The Original Final Frontier
War is instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings with the blood of a million savage years on our hands, but we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers … but that we’re not going to kill today. - Kirk, “A Taste of Armageddon.”
So this little science fiction show goes on the air on CBS. The creator pitches it as a space western, “Wagon train to the stars.” Dedicated fan base, lousy ratings. It gets bounced around to worse and worse time slots before getting yanked off of life support. Funny thing, fans. A fan base surges up from coast to coast, publishing newsletters, holding conventions, dressing up in character. The short lived and unfinished show unexpectedly hit success in syndication. The years pass, and the mounting fan pressure yields a film.
“Firefly”? “Star Trek” was “Firefly” before Joss Whedon realized vampires lived in his closet. And it managed that whole fan thing when computer interweb doohickies were still confined to, well, sci-fi shows.
Then ten more films. And five more television series, amassing over 700 episodes. So J.J. Abrams has more than a little baggage hanging over his shoulder as he finishes the final edits on the reboot of Star Trek. So 40 years on, is the original series worth seeing?
To be blunt: Forty-year-old special effects do not hold up very well. It could be worse. Over the last year, CBS has released all three original seasons in re-mastered versions on DVD, and they did an admirable job of adding subtle touches of CGI to render the original effects a little more palatable. External shots of the Enterprise, ships and planets have been replaced with CGI, which is heretical in some quarters but is an enormous improvement to the non-purist. Interiors and props are still extraordinarily dated of course … the props really look like nothing more than props. It takes a bit more imagination and suspension of disbelief. To a degree this is easier in the original series than in shows from the 70s and 80s with nominally better special effects. The props and sets are so clearly just props and sets in the original “Star Trek” that it’s easier to just accept them as that. Later special effects that still aren’t photorealistic tend to fall into the Uncanny Valley and actually end up being less tolerable overall.
So if you can’t look past unrealistic effects and dated props, then you probably are not going to enjoy any of the episodes of the original series. But give this a try first before dismissing it outright as unwatchable: Do you like plays? The skull Hamlet holds doesn’t look even remotely real, the ghost of his father clearly just has white makeup dredged on extra thick, and the swords are obviously plastic and draw not a drop of believable blood in all the fighting. The point that I may be beating into the ground is that if you are willing to accept that the story is more important than the props, then you may find something to appreciate in the original “Star Trek.”
The original “Star Trek” series was never really about the starships and space battles, though in the wake of Star Wars, the movies and later shows incorporated much more of that element. The original series at its heart was a vehicle for weaving particularly philosophical short stories. Great science fiction is not about the future, it is about the present. The trappings of the future give flexibility and license to tell broader stories that are metaphors for universal themes.
The show is famous for having recruited rather accomplished science fiction authors of the day to write occasional scripts, most notably Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, and Richard Matheson. Despite only running for three seasons, the original series managed seven nominations for the Hugo award, including all five slots in 1968. These bits and pieces of trivia give the show a modicum of gravitas in retrospect, a sort of credibility independent of the fan phenomenon it became ex post facto.
The culture of the series has one iron clad rule, the Prime Directive, the rule that cannot be broken. It states that there should be no interference in the natural development of other societies, that even though they might construct hell and destroy themselves, that it is their right as societies to either build something horrible or something beautiful. It’s a daring philosophy, even several decades removed from Vietnam. Kirk of course breaks the directive about every other episode, but it is not something treated lightly. It’s a lesson in the construction of ethics in society that still rings true today. Sometimes horrible things are necessary for the greater good, but a responsible society does not respond by institutionalizing horror, but by outlawing it. And investing command in people who are willing to break the rules anyway, even if they will be damned for it.
In Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future, might does not make right. The plot is rarely resolved by fighting and winning in the original “Star Trek,” the focus not just on outsmarting, but on understanding and empathizing. It’s a curious and powerful sort of nonviolence: willing to defend oneself, but not willing to kill without reason. Prepared to fight, but more interested in talking. There’s an inner strength to the philosophy that is at home with the libertarianism of Heinlein. A free man can never be defeated, only killed.
The original series did not have any real story arcs to speak of, which makes it particularly amenable to the watching of a handful of episodes. There are numerous top ten lists floating around if you’d like to snag a few of the best. Personally, if you’re only going to watch a couple of episodes, I’d recommend “City on the Edge of Forever” (season 1, episode 28), “The Enemy Within” (season 1, episode 5), and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” (season 3, episode 70).
At least for now, all of the episodes of the original series are available on CBS’s website.
“I do not say that we have the right, but it is possible that we have the duty. It is why one makes rules not to be broken, and chooses a man able to break them.” — Spock, “The Price of the Phoenix”
Steven Lloyd Wilson is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come. Burning Violin is still published weekly on Wednesdays at www.burningviolin.com, along with assorted fiction and other ramblings.
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