STAR TREK @ 50, WYATT WEED @ 52
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the premier of Star Trek on network TV. Although I was alive when it premiered, I don't recall the show until near the end of its final season, in early 1969, and those impressions were mainly memories of images - Mr. Spock, phaser fire, the majestic USS Enterprise herself.
It is well known that Star Trek was never a huge success during its initial run, but grew in popularity when it entered syndication. I probably didn't begin watching Star Trek in earnest until 1970, when it began airing on local television stations, usually after school.
Wrap your head around that for a moment - it was 1970, I would have been 6 years old, and in first grade. I lived in a small city in central Illinois, and was decidedly lower middle-class. My "world" was an area of about 6 square blocks of suburbia, with endless backyards and 55-gallon drum trash cans, stingray bikes with banana seats and sissy bars, rope swings in trees, and dogs named Snoopy.
Star Trek was everything that my world, pleasant as it was, was not. It was also unlike anything else on television at that time, even in reruns, which was made up of shows like Mister Ed, Gomer Pyle, Perry Mason, I love Lucy, and of course, Gilligan's Island.
Not that I didn't love me some Gilligan's Island. That show has come back to me many times over the course of my life, sometimes as comedy, sometimes as science fiction and fantasy, and then as fine television direction and cinematography.
But Star Trek...it was colorful in a way I had never seen. It was dynamic. The sounds and music were exotic. The WOMEN were exotic. I was drawn to it even before I fully understood it or myself.
To say that Star Trek expanded my idea of the world beyond my local neighborhood is an understatement. It presented new planets, new races, new religions and ideas. It threw in space ships, action, romance, and special effects that while crude today, were remarkable for their time.
The first Star Trek fan conventions began as the popularity of the show reached new audiences and grew, and then talk of a new series began. Many people don't know this but as early as the mid-70's Paramount was thinking of launching a fourth network, and proposed using new Trek episodes as the flagship series of that network. Although talk of a new network would be put aside, the release of Star Wars in 1977 convinced Paramount to invest in science fiction in a big way, so Star Trek: The Motion Picture was born. A new Paramount network was eventually launched in 1995 as UPN, using Star Trek: Voyager as their top show.
You may ask what the appeal of Star Trek is, why it has such a fervent fan base, why everyone from basement-dwelling geeks to housewives, medical doctors, and astronauts hold this series in such high regard. Star Trek means different things to different people, but I'll try to explain what it means to me.
Star Trek is, first and foremost, a show about hope. Despite the action, the occasional destruction of an enemy vessel, or Kirk punching someone, Star Trek favored peaceful, non-interference contact, the exchange of cultures, and the promotion of ideas and freedom. Man and all intelligent forms of life would progress, move forward, and live on, together, overcoming all obstacles. That Star Trek manged to do this while being an action adventure series in a time when "rural" shows and westerns ruled television is remarkable enough, but that it did this during the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the early days of the Nixon administration is doubly admirable.
The USA was struggling within, yet Star Trek offered a world aboard a starship where all races could get along, and all differences could be worked out if we all just talked it through.
Then of course there was the relationship between the three lead characters, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Papers have been written and Freudian theories have been advanced regarding their classic interplay, but calculated or not, it worked incredibly well, as well as anything on television before or since.
First you had Kirk, the commander of the Enterprise, who was passionate yet brilliant, able to take action but also capable of restraint. He had a strong libido, but was also a moral character. He could also, as I said before, throw a mean punch.
Kirk on his own was an amazing role model, a man who embodied everything that just about every man wanted to be. As I said before, he was smart, probably in many ways smarter than Spock, mainly because of the balance he could strike between logic and emotional judgment. He could at turns be sensitive, righteous, or contrite, able to flex in any situation yet maintain his moral center and keep his ego intact. He could argue the ultimate computer into a shutdown, defeat an actual Greek god, or rile up never before felt emotions in an alien being, forcing him to understand the human spirit.
Then on either side of Kirk you had Spock and McCoy, who often acted as two sides of a coin, offering up advice and opinions. Spock, the logical alien, would remind Kirk of the absolutes, the facts, the rules and realities. He would dispassionately lay it all out for his captain, but still follow the final decision with loyalty. McCoy on the other hand would bellow from the rooftop, fighting from his emotional heart, putting feeling and personal judgment over law. Despite his friendship with Kirk, he would often challenge him, testing the limits of their friendship.
Then there were the stories themselves, amazing science fiction concepts that stretched the limits of television and young minds everywhere: A doomsday machine that travels the galaxy on its own, long after the war it fought had ended. A creature that lives deep underground, tunneling through solid rock like you and I move through air. Jack The Ripper revealed to be an alien entity that lives on fear and has traveled the galaxy for centuries, moving along with mankind as he ventured out into space. A group of supermen in suspended animation, escaped criminals from a war on Earth. A single-celled organism 11,000 miles long.
And don't forget the morality plays that brought to light ideas that couldn't be discussed plainly in the media of the day: Two men fighting over race, both half-black and half-white, yet on opposite sides of their bodies. A woman trapped in a man's body. Love between a human and an alien. The Federation contributing - or not contributing - to a war fought between other races and planets. Supplying weapons to maintain a balance of power. The over-use and abuse of natural resources. An interracial kiss.
Star Trek was also impeccably well-written and produced, with some of the best science fiction writers of the day contributing scripts, including Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, and Jerome Bixby just to name a few. It also had some of the best directors working in Hollywood, many of them veterans of studio films and classic westerns, including Marc Daniels, Vincent McEveety, Joseph Pevney, Joseph Sargent, and James Goldstone.
Then there was the science itself, as represented by the props and ideas proposed: The transporter, capable of de-materializing and reducing a human to a pattern that could be reassembled thousands of miles away. The shuttlecraft, a small, reusable space shuttle capable of entering a planet's atmosphere and returning to the Enterprise. Phasers, hand-held weapons capable of stunning or killing. Motion-activated doors. Communicators, personal devices capable of broadcasting ship-to-planet or person-to-person over great distances. Tricorders, small, hand-held computers. Flatscreens. Voice-activated systems. I needn't tell you how influential all of these things have been on actual science and society, with many of theses devices in existence in some form or another today.
And then there's just the simple fact that Star Trek was damned exciting and entertaining to watch. It was fast-paced, well-staged and shot, action-packed, sexy, and was filled with riveting performances, dramatic music, and inventive costumes and set design. It was a miracle of low-budget TV filmmaking, and should be studied by anyone who claims to be a filmmaker.
Is it the best TV show ever? Well, it's certainly one of the best, and absolutely one of the best genre shows, but I think part of its longevity is the fact that nothing else has supplanted it. Many shows have come close - Next Generation, Game Of Thrones, and The Walking Dead, to be sure, but none of these shows has made us forget Star Trek. She's aged, isn't quite as cutting edge as she used to be, and some of the moments now seem downright melodramatic, but the show still resonates, still sticks with us, still matters.
There will always be fanatics, people who haven't been as comfortable with the real world as they are with a make-believe world, and that has hurt Star Trek's reputation in some ways. But if you like classic films yet have never watched Star Trek, give it a try. You might find a sturdy, traditional feel and charm to this AARP-qualified show. And you might just become a believer.