I’m wondering how many in my age range recall exactly where they were Thursday, September 8, 1966 around 9:20 PM? Believe it or not, a recent pop culture milestone confirmed to me that I do.
BBC America ran a Star Trek: The Original Series marathon a couple weekends back, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of its first American broadcast that aforementioned September evening. I’ve long been a fan of the iconic science-fiction show and so had it running in the background for a good part of that commemoration; and the network kept repeating that trivia morsel: Fifty years ago … Star Trek … first episode … September 8, 1966 …
That maiden airing was an episode entitled “The Man Trap”; one I know well. Among my very earliest memories is my younger brother’s and my watching television from our bunk-bed, plastered against the wall, screaming in terror during the final few minutes of that exact program. A ghoulish she-devil appears, she tries to kill Captain Kirk in a particularly ghastly manner, and the whole thing debuted in living color (or maybe black-and-white) on our little bedroom TV — much to our shrieking consternation. My father strode into the room, looked disgustedly at the tube, asking what was going on, and duly clicked off the offending broadcast.
Point is: I just recently realized I was audience to the United States’ premiere of the original eppy of the original Star Trek television series — and I find that kinda cool; even as a mid-middle-aged pastor, writer, husband and father or three. Why? Because after all these decades, I confess I still think there’s lots to admire about that short-lived but classic 1960’s program.
By the time Star Trek: The Original Series (ST: TOS) met its untimely cancellation and then quietly gained second life as syndicated re-runs, I was a few years older. Once more, I specifically recall tuning in one of those early-evening rebroadcasts — it was “The Arena” episode — and that was it; despite my previously inauspicious intro to the program, I became a confirmed Trekkie.
No, ST: TOS wasn’t as slick or glitzy as any popular TV offering — sci-fi or otherwise — available today. Hey, it wasn’t even as flashy as any of its impressively successful spin-offs (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager or Star Trek: Enterprise). Yes, its story-line inconsistencies are legion, its plot holes gaping, sometimes hilarious. Other than utilizing the series’ primary characters and essential structure, there was deficient, often uproariously deficient, episode-to-episode continuity.
Predictably clod-hopping special effects? No denying. (Remember, this was years before any kind of CGI visuals worth mentioning — when what are now labeled “practical effects”, and often comparatively crude ones at that, predominated. Miniature plastic models and actors in goofy make-up and plodding suits were the order of the day.)
(I’ll mention, the tacky, go-go dancer couture of too many of the female players; plus, the Captain’s implied and careless womanizing. The show’s low-points, by my lights.)
Add to that the strictures of the era’s TV culture: back then, a weekly drama was generally expected to provide a satisfyingly introduced and wrapped-up product within approximately fifty minutes of screen time — much UNlike contemporary little screen fare. Modern choices, increasingly, are typified by ongoing plot-lines unfolding over years, story arcs and character evolution sprinkled among proliferating, interwoven sub-plots throughout five, six, seven (or sometimes more) seasons. Contrast ST: TOS (and other contemporaneous network programming): required to serve-up respectable, self-contained and more or less coherent chunks of storytelling entertainment in under one hour.
All that considered? While a handful of ST: TOS’ nearly eighty outings were inescapably dreadful, its regular stabs at fairly ambitious, somewhat-nuanced, primetime theater still deserve their props; and generated not a few of early television’s genuinely great moments. The adventures of the USS Enterprise’s crew were definitely ahead of their time; that’s probably, bottom line, why the series consistently under-performed ratings-wise and got the ax after a modest three-season run.
But who can gainsay the unreproducible chemistry of Kirk, Spock and McCoy? Sure, William Shatner’s overacting could make Charlton Heston look like Kevin Costner by comparison — but the former was perfect in the role of a devoted, obsessive ship’s captain leading his people into and out of peril.
This first Star Trek had soul. While all of its successors boasted technical superiority artistically, they also were hampered — at times, at least — by a glossy sterility with which the original series rarely struggled. James Tiberius Kirk, his impassive Vulcan sidekick and “Bones” — along with Scotty, Chekov, Sulu, Uhuru, et al — were never boring. And their engaging interchanges hold up well upon fresh, repeated viewings.
Despite the previously referenced 1960’s media constraints, the franchise managed to hit some lovely, even periodically profound notes:
— As rushed and ultimately faulty as is the script for “The City on the Edge of Forever” (widely considered ST:TOS’ gold-standard) that episode heartbreakingly probed some provocative questions.
— “Amok Time”? The depths of Kirk and Spock’s friendship quintessentially on display – then, their otherworldly, hand-to-hand, to-the-death combat? Spock: “I have killed my Captain; and my friend.” Can’t beat that one.
— “Specter of the Gun”? Bizarre, surreal, riveting. ”Faith” prevailing over hopeless circumstances. Those spectral, genuinely creepy Earp Brothers.
— “The Trouble with Tribbles”: a stab at galactic comedy I didn’t quite “get” as a kid. I confess, I’ve come to appreciate it.
During BBC’s Trek-a-thon I unexpectedly caught one I’ve no memory of ever having seen. Titled “Metamorphosis”, it dealt quite beautifully with themes of companionship and the glory of what it means to be a human being. A pleasant surprise, but shouldn’t have been that much of one since this space opera’s weekly installments routinely addressed transcendent issues.
True enough, Star Trek creator, screenwriter/producer Gene Rodenberry, might not have seemed like the most natural suspect for dealing with eternal issues. Hardly a religious man, he was, point of fact, rather outspokenly anti-religion, not a fan of Christianity and once identified himself as a “pagan”. Rejecting the supernatural and any orthodox apprehension of God, Rodenberry was a “humanist” in the most unfortunate sense of that term. (In 1991, he was awarded an “Arts Award” from the American Humanist Association.)
That said, earlier in his career Rodenberry received kudos from the American Baptist Convention for weaving “Christian truth and the application of Christian principles” into his scripts — elements which somehow managed to surmount his regrettable impieties and often landed smack dab in Star Trek‘s narratives. Meditations on personal sacrifice, friendship, good v. evil, tolerance, forgiveness, compassion and other “godly” topics abound.
That’s a far cry from my initial exposure to the series, which so traumatized me I’ve never forgotten it. Fifty years on, I’ve come to discover much more worth remembering about Star Trek: The Original Series.
Image: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26911344