It is hard to imagine that the original Star Trek series is now fifty years old.
It is also difficult to think of any cultural entity, certainly not a TV show, that has achieved a comparable level of cultural penetration or longevity. So much of Star Trek – and not even the movie franchise or TNG, DS9 and the later iterations, but just that original TV series – has become cultural short-hand.
The series has been endlessly paid homage to or parodied, and Star Trek may be the most referenced pop cultural phenomenon – certainly the most referenced TV series – of all time.
Even individual episodes have acquired their own vast mythology around them and have become cultural points of reference: take ‘Mirror Mirror’, for example, which not only spawned spin-off attempts to recapture that magic in two subsequent Star Trek series’ (both DS9 and Enterprise), but has been parodied countless times over the years (in South Park and Futurama, for example). So much so that people who don’t even know about the original Star Trek episode are nevertheless entirely familiar with the idea of evil or inverted versions of Good Guys coming from alternate universes (the episode even has a band – ‘Spock’s Beard’ – named after the ‘evil’ goatee Leonard Nimoy sports in the story; and if anyone has seen the South Park parody of ‘Mirror Mirror’, featuring Eric Cartman with a Spock-like goatee, it’s hilarious).
And even as someone who’s grown up on Trek and watched The Next Generation as an older kid and then the other Trek series’ that were to come, I still prefer TOS to TNG. I mean I like TNG as much as anyone else does, but it just doesn’t match the magic of Shatner, Nimoy, Kelly and all the groundbreaking sci-fi and madness of the original series, from Organians and Greek gods to Tribbles and Horta. And although Deep Space Nine stands as my absolute favorite series for a whole host of reasons, TOS is a close second.
My own life-long love affair with Star Trek began as a child growing up in the eighties and watching the re-runs on the BBC. My father – who was an immigrant and learnt English as his second language – was already a fan of the show, from having grown up in the seventies. Living in the era I did, I actually cheated and had already seen The Wrath of Khan as a kid before I saw even a single episode of the original series – which you could regard as good or bad; but seeing Ricardo Montalban in ‘Space Seed’ *after* you’ve already seen Wrath of Khan is probably, I imagine, more interesting than experiencing it the other way around (I could be wrong).
As a kid, there were lots of things in Star Trek I didn’t understand of course; I was mostly just enjoying seeing Shatner flex his Kirk-isms, and Spock and McCoy bantering like weary, lifelong relatives, and all the weird adventures, and enjoying the wonders and oddities of space. As I got older, I of course understood the episodes much better.
It is easy, from our vantage point now, to overlook how good so much of the series actually was – it is so ingrained into our culture by now that we almost take it for granted.
And I come back to rewatch TOS episodes endlessly. Literally, not a week goes by without me watching some random TOS episode; ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ one day, ‘The Squire of Gothos’ another day, and so on.
It is part of my cultural landscape, part of my psychology. In fact, I’ll be honest: you ever see that movie, Free Enterprise? The one where a kid grows up having visions of Captain Kirk, with William Shatner mystically showing up to counsel him in times of need? Well, when I was an early-to-mid teen, my real-life inner monologue featured Spock/Nimoy on a regular basis. It wasn’t a decision – just a natural psychological thing that I found happening; when I would struggle with something or try to counsel myself, I was in the voice of Spock/Nimoy (and with most of the logic too).
Now that I think about it as an adult, I suspect that the most rational/logical part of my mind had simply adopted Spock as an obvious ‘persona’.
I don’t do it anymore, of course; and actually when I was a little kid, I originally had inner monologues in the voice of Liono, Lord of the Thundercats. My point is not that I have mental problems, but that Star Trek is so embedded in so many people’s psychology, culture or points of reference, that it can be said to, at times, even become a part of one’s personality or psychological make-up. I touched on this somewhat in the post I wrote when Leonard Nimoy died.
Our modern mythologies have become an extraordinarily ever-present feature in our lives, our personal growth, our perception of the world, in the way that Greek or Roman myths, the Epic of Gilgamesh or even Biblical stories once were for previous generations: and Star Trek was doing it a decade before George Lucas gave us the first Star Wars movie.
Beyond culture and mythology, Star Trek was also the very practical inspiration for countless people to seek to become involved in the sciences, or become engineers, or join the space programme. I recall seeing an interview with the late Deforest Kelly, explaining how he had been moved to learn how many people had become doctors or gone into medicine because they had loved Doctor McCoy.
I’ve read or heard about people who use Star Trek to teach kids about not only science or space, but race relations, culture, society and all kinds of other things. No doubt, lots of people also became writers from love of Star Trek or went into television because of it.
It goes significantly beyond entertainment.
It is, however, very entertaining too, of course. What’s remarkable about TOS is how well it holds up even fifty years later. I mean, okay, some episodes don’t: but watch something like ‘The Immunity Syndrome’ today and it still holds up as solid science fiction, watch ‘The Trouble With Tribbles’ and it is still cute, funny or endearing in all the right places. Shatner never, ever gets old or boring to watch, Nimoy and Kelly never lose their magic touch, and I still feel a touch of comfort every time I hear the original series theme tune.
Even the terrible episodes – and there are some truly terrible episodes (‘The Way to Eden’ and ‘Spock’s Brain’ are just the tip of the iceberg; there are almost as many awful TOS episodes as there are good ones) – have the benefit of age, meaning that they’re forgivable on account of their vintage and their pioneering nature. We can watch some of the embarassing antics of ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ and laugh and still enjoy the nonsense that Shatner and Nimoy are being subjected to.
It is true that TNG, DS9 and more modern Trek probably has more universal significance or appeal now, whereas much of TOS feels very specific to its era – in the context of, for example, the Space Race, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, the hippy counter-culture and Woodstock, etc. And indeed those influences inform or find their way into a number of episodes, making some of TOS feel more era-specific than, say, TNG does. But that actually imparts an extra aura or vintage to the series, making it work as both an interesting cultural record of its time while also being a vision of the future.
And, in fairness, at its best, TOS transcends that and is simply quality science fiction.
What’s also remarkable is how well the series holds up even now. Sure, some of the science is now questionable and yes, the effects and props are sometimes tragic; but watch an episode like ‘The Immunity Syndrome’ and still holds up as quality science-fiction. You look at something like ‘The Menagerie’ and it displays an intelligence and thought process virtually unthinkable for a sixties TV show and in fact foreshadows the kind of things that would only be done in TV decades later.
As something of a Trek aficionado, I can note with interest that the first season of Star Trek may still stand as the strongest first season of any Trek series, far better than TNG. It may actually be the strongest single season of Trek at all (though DS9‘s later seasons would give it a run for its money). Yet this stuff was being produced in the sixties, where it was breaking extraordinary ground.
As for the misfires and embarassing episodes, we of course have to bear in mind that this series was the trailblazer, trying to do things that no one had done before in television: and they were bound to make mis-steps. Gene Roddenberry – affectionately referred to by fans as ‘The Great Bird of the Galaxy’) was a pioneer and a visionary, but much of what he did was also trial by error. It is clear from his official biography, which I devoured with fascination many years ago, that – although he had a considered and significant vision for what Star Trek should be in general terms – distilling that idealistic vision into suitable stories on an episode-by-episode basis wasn’t easy.
But that Roddenberry – who was a fascinating individual, and I highly recommend reading his biography – did have an idealistic vision of Star Trek isn’t in doubt. And this was one of the enduring appeals of the show, beyond just its entertainment value: it always presented an idealised, optimistic view of the human future and its place in the cosmos.
Particularly at the time of airing, during the midst of the Cold War, the racial tensions in America and other social or cultural difficulties, it instilled the optimism that all these problems were temporary and would some day be long forgotten as an ideal version of Humanity evolved towards bigger things. It would evolve towards those bigger things together – all races and creeds (which was why Roddenberry was so attached to having Nichelle Nichols in the principal cast and to casting the Russian Walter Koenig as a key crew member), working together with a focus on noble, high-minded things: science, learning, peace, the cosmos, and the mysteries of life.
That vision still resonates even now, in a world that still has as many serious problems – perhaps even more problems than in the sixties – and needs a vision for the future.
Beyond the original TV series itself – which unfortunately went out with an unspectacular whimper and a run of substandard episodes in its third season – it was the rather new phenomenon of the fan community that famously kept the Star Trek flame alive, while the series continued to draw new fans for years in its re-runs.
Within a few years of the series’ end, Kirk, Spock and co had become modern gods and the revival of the brand and evolution of the ‘franchise’ became written in the stars.
My most vivid experiences of original Star Trek are not from the series but from the films; specifically The Wrath of Khan and The Search For Spock, which I saw as young child in the mid-eighties. They made such a strong emotional impression on me and had such an impact on my own mythological landscape that I really have to credit those two movies for my lifelong love affair with Star Trek. While the film franchise, like the TV series itself, can be said to have been of mixed quality, it took me quite a long time to learn to accept Star Trek: The Next Generation when it came along, because it just wasn’t as familiar and comfortable as seeing Kirk, Spock, McCoy and co. Eventually I did develop a fondness of TNG; and I’m especially glad I did, because without it I probably would never have discovered the fabulousness of Deep Space Nine.
But for me, it always comes back to the original Star Trek. It is hardwired into my programming – like the V’Ger probe in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I invariably find myself coming back home to “seek The Maker”.
That’s one hell of a legacy for a small TV series from the sixties, which was cancelled after two years and was only brought back due to public demand. It’s a hell of a legacy for a quirky, odd little show that aired long before I was even born and yet has had such a hold and influence on me my entire life.
While Gene Roddenberry no doubt had ambitious visions for what Star Trek should be, I imagine he would be astonished at the continuing legacy and longevity of his little project and at the place it holds in our landscape.