Cosmic Channel Changer
Star Trek first aired in 1966 on NBC. Plagued by a low budget and even lower ratings, it ran for
three seasons and just shy of eighty episodes before it was finally cancelled. Despite its troubles,
however, it has remained the object of one of the most dedicated fan communities in the world
and made a mark on American culture like few other franchises have. I was honestly not
expecting much from it.
Being a lifelong fan of Star Wars, I grew up with science fiction being firmly rooted in action
and spectacle. What little I'd seen of Star Trek seemed boring and the more hardcore elements of
its fanbase seemed weird, even by my standards. That said, when a friend recommended I give
the series a go I agreed and now, having watched the original series, I find myself in the
unfortunate spot of having to admit I was wrong. Star Trek is a very good show and, at its best,
is easily the equal of Star Wars, if not its better.
There were some things I was right about. Star Trek can be slow and often falls on the side of the
odd. I watched it on Netflix and I would oftentimes find myself rolling my eyes at the
descriptions of each episode. Save for a few rare cases, the show has little in the way of a
through plot, instead following an adventure-of-the-week structure filled with scenarios that can
sound downright stupid when you read them aloud.
That said, the show generally does well at turning its frequent absurdity into something
watchable and often intriguing. One example that sticks out in my mind is the episode "Spectre
of the Gun." The episode sees the principal cast (Captain Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty and
Chekov) forced by angry aliens into a live-fire reenactment of the shootout at the O.K. Corral.
Forced to take on the role of the side that lost the fight, they spent the episode trying to escape
what looks like certain death.
On the one hand, the episode is little more than a clear attempt to pop the crew of the Enterprise
into a classic western scenario. That being the case, it's still fairly clever and never strays from
feeling like honest-to-goodness science fiction. It also serves as a good example of how the show
uses quality writing to overcome its sometimes zany premises. The crew eventually realizes that
everything they're experiencing is taking place in their heads. None of it is real and they can
only be killed if they believe in the illusion. The final showdown where they let their opponents
bombard them with gunfire winds up being legitimately tense, and ultimately gratifying when we
see that their plan has worked.
There are countless episodes like this one where I was skeptical going in but wound up utterly
committed to the story by its ends. It's one of the most skillful uses of episodic storytelling I've
ever seen in a show, and I would easily place it in the same tier as series like the Twilight Zone,
which also often impressed me with its "leap of faith" style of storytelling. An episode might
sound weird at the outset, but giving yourself to it and following it through to its end can lead to
some unexpected joys.
Like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek also uses its stories as social commentaries. While many of
the Cold War issues the show explored may no longer resonate on the same level they did when
Star Trek first aired, there are nonetheless no lack of poignant stories exploring issues like global
war, genocide, colonialism, religion and racism among others. Perhaps the most impressive thing
it does is the manner in which it establishes, from the get-go, a world where all races and nations
of humanity work together in peace and as equals. The crew of the Enterprise is made of people
of all skin types and it's treated as a non-issue. There is the occasional hammy speech about
togetherness and cooperation, but ultimately, Star Trek's strongest message is the one it conveys
through the subtlest means.
If the show can be criticized for one thing, it's the clear low budget nature of its production. Star
Trek did not have a lot of money to work with and it shows. The effects and make-up look cheap
and often cheesy. The monsters in the episode "Operation: Annihilate," for instance, look more
like breathing fake vomit than they do alien parasites. Likewise, the reptilian Gorn that Captain
Kirk fights in the famous "Arena" episode looks like he was assembled from a second rate
costume store. In many cases, the show doesn't even bother with costumes, having aliens look
inexplicably human. Even the infamous Klingons look like little more than regular people
wearing grey uniforms.
In a way, though, I'd cite this small budget as one of the show's strengths. Without fancy and
expensive effects to fall back on, Star Trek instead had to rely on its writing and the strength of
its actors' performances. It's become popular to poke fun at William Shatner for over-emoting at
times, but I found his and most of the other characters to be well done. Shatner's Kirk is
believable as an ultra-competent leader. Leonard Nimoy's Spock exhibits a tightly held stoicism
that nonetheless oozes personality, and DeForest Kelly's Dr. McCoy is wonderfully annoyed
throughout the show. His banter with Spock never failed to work a chuckle out of me.
Yes, there are moments of cheese, but most of the time the actors sink into their roles like well
worn shoes, making you believe wholeheartedly in their mission and the mission of the
Enterprise. There is, simply put, a sincerity and genuineness to Star Trek that is infectious. It's
intelligent but lacks cynicism. It gives grandiose speeches but also has quiet moments of
personal revelation that stick with you. It's a science fiction show, but one built on a foundation
of likable characters and human drama. Watching it, I came to understand why Trekkies have
adored this show for nearly fifty years and regret that it took me so long to find out.
Read more by Stewart Shearer