50 Years Ago This Week – Star Trek!

Since September 8, 1966, we have lived in a world that has included Star Trek, a television show that made a small difference, in a good way.  That it would endure for fifty years, spawning endless descendants, sequels, books, movies, and subcultures, is astonishing.  (The show bounced around NBC’s schedule for three years before it was finally cancelled, a casualty of its perennially poor audience share.)  That it has, finally and perhaps inevitably, been largely reduced to an assembly-line mass-consumption multiplex blockbuster product-package is disappointing. 

But it held out longer than most.  And when it was great . . . well, it was really great.  One reason why a late-60s space saga so effortlessly endures is that The Original Series (they call it “TOS” now), isn’t really a science fiction show, it’s a frontier show—that is, it is about a diverse group of intimate comrades living by their wits and embracing unknown challenges as they venture far from the security blanket of established civilization. (Creator Gene Roddenberry had pitched Star Trek to network brass as “Wagon Train to the stars.”)  So if you think the sets are cheesy, get over it—and embrace its minimalist expressionism that sketches the context of the story and stays out of the way of the drama.  (If you want to see a great science fiction show, watch The Next Generation, skipping of course the first dismal season.  By the way, and I don’t mean to nitpick, on that show they actually don’t spend much time “exploring strange new worlds,” they seem more or less on the job in the busier sections of the quadrant.)

Star Trek was in many ways a creature of its time, imbued with an implicit, well-intentioned Cold-War liberalism, with the best and worst that perspective had to offer: optimism that the arc of the modernizing future bends, with a little help, towards justice; relentlessly progressive on race (daringly so for its time); utterly backward on gender issues.  But in other ways it was, and is, timeless.  Push back the cardboard walls, set down the Styrofoam boulders, and realize that Star Trek is largely about the profound friendship between three men: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy—and the (properly) irresolvable philosophical tugs-of-war between them.  Some of the episodes traffic in pretty heady metaphysical stuff—and you should dive in and join the argument.  But at a practical level the show also teaches three basic tenets that you can pick up as a child (as I did), and carry with you for the rest of your life: (1) Life is an exploration. (2) Try and do good. (3) Follow the rules, but the real prime directive (one that, unlike the nominal “prime directive” of non-interference, is never violated on the show) is to stick by your friends no matter what—even if that means breaking all the rules.  

Here are 10 favorites from The Original Series, in order of their original broadcast date.  It was pretty easy to get down to a top twenty, but really hard to get down to ten, so if your favorite was omitted, that is probably why.  (Or I just hated that one.)  In any event, feel free to drop a note registering complaints, or just pick up the whole series and decide for yourself.  No matter what, don’t fail to watch this Saturday Night Live classic

-What Are Little Girls Made Of? (Season 1, Episode7)   Or, what does it mean to be human?  Fans of Blade Runner ought to check this one out.

-The Conscience of the King (1/13)   Hamlet, War Crimes, historical memory, phasers on overload, and everybody knows she’s a femme fatale.  This one has everything.

-Balance of Terror (1/14)   This episode can be used to teach deterrence theory.  (I’ve done it myself – it hasn’t aged a day).  But nothing matters more than the quiet conversation between Kirk and McCoy.  “What if I’m wrong?”  (My local TV station used to cut that scene to add a commercial.)

-Space Seed (1/22)   With Ricardo Montalban, of course; and McCoy cool with a knife at his jugular, and a terrific line that remains too-relevant today: “We offered the world order!”  Follow along to the nifty Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the best of the movies that followed.

-The City on the Edge of Forever (1/28)   A great short film.  See it now.  With Joan Collins (who a few months later would show up as Siren on Batman).  It’s about getting to Kirk’s last line: “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

-Amok Time (2/1)   “I have killed my captain, and my friend.”  Spock pushed to the limit, and once again, to hell with the rules.  I’ve always thought McCoy’s solution to the problem was extremely risky. 

-Journey to Babel (2/10)   A minority choice, perhaps, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the relationship between Spock and his father.  Follow this up with Sarek’s moving swan song on The Next Generation (season 3, episode 23), and his mind-meld with Picard.

-The Immunity Syndrome (2/18)   Just another day at the office: what is the meaning of life; who gets to go on the suicide mission.  And who knew Spock was your Jewish Grandmother?  “Tell Doctor McCoy . . . he should have wished me luck.”

-The Tholian Web (3/9)   Kirk is presumed dead, and the Enterprise, of course, is in mortal danger.  Spock and McCoy, at each other’s throats, meet in the captain’s quarters to view his final orders. “What would you have me say?”

-Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (3/15)   A terrific allegory about race, it goes without saying (and I was certainly fooled the first time).  But watch for the scene where everyone lines up behind Kirk: “I am the captain of this ship, and it will follow whatever course I set for it, or I will order its destruction.” All that, and Frank Gorshin, too.