Trekking Back

From the contents of my blog, one might think I’ve spent my entire summer either journeying, working, or cooking. And while I’ve happily done a lot of that, downtime appears often enough, and I’ve had passive activities I’ve wanted to tackle there as well.

CBS has been kind enough to upload all of Star Trek: The Original Series to their video site, and since spring break, I’ve watched an entire season (and some) of classic Trek and been amazed that people ever watched this show. Warning: the rest of my post is all about flaws in Star Trek. I highly recommend that you stop if you don’t care.

I can’t vouch for why, but the style of classic Trek varies significantly from my conception of Star Trek. Having watched Patrick Stewart and Armin Shimerman deliver meaningful, authentic performances in (usually) equally meaningful episodes, I was somewhat surprised by the artificiality of classic Trek. Barring the less advanced special effects and the premise that little green men travel in intergalactic spaceships that are frisbees glued onto engines, classic Trek lacks the compelling, convincing aspects from dramatic presentation. Before commercial breaks, William Shatner flatly delivers a stilted summary of the plot in a desperate attempt to make often simple situations seem more suspenseful.

These situations usually are a consequence of Captain Kirk’s tactless approach to interspecies diplomacy. In “The Squire of Gothos,” a god-like–yet childish–being takes hold of the Enterprise and forces several crew members to join him in a recreated castle. Instead of acquiescing to humor Trelane, Kirk decides that he’ll keep his pride at the risk of having his entire crew destroyed.

But it’s not entirely his fault because apparently only the most oblivious beings are allowed to be in the Enterprise crew. In “Shore Leave,” the crew finds a planet where anything one thinks about is created, from WWII bombers to medieval dresses. In fact, the crew faces 6-7 very real (but normally impossible) situations they had just thought of before they manage to realize that they won’t get killed if they think happy thoughts.

And with the mention of medieval dresses, Kirk always decides to beam down a single, random (new; different each episode) female crewmember as well. Instead of being as strong as her fellow male crewmembers from tough academy training, she usually ends up being eye-candy and almost entirely feminine. The crew-woman in “Shore Leave” thinks of and decides to wear a medieval dress despite its impracticality and the situation’s dangerousness. And in “Who Mourns for Adonais?,” the crew-woman is only a love interest for the Greek god Apollo (and also goes through a wardrobe change).

Delving deeper, the episodes either come off as in-your-face or meaningless. Deep Space 9 gives us episodes like “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” where we watch Nog, a young Ferengi Starfleet officer, deal with losing his leg, even going as far as to live largely in a holodeck to escape reality. Classic Trek gives us “The Changeling,” where Kirk ends up talking a robot to death because it is cleansing everything that is not perfect, and it itself cannot be perfect. Obviously, a sample from the extremes of both series, but I’ll trust that the distributions are also separated.

The hollowness hurts even more because some episodes had potential. In “Operation — Annihilate!,” Spock risks his own sight to be an experimental target for a radiation burst meant to destroy the parasites in his system. They even add a twist when they learn that the visible spectrum wasn’t necessary as part of the radiation to destroy the parasites. Yet instead of adding blindness to his character and developing him, we learn at the end of the episode that Vulcans have second eyelids that protected him and allowed him to retain all of his vision

But all of this–the fortieth time Kirk talks a computer to death (“The Return of the Archons”), Kirk’s fighting technique like an overhead two-handed fist slam (“The Arena”), the painfully cheesy monsters (“The Galileo 7”), the complete unreasonableness of some characters (“Court Martial”), the dramatic close-ups of Shatner, the pointless ending where everyone laughs at a dumb joke (“Galileo 7”)–just manages to work in a charming way now. I ask myself why I’m still watching after every episode. Maybe it’s because I’m a trekkie. Or maybe it’s just really entertaining in a way that they didn’t intend.

I’ll have to look into why Star Trek is as it is, though. As bizarre as the show seems to me now, many of the elements were likely familiar parts of shows from the 60s. And I’ll bet the portrayal of females has changed a lot in these couple decades. Sounds like good material for a PWR paper.

One reply on “Trekking Back”

Ah, you’re so young ….

Your analysis of Star Trek styles is an interest comment about how context matters and times change. I don’t think that I saw the original Star Trek series on broadcast. The original airings would have been between 1966 to 1969, which means that I would have been 9 to 12 years old, living in Gravenhurst. (That means your mother would have been 11 to 13). Cable television would have been a new advent at that time, and we were too far north to catch the U.S. stations consistently.

I do remember seeing the Ed Sullivan show in broadcast (probably rebroadcast on the CBC), which ran to 1971. I don’t know the exact year when we first got a color television, but if the first broadcasts in Canada weren’t until 1966, Star Trek would have been one of the earlier shows filmed entirely in color.

Thus, we’re talking about an era before the world really got small. You have to think about Star Trek in the context that Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. We’re talking about science fiction even before man walked on the moon. The context of the original Star Trek is a decade before That 70s Show, placed between 1976 and 1979 — a show that I’ve never watched, but may have more relevance for you.

Suggesting some other television contexts for the original Star Trek, Mad Men is placed in the early 1960s, and Swingtown starts in 1976. In Mad Men, color television hasn’t yet been popularized; in Swingtown, color television should have been in most homes. I remember selling used black-and-white televisions to cottagers in Muskoka, and I left Gravenhurst in 1976 to attend university.

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