Monday, August 10, 2009

TV Review: Star Trek (1966-1969)

Today we do our first television review. And while we will focus largely on current shows, we couldn’t pass up the chance to start with the greatest science fiction show of all time: Star Trek.

Star Trek is the fulfillment of science fiction’s potential. No show before or after, with the exception of The Twilight Zone, has come anywhere near repeating its achievement. It is a cultural icon that you all should know.

What Is Star Trek?

Set in the 23rd century, Star Trek follows the adventures of the Starship Enterprise and her crew, in a series of unconnected episodes, as they battle aliens, rescue colonists, and boldly go where no man has gone before. But that’s only on the surface. In reality, Star Trek is a highly nuanced character study that plays out week after week in the midst of a series of morality tales.

Indeed, while Star Trek was originally pitched to the networks as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” a description that detractors repeat to tar the series as “just a western set in space” (as if that were a bad thing **cough cough**. . . Firefly), creator Gene Roddenberry privately told the Star Trek team that the show would be modeled on Gulliver’s Travels, with each episode working on two levels: as a suspenseful adventure story and as a morality tale. And that is exactly what Star Trek became, a morality tale disguised as science fiction.

The character that we study is Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). Each week, Kirk is faced with a series of moral dilemmas, and the show centers around his handling and resolution of those dilemmas. I say handling, because the show is as much about how Kirk makes his decisions as it is the decisions he makes.

To aid the viewer in seeing Kirk’s decision-making process, the audience is given two other characters, First Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Chief Medical Officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley), who act as the dual aspects of Kirk’s mind. Spock represents the part of Kirk’s (and our) mind that is logical and ordered. His advice to Kirk always follows the strictest guidelines of cold, hard logic (real logic, not faulty modern Hollywood logic). McCoy, on the other hand, represents the portion of Kirk’s mind that is beset by emotions. His advice to Kirk is often rash or irrational, but it always accurately represents the types of conflicted feelings that pull us away from logic.

Together, Spock and McCoy act out and speak out the thought process that is going on in Kirk’s mind, and thereby illustrate our own thinking. It is illogical to risk the ship to save the life of one man, Spock will tell us. But dammit Jim, he’s been your friend since you were young. . . you can’t just abandon him, McCoy counters. And so on. And thus, we are taught the moral implications of each of the actions Kirk may or may not take.

What Kinds Of Moral Issues Should Viewers Expect?

So what types of moral dilemmas does Kirk face? All kinds. He must decide issues of life and death, issues of friendship versus duty, justice versus vengeance. He must deal with obsession, regret and hate. He must face the unwinnable scenario, the loss of friends, the death of heroes. He is framed for a crime by a former friend. He must discover whether a man can survive as two halves, one half entirely good and the other half entirely evil. Can he strand a man for all eternity in a timeless gateway with a murderous enemy. These are the sorts of issues Kirk faces each week.

Consider for example, the fan favorite City on the Edge of Forever, in which Kirk and Spock must go back in time to repair the past, which has been changed by Dr. McCoy, who accidentally traveled back in time himself. Upon returning to the past, Kirk learns that McCoy will save the life of a woman that Kirk has fallen in love with, and that by saving her life, history will be changed. So Kirk must decide, can he sacrifice the woman he loves to set the timeline right.

Interestingly, by hiding the morality tale inside a science fiction format, Roddenberry was able to present controversial and complex philosophical, ethical and political issues in ways that people could easily understand without feeling like they were sitting through a class on ethics. Indeed, that is the promise of science fiction, that the story teller can use the fantastic setting of a world, in which the viewer doesn’t have a stake, to play out issues without running afoul of the preconceived expectations and prejudices of the viewer. In other words, because the viewer does not initially see this as a discussion of current issues, the viewer does not immediately fall back upon well-established thought patterns and defensive mechanisms which keep the viewer from reconsidering such issues with an open mind.

For example, it is clear that all humans have preconceived notions about race. When a viewer sees a story about a black person and a white person, those preconceived notions will prejudice the viewer to see the story from a particular standpoint. Thus, it will be difficult to get the viewer to consider the issues presented with an open mind. But if you change the characters to a man who is white on the left side and black on the right, and make his opponent black on the left side and white on the right, the writer can address the issue of race without the viewer picking a side based on prejudices. This, in turn, allows the viewer to consider issues of race more honestly, which consideration can later be applied to re-evaluate their one beliefs on the subject.

Few science fiction shows manage to achieve this. Star Trek did it weekly. Indeed, Star Trek addressed issues of racism and civil rights, eugenics and selective breeding, nuclear war, the turning over of weapons to machines, the de-humanization inherent in mechanizing our culture, the Vietnam War, slavery, hippie culture and cultists, and whether fascism could be used as a force for good by a benign dictator, among others.

In Conscience of the King, for example, Kirk must deal with the struggle between his own desire for vengeance and justice in deciding how to handle a man that he suspects of being a dictator who killed half his population to save the other half from starvation. In Balance of Terror, he must make decisions that could lead to war, while dealing with questions of whether persons of different species (i.e. races) should be viewed as potentially disloyal because of their lineage.

None of these issues could have been presented on television at that time in any other format. But by hiding them within science fiction stories, Star Trek did them all.

But Isn’t The Acting Bad?

Contrary to the detractors, Shatner’s acting as Kirk is neither as over-the-top as people like to claim, nor is it inappropriate. These tales are meant as dramatic vignettes of an almost Shakespearian nature. They are stylized, and Kirk is called upon to emote heavily to allow the audience to witness his thought processes. As such, Shatner does an excellent job.

Similarly, Nimoy and Kelly do wonderful jobs of acting out their roles as well. Nimoy in particular does an excellent job of playing the logical Vulcan, with occasional emotional outbursts from his half-human lineage -- he is especially convincing compared to later actors in the spin-offs who tended to play Vulcans as annoyed. Spock also gives us an interesting insight into the human condition, which he alone can observe being an outsider and yet also part human. This would become a common element in science fiction, though it has rarely been done as well.

Most importantly, the characters are so believable that you come to know the actors by the character names, not the other way around.

Star Trek’s Politics Are Key

Finally, one cannot review Star Trek without mentioning the importance of its politics. Star Trek is based entirely on classical liberal philosophy, and this was critical to its success and its uniqueness. Why? Because it gave Star Trek a set of values that made it possible to carry out the morality tales.

Classical liberalism believes that individual rights are natural, inherent and inalienable, and exist independent of government. And it is within this set of principles that Kirk must act. Classical liberalism believes in protection of civil liberties, freedom from restraint, non-intrusive government, and equality under the law. It subscribes to a strong moral code, and it values intellectual and spiritual freedom. It also sees humans as flawed, but striving to attain perfection.

Thus, in one of my favorite episodes, A Taste of Armageddon, Kirk tells a planetary leader who despairs that “we’re a killer species”:
“All right. It’s instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that we won’t kill today.”
By comparison, Captain Picard of the new series, who lives in a universe constructed around modern liberal thinking, can only babble on how humans are no longer violent.

Indeed, one of the problems with the later series was their attempt to maintain a modern liberal (i.e. unrealistic) world view. This prevented the show from dealing realistically with the types of issues that Star Trek addressed regularly, because the solutions needed to solve such crises would have been inconsistent with the range of solutions available to the liberal-world-view bound characters. Thus, deus ex machina was often called upon to solve such crises, and many endings only worked if the conflict was not real in the first place.

Kirk, on the other hand, was called upon regularly to make the difficult decisions and to bear the consequences of his actions. And this often led to hard places. For example, in City on the Edge of Forever, mentioned above, we are fascinated to discover that the woman who must die is a pacifist. And the reason she must die is that she will convince Roosevelt to stay out of World War II, thereby allowing the Nazis to win. Thus, Kirk must realize that sometimes war is a good thing and sometimes people must die for the greater good.

In A Taste of Armageddon, Kirk must bring two planets to the brink of real war, and thereby risk the destruction of both planets, to stop a sanitized computerized war that was killing millions of people each year. He must realize that when war becomes clean and sanitary, it becomes too easy. And in A Private Little War, Kirk must supply weapons to a peaceful people, knowing that many will die, because the Klingons have begun arming an opposing village. (This is a direct analogy to Vietnam, something verboten on television at the time.)

But this is what made the show great. Unlike much of science fiction, this show had depth and wisdom. It was more than just phasers, monsters and uniforms. It had characters you came to know deeply, because you’d seen them go through some of the hardest moments of their lives. And unlike the more recent series, which relied heavily on deus ex machina to make sure that virtually every episode ended happily, Star Trek ended honestly. Sometimes it worked out well for Kirk, sometimes it didn’t. But you never felt cheated.

And that is what has given Star Trek its appeal and its longevity. So the next time you watch an episode, don’t just ask yourself what Kirk must decide, but watch how he makes that decision and then ask yourself how you would have made the decision yourself.

FYI, all of the episodes can be found online HERE.


ScottDS said...

I've encountered this idea on various Trek boards - that TNG is overly PC because that's when Roddenberry started believing his own hype about this so-called "utopian future." If you listen to the (candid) writer's commentary on the Star Trek Generations DVD, Ron Moore and Brannon Braga state that Roddenberry's idea was that humans in the 24th century had done away with greed, jealousy, etc. (even religion) which made it incredibly difficult for the writers to craft good stories: all the conflict had to come from outside. After Roddenberry's health started failing him and he gave up the reins, the writers were allowed to go in somewhat different directions (and indeed, there are some great episodes).

I suggest you give Deep Space Nine a chance. It starts off a little slow but by season three, we're up and away.

CrisD said...

Give me some Mr. Spock!

Spot on review! Was a trekkie but not "that annoying kind." Loved all three: Kirk, Spock and McCoy but an artistic girl finds a guy who can do calculus and organic bio SEXY as heck!

So I married one!

PS Did like the Star Trek from this summer, natch, as it was aimed at us nostalgic fans!

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I've seen them all. I've enjoyed some of the episodes, but despised many more.

The later shows are simply a very different concept than the original. Whereas the original was a character study within a morality tale, TNG was merely an attempt to show the society of the future, and it was beset by rules that undermined the show repeatedly.

I think DS9 had better writing and slightly better rules, but it also had no depth to it. It was entirely plot driven. Sometimes that plot was entertaining, sometimes it wasn't.

Tennessee Jed said...

Star Trek was a great series, groundbreaking in so many ways. I agree with your analysis on at least two fronts:

1) Classic liberalism vs. modern liberalism. Not that many people are familiar with the history of liberalism or the fact classical liberalism is much closer to modern conservatism.

2) The acting was better than people realized. Ultimately, what makes a television series work is the chemistry between the characters, in this case Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. The actors very skillfully executed what they needed to do to make that work.

No question the issues being addressed were the issues of the day such as civil rights. One of the very first comments I ever posted was a plug for a book by David Gerrold. At the time, he was a young screenplay writer who hit a home run (Hugo Award) with his first script, "The Trouble with Tribbles" which was a rather whimsical first season episode. The point is, this book is a great primer on how to successfully write for series drama.

Gerrold points out that in a stand alone drama, the events are usually the most important thing in the protagonist's life up to that point. In a series, they, by definition, cannot be. He gets into format and how format restricts (hardening of the arteries) to eventually devolve into formula. For those interested in that sort of thing, it is a great read, and I think still available on Amazon.

AndrewPrice said...

CrisD, Thanks! I think that bringing back the original was a great idea from a movie making stand point, I do wish though that they tried a little harder to keep the spirit of the original. Still, it was enjoyable.

StanH said...

Star Trek was a part of my childhood in the ‘60s and stayed with me. While the series was running you could buy Phasers, little plastic guns that shot out a little round disc, me my brothers and friends would assume characters from the show and shoot each other, and we had little plastic communicators as well, good memories. I also went to school with some of the Roddenberry’s, Gene Roddenberry was their uncle, that’s kind of cool link for me. The Roddenberry’s that I knew weren’t liberal either. But, a great show indeed, I liked the TNG as well. Fun post!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I haven't read the book, but Star Trek had some incredibly talented writers who went on to work on almost every other science fiction show since.

The issue of series shows falling into formula is certainly a problem that all shows have encountered. What separates the good writing from the bad writing is whether you can get people to look past the formula and whether you can write the stories in such a way that you still keep the audience surprised.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I grew up awash in Star Wars toys, but still found room for the occasional Star Trek stuff.

I don't think that Roddenberry was a modern liberal at the time of Star Trek, or at least it didn't come across. But by the time they put on TNG, there really is no doubt that he was writing from a liberal (quite far left) world view.

JG said...

Oh, beloved Star Trek! I wasn't around for the original series in its first run, but I grew up every Sunday night staying up with my dad and my little sister to watch two epis of TNG and then one of the original. So, yes, even I am brought back to my childhood by the original series, albeit 20 years later than most. And now I've dated myself. Sorry.

If you haven't yet, you really need to see the Discovery Channel docu, How William Shatner Changed the World. It basically interviews the innovators of technology such as cells phones, ipods and medicine, and shows how Star Trek inspired either the creation or the improvement of those technologies. It's awesome.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew, two names that jump to mind from the original series were Gene Coon and D.C.Fontana. I used to seem those names all the time in the credits of television shows 'post-trek.'

By the way, I forgot to include the name of that book which was "The World of Star Trek." The whole formula thing is somewhat enevitable, and you are right, it can sometimes be overcome through great writing.

A perfect example of how format leads to formula is the transporter. Originally devised as a great way to quickly get the characters into the story, the problem it created was "if you can easily beam them into trouble, you can just as easily beam them out again." This forces writers to expend energy trying to come up with a fresh explanation why Scotty couldn't just beam Jim to safety, and it became part of the formula (24 is the ultimate formula show today.)

Another example was the prime directive. Once it was established, writers got locked into formula devising reasons for Kirk to ignore it. Anyway, great post, lots of great comments.

Unknown said...

I had just gotten my BA when the original Star Trek came on. I took time out from whatever I was doing to watch the show. I was an addict, and when the show came back on in syndication in the 80s, I watched the episodes again--and again, and again. And of course my favorite episode had my first legal mentor, the King of Torts himself--Melvin Belli--as a major character. He played an ethereal and evil manipulative being named Gorgan who controlled the lives of a group of young alien hippies (see And The Children Shall Lead). And he wasn't even playing a lawyer!

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk, for some reason, my favorite was "A Wolf in the Fold" which was a sort of Jack the Ripper story. I always thought whatever it was that Bones pumped into the crew so they would not show fear and become an unwilling "host" for Red Jack must have been pretty good stuff.

AndrewPrice said...

J.G. I've seen that! It's great. It's amazing how many scientists were inspired by Star Trek.

Jed, DC Fontana is huge. Coon as well. Others include guys like Harlan Ellison. There are many famous sci-fi writers who came from that series.

Lawhawk, I never realized that was the real Melvin Belli! LOL!

MegaTroll said...

Star Trek is my favorite science fiction show. I like BSG too though. Great article. I love your guys' site.

AndrewPrice said...

Mega, I didn't like BSG at first, but I think it got better. At one point it got to be quite good, except that they kept just dropping some of the most interesting story lines they created.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I spent most of yesterday at depositions, so I didn't get a chance to flush out my answers.

I do like the new shows. I think that TNG in particular had a very likeable cast and some entertaining stories. A couple of those were very well done. Though the series really is beset with an unworkable set of "rules" and, in my opinion, lazy writing that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief to make the episodes work.

I did not like DS9 at first at all. It felt very limited and, compared to Bab5, felt really shallow. I did like Avery Brooks a lot though. But it grew on me, and, as you say, by the time they found their footing in the Domimion war, the stories really picked up.

Enterprise and Voyager both excited me when they started, but desperation at bad ratings caused both shows, IMO, to give up their promise in the hopes of luring in people with familiar villians that should never have been in those shows, and, again, they got lazy in the writing -- thus issues like the meshing of the crews in Voyager (best theme song of them all IMO) which held so much promise were basically abandoned in favor of dragging in Borgs and Klingons and Romulans, etc. and in bringing in 7of9 to raise the sex appeal.

All in all, I did enjoy each of the later shows. However, I don't see the new shows as at all comparable to the original. The original, as I noted in the article, is essentially The Twilight Zone in space. It is a highly complex set of morality tales, ethics, philosophies and character studies. The new shows never were that. They were just plot driven shows that presented the viewer with a vision of how Roddenberry, et al., hoped the universe would turn out.

I think this made those shows much weaker, and it handicapped them in many ways. Indeed, unlike TOS, which was about character study, the later shows forced the same character/beliefs upon each of the characters. Thus, rather than showing you true differences between the characters and letting those differences inform the plot, we're given phony differences like what kind of coffee they drink, parent issues they need to resolve, and the such.

This made it impossible to put the characters through moral quandries because they all believe the same things. Thus, the disputes were largely fake. It also gave the show an unpleasant moralistic sense in that it never accepted the idea that people could genuinely disagree. Indeed, while they kept claiming that all cultures deserve to be respected, and we should honor our differences, the show really was heavy-handed in imposing the one correct view you could have.

The one exception to this is probably Avery Brooks (really liked him) who played in a much more real-politic world, and thus faces more realistic moral questions.

I know that emotions are strong on which show(s) is better, but I think the comparisons really are irrelevant because it's like comparing apples to oranges. They simply don't try to do the same things.

But if I had to venture a guess, I would suspect that in 100 years, TOS will still be making the rounds on television because of its timeless themes, whereas the other shows will be largely forgotten as tastes change.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

"Thus, rather than showing you true differences between the characters and letting those differences inform the plot, we're given phony differences like what kind of coffee they drink, parent issues they need to resolve, and the such."

This goes back to my statement that Roddenberry didn't want any interpersonal conflicts on TNG which severely handicapped the writers at the time. Somewhere around the third season, the writing improved (the late Michael Piller joined the show as did future DS9 showrunner Ira Behr and newcomer Ron Moore who later developed the new Battlestar Galactica).

DS9 was syndicated (and still referred to as the red-headed stepchild of the Trek universe) but VGR and ENT were on UPN, an actual network (more or less) so the producers had to answer not only to the studio but the network execs who were mainly concerned with ratings and T&A for the kids (who wouldn't watch the show anyway). I've read interviews with some of the writers where they said they wanted to do something but "the network wouldn't let us" or where they had to resort to stunt casting (The Rock in a Voyager episode since UPN was airing wrestling at the time).

Another somewhat controversial figure is executive producer Rick Berman who seems to inspire scorn and wrath from many fans despite keeping the trains running on time for 20+ years. By the time Enterprise aired, was he simply burned out? Did he not have enough clout to say "No!" when the network wanted something different (or more often, the same, like insisting on that stupid Temporal Cold War arc)? Enterprise was, IMHO, the best show on TV stricly from a technical standpoint but the writing wasn't there. By the time Manny Coto (now on 24) and Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens joined the writing staff, it was too little too late.

I think the shows will be remembered but not all of them in the best light. And good call on the Voyager theme - Jerry Goldsmith won an Emmy for it. :-)

ScottDS said...

In fact, one of the reasons Rick Berman and Michael Piller developed non-Starfleet types on Deep Space Nine was so that they could avoid Roddenberry's... some might say... holier than thou attitude regarding "perfect" Starfleet characters. My favorite would be Garak, Andrew Robinson's tinker-tailor-spy character.

ScottDS said...

I can keep going but it would require another thread! I've been a Trek fan since 1992 (I was nine) and it's what got me into filmmaking and film music, etc.

Re: a couple other things:

-blending the crews on Voyager - I totally agree with you and I *might* have read something indicating they were forced to integrate them much faster than they'd planned

-the Year of Hell arc was supposed to be a whole year but was shortened to a handful of episodes

-the Dominion War was supposed to last only a handful of episodes but the DS9 writers kept dragging it out (I've also read the DS9 people were left alone more often whereas the Voyager people had the network peering over their shoulders)

-techno-babble - the writers on the Generations commentary admit it got way out of hand when every script would end with, "Mr. LaForge, TECH the TECH" and the problem would be solved! :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I've heard a lot of those things as well.

I don't know why there was so much hate for Berman and Enterprise, though I've heard that as well. That was the show that I felt had the most potential when it started because it felt so different than the prior three later shows, but IMO it too quickly fell right back into the same routines.

I have to say honestly that I really dislike Ron Moore. I've seen many interviews with him and I think he's a real jerk and I don't like the way he weaves his personal issues into his stories. The guy needs a shrink.

The other writers, I don't have much of an opinion about. Believe it or not, I don't watch 24 -- too cliche, too formulatic, too unrealistic for my tastes.

Garak was my favorite as well because he was one of the few characters throughout the series that the show(s) let unfold slowly. Everyone else had to be shown to you in toto in the initial introduction.

I am of two minds on the role of the studios. On the one hand, they often stifle creativity and keep stories way too lowest-common-denominator. But on the other hand, they do tend to keep writers from going off the deep end. I guess, I would say that a strong writer should be able to work with the studio?

I hate the phrase "reverse the polarity."

ScottDS said...

If you hate "reverse the polarity" then you'll REALLY hate this:


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That's funny. Sadly accurate, but funny.

The polarity thing always kills me. Scientifically speaking (I did two years of engineering before moving on), this is the equivalent of saying "turn the screwdriver the other way."

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