Tuesday, May 05, 2009

To Boldly Go, Part II : The Original Series

I've been working on these posts for a few weeks and just today decided to scarp what I had been doing to start over. I was trying to put together something that was somehow accessible to non-fans, but it just proved to be too much of a challenge. Not a challenge as in I couldn't do it, but a challenge as in it's a lot of work to discuss Star Trek strictly in terms of generalities. But there's little else I blog about here at such a general level, so why should Star Trek be any different. I don't explain what a touchdown or even a spread offense is when I write about the Patriots, so why should Star Trek be any different. This is for the fans or at least those familiar with the show.

My own exposure to original Star Trek began at the age of 9 or 10. I was Next Generation fan first and foremost and only saw the original when the local channel that aired The Next Generation reruns every night switched to the original series for a brief run. And I loved it. Even as a young kid, there was something vibrant about the original Star Trek that was missing in the more sterile Next Generation. The characters were more lively, the plots more colorful, and the writing more tongue-in-cheek. In a way, the original Trek succeeded for the same reason the original Star Wars films were so much better than the newer prequels: the actors dove whole-heatedly into their parts without ever taking themselves too seriously. Yes, original Trek dealt with some serious issues, but it was this sense of fun that helped maintain the shows watchability through numerous writing missteps (such as visiting the Nazi planet (Patterns of Force) and the female aliens who steal Spock's Brain (Spock's Brain), among others).

Truth be told, there were no great actors among the original Star Trek cast (apologies to William Shatner), but what the original series did have was a group that knew how to throw subtlety to the wind and hit all the right notes, so to speak. Enjoyment can still be found in the original Star Trek when it's taken for what it is- a slightly campy 60's television show. Of course the special fx are ancient, the fight scenes are poorly choreographed and there are a few too many hippies, but the lousy episodes are still fun in a kitschy sort of way and the good episodes are still really damn good. The Trouble With Tribbles is still funny after 40 years and the City on the Edge of Forever is still a classic piece of science fiction. And the themes of power, racism, tolerance, and friendship are as meaningful today as they ever were. It's sort of funny that on one hand, the original Star Trek was very much a product of it's time and subject to the limitations thereof, while on the other hand it managed to raise the taboo issues of race, gender, and war to such a level that wouldn't have been permitted of other shows at the time.

What Was Awesome:

# The previously mentioned "City on the Edge of Forever," a piece of classic science fiction. Captain Kirk is forced to watch a woman he loves die in order to prevent history from being changed.

# The alien women, in all their seductive goodness. The costumes were always- ahem- intriguing, and Captain Kirk's charms never seemed to fail.

# The drinking. The Next Generation introduced syntehol, an alcohol replacement with none of alcohol's intoxicating effects. It proved to be such a lame idea that newer Treks all took turns poking fun. But in the original Trek, our characters drank real alcohol, most memorably when Scotty shared a bottle of Scotch with an alien captor to a hilarious and debilitating effect in "By Any Other Name."

# The unexplored galaxy. 24th century Star Trek made the galaxy feel a bit claustrophobic at times, but the galaxy of the original Star Trek came across as much more of a frontier (which isn't surprising given that the show was sold as a Western in space).

# Journey to Babel. This was the episode that introduced Spock's father Sarek and mother Amanda and provided a glimpse into the inner working of 23rd century politics. The Next Generation tried to duplicate the "transporting diplomats plot" numerous times but never got it quite right the way the original series did here.

# The black and white morality. The original Star Trek introduced the concept of the "prime directive," but never took Star Fleet's most important rule to the ridiculous extremes it would be taken in the 24th century. Captain Kirk had no problem interfering in societies where evil computers had already done damage (The Apple) or in societies where stupidity was killing millions of innocents (A Taste of Armageddon). Captain Kirk didn't follow rules, he just did the right thing.

# Harry Mudd. The rogue embodied much of the charm of the original Star Trek. Captain Kirk would toy with the con man extraordinaire, but you got the feeling Captain Picard would never be bothered with a man like Harry Mudd.

# The Mirror Universe, which was just so incredibly bad ass. Bearded Spock is all-time classic tv.

# "The Doomsday Machine," which despite the outdated fx is still compelling television, if only for Commodore Decker's descent into madness and insistence on taking the Enterprise with him.

# "A Piece of the Action," if only for Captain Kirk's wonderfully lousy job at playing the role of a Al Capone era gangster. That and fizzbin.

# The classic "fight scene" music, most notably used in "The Gamesters of Triskelien," an episode which has been parodied countless times, most notably by Family Guy and the Simpsons.

# "The Cage" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the two original Star Trek pilots. Either of these could sell a show today, as opposed to any of the newer pilots, which I doubt could sell a show without having the Star Trek name attached to them. It's hard to do sci fi to begin with and it's even harder to do sci fi that promises to be different and more thought provoking than anything that's come before it.

What Was Not So Awesome:

# Any of the number of earth spin-off planets: The Roman planet. The Nazi planet. The identical earth from "Miri." And I know it wasn't a real planet, the Western planet was particularly terrible.

# No first name for Lt. Uhura. I mean come on, how does a main character not get a first name in three years?

# One too many Gods. The original series was a bit over-the-top in the number of all-powerful beings encountered by the crew. If you expand the list to include all aliens more technologically advanced than our crew you've probably got at least 10 different sorts. The episodes themselves are a mixed bag, ranging from the good (Errand of Mercy) to the terrible (Spectre of the Gun), but it makes for a rather complicated galaxy. After all, how many all-powerful beings can one galaxy have? And how many technologically advanced races can there be without it being a problem for Starfleet?

# Chekov's hair, horrible Russian accent, and the horrible jokes about Russia.

# "And The Children Shall Lead." Children summon horrible, ghost-like alien creature by holding hands and chanting in a circle, all because their parents made them go to bed early. How could this have been a bad idea?

# Ditto "Spock's Brain."

# "The Enemy Within," filmed and written before the designers had come up with a shuttlecraft. So Sulu and a few others sat freezing to death on the surface of an alien planet, all because the transporter was broken.

# The prejudice against computers. It was evidenced to great extent in the classic episode, "The Ultimate Computer," but was an ever-present factor in many of the episodes where computers controlled the people and cultures of entire worlds. This fear that computers would alternatively destroy us or enslave us has been a fairly consistent theme throughout science fiction history, but always seemed to contradict the notion of humanities positive future. A more Asimovian tone was taken with the 24th century Star Treks, but the original Trek can come across as rather Luddite.

# The swaggering, swarthy Klingons, who seemed to be stock villains more than an interesting alien race.

# "Turnabout Intruder," the last episode of the original series, where Kirk's consciousness is switched with a female Starfleet officer outraged that women in Starfleet aren't allowed to be captains. This sexist policy is seemingly explained when the emotional woman in Kirk's body, Janice Lester, acts irrationally and overly emotional. A real black mark for a show that generally transcended and crushed stereotypes.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i always wanted to beat the tar out of finnegan

10:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home