Why the original “Star Trek” still matters

Cheap, sexist and nerdy? Check, check and check. But the original Kirk and Spock offered an erotic, Apollonian beacon of hope amid the darkness of '70s culture.

Topics: Fiction, Beyond the Multiplex, Star Trek, Science Fiction and Fantasy, Movies,

Why the original "Star Trek" still matters

Courtesy Paramount Home Entertainment

Images from “The Best of Star Trek: The Original Series.”

In perhaps the most famous “Star Trek” episode of them all, Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and Cmdr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) stand in their stretchy mock-turtle uniform shirts, lady-pleasin’ tight pants and pointy-toed Beatle boots on one of those studio-lot sets designed to evoke a prewar American city. People shuffle past in shabby clothes, and a black automobile with large, curved fenders crawls down the street. “I’ve seen photographs of this period,” says Kirk. “An economic upheaval had occurred.”

“It was called ‘Depression,’” says Spock, raising one painted eyebrow in archetypal distaste. “Circa 1930. Quite barbaric.”

As many of you will have spotted already, this is from “City on the Edge of Forever,” a time-paradox yarn written by science-fiction legend Harlan Ellison (who has feuded with the show’s producers and their copyright heirs ever since). In it, Kirk falls in love with a kittenish Salvation Army type, played by Joan Collins, who envisions a future of space travel and peaceful global cooperation, and wants to rescue the world from the threat of impending war. Kirk comes from that future, of course. Not only can he not tell her that, he must also allow her to be run down by a bus to avoid a fatal disordering of the space-time continuum that would result in Hitler conquering the world and the Starship Enterprise never existing at all.

In its narrative ambition, its talky, theatrical density, its high-minded moral tone and its nerdy philosophizing, that episode captures a great deal about what made “Star Trek” such a potent cultural force. I guess that’s why it’s included, along with three other episodes, on “The Best of Star Trek: The Original Series,” a new DVD/Blu-ray release presumably meant to lure viewers of J.J. Abrams’ hit film back to the source material. No “Star Trek” fan could possibly be happy with such a mini-collection — where, I ask, is “Mirror, Mirror”? “The Doomsday Machine”? “The Devil in the Dark”? — but I enjoyed watching this tremendously.

Watching “Star Trek” in 1970s syndication was such an important part of my childhood and adolescence — I’ve seen every episode at least five or six times, and some many more than that — that I’m not capable of assessing the show’s uneven, low-budget craftsmanship with any degree of detachment. For me, “Star Trek” and the Rolling Stones, as much as they might appear to be polar opposites — one supremely American and the other English, one Apollonian and optimistic, the other Dionysian and pessimistic — were the cultural phenomena that made the pre-punk-rock early ’70s tolerable. A person interested in those things was, prima facie, not interested in Donny Osmond or “Happy Days,” had conceivably read a book not required by teachers and furthermore could plausibly have access to decent weed.

Even if some of its flaws look more glaring 30-odd years later, I think the original “Star Trek” still has a passion and vitality that partly stem from its cheapness; the threadbare sets and effects created a coherent, suggestive atmosphere, and forced your attention onto the storytelling and the characters. It stands out, even after all this time, as something unique in television history. Of course “Star Trek” can never be the cultural lodestone it once was. Having spawned four official follow-up series, 11 feature films (and counting) and countless non-canonical works — if you haven’t heard about K/S porn or the immense and disputatious fanfic universe, I’m not helping you — and inspired an entire genre of serial intergalactic futurism from “Space: 1999″ to “Babylon 5″ to “Battlestar Galactica,” the novelty of Gene Roddenberry’s creation has pretty well worn off.

In the middle of the Cold War, Roddenberry imagined a radical-progressive, Enlightenment-fueled vision of the human future, one in which the conflict between capitalism and communism had been long transcended, along with other earthbound forms of racial, ethnic or religious strife. Strikingly, there is no religious or mystical dimension to the “Star Trek” universe at all, at least until much later in its development. (Roddenberry regarded himself as an “agnostic atheist,” and banned any religious references from the show.) It was based around the chronic tension between reason and emotion, represented of course by the tension between Spock and Kirk and the actors who played them, the immeasurably gifted Nimoy and the hambone, cocksure Shatner (a second-rate Canadian Shakespearean, before his “Star Trek” celebrity).

Roddenberry’s vision of what “Star Trek” could and should be, even if it was indifferently realized, was pretty close to Richard Wagner’s conception of the “Gesamtkunstwerk,” a work of art that would incorporate drama, poetry, philosophy and music. He worked with the best writers he could get, despite his borderline-tyrannical reputation and various controversies surrounding his handling of royalties. Ellison wrote “City on the Edge of Forever,” and Theodore Sturgeon, another big-name sci-fi author, wrote “Amok Time” (also included here), the famous episode in which Spock goes into some kind of Vulcan estrus and must return to his home planet in order to mate. (The principle that Spock has no emotional life is something like the edict in Greek mythology that no living human can enter the underworld; it must be flouted at every opportunity.)

In the arid landscape of late-1960s television, largely devoted to quasi-realistic forms like the family sitcom or the police procedural, “Star Trek” was new and startling in several different ways: a science-fiction series that was literary and imaginative and heavily allegorical, that ladled out historical and political messages by the quart and that delivered a distinctive undertone of adult sexuality.

OK, yes, it might be better described as a swaggering, Hefneresque and profoundly sexist version of semi-adult, semi-repressed sexuality. Preening Kirk, arguably the most sexualized male character in TV history, tomcats from one interstellar honey to the next. In Season 1, beehive-haired Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) seems to serve as his personal concubine, but for that matter there’s something haremlike about the female personnel aboard the Enterprise in toto. They all apparently departed on a five-year space mission directly from their other jobs as go-go dancers behind Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett, later Roddenberry’s wife) moons pathetically for the chaste and logical Spock, who is himself locked in a sub-rosa competition with the bitchy and sexually ambiguous “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) for Kirk’s attention. Spock pretends not to notice Chapel, but behaves like an outrageous tease; in “Amok Time,” he strokes her tear-stained cheek and murmurs, “It would be illogical for us to protest against our natures.”

But hey, this stew of delightful and appalling ingredients produced the first black-white kiss in the history of American narrative television, the aliens-made-them-do-it snog between Kirk and Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in the 1968 episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” (Contrary to legend, that smokin’-hot moment did not produce widespread outrage in the American South. Widespread arousal, certainly.) In the same scene, Chapel finally gets to kiss Spock, while protesting the whole time that she really, really didn’t want it to happen like this.

One could lazily argue that the breakthrough of “Star Trek,” which was first a cult show and then a mass phenomenon, led to the much bigger breakthrough of “Star Wars” a few years later. Beyond a loose, generic connection, I see much more opposition than similarity between the two. George Lucas’ space dramas are a bastardized mishmash of 1950s serials, classic quest mythology, film history and J.R.R. Tolkien, all elements pretty much absent from “Star Trek.” Of course there’s some crossover, but the two things appeal to different generations and different sensibilities

If Lucas is defiantly pop-cultural in orientation, delivering archetypal structure and fast-paced action rather than plot and conversation, Roddenberry skews much closer to traditional high or middlebrow culture. Despite the speculative-fiction surroundings, he’s really an old-fashioned tale-spinner, with roots in the short story and the theatrical stage. In the second season, Roddenberry introduces a Russian navigator named Chekov, and as distant as “Star Trek” may seem from “The Cherry Orchard,” I don’t think the name was picked out of a hat. His near-namesake Anton Chekhov was a master of the sudden reversal, the ironic sting in the tail — devices Roddenberry’s writers use over and over.

In an effort to make the original “Star Trek” relevant to contemporary viewers, whatever that’s supposed to mean, CBS/Paramount has rejiggered some of the cheesy effects, remastered the whole series in disconcertingly brilliant high-definition, and made them available on Blu-ray, iTunes, XBox Live and no doubt other platforms yet to be devised. I don’t object to such things, and the four episodes on this disc (the one I haven’t mentioned is the lamentable “Trouble With Tribbles”) look amazing, even if the increased resolution exposes the thick makeup on Shatner and Nimoy, making them look even more like drag queens out of uniform than they did before.

But “Star Trek” worked just as well, and maybe better, on a black-and-white secondhand TV pulling in signals from two cities away through an untwisted coat hanger. To those of us watching that way, with a couple of friends and some lukewarm Hamm’s beer, it offered a tiny oasis of imaginative escape. It wasn’t an escape into a mythical realm of impossibly perfect heroes and implacably evil villains, but into a future of global techno-humanist harmony. It seems ludicrous now, yes, but in that simultaneously chaotic and innocent time it hovered just over the horizon as a distant possibility. A future where we would all agree that war and poverty and economic depression were barbaric, and where the girls would all wear miniskirts and nylons.

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