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Happy 50 Year Mission!
So, today is the 50th anniversary of the original airing of the first episode of the original series of Star Trek. Only three years late, Trek! ;)

It’s not something I’ve ever really talked about extensively online, but I like Star Trek. I like it rather a lot to be honest, or perhaps more accurately it’s been one of my pop-cultural touchstones for as long as I can remember. It’s not as intense as my obsession with Doctor Who (I don’t think I’d presume to claim to be a card-carrying Trekker; they probably have entrance exams and everything before you get granted a licence), but it’s something I keep coming back to, and watching, and even thinking about in a fannish way from time to time, although I’ve never to my knowledge committed Trek fic. No, not even the ur-text of all fanfic everywhere, Kirk/Spock…

TOS is definitely my first love, where Trek is concerned. I think it would be fair to say that I dig the later incarnations in proportion to their age. All of the later series, I think, have lots of standout episodes and great actors playing great characters, but there’s something about them, something I find it hard to put my finger on, that I find dissatisfying. I think it’s that the later Treks seem to have a certain smugness about them, a certain self-referential self-regard. At some point, I think Trek started believing in its own “canon” and technobabble, and its writers started thinking that obscure bits of made-up technology or arcane aspects of the setting were sufficient to hang entire stories on rather than, you know, themes and ideas and good writing. That thing often remarked about 80s Who, that the worst thing that can happen to a genre property is it starting to be made by and for its fans to the exclusion of “civilians,” was definitely the case, to an extent, with 90s Trek.

TNG is the best of the latter-day bunch, I would probably say if anybody pressed me, but it has a certain blandness to it. Even when TOS failed, it failed interestingly, I would argue, or at the very least entertainingly. And it failed a lot less often than it is perhaps fashionable to think nowadays.

Let’s be honest, TOS is a lot less progressive, ground-breaking or prescient than hardcore Trekkers would like to think. If you think it was doing anything radically new, watch Forbidden Planet or read some 50s Heinlein stories. Admittedly, it did probably bring the sorts of tropes that had been going around in print science fiction to a mainstream television audience for the first time. As far as predicting anything either socially or technologically, remember that massive war that broke out in the 1990s when eugenically-bred supermen took over a quarter of the globe? Or the time those Romulan hackers stopped the Enterprise cold with a DDoS attack on Starfleet Command’s communications infrastructure? Me neither.

As to progressiveness, for every anti-war parable or first interracial kiss (an endlessly debated topic; was it the first? Was it a kiss?! Does it count if it’s done under alien psychic control??!), TOS has Kirk making an impassioned and stunningly mendacious speech that could have been penned by Robert McNamara about how the Vietnam War is entirely justified, or Klingons made up in virtual yellowface (glittery yellowface, but still), or whole planets of blond-haired Yankee (or Yang, anyway) lovers of freedom fighting against vicious Asian Communist (or Kohm?) oppression. Hippies are, without exception, naïve, annoying, and in the thrall of nasty guru figures who will almost certainly lead them to their doom. TOS is also, from time to time, almost surreally sexist to modern eyes and ears, but that is hardly an uncommon thing in pop-cultural artefacts of the era.

It’s easy to enumerate such failings, of course, and to forget that while the fans may overstate the case, compared to the sort of buttoned-down affairs occupying US TV primetime drama slots in 1966, at the time Trek almost certainly was a massive, brightly-coloured, breath of fresh air. It’s easy to dismiss the first interracial kiss as not being what it is presented as by Trekkers, but also easy to fail to understand what a striking image it must nevertheless had been in that time and place, giving hope to those that needed it and anguish to those that deserved it. Sulu and Uhura may be secondary characters (let’s be honest, everybody in TOS who isn’t Kirk, Spock or McCoy is a secondary character), but just the fact of their existence was a step forward for the era. Similarly, even though Trek can’t quite shed every vestige of its Cold War US zeitgeist, it really is trying its hardest most of the time. The basic message of hope and optimism, of human beings overcoming their vices and prejudices and working together to build a better future, is easy to sneer at in our more cynical times (or if you’re British, I suspect, a bit), but isn’t hope better than cynicism? Star Wars may be massively entertaining, but isn’t relatively peaceful (or not needlessly aggressive) exploration a better thing to aspire to, one day?

The other thing that’s easy to forget about TOS, especially when you’ve seen it as many times as some of us no doubt have, is how good it is artistically, at least in its first two seasons. And even Season 3, at its worst moments, is hugely enjoyable to my way of thinking. The series as a whole does admittedly have its misses as well as its hits, but when it hits, it hits. The writing is deceptively smart at times, but when you pay attention to some of the credited names (proper science fiction writers writing proper science fiction?!) you can see why. The actors also can’t be overlooked. Shatner is hammy, of course he is, but sometimes it really works. Leonard Nimoy, it isn’t said often enough, is stunningly good in the role that, at times to his chagrin, defined the rest of his career. He is in many ways the real star of TOS. And just look at the production design and values, the spacecraft, the costumes, the lizard-man outfits. Even if it looks cheap now, at the time they were allegedly spending more on an episode of Trek than on a whole season of Doctor Who (but we love our vacuum hoses and bubblewrap, don’t we, eh?).

And I think the other reason why it behoves us to commemorate this anniversary is that Trek, in the aftermath of the original series and during its growth and evolution beyond, has been so immensely influential in English-speaking pop culture (and well beyond, I think). Everybody knows what Star Trek is, even people who have never watched an episode, or would want to watch one. Beam me up, Scotty (never said, of course), set phasers to stun, to boldly go where… You get the idea.

So, raise a glass of Saurian brandy, or some of Scotty’s “green” stuff, or whatever that stuff is those little gold people in Journey to Babel are having. And let’s hope Trek is still boldly going in some form in another 50 years.

This entry has also been posted at Please feel free to comment either here or there.

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Indeed, may it be another 50 years of boldly going where no one has gone before...


Good points, all. I actually find TOS hard to watch these days, mostly due to Kirk being the sort of hero who really irritates me (I love DS9, but that's the only Trek I've stayed with over the years). I have been a big fan in days past though, and used to have loads of TOS-era books. So much potential for story-telling, even if - as you say - it's not as inventive as its more devout fans like to think it is.

So yes, happy birthday Trek. You're not as good as Babylon 5 or Blake's 7, and you should have been about Sulu, Uhura and Chekov, who frankly are much less irritating than Kirk and McCoy! But something that gives that much pleasure to so many is certainly doing something right. And there's not much that's still going strong after fifty years. (Most of the things I fall in love with struggle to last for one!)

The funny thing about Trek is that it nearly went the same way as most of the other series of that era, cancelled after three seasons after not particularly setting the world on fire ratings-wise once the initial novelty had worn off. Somehow, though, the rest was history. Clearly, it captured a lot of imaginations and its legend only grew in later re-runs. I suppose Doctor Who has something of a similar history, with the fan-dominated media of the 90s, out of which the new series grew, except that TNG and the movies still had Roddenberry providing input, at least at first, and of course Who's original incarnation lasted much longer on TV than Trek's.

Star Trek is an interesting ball of contradictions, but it gains my respect for what it tried/tries to be even if I don't know if it's ever totally succeeded. It is both entertaining and optimistic, which isn't the easiest combination to find.

It's also weird, because its definitely the first SciFi I was exposed to as a child, but it's not a show I've actively watched until the last few years. I'm not a huge TOS fan, or even really a huge TNG fan, but I fell down a rather deep DS9 hole this summer and think I finally found a Trek that I really like. TOS and TNG kind of rub me the wrong way with how perfect the Federation is and the idea that utopia has already been obtained. The idea that utopia is always a work in progress that will always be improved on over time - and that one version of utopia will never suit all comers, and that's OKAY - struck me as much more realistic.

Edited at 2016-09-08 11:52 pm (UTC)

I agree; it's easy to be cynical about the big claims dedicated Trek fans make on its behalf, but its heart was in the right place however many period-specific slip-ups it may have made.

I also agree that one of the things I do find deeply dissatisfying about Trek is the self-satisfied nature of the utopia it depicts the Federation as being. It isn't quite as noticeable in TOS, I think, possibly because all of the failures on various points due to the fact that it was made by a bunch of male TV writers in the 60s kind of unintentionally counteract the goody two-shoes stuff. TNG is more morally upstanding on that score, but also a bit more boring imho. DS9 does try its hardest to inject a bit of realism, with very good results in numerous episodes, but I think I'm a bit biased against it because Babylon 5 was doing something very similar at around the same time, and imho doing it better.

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