Friday, September 9, 2016

50 Years of Star Trek

Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek which is cause for celebration and reflection. Yes, this blog has dedicated a lot of space to Doctor Who but first among my sci-fi fandom was Star Trek.

I grew up on the perpetual reruns of those 79 episodes of the original Star Trek. My first and most vivid memory was from The Corbomite Maneuver which had the large projected death-like alien head. That image scarred me for life and if there was any chance of forgetting, the alien head popped up near the end of the  closing credits of every episode. The fact that the actual alien behind the big pale space head was actually a creepy looking boy alien played by Clint Howard (Ron Howard’s brother) didn’t make things any easier for me. I was genuinely disturbed and a little freaked out. 

At the core of Star Trek was Capt. Kirk and his trusted advisors and friends: Spock of the planet Vulcan with a dedication to logic and Bones, a Southern gentleman doctor who followed his heart. While Kirk got to punch bad guys and make out with lots of beautiful women, it was Spock who captured my imagination. Part alien, part human, Spock was a part of... and apart from... two different worlds. He was super smart and very strong but Spock was an ultimate outsider, a status I tended to empathize with.

The best of Star Trek still holds up amazingly well after so many years. City of the Edge of Forever and The Trouble With Tribbles are classics worthy of being called classics. But other episodes were also memorable for being quite good. Balance of Power, Errand of Mercy, The Devil In the Dark, Arena, Shore Leave, Journey To Babel, Amok Time. And yes, there were other episodes that were memorable for not being very good at all. The Armageddon Factor, Spirit of the Gun, Spock’s Brain. That last one, if you’re not aware, is about how aliens steal (wait for it!)… Spock’s brain.

Good and bad, those 79 episodes were all Star Trek fans had to sustain us. Then in the wake of Star Wars, Paramount decided to dust off the Star Trek franchise as a major motion picture. The imaginatively named Star Trek: The Motion Picture arrived in theaters in 1978 with lots and lots of long, lingering shots of the starship Enterprise and lots and lots of scenes with people starring pensively at really expensive lighting effects. The film was derisively called Star Trek: The Motionless Picture and believe me, that name fits.

It was the second film, Star Trek II: Electric Boogaloo… er, The Wrath of Kahn that saved Star Trek by presenting a leaner, more nimble adventure filled with engaging character development and some damn fine scenery chewing acting ham. This was the movie that gave us...


In 1987, a new television venture was launched with Star Trek: The Next Generation with an all new ship and an all new crew. There was trepidation about this enterprise (pun intended), what with a bunch of interlopers treading upon the hallowed ground of our treasured memories of the original series. However, this was NEW Star Trek on television for the first time in nearly 20 years so fans gave it a shot.

There were a couple of shaky years where Next Gen struggled to find its groove but by the 3rd season, the new Star Trek settled in as a beloved fan favorite. Star Trek: The Next Generation really came into its own at the end of the 3rd season with the cliffhanger ending to The Best of Both Worlds, an epic confrontation between the Federation and human/automaton hybrids known as the Borg.

Personal story: back in the days before the ubiquitous internet spoiled all our surprises, I had no idea season 3 would end on a cliffhanger. Next Gen had never done a two part episode. But as I was watching The Best of Both Worlds, I realized we were running out of time for Riker to save Picard from the Borg. Then, with Picard still on board the Borg ship, Riker gives the order to fire and we fade to black.

This is what I had to say to that: "Wait! What? WHAT? No, they can't do that! Did they do that? No they didn't! They did? No! No, no, no, no! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!"

The success of Next Gen led to two other spin off series being created. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was set on a space station and unique to Star Trek, dealt in long form storytelling with extended plot arcs centered around political intrigue, religion and war. 

It was a dark series that did not shy away from the tougher questions that Kirk or Picard could fly away from at the end in their respective series. In many ways, Deep Space Nine was the superior of all the Star Trek series.

The next spin off was Star Trek: Yoyager and is less fondly recalled. The premise is a Federation starship gets zapped far away from the resources and support of the Federation. In fact, the journey home will take 70 years. It is an intriguing concept but one that seems to very rarely impact the ship and the crew. Crew members died with no concern that crew members were a finite resource. Shuttle craft would get destroyed with little concern as to where the replacements were coming from. The social implications of a crew being forced to sustain themselves for a generation or more were never addressed.

On the other hand, Star Trek: Voyager gave us this:

God bless Jeri Ryan!

The next spin off took a look at the past. Star Trek: Enterprise was set in the generation before the original series and the earliest days of the Federation. 

The story of the first ship called Enterprise had potential. Metal plating in place of force fields. Shuttles instead of transporters. Someone had to figure out what other aliens were saying instead of relying on “magic” translation technology. I for one never really got into Enterprise. My daughter preoccupied a lot of our time. Or perhaps it was the basic premise of the series; I’m not big on stories looking back.

Or perhaps it was just Star Trek fatigue.  In 1987, a dearth of Star Trek episodes meant fans were starving for new adventures. 18 years later, 4 TV series and over 600 episodes, maybe Star Trek fans needed a rest.

The movies also fell from grace. After 6 films with the classic crew, the Next Generation cast stepped up for a series of four big screen outings. First Contact was a great entry for Picard and the gang but Nemesis was a hot mess and challenges The Final Frontier for worst Star Trek movie of all time.

In 2009, Star Trek got a reboot from director JJ Abrams with new actors playing the iconic characters of Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura and others from the classic series. 

There have been three movies in this series which is established as being in an alternative time line to allow for this version of the classic crew to forge its own destiny. I've enjoyed this new series for the most part although I felt Into Darkness was a misstep. (Sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch.) 

In 2017, Star Trek is back on TV for the first time in 12 years with Star Trek: Discovery. 

The new series will help launch a new streaming service being introduced by CBS. Not sure what my plans are for that. The first episode will be aired on broadcast TV but the rest will go through CBS's fee based streaming service so I would have to pony up some $ to see what's up and I'm not sure I'm ready to do that.

Anyway, kudos to Star Trek and for providing me with years of enjoyable entertainment. Yes, Doctor Who has my heart now but you never forget your first love. Keep boldly going, Star Trek, where no one has gone before.

Everyone, remember to be good to one another. I'll be back with another post tomorrow.

I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You 

"Star Trekkin'", 
written by John O'Connor, Grahame Lister and Rory Kehoe

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