Classic Trek: Yeah, It's Good

I am watching the first season of Classic Trek (birthday present!), and I have reached the conclusion that it was a pretty darn good television show.

I've alway viewed Classic Trek fondly as the granddaddy of the Star Trek universe, and I'm a fan of the movies. And there are episodes such as "Space Seed" and "City on the Edge of Forever" that are true classics in every sense of the word. Unfortunately, it is easy for Classic Trek's positives to get lost amid the silly music and blinking lights and the, by our standards, hopeless special effects. So, yes, us geeks like it, but otherwise . . .

That's how I approached my viewing: me and my geek-dom. Upon viewing the first season, I must make a case for the show as truly well-crafted television. I have listed some of my arguments below:

SPECIAL EFFECTS

I'll deal with the hard one first. Yes, by our standards, the bouncing ship on a string is a little pathetic, but considering the standards of the day, the special effects weren't too shabby. They are only slightly worse than Lucas' in the first Star Wars (which came along nearly ten years later). Star Trek effects were done on an extremely tight budget (it is hard to imagine, these days, how comparatively poor television used to be, even taking into account that Paramount executives were probably tightwads). The skill of the effects speaks to some very, very dedicated effects personnel.

Additionally, the science-fiction part of the effects is quite forward-thinking. I don't mean the wooshing doors which are just annoying. (As Gene Hackman says in Superman II, "With all this accumulated knowledge, when will these dummies learn to use a door knob?") But the ship's library is very smart (really kids, the Internet didn't exist back then) as is the turbolift (with handholds, which I like better than later designs) and the sickbay med panels (when I went to see my father in the hospital two years ago, we walk around his floor until we found the monitor that was tracking his heart information. Not really all that different!)

Okay, granted, there're a lot of bulbous chirping lights, but as Tom Paris points out on Voyager, garish lights you can snap on and off are a lot more fun than panels you just tap.

Out of all the technology on Star Trek, though, the thing I consider most prescient is the communicator. Sure, they had walkie-talkies back then, but it takes real smarts to imagine something as small as the communicator Roddenberry put into the crew's hands. Not until the last five years did cellphones reach that size.

SCIENCE-FICTION PLOTS

Classic Trek used every single standard science fiction plot ever invented, and then it reused them. There are the episodes where people age too quickly or too slowly or too weirdly. There are the episodes with evil androids (sorry, Data, although Lore was pretty evil too). There are the episodes with the kid(s) with telekinetic powers. There are the MUST DESTROY UTOPIA episodes. There are time travel episodes and false gods episodes ("Q" anyone?). Star Trek has them all and added a few really stupid ideas, like "Spock's Brain", just for fun.

What surprised me, watching the first season, is how seriously the writers took these ideas. I think in some corner of my mind (based, I imagine, on what I have read about Paramount at the time) I believed the studio never really "got" Star Trek. I must have transferred that information about the studio bosses to the Star Trek writers and assumed the writing was a hackneyed attempt to pretend to be sci-fi.

Well, that may have been the studio's attitude, but the writers themselve made a solid effort to create consistent episodes that work on a science-fiction level. That is, the sci-fi element is threaded through the plot, it isn't just dressing for the plot (which happened in the 1980's; I've written elsewhere about why that doesn't really bother me).

DIALOG

McCoy-Spock-Kirk exchanges are (rightly) touted as good writing. What I hadn't realized was how modern the dialog could get. There are a number of scenes where Kirk and McCoy have exchanges that could show up in Bones (Booth and Bones) or Stargate (Daniel and Jack). In the episode "Mudd's Women," McCoy is going on and on about why Mudd's women are so attractive; Kirk makes a suggestion to which McCoy responds, "Sure, but it wouldn't make my med panel go 'bleep'" at which point Kirk looks at him blankly and says, "I don't know what you mean." Kirk could be Bones saying, "I don't know what that means" to the latest pop culture reference from Booth. It is very funny. (And yes, I do think the sexual innuendo is deliberate, and yes, there is a lot more of it on Classic Trek, and yes, the studio heads probably didn't get it.)

FINAL THOUGHTS

Three Seasons: The first season of Classic Trek appears to be the best. I've rented episodes from season 2 and season 3, and even the best of those seasons ("Turn-about Intruder" and "The Enterprise Incident") don't show the attentiveness I have seen so far in the Season 1 episodes.

Spock-Kirk-McCoy: When I teach Argument/Persuasion to my composition students, I usually describe "Spock" as the logical approach to argument; "Kirk" as the emotional approach; and "McCoy" as the ethical approach. I now think I've been wrong. Kirk has been stereotyped as an "overgrown boyscout": no brains, lots of brawn, action, action, action. And of course, Tim Allen did a magnificent protrayal of this stereotype in Galaxy Quest.

But after watching Season 1, I think Kirk is actually the ethical member of the triumvirate: he is the one who makes decisions based on what is best for humanity or best for his crew (after getting Spock and McCoy's input). It isn't his fault that the writer's change his moral base (ethics needs a moral base) every episode!

I also think Shatner had it in him to be a better actor than he has been treated. I think nowadays with all the money television has, he would have gotten a good coach who could have helped him smooth out some of that start-stop dialog. His sense of comedic timing is impeccable, and his physical acting (other than when he is falling out of chairs) is excellent; he obviously understood how the role was supposed to be played (as did Nimoy with Spock, only apparently Nimoy annoyed people less when he made his demands).

Utopia v. Dystopia: Star Trek often paints itself as a utopia-centered show (and yes, okay, Roddenberry wanted it to be utopian). However, the first season of Classic Trek is much more dystopia-centered than utopia-centered. I believe that Star Trek, ultimately, is a dystopia phenomenom and that its dystopia status is inevitable; in fact, I would argue that all science-fiction writers eventually end up dystopia writers since dystopia provides conflict. However, I will grant that Star Trek tried really, really hard to be utopian in the 1980's.

TELEVISION

1 comment:

ZZMike said...

It's been a long time since I saw a Star Trek episode. (Anyone under 30 has never seen a first-run episode.)

There were some fine writers in those days: Harlan Ellison (City on the Edge of Forever), to name just one.

I'd always thought of McCoy as the Dionysian character, and Spock as the Apollonian. Kirk's forte was making the absolutely correct decision instantly (even when it came to rigging the test).

For the people behind the uniforms, James Doohan stands out. He was a real trouper - going to cons anyway when he was too ill to go. Not just that; he was quite a guy, and I'd rather have met him than any of the others.

There's a kind of "home movie" documentary, where Shatner and Nimoy sit in the garden behind Nimoy's house and talk about the series and about their lives.

One thing stands out - they never mention a single one of the rest of the cast, except one short reference.