Saturday, May 16, 2009

Star Trek: The Original Series — Season 1

Sloppy direction aside, JJ Abrams' fresh take on the Star Trek franchise so thoroughly won me over that I finally decided to delve into the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time, the one responsible for "mythology" shows (that is, programs that create not only plots and programs but backstories and worlds), a revitalized interest in space and space fiction perfectly timed with the Apollo missions, and, most infamously, extreme fandom. I was always quick to dismiss the pointy-eared weirdos who swarmed conventions, conveniently ignoring the fact that I dressed up as Darth Vader for Halloween every. single. year of my childhood.

"Why bother with this show?" I wondered in the frequent patches of my life where I have nothing better to think about. I knew about the ears, the stiff acting, the heavy-handedness; why did I need to suffer through it all to confirm it? However, if I can watch classic films now horribly dated, why can't I extend the same courtesy to television? What right do I have to mock dated special effects, when one day I'll have kids who will look back at Lord of the Rings and The Matrix and laugh at our bad CG (that day is coming, I promise you)? Fortunately, the film's release coincided with the release of the original series on Blu-Ray, the first season of which was available for streaming on Netflix.

So, was I right? Well, yeah. Star Trek's shortcomings have been pointed out by naysayers for four decades. Shatner's distinctive staccato delivery -- which actually doesn't feature prominently until you get further into the season -- is ripe for ridicule, as are the sets, the costumes and a great many of the plots. But for the all show's didacticism, it's got a certain charm about it. It reflects the idealism of the age, even as America was slowly tearing itself apart over Vietnam, appealing to both the hippie notion of peace and the general excitement over the space race.

Creator Gene Rodenberry and his team are clearly tied into a late-'60s outlook, attempting to promote racial tolerance as well as using the military aspect of Starfleet to comment on the Vietnam War. Even as they promote a tolerant utopia, there is a noticeable lack of equality between the sexes -- look for the short skirts and Kirk's constant flirting. Nichelle Nichols even planned to quit her role as Uhura, not only because her role as a space secretary left her with little to do but because off-screen she had to field racist comments. Only a direct intervention from Martin Luther King, Jr. himself convinced her to stay.

Nevertheless, on-screen, Rodenberry's vision offers something for everyone. As I watched the series, I came to think of Kirk as what George W. Bush might be if he was more intelligent: he always seems to arrive at a peaceful and diplomatic solution to a problem, yet most of the episodes reach these conclusions, curiously, through a fight with an alien. Or sex with an alien. Foreign relations, indeed! Rodenberry clearly molded his main characters on archetypes, but occasionally I was genuinely taken aback that Kirk wasn't wearing a cowboy hat.

What surprised me the most about this series is that, for a show with such a rich mythology and self-contained universe, the episodes are not at all serialized. Each episode plays out as its own piece of pulp space opera, with plots that generally fall into one of three categories:

1. Stranded. For a ship as supposedly advanced as the Enterprise and a crew so thoroughly versed in these situations by the end of the season, Kirk and co. sure do find themselves stuck on a planet or in space often. In "Miri," the crew warps into the orbit of an Earth-like planet, a crew beams down to find only children, who promptly steal the communicators. The utterly bizarre "The Squire of Gothos" finds the ship disabled and the crew tormented by an apparition posing as a mad 19th century nobleman.

A subset of this style is the Bringing Back an Infection episode. After a completely normal trip to a planet, the crew returns only for the ship to remain in the planet's system because someone came down with a futuristic case of swine flu. The most enjoyable of these, "This Side of Paradise," features flowers that shoot euphoria-inducing spores, infecting the entire crew. They even awaken Spock's human side, allowing him to finally confess his love to the one that got away (who is conveniently on the planet in question). His sudden burst of emotion goes from comical to tragic when Kirk must break his crew of the spells, again separating the two would-be lovers.

2. The Fight. This is where Rodenberry's vision of "utopia as ushered in by the United States" comes into play. In these episodes, Capt. Kirk either finds himself in a starship battle with with a technologically superior enemy, or somehow he ends up on a planet haphazardly punching a man in a lizard costume:

Oh yeah, it's every bit as awesome as it looks.

Clearly Rodenberry and the writers are trying to make a point about being too quick to jump into a fight without ever trying to understand what could be motivating the foe (big Vietnam message there), but they're also clearly in support of Kirk's actions and they paint Starfleet as a great uniter. Nevertheless, a great deal of the season's finest offerings fit into this category. "Balance of Terror" pits Kirk against a Romulan Bird of Prey, exposes the common lineage between Vulcans and Romulans (allowing McCoy to voice his prejudice over Spock's race) and ends with a speech from the Romulan captain that reveals how close he and Kirk might have been had cultural differences not dictated otherwise. "Space Seed" introduces of Khan Noonen-Singh of "KHHAAAAAANNN!" fame, a genetically-augmented super-warrior who placed himself in suspended animation to survive the Eugenics Wars of the '90s. It's a taut thriller with some of the best pacing of the series. "The Devil in the Dark" pits Kirk and Spock against a strange silicon-based creature killing miners. Kirk immediately sets out to kill it, until a Vulcan mind-meld with the beast reveals an incredible intelligence -- and a very good reason for the attacks.

3. Time Travel or Time Travel-esque Snafus. This one is a curious bird: for a show that attempts to carve out a wonderful future for us all, Star Trek sure does like to go to the past a lot. Matter of fact, if it happened any more often Rodenberry could have reached across the pond and worked out a Doctor Who crossover. Besides the aforementioned adventure with the creature that turned everything into a 19th century chateau, the Enterprise winds up in then-present 1960s America and must bring aboard an Air Force pilot after accidentally destroying his plane. Kirk and Spock must figure out what to do with him, as the pilot will of course report what he saw if returned, altering the flow of history, yet he must be returned so that the man will father the first astronaut to visit Saturn

Time travel forms the backbone for the finest episode of the season and, if the lists I've read are any indication, the series as a whole, "City on the Edge of Forever." The crew discovers a space-time portal, which McCoy enters after accidentally injecting himself with a paranoia-inducing serum. Kirk and Spock follow him to Depression-era New York, where they meet Edith Keeler, a social worker and a pacifist speaker. Kirk and Spock discover that she was supposed to die until McCoy's arrival changed the timeline and that, if she continues to live, her rhetoric will convince Roosevelt to stay out of WWII, allowing Nazi Germany to develop the atom bomb and conquer the world. The hitch? Kirk, naturally, falls in love with Edith, though at least he seems to genuinely care for her for reasons greater than the quest for nookie. The final moments are heartbreaking, and they throw the camp of the rest of the series into sharp contrast.

For some reason, the time-space portal looks like a big-screen T.V. in The Flinstones.

In 2006, the series was digitally remastered, ostensibly to at least partially update the numerous dated effects. Some of the changes -- specifically the spiffed-up backgrounds -- add a nice touch, but it soon becomes painfully clear that the people behind the restoration did not feel like spending a great deal of money. All shots of the Enterprise have been completely redone in CG, but the finished product looks more like the beta animation of a home-made video game than the literal flagship of a multi-billion dollar franchise. A nice comparison of the more positive aspects of the remaster can be found in this review.

While the episodes may not form any sense of serialized continuity, they serve to flesh out the personas of the three leads (Kirk, Spock and McCoy), establishing Kirk as the maverick with the heart on his sleeve, flanked by two foils of his conscience: McCoy representing the more emotional, aggressive side to Spock's reasoned logic. They also explore ideological themes such as trust and tolerance, even if the way such topics are dealt with seem conservative by today's standards. For all its camp and intentional overacting -- the top prize must go to Shatner for chewing so vigorously through the scenery that he ate his way out of the sound stage as Kirk's evil half in "The Enemy Within" -- Star Trek's heart makes it a show for the ages, a program that overcomes the technical and social limitations of its time and, if anything, actually is tailor-made for the current climate of hope.

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