissioned in May 1964, filmed later that year and promptly passed on by NBC. Famously dismissed as “too cerebral” they did see a glimmer of something in the premise. And so, against all expectation they commissioned a second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, which switched control of the Enterprise to William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk. Accepted, series production commenced and Where No Man Has Gone before aired on 22 September 1966. But wait, that’s not right…
Star Trek had a tortuous genesis. The kind Khan Noonien Singh would happily defrost to detonate. In February 1966, four months before production on that second pilot started, when that script was emerging from its own difficult selection process, Desilu almost called time on the embryonic show. Used to half hour productions, they were financially overburdened by their risky new space venture and their other hour-long production, Mission Impossible. It was Head of production Herb Solow who managed to calm things down. Then, when it came to transmission, the running order threw up all sorts of issues for the show’s uncertain network. So, in the event Where No Man Has Gone Before was screened third in the running order, the premiere falling to on 8 September. To make matters slightly more confusing, Star Trek was properly first broadcast on 6 September, 1966 on Canada’s CTV network.
But then, from difficult beginnings… For all its triumph on the big screen, grossing $2.3 billion over 13 films so far, television is the real berth of the good ship Enterprise. And that’s why 8 September is the date. When Star Trek hit its home nation network and began a classic and influential year. All the more idiosyncratic that it couldn’t shake off its unusual production history.
Hitting the ground running
“Out here we’re the only policemen around”
It wasn’t simply that Where No Man Has Gone Before stepped back in the running order. Just about the first third of that first year is jumbled around thanks to the network’s desperate juggling of themes and stories. Looking at the produced episodes, many of which were spilling over schedule thanks to on-set rewrites, they felt their toes chill. There are some dynamic effects from the transmission order as it emerged that Fall. It’s strange to see Uhura’s role reduce then grow again, just as it is for old pal Gary Mitchell to pop up three episodes in, about the same time as the ship’s complement decides to change uniform for a week (a switch back to the heavy crew necks of The Cage uniforms). But it’s not insurmountable. And while that running order makes watching the first series a little more difficult than it should be, as the network’s decisions knock the balance of that first year off, it immediately highlights the rugged survivalism built into the concept. The strength of the conceit and the core characters was there almost instantly, and from its formative days Star Trek was girded for the future.
The show would burn brightly and quickly. Cancelled after a reduced third year, it would be years spent in syndication that developed its true following and proved its enduring appeal, leading to its mild television resurgence in the 1970s, shift to the big screen and proliferation in the 1980s and 1990s. Those glorious days before story arcs, where running order was irrelevant to broadcast. Star Trek took the test with its first episode and proved that optimism is everything. And so it was that when The Man Trap aired on 8 September it easily won its time slot with a 40.6 share of the audience.
What unfolded until 13 April 1967 was a quite incredible 29-part run. There’s barely a dud among the bunch, quite the opposite of the reputation that subsequent Star Trek series would earn for their weak opening years. What’s particularly astonishing is how easily Star Trek managed to reflect contemporary culture, for good and bad, establish a template for talented creators to comment on that contemporary culture and also set so many of the themes, facets and recurring elements that have remained with the show and film series for 50 years. No doubt those will be present and correct when Star Trek Discovery hits in 2017.
What better way to celebrate the show than look at those crucial ingredients.
“Aye, the haggis is in the fire for sure”
It’s quite staggering how little space travel there is in the early days of the television series. In truth, the network inadvertently reduced the Enterprise to a transport ship for a third of the series when it decided to concentrate on planet-based stories to pull an audience in. Thus, The Corbomite Manoeuvre, the third episode to be filmed, the first after the two pilots, didn’t make it to screen until the tenth week. Five episodes later The Balance of Terror would confirm what the show could do with space through Paul Schneider’s fine and influential u-boat analogy. Pushing space stories back left an odd balance at the front of the year, but most strange is the grip of horror in the cold of space that met those first few weeks.
The Man Trap is a peculiar start, centred as it is on Dr Leonard McCoy, but it’s a great conceit. A woman who appears differently to every man, revealed at the end to be a shonky so-called Space vampire. It’s a murder mystery played out aboard the Enterprise and a desolate world populated by, seemingly just two humans. In fact, there’s only one. Second episode Charlie X focussed on one mysterious human too, an impossible situation resolved only when he is snatched away from his own people, despite Kirk’s pleas.
Mystery is at the heart of it, but there’s no doubt as to the specific scenes of pure horror. Few segments of Star Trek have come close to matching the disturbing scenes of mirror-eyed Gary Mitchell lowering his own vitals to death, or the shot of his face overlaid over remote manipulation through telekinesis. Deeply disturbing. The latter two stories highlight the perils of space exploration for humans, even in a finely drilled Star Fleet of a Federation – although that United Federation of Planets wouldn’t be mentioned until the first season’s 23rd episode. Neither Charlie nor Mitchell, or indeed Elizabeth Dehner, have any choice in their fate. This most optimistic of shows was rooted in horror.
The Wild West
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, all one colour”
Horror is a prerequisite for the unknown. The Man Trap sets out the stall of frontiership well, and other episodes pick it up in different ways. In the Devil in the Dark, the Enterprise must resume and ensure mining production but ends up finding a wonderful route to a gold rush. An episode before, This Side of Paradise is no adaptation of the works of Fitzgerald not Brooke, but takes the Enterprise to the barns and agriculture of a freshly built farm community. The Return of the Archons, an interesting treatise on religion and societal control plays out on a planet with the development, architecture and fashion of 19th century America. The away crew, including Kirk, dress the part. Other episodes like Miri would show alien societies that developed in delayed parallel to Earth. In filming, Archons took advantage of the “Town of Atlanta” set built for 1933’s King Kong and developed for 1939’s civil war‑set Gone with the Wind .
Even where it’s less obvious, the idea of frontiership filters through every episode. As well it might. Roddenberry devised the Star Trek concept with many seminal works in mind, from 1956’s The Tempest adaptation Forbidden Planet to C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower. The later would become a fond description Roddenberry used for Captain Kirk, but above all it was pitched as a space western. Where No Man Has Gone Before was scripted by Samuel A. Peeples renowned for his work in the genre. Roddenberry himself had worked on western–set television shows earlier in his career and set a definite template for that famous “Wagon Train to the stars” that would stay intact for almost all Star Trek formats that followed. The obvious exception is Deep Space Nine, where the franchise commandeered and held a fort on the old frontier instead.
In all, it was very much a “man’s world”.
“But I caution you, such men dare take what they want”
The Cage broke boundaries with the Enterprise’s Number One. She was female. It was a step too far for the network, and when the show was commissioned the concept had resolved around a strong core cast of men. 2017’s Star Trek Discovery will right the balance by not only featuring a female Number One, but putting her at the centre of the show. As Discovery show runner Bryan Fuller points outs, the franchise has centred around the captain for five decades.
“Steady as she goes’”
When Majel Barrett-Roddenberry returned to the show in 1966 she’d donned a blonde wig and fallen into an all-too obvious female archetype as Nurse Christine Chapel. We meet Chapel in the fourth episode, The Naked Time, but she took centre stage in seventh episode What are Little Girls Made of? Perhaps that’s better known for the worryingly suggestive stalactite Kirk uselessly employs as a weapon half-way through, or the towering presence of Lurch as a giant android (Ted Cassidy). In fact it’s an effective if simple mystery that highlights another aspect of survival. Chapel’s fiancée had to transfer his mind into an android body to survive severe frostbite using alien technology, driving himself insane through his separation from humanity as a result. There’s a nod to slavery through Cassidy’s ancient Ruk. But the main memory is of the reduction of Chapel to nurse fiancé to the “Louis Pasteur of archaeological medicine” and the naive and highly attractive female android he’s created on the planet to assist him. As if the hint wasn’t in the title.
“If I can have honesty, it’s easier to overlook mistakes”
In episode after episode, an attractive female character pops up ready to fall under the thrall of a man. There’s McCoy’s old flame in The Man Trap, Spock’s former lover (admittedly one-sided) in This Side of Paradise and Kirk’s old flame Lt. Areel Shawin in Court Martial, shockingly, reluctantly, on the wrong side of the courtroom. There are Mudd’s Women, the flashbacks to The Cage in The Menagerie showcasing the temptation of Vina (and later two female crew members, including Number One), even as an Orion slave woman.
In Space Seed, we meet Lt. Marla McGivers, a talented and knowledgeable history expert who never has the backing of Kirk, but is soon reduced to a demonstration of Khan’s manipulative power. In A Taste of Armageddon Mea 3 greets the away team, only to become a willing damsel in distress within minutes. In the fantasy of Shore Leave, Yeoman Tonia Barrows is assaulted by Don Juan and is then happy to slip into a medieval princess dress before causing McCoy’s death when he steps in front of a knight for her.
“I never get involved with older women”
Quite unsettling is Miri, the great conceit of a world populated only by children where the onset of puberty triggers a fatal disease, but one where the logic doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny and closes with a misjudged one-liner. Worst of all is the uncomfortable role of Kirk. On the cusp of becoming “a woman” the titular Miri couldn’t help but fall for the perfect, dashing, powerful Star ship captain, as almost every character continually points out. It’s not that most episodes are sexualised; more that sex is a major part of every plot.
There are countless examples of women with little chance or desire to rise above sex object. Just as there are many stories that build tension, science fiction and high ideals only to resolve them with fisticuffs, a sound right hook or Vulcan nerve pinch, female characters and particularly female crewmembers provide a sexual dimension that can derail any mission. And more often or not they’ll find themselves in a soft-lit close-up on their first appearance.
The mould is occasionally broken of course. The Conscience of the King offers a female villain, and she’s not even been possessed. And then there’s Edith Keeler in the City on the Edge of Forever, able to attract Kirk and McCoy in mere moments (if not the guy Kirk tells to “shut up” twice), she rises above her status as a McGuffin thanks to Joan Collin’s performance and Harlan Ellison’s script.
The female role
“Nothing is more important than my ship’”
And will someone think of poor old Yeoman Rand. Grace Lee Whitney’s services were dispensed with just before the 13th episode, no doubt leaving the medieval dress for Yeoman Barrows. It’s little surprise the Yeoman status would flitter away for The Next Generation. When Kirk’s guard slips early in the season, more often than may be expected thanks to alien molecules and transporter mishaps, the only thing he bemoans more than betrothal to his ship is the fact he’s been assigned that particular blonde Yeoman. Rand’s function seldom rises above offering Kirk coffee, delivering food to the captain as per McCoy’s orders and becoming an object of desire for Charlie X.
Special mention must also go to Lt Angela Martine, a victim of Romulans, scheduling and the reset button that Star Trek became famous for – where seismic events seem happily forgotten from week to week. Just an episode after the network bumped back Balance of Terror to have her fiancé killed before Kirk could complete officiation of their marriage, Shore Leave had her on a surreal amusement park and very nearly in the arms of another crewmember just a week later.
If the Enterprise encountered the Bechdel test floating in test in an un-broadcast scene, she blasted it to debris.
The big ideas
“’Fascinating’ is a word I use for the unexpected”
Big science-fiction concepts pack the first season of Star Trek. It kicks off with the protean of The Man Trap before ESP and telekinesis of Where No Man Goes Before. There’s the viral infection of The Naked Time, an episode so ‘good’, so ‘much fun’, it became The Next Generation’s first remake early in its first year. And the five year mission doesn’t stop there.
“You are still half savage, but there is hope”
More advanced, or specifically more evolved, alien civilisations pop up with their own methods of protecting the ‘lower species’ at the close of Charlie X – by cruelly correcting their own mistake – and then again in Errands of Mercy. In mid-season, Arena has a species take a far more proactive route by making Kirk and rival Gorn captain fight to the death on a planet that has all the resources either needs to succeed. Of course, the Metrons who banished the leaders together there are surprised by when Kirk shows mercy, although that comes after much violence. The planet’s gift, as Kirk works out to Spock’s approval, is gunpowder. The sulphur gleams on the rock, not coincidentally the same colour as Kirk’s command shirt. The Federation incursion on Cestus II that prompts the initial Gorn attack, an unwitting incursion by the Federation, is a precursor to the expansionism of Deep Space Nine. On the other side, The Next Generation’s Darmok is an alternative retelling of that 1960s pop-culture classic. In that story, the captain of an incomprehensible species whose metaphorical language can’t be translated strands himself with Jean-Luc Picard to find a shared language through adversity. This time, fighting an invisible foe together rather than each other. It was the 24th century after all.
“Even the Gods did not spring into being overnight”
The Squire of Gothos introduces another omniscient species, mainly in the form of eccentric and extravagant brat Trelane. Of course, it didn’t take much for fans to draw the compelling link between his antics and those of one of The Next Generation’s greatest creations, Q. The Squire of Gothos sits next to Arena in the show’s running order, one of a few examples where paired episodes explore different facets of a similar theme. In their case, it’s the concept of the predator and how far that atavistic impulse lies below the skin of humanity.
The fantasy of Gothos is supported by the make-believe world of Shore Leave, featuring the franchise’s first Caretaker. Such stories would lay the groundwork for the famous ‘holodeck gone wrong’ tales of subsequent series. And what a disparaging phrase that become…
Setting the Rules
“You have a tendency to express ideas in military terms”
The Return of the Archons is built around the concept of the Prime Directive, a logical rule that the show would later inadvertently break as much as it seized on it for moral quandaries. Later in the series, A Taste of Armageddon seems to totally disregard it. That story is one of the all-time most famous, as Kirk and company fall foul of a war run by computer. The analogy with World War II is clear, but sat against a misguided civilisation convinced that they are inherently barbaric, it’s a fine spin on the science-fiction trope of a massively prolonged war. The following episode This Side of Paradise introduced threatening plant life, but makes a great companion piece to Armageddon among the Triffids. While that first episode had a civilisation stagnant and self protective and unaware of the endless horror they’ve trapped themselves in, Paradise has a frontier community breaking a spell to realise the true horror of the lack of progress their ‘idyllic’ life gave them. Both episodes sit close to Errands of Mercy where Kirk is almost, and amiably, tricked into betraying his bloodlust disguised as free will by the Organians who won’t tolerate violence at any level.
“Sadness. Sadness for the end of things”
Those higher life forms pop up an inordinate amount, making the rabble of Klingons, humans and Romulans appear the galactic children they are. Fortunately though, this shows mainly about them and not the dull and highly evolved. And there’s time for wholly different species as well. After all, this is a mission all about seeking out new life-forms. In the first story, there’s a lament for the salt vampire who’s the last of kind but ultimately must be killed. The same is almost true of the Horta in The Devil in the Dark, a misunderstanding that results in murder and conflict until fine and logical use of skill and experience from Kirk, Spock and Bones “I’m a doctor not a bricklayer” McCoy finds a peaceful solution for both species and a prosperous one for humanity. That’s a renowned classic, featuring the show’s first non-bipedal, non-carbon based alien.
The dark universe
The first time Shatner fights himself…
We wouldn’t enter the Star Trek Mirror universe until the second season, but we do encounter the first teleporter malfunction in Richard Matheson’s The Enemy Within. Affecting Kirk, he wouldn’t gain a carbon copy, find himself in a nether reality or fuse with another crewmember, but he is split in two, the aggressive and the indecisive. It’s a plot that couldn’t work in the technology of The Next Generation but yes, it’s the first time Shatner fights himself.
“Bones, if I had time I’d… Laugh”
There are mad scientists, from Dr Roger Korby in What are Little Girls made of to psychiatrist Tristan Adams in Daggers of the Mind, in the wonderfully named colony for the criminally insane, Tantalus V. In both cases we’re left in little doubt that these are brilliant, well regarded minds that have succumbed to the barren, terrible desolation of space. Near the close of the season we receive a lesson on matter and anti-matter courtesy of the two sparring versions of fine beard purveyor Lazarus and an utterly incomprehensible plot. Even without the uninvited attention of a different reality, it’s clear that it’s dark and dangerous out there, although the fact that man shouldn’t be attempting any such expansion is barely conceivable in a universe of supreme optimism. In the series and finale, that sense of the vast and dangerous universe comes to a head thanks to the vampiric flying pancakes that have spread civilisation-destroying madness from system to system. Operation Annihilate! has many moments of supreme despair, but the end cure is pure and simply light. An idea that comes from Kirk, the man who by that point had lost the most.
The time for time
“Insufficient facts always invites danger Captain”
We encounter time travellers in the form of wannabe despot Khan Noonien Singh, revived from stasis, in a new century and we’d hear from him again thanks to Kirk’s all too balanced and kind solution to his genetically-enhanced coup.
Then of course, there’s the time travel in store for the crew itself. This is Star Trek, so how could it not be there, stitched into the fabric of space-time? Interestingly, it pops ups first at the conclusion of The Naked Time, a story mainly concerned with viral infection. As a result of afflicted crew member’s actions, each dominated by a previously repressed character trait, the ship’s orbit decays into a planet’s erratic gravity well (a time factor trick near repeated in the head-scratching The Alternative Factor). Saved by a dangerous mix of matter and antimatter the ship is thrown back 71 hours. As Spock remarks, they now have a functional way to time travel. Despite Kirk’s reluctance to repeat the process, or indeed the previous three days, it wouldn’t be long before the crew would be time travelling through other means.
The slingshot effect that would throw the older crew back to Earth in 1986 during Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (and once more in The Original Series), originated in the 19th episode Tomorrow is Yesterday. Mainly played for laughs, it was originally developed as the natural second part to the time displacement at the conclusion of The Naked Time. Mainly a comedy of errors, Tomorrow is a budget-friendly episode and would have a firm influence on the show in spite of the way it glosses over the real ramifications of altering the past and rectifies anachronisms with broad strokes. The same wouldn’t be true the next time Kirk and Spock travel back in time.
“Jim, Edith Keeler must die”
Transported by The Guardian of Forever to the New York of 1930, Kirk, Spock and McCoy discover the hard way that everything boils down to one fateful death. It’s difficult to praise Harlan Elison’s classic script enough. Everything rises to the challenge after the enjoyably hokey start when McCoy’s accidentally overdoses himself on the Bridge. Many musical refrains were reused throughout the series, but even the notes stepped up for The City on the Edge of Forever. While it did recycle a fair amount of music, Fred Steiner added a partial score, supplemented by contemporary Ray Noble standard Goodnight Sweetheart that lifts the drama a touch further.
The writerly edge
The common link to the success of prime science-fiction ideas? Letting established science-fiction writers run riot with the prime-time format. Elison, Jerry Sohl, Fredrick Brown, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson. Supplemented by renowned authors and screenwriters, the roster of science-fiction writing talent the show reeled in during its first year was astounding.
Add into that the sterling work of DC Fontana, formerly Samuel A. Peeples and Roddenberry’s secretary, and show runner Gene Coon and you have a highly talented, flexible writing team. Rewriting and enhancing many scripts in the occasionally shambolic production regime, before he left during the show’s second year, Coon brought Klingons, Khan, the Prime Directive, the United Federation of Planets and Starfleet Command into the Star Trek myth among many other things. Star Trek simply wouldn’t have been the same without him.
The expanse of space
“This is war, a game we Klingons play to win”
Ah yes, the Klingons, who just creep into the first year thanks to the rather strange Errands of Mercy that isn’t really about them at all. Trapped on an alien planet, it wouldn’t be the first or last time Kirk, Spock or other Star trek characters went undercover. This time, the deception doesn’t last long as a wonderfully frustrated Kirk comes face to face with Kor. Klingons would quickly enter public consciousness and become the preeminent enemies of the franchise before becoming, as the Organians predict, humanity’s friends. They’re not quite fully formed on their first appearance, but there’s enough in John Colicos’ snarly performance to bridge the gap. As Kor says of the impossible to break treaty imposed by the Organians, “A shame Captain, it would have been glorious!” Famously devised as a thinly veiled mirror of communism, this “military dictatorship” would become one of Trek’s great metaphors.
“Well there it is, war. We didn’t want it, but we’ve got it”
And then, held back too long, is the glorious Balance of Terror. The history behind the Romulan Empire and Federation, the intrigue, rather unexplored, of the shared ancestry between Romulans and Vulcans… it all adds great depth. But intriguingly bookmarked by the doomed couple aboard the Enterprise, it’s really a study of commanders. The downscaling of weaponry to nuclear weapons, the secret surveillance, the picking off of outposts and messages to Starfleet Command that take hours to get through, all make for an intoxicatingly claustrophobic tale. As the lead antagonist, Mark Lenard relishes his role. It highlights that the franchise has been inexplicably starved of Romulans for years on end during its 50 years. The Romulans. The first great recurring enemy race. Aside from that crucial final address between the rival captains, the debt Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan owes Balance of Terror is immense. And that Neutral Zone stand-off follows closely behind The Corbomite Manoeuvre, a grand intergalactic game of poker that’s famous for its twist ending as much as the show’s first proper ‘grey’ alien. The show’s first proper space adventure not only features Kirk and Bones having a drink in their metal home in the cold desolation of space, but the first use of the view screen and opening of hailing frequencies.
The Drama of the Three
‘You reasoned logic can be most… annoying’.”
It would be hard pick out the almost wordless, and almost perfect, conclusion of The City on the Edge of Forever as the pinnacle of the central trio’s dynamic. It’s hardly as though Kirk, Spock and Bones emerged fully formed after the rejection of The Cage. It’s astonishing to see how often Kirk snaps at McCoy when he plays up, how often Spock is ridiculed, undermined and abused by officers mainly for being alien. He is certainly the only alien aboard, but he’s also second in command. Things shift with the interesting sixteenth episode Galileo Seven. A classic story of a shuttle craft marooned, crashed, alone and under attack Spock learns as much about his application of logic as the others, including McCoy, learn about him.
If there’s one structural weakness in this first year’s selection of stories, it’s that the show dips into the courtroom on two distinct occasions. The events of Court Martial, co-scripted by Trial author Don Mankiewicz, do much to flesh out Kirk, a character who describes himself as “grim” in his youth. But, the episode resorts to an Agatha Christie-style tale of revenge and fisticuffs after we’ve seen the pressure of decisions on Kirk and the great captain shunned by his academy friends. Kirk barely lets us forget about the pressures of command. Well, apart from the roughly half-series worth of episodes that end with him winding up Spock in public.
‘Please stay out of trouble Mr Spock”
Kirk’s time in the dock comes eight episodes after The Menagerie. Again, predominantly set around a court martial, this time the intelligent recycling of the footage from the rejected pilot The Cage inspires a story that puts Spock at the forefront. It’s also the first in the fine tradition of Star Trek two-parters. And anything that can lay claim to willing The Best of Both Worlds into being deserves praise. Spock’s logic is a rich vein running through the show, whether for exposition (Tomorrow is Yesterday), setting up than episode’s closing joke (Shore Leave) or carrying the weight of the drama (The Galileo Seven). Referred to as “Vulcanian” for much of the series run, there’s little chance to explore his culture or the crux of his human/Vulcan lineage throughout the first year. However, his nerve pinch comes in handy on multiple occasions and two episodes make use of rather full-on mind melds. It’s hard to forget Spock’s emotional meld on the Bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. A farewell to the mystic process, Nimoy’s acting was undiminished from the power he puts into the melds in Dagger of the Mind and The Devil in the Dark 25 years before.
The best metaphors
McCoy doesn’t receive quite the same treatment as his officer peers, despite taking centre-stage in the first transmitted episode. But the dynamic conjured between the three, sometimes in jest, sometimes to Kirk’s irritation and then just sometimes at moments of extreme moral debate, barely fails to spark an episode. It’s no mean trick, and a considerable factor in the show’s success. There’s a great anchor for them in the military drill of the Enterprise. Unlike the vast majority of women in the show, men are defined by their work – and that plays to the central trio’s chemistry. And despite initial appearances there’s much shared between the three. While Kirk may bemoan McCoy’s love of a metaphor, he’s prone to using them himself.
“A good gamble”
Much is also down to the three actors involved. Leonard Nimoy’s brilliance as Spock has been reaffirmed by countless series (Voyager, Enterprise) that show just how dull Vulcans can be. McCoy, irascible, but able to leave a grudge as much he feels free to rail against authority when it impinges his Hippocratic Oath, is grounded in his easy-going southern character.
And then there’s Kirk. William Shatner was guaranteed a place in history the minute he donned that mustard shirt. Kirk could boil down to polemics and fists in the midst of the science-fiction plots spinning around him, but Shatner rises to the game. Great help comes from the show’s resolutely literary aspiration. One of the best framing devices a script writer, or audience, could hope for, there’s a reason Kirk’s often remembered as opening a sentence with “Captain’s log…”
It’s wonderfully theatrical. It takes us into Kirk’s mind, for instance during the course of The Menagerie: “In all the years of my service this is the most painful moment I have ever faced”. Echoes in his speech at Spock’s funeral during Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan aren’t coincidental. In Arena, Kirk reads his log over footage, allowing a dramatic shortcut, but clearly a solely narrative tool employed by the combined talent of authors Fredric Brown and Gene Coon and director Joseph Pevney. Often Kirk’s log sets up the mystery, defines or rebrands it at key points or after the title break. And then on several occasions, in The Enemy Within and first broadcast story The Man Trap, Kirk’s log is recorded in past tense. Purely for us. This is the author’s voice and another way the show rises above its core premise. And Star Trek is never more comfortable in its bravado than when it embraces its theatrics, from the highfalutin The Naked Time to the play within the show of The Conscience of the King.
The ongoing mission
“Nothing ever changes, except man”
Star Trek would continue for another two years before cancellation proved to be a mere snag on the way to pop-culture domination. Series would spill out to the following century, to the Gamma Quadrant and Delta Quadrant. Kirk and his crew would enjoy a brief 2-dimensional reprieve before settling onto the big screen with comfort and crafting three classics, if not one of the most influential films of the 1980s. Despite countless ideas, formats and non-Trek television series that sprung up during his life and after his death, Star Trek remains Gene Roddenberry’s definitive legacy. And what a legacy it is. It’s not hard to see why the recent cinematic reboot has struggled to grow grassroots appeal in comparison to instant ease of Nimoy, Kelley and Shatner. But Star Trek Beyond, the anniversary year film, was a fine addition to the canon even if it’s taken things into a different timeline. Beyond dug into the legacy of the show, the wealth of storytelling and myth while pushing the core dynamics to the fore and most of all being very entertaining. For the first time, it showed us Kirk and co on their famous Five Year mission, confronting the darkness of the galaxy and the Frontier that pushes back.
Even if that issue about being “too cerebral” is as much a topic of debate for Star Trek today as it was in the mid-1960s.
And as the show celebrates its golden anniversary, one of its most important moments in its history is closing in. Over a decade after it burned from the screen after 18 consecutive years on primetime television, having amassed over 700 episodes since the 1960s, Star Trek returns in 2017. In the capable hands of Bryan Fuller. A decade before Kirk’s first five year mission, Fuller not only has the master of Trek films Nicholas Meyer with him, as well as Roddenberry’s son Rod. Star Trek: Discovery is near. And with the hint that it’ll run in the wake of “touchstone” Balance of Terror things are looking very good indeed.
The best of times, the worst of times…
“In the long history of medicine, no Doctor has ever caught the first few minutes of a play”
I’ll just conclude with that most horrid of things, the best and the worse of an incredible season of genre-changing, legendary space western.
I hate to be mean to Lazarus, trapped as he is in an endless fight with himself in negative space, but The Alternative Factor is a scrappy, horribly realised and nonsensical mess. It’s made even worse that it sits in-between Errands of Mercy and The City on the Edge of Forever at the close of the year. Funny how that so often happens.
Often, Star Trek is purposely and successfully amusing. The reprogrammed computer calling Kirk “Dear” in Tomorrow is Yesterday is hard not to laugh at. That comedy’s crucial and highlights how strong the format is at tackling serious subjects in surprisingly effective ways. Even pointedly comical episodes like Mudd’s Women (I’ve never met a paragon!”), have a serious side. And outstanding in its quiet brilliance is the 13th episode, The Conscience of the King. A quiet murder mystery and exploration of revenge, justice and war criminals. It holds the literary pretentions of the show up for all to see, showing a world where for all the space expansion, humanity still is served by travelling troupes of actors. Most of all, from the opening pre-title enactment of Macbeth and the murmured accusation to Kirk in the audience, the acting and pacing are superb. Running parallel with the Shakespearean productions on stage it’s too lofty to say the story can match them… But this is Star Trek and it will never be afraid to try.
How does every article like this end?
Ah yes. Live long and prosper. Play on…