Thursday, 10 December 2015

STAR TREK: The Original Series revisited

Kirk, Spock, 'Bones' and co. are back on TV on their never-ending 5 year mission, and it's just as much fun as last time.

Spock, Kirk and Mr Scott: still boldly going.
(Image copyright: CBS Action)

‘There’s Klingons on the starboard bow, starboard bow/It’s worse than that, he’s dead Jim, dead Jim/We come in peace, shoot to kill, shoot to kill…’ The original series of Star Trek, which followed the adventures of the explorer ship USS Enterprise in the 23rd century (between 1966 and 1969), was a perennial feature of the childhoods of 1970s children in the UK. It’s no wonder that by 1987 its catchphrases – or what people thought were its catchphrases; Captain Kirk (William Shatner) never actually said ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ – could be parodied in a pop song, at the same time reflecting how affectionately the series had become regarded in British popular culture.

Among repeats of MacGyver and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the good old CBS Action channel is currently repeating the technicolour adventures of Starfleet’s Kirk, Science Officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy (DeForest Kelley), as well as the aforementioned Chief Engineer Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott (James Doohan, actually from Canada), among others.

Original (or classic) Star Trek comes from a TV science fiction zone when special effects and budgets weren’t as sophisticated as they are now. Like classic Doctor Who, it rests on the quality of the performances and the writing. Who can forget the matinee idol, coiffured heroism of Shatner’s Kirk, together with his Rank Has Its Privileges preference for snogging the episode’s female guest star, as well as his habit of tactically ripping his shirt across his biceps (sent up beautifully in Galaxy Quest)? Then there’s Nimoy’s still cool performance as the logical, half-Vulcan Spock, staying calm in the face of alien phenomena and moral dilemmas, while Kelley’s fiery Southern gentleman McCoy over reacts to his lack of emotion. Witnessing one such exchange, a character asks Kirk, ‘Are they enemies?’ The reply: ‘I don’t think they know.’

OK, from this distance it looks like the mechanical matching of character types – and it is – but the chemistry between the actors is so wonderful, and occasionally tongue in cheek, that you believe in the relationships.

Some things never change.
(Image copyright: CBS Action)
Amid all the nostalgic smiling at the character fun and the Enterprise crew lurching from side to side when under attack – which, understandably, became a staple of 1970s spoofs of the series – there are some well thought-out science fiction concepts. In some ways, original Trek was the successor to The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, anthology series which took as their central premise one different idea each week. Star Trek did that same thing, but framed the episode’s theme with a regular cast and a consistent fictional universe. For a series made in the 1960s, it’s also no surprise to find the Soviet empire represented by the Klingons, the communist Chinese by the Romulans and the Enterprise crew wary of incursions into their rivals’ territory, just as American jets were wary of Russian and Chinese airspace (or were supposed to be).
CBS Action is currently running the third series produced by Fred Freiberger, which is popularly reckoned to be the series that banged the nails in the coffin of Star Trek’s first incarnation. At this distance, though, the stories I’ve caught have been thought provoking and entertaining: there’s ‘Day of the Dove’, ‘The Mark of Gideon’, The Cloud Minders’… ‘The Enterprise Incident’, which I have no memory of seeing before, is an excellent story about an unstable scientist, imprinting his personality on an AI that hijacks the Enterprise and starts attacking Starfleet ships. ‘That Which Survives’ is genuinely eerie, as identical alien women, who when they turn sideways vanish in a thin line, are assigned to kill Kirk’s landing party on an artificial planet.

Kirk faces a planetary sit-in.
(Image copyright: CBS Action)
‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, one of the episodes that the BBC wouldn’t show due to its controversial content, is still disturbing today, so goodness knows what people thought in the ‘60s. God-like beings – there were a lot in Star Trek – compel the Enterprise crew into abusing themselves and each other, as well as performing the first inter-racial kiss on US television, between Kirk and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). At the dafter end of the scale is ‘The Way to Eden’ (left). I can sense that this story’s tale of space hippies, complete with their own hip lingo and freedom songs – and yes, Spock even joins them for a jam session – caused original fans to bury their heads in their hands. Its take on ‘60s youth culture has a certain charm, however, as well as a bitter ending: the brothers and sisters’ search for Eden ends with them poisoned by lethal fruit and burnt by acid grass, even though the planet they find appears idyllic. This beautifully simple parable about being careful what you wish for – a warning to America’s hippies, perhaps? – is rather undone by Spock saying he believes that one day, unlike Bono, they will find what they’re looking for.  

You always see something new. A revelation for me this time around was that Kirk, Bones and Scotty all admit to being or are considered lonely (and Spock only mates every 7 years). It’s unclear whether this is to convey the loneliness of a Starfleet officer’s calling, or excuse the tendency of male Enterprise crew to jump on the nearest female. Probably both.

I could go on about the series’ appeal: there’s the distinctive, drum-beating music whenever the Enterprise is under attack, the strange ‘Neee-oww’ sound when something weird happens, the comic-book simplicity and practicality of the primary coloured uniforms, that Doomsday Machine… It’s a cheaply made show, as the reuse of the same studio planet and bouncy rocks testifies but, like Doctor Who after it, these cut-price tales became the basis of an international franchise. That’s because the original episodes balanced relationships, drama and science fiction in equal measure to tell bloody good stories.

Kirk out.

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