Star Trek: Biography of an Institution

 

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

 

Forty years ago, Star Trek was a lost cause.

ItÕs hard to remember that now, when the series has become an institution. Most of the people watching the latest movie incarnation werenÕt even born when the original series first aired in 1966, or even when it was canceled in 1969.

Being a science fiction fan, I got to see the original Star Trek before anyone saw it on TV. Gene Roddenberry himself previewed one of the first season episodes, ÒWhere No Man Has Gone Before,Ó at the World Science Fiction Convention in Cleveland. It got a standing ovation from a packed house.

ItÕs hard to appreciate today how epochal that preview was. Literary science fiction then was a marginal genre, frowned upon by most readers and most scholars. Sf in films and on TV – already known as sci-fi (a term literary sf fans despised) was even more marginal. It consisted almost entirely of creature features – giant ants (Them!) and the like – and allegorical fantasy (Twilight Zone). There had been occasional classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still, but they were few indeed. Back in the fifties, there had been a few chintzy TV series like Tom Corbett, Space Cadet and Captain Video – all aimed at kids  -- and a few low-budget anthology series, most notably Tales of Tomorrow.

Compared to all of that, Star Trek was breathtaking. It began with the Enterprise itself. It looked nothing like a contemporary rocket ship or a flying saucer. There was the Federation, a community of worlds. That too was like nothing ever seen on the screen before, although it had long been a staple of literary sf. There was the idealism – the series, through its background and characters, believed in the future. And not just any future, but a decent future, in which humanity had resolved all political and racial conflicts which then seemed insoluble.

And, of course, there was Spock. More than Captain Kirk, or Lieutenant Uhura, or Bones McCoy or any of the other crewmen, he was the anchor of the series, its icon. As science fiction aliens go, he was a small step – and yet, for the mass media, he was a giant leap.

Older fans like myself are at risk of seeing the original series through the tinted glasses of nostalgia. Yes, there were some terrific episodes. Yes, some of them were scripted by genre writers like Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon and Norman Spinrad (David GerroldÕs sf career was truly launched by ÒThe Trouble with Tribbles.Ó). But we tend to forget that the series was also primitive by todayÕs standards.

There were the episodes set on ÒalienÓ planets inhabited entirely by Wild West gunslingers, Italian gangsters and Roman gladiators – and shot on ParamountÕs back lot. There were the cheesy outfits, including the obligatory miniskirts for female crew members. Lieutenant Uhura, the only black face on the crew, never seemed to have anything to do but open hailing frequencies – a despairing Nichelle Nichols almost quit the show until Martin Luther King talked her out of it.

By todayÕs production standards, the original series was cheesy – thatÕs why the current DVD versions have been remastered. But even remastering canÕt compensate for the cheap sets, the cheap costuming and make-up (Remember the original version of the Klngons?). And all was not harmonious in  the Star Trek community; Ellison had been feuding with the producers ever since D.C. Fontana rewrote his script for ÒThe City on the Edge of Forever,Ó and there was a bitter falling-out between Nichols and William Shatner.

Whatever. Loyal fans managed to save the series from cancellation after the second season. But it could not survive the third season – the ratings simply werenÕt there. Fans also got NASA to name the first space shuttle the Enterprise. It never flew. Roddenberry couldnÕt revive Star Trek as a live action series, so he tried a cartoon version. That flew for only one season, 1973-74.

And then nothing happened, until 1980, with Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And that was only because of something that happened midway between the cartoon series and the first feature film: Star Wars. Whatever else one may say of him, George Lucas did something Gene Roddenberry had failed to do: create a mass audience for sci-fi on the screen. Even then, there didnÕt seem to be enough of an audience to justify a return to the small screen -- an attempt to mount a new TV series in 1978 was abandoned (About the same time, the original version of Battlestar Galactica didnÕt survive its maiden season.). Not until three feature films with the original cast had appeared did Star Trek: The Next Generation make it.

That marked the real beginning of Star Trek as an institution, capable of surviving the original characters and producing spin-offs with yet other locales and characters: Deep Space Nine, Voyager and, finally, Enterprise. By the time that last left the air in 2005, the success of Star Trek had created an audience large enough for other sci-fi series by other hands that took refreshingly different approaches: Babylon 5, Stargate, Farscape and the new Battlestar Galactica.

The new Star Trek movie, as you doubtless already know, tries to reimagine the original series. Tries, but fails abysmally, as Velvet Belle Tree demonstrates in a review here. Evidently, that doesn't matter to the younger generation. The movie looks to be a mega-hit, and will doubtless spawn a series of sequels or another TV series set in its retcon version of Kirk and Spock and the Enterprise. When the Enterprise spin-off series ended four years ago with dwindling ratings, some critics thought it was the end of the Star Trek era. Perhaps a new era has begun, but not an auspicious one.

Reimagining the series wouldnÕt have been a bad idea in itself; J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, got together with Bruce Zabel a few years ago to propose just that, but got the brush-off from Paramount, where they were Ònot even willing to talk about Star Trek.Ó Their version would have started with a two-hour pilot in which Kirk and Bones McCoy would meet Spock for the first time, with each season  chronicling a year in their five-year mission. They even wanted writers like Michael Crichton and Stephen King to script episodes. Perhaps their version of the reimagined series would have been better conceived. WeÕll never know. WeÕll never know whether they could have assembled a better cast – Leonard Nimoy played Spock better just raising his eyebrow that Zachary Quinto could manage over two hours. As for Chris Pine as Kirk, the less said the better. But nobody in the J.J. Abrams movie had any real charisma.

Popular culture is like the air we breathe, and Star Trek is part of that air. It is something inescapable, even when it annoys us. Some literary sf purists may be put off by hard-core Trekkies who think the series invented science fiction out of thin air – including such concepts as the Prime Directive (L. Sprague de Camp didnÕt call it that, but he had it in his Viagens Interplanetarias series more than a decade before.). Yet Star Trek has influenced genre sf and genre sf reading – for one thing, it helped bring more women readers and writers into science fiction; for another, it is an obvious influence on such genre sf works as David WeberÕs Honor Harrington series.

It has doubtless influenced the Aurora Universe; without Star Trek, Sharon Best might well have stuck to the adventures of Aurora and friends on Earth. The artist now known as Shadar obviously read some genre sf – kintzi are derived from Larry NivenÕs kzinti. But he got the Velorian Prime Directive straight from Star Trek, and when he first conceived the character of Alisa KimÕVallara, she was to have a status similar to Spock on Kelsorian ships. And the idea of rival galactic powers in prolonged conflict also came from Star Trek – not from such literary sources as Edward E. SmithÕs space operas or Olaf StapledonÕs cosmic histories.

But is there a future for Star Trek itself? Velvet notes that the new movie is full of explosions and empty of other content. In other words, full and sound and fury, signifying nothing. As it happens, the theater where we saw the movie also showed previews of two other summer movies – G.I. Joe and Transformers. From the trailers, they seem to be full of the very same kind of sound and fury. Is this the future of action-adventure and science fiction on the big screen? I hope not.