I was five years old when Star Trek TOS premiered as a first-run series. I never watched the show, but I remember that I was aware of it as a contemporary program at the time. I distinctly recall kids running around giving each other "Spock shocks," and kids called me Mr. Spock because of my one Vulcan eyebrow. There were a couple reasons I didn't watch the show. The first was that my parents still refused to subscribe to cable, and the network that ran Star Trek didn't broadcast in our area. My next door neighbors had cable, though, and they watched it. But I had a tendency to dislike the things that they liked, so I didn't really care for the show back then. I also didn't really understand it. Lost In Space did air on a channel that I could watch, and that was the sci fi standard for me. I somehow just assumed that Star Trek was another show where they were constantly trying to return to Earth. That didn't interest me.
It was when I was in Jr. High School that the show really started to gain popularity in syndication. It was on every day after school, and I began to watch it more and more. I started to watch the show first because it was popular with my friends and classmates, but I also found that I just enjoyed it. I had shed my childhood dislike of the program, and in fact it was really growing on me. It would still be many years before I would truly come to understand what made it so successful, however.
Before long I had seen every episode at least once. As time went on I saw the episodes again and again. One year for my birthday I got the Starship Enterprise plastic model. I still have the remains stored with other junk in a cardboard box somewhere. I also got the Shuttle Craft model. I got the model of the communicator and tricorder too, but was horribly disappointed that they were not full-scale. I thought I'd be able to run around with them like in the real show, but they turned out to be baby-sized.
By the time I was in High School I was a bona fide Trekie. It was around that time that Battlestar Gallactica debuted. All my trekie friends pretty much automatically became Battlestar Gallactica fans, but I didn't particularly like the show. For one thing it suffered from the Gilligan's Island principle. The program was about a desperate journey to Earth. That was the whole show. You knew they were never going to get there, just like you knew the castaways were never going to be rescued. If they were then the show would be over. Why bother watching the show when it's a foregone conclusion that their mission would never be achieved? Beyond that, the protagonists were a heavily persecuted lot who were always on the run. They were constantly getting beaten and abused by their more powerful and better-organized enemies. I found the show very stressful to watch because I was always worried that they'd finally get wiped out once and for all.
The process of contrasting this with my love of Star Trek began to teach me more specifically why I liked the latter so much. The crew of the Enterprise was strong, independent, and triumphant. Every week they kicked ass! They weren't invincible, but the Federation was the best bet in the galaxy for liberty and freedom. They stood up to the bad guys, and you could bet that it would be the villains who blinked first. The show was good to watch because it made you feel good about humanity.
There were other things that I liked about Star Trek. One thing that was for sure was that the Enterprise just plain looked cool. The big, round saucer section suspended out in front, juxtaposed against the linear elements of the main body and engines, created interesting, complex shapes and volumes that were pleasing to the eye. The bridge looked cool, too. Captain Kirk sat in the middle of everything in his big swiveling chair while his trusty command crew worked all around him. I also liked the toys they always had with them. The communicators were awesome. The flick-of-the-wrist gesture used to activate them was something that my friends and I mimicked endlessly. The tricorders were nifty all-purpose devices, and that little thing that Dr. MacCoy always used that went "lululululu..." was enigmatic yet could always be trusted upon to reveal all the answers.
There was another factor that I also think contributed to the success of the show. This was the fact that it was on such a limited budget. On the surface this seems like it would be a liability, but I feel strongly that it had positive influences. For starters it meant that the writers and producers could rely less on special effects, and had to focus their creativity more on characters and plots. There was eventually a mandate that a certain number of shows per season had to take place entirely on the Enterprise, because they couldn't afford expensive sets. Again, this forced the writers to concentrate on characters and plots. While in some ways it was very restrictive, I think it wound up fostering some of the best writing of all.
"Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," for example, was one of the episodes that took place entirely on the Enterprise. That was the one with the two characters who were half white and half black. Without dazzling settings and outrageous makeup effects, the writers had to fall back on good old-fashioned social commentary. Yet it was done with great subtlety. All along there were camera shots deliberately set up to illustrate that the two character were black and white on different sides of their faces, but it was so subtle that until the one character reveals it we would never have thought of it. And it drives home how pointless bigotry can be. This has always been one of my favorite episodes.
Another very good episode that takes place entirely on the Enterprise was The Doomsday Machine. Granted this had some of the cheesiest effects in the history of Star Trek. Everyone has his own idea of what everyday object the doomsday machine looks like. Personally I think it's the biggest joint in the universe. And there were some serious problems with scale when first the shuttle craft and then the USS Constellation fly into its mouth. But these details don't detract from the quality of the story. The power struggle that takes place between Spock and Commodore Decker while Kirk is trapped on the Constellation was classic television. No special effects. No brawls or action sequences. Just a good situation and powerful dialogue. The story is well constructed from start to finish, and the conclusion is logical and plausible. Of course they throw in the oft-used transporter malfunction for the obligatory suspense, but it works. It's a fine example of what can happen when the writers are forced to fall back on their writing skills.
Finally, "The Changeling," with the Nomad robot, has been hailed by Trekies as one of the all-time best episodes in the history of the series. And this was another one that took place entirely on the Enterprise. Nomad is an unconventional character, and the epitome of mechanical single-mindedness. He delivered the one line that I quote most often from any Star Trek episode. Whenever someone says something to me that simply doesn't make sense, I reply with, "Non sequitur; your facts are uncoordinated." The story is clever and well constructed. The conclusion is one of the best in the history of the series. There is no shortage of episodes where Kirk outwits a computer, driving it to its own self-destruction. But where some are facile and weak (e.g. Landrew), this one was clever and logical. So logical, in fact, that it's the one time when Spock actually admits that Kirk bested him in a matter of wits. The Earth is saved and the Enterprise glides on to its next adventure. Once more, the lack of budget wound up being a positive force in the development of the series.
Star Trek had great characters. I have always thought that the characters are the single most important element in the success of a series. If you have good recurring characters then the stories largely write themselves. The triumvirate of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy was key. Beyond that, the casting was right on the mark. The best characters in the world won't play well if you don't have the right actors backing them up.
Captain Kirk was the quintessential commander. He was bold, rough & tumble, self-confident to a fault, and he always got the girl. He was intelligent, but he wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty. Whenever there was a scuffle, you always knew that Kirk was going to hold his own. He always put the safety of his crew before his own, and he was quick to take sole responsibility whenever anything went wrong. William Shatner gets a lot of guff for his overly dramatic acting style, but I think his performance was right on the money. Captain Kirk was an overly dramatic character with incredibly strong convictions. Shatner's dramatic pauses, overstated verbalizations, and exaggerated body language were actually quite in tune with the character he was playing. Compare Shatner's performance with that of Jeffrey Hunter who played Christopher Pike in the pilot episode. Hunter did an okay job, but he didn't generate the vividness of character that Shatner did. Pike was a hard-ass like any captain should be. But even when he let his weak side show he was still hard-assed about it. Playing the strong leader type means more than scowling and shouting. While William Shatner is no Lawrence Olivier, I firmly believe he was the right man for the job.
Mr. Spock is perhaps my favorite character in the history of TV and the cinema. He is the epitome of cool. No matter what happened, he never got flustered. He always had the answer, he was 10 times stronger than anyone he came up against, and one grasp of the shoulder could render any adversary unconscious (actually if you think about it no one ever had a lot of trouble rendering an adversary unconscious on that show, but Spock did it with flair). That whole "Vulcan Mind Meld" thing came in handy, too. The "fish out of water" factor always makes for a good character, but the half-Human, half-Vulcan aspects of this personality made him exceedingly interesting. This kind of internal conflict exists in us all. When it became a factor for Spock's character in a Star Trek episode, you knew things were going to get interesting. As a closeted gay youth, I could particularly relate to Spock's inner struggle. My heterosexual facade was my Vulcan half: stoic and in control. My homosexual side was my Human half: passionate and best kept hidden from those around me. On top of everything else, Spock just looked cool. Those pointy ears and that shiny, straight haircut were so cool. And once again the casting director hit a home run with Leonard Nimoy. It was as if he was born to play Spock.
Then there was Dr. McCoy. He had that one thing that guarantees a character to be memorable: a cool nickname ("Bones"). As the ship's physician he was trusted and indispensable. He was the only member of the crew who could remove the captain from duty without committing mutiny. Despite his place in the technological world of space travel, deep down he was just a country doctor. His fiercely independent disposition put him in the role of loyal opposition on many occasions. He was on a first name basis with the captain, and he was NOT afraid to question the captain's judgment in any situation. All in all he was a deep and multi-faceted individual.
What made these characters really special, though, was the way they interacted. Spock was cold, hard logic. Bones was emotional human passion. Their disagreements were legendary. But what was really interesting was the way Captain Kirk fit in. He was the consummate leader. While Spock and Bones would go at it, Kirk would sit back, allow them the freedom to argue unabated, and quietly, cautiously, deliberately observe them. Ultimately he would make his decision based on a dispassionate assessment of both sides. This triumvirate was true character interaction at its very best. A show isn't about taking various characters and tossing them into a setting. It's about characters who truly contrast and compliment each other, and whose interaction lends something to the story and says something about human nature.
Finally there was Scottie. He was external to the top 3, but he was a lot of fun and played a critical role. Gene Roddenberry, when speaking of the Scottie character, commented that Scotsmen have always been ship builders. That was the best thing about Scottie. He knew the ship inside and out. He could fix anything, and do it more quickly than anyone else. His idea of relaxing was snuggling up with a thick technical manual. But the best thing about his character was his strong confidence when he was put in command. Spock was not a leader. He was the best first mate in the fleet, but his attempts at command were generally awkward and unsuccessful. Scottie, on the other hand, was a natural. When he was given the con, you knew the ship was in good hands. He didn't take shit from anyone. Whether he was defying the ill-considered orders of a paper-pushing diplomat, or going toe to toe with the Klingons, you knew Scottie could kick some serious butt.
I shouldn't neglect the characters of Mr. Sulu, Lt. Uhura, and Nurse Chappel. Unfortunately none of them was ever paid enough attention for any serious character development, except for occasional and brief moments in the spotlight. Their greatest role, frankly, was in demonstrating racial diversity. Uhura, especially, was groundbreaking as a black female in a high-ranking position on the command staff. While it's regrettable that these three never got a lot of screen time, they were still valiant and important characters. At least they weren't a joke, like the disposable red-shirts who got killed within 60 seconds of landing on an alien planet.
Then there was Chekov. I never liked Chekov. While most people found his glib, ethnocentric, revisionist comments to be entertaining, I found them to be annoying. Very annoying. On most occasions I would have expected his smart-ass remarks to land him in the brig, or at least get him a bitch-slap. But except for the occasional dry retort from Spock, the rest of the crew seemed to be as oblivious to his bothersome, unwarranted commentaries as the viewers seemed to be. I've heard conflicting stories as to the reason he was added to the cast. One was that it was to placate the Russians, who complained that their culture was conspicuously absent from this gleaming vision of the future. The other was that it was an attempt to appeal to the youth market by copying the "Monkeys" look. Either way I feel he would have been better left out altogether.
There is one final way in which I think the limited budget helped the show. The sets were all very small, and it gave the Enterprise a rather cramped, closed-in feeling. This, to me, was a good thing. It gave the impression that these people were really way out there in space, far from home and very vulnerable. On Star Trek - The Next Generation, by contrast, the Enterprise was big, spacious, and airy. This is all well and good from a production standpoint, but it made the Enterprise look more like a cruise ship than an exploration vessel. I feel that the smaller, cramped Enterprise had a more authentic feel to it, and it gave the show a grittier, more bare-knuckled attitude.
Since I mentioned TNG, I should probably say a few words about it. I was very excited when news came out that the show would be produced. I was so impressed with the original series that I couldn't wait to see where they'd go with it. When it finally debuted I watched with baited breath. It wasn't very far into the pilot episode before I knew that it had some serious flaws. The presence of a "ship's counselor" who was concerned about everyone's "feelings" was a bad sign. Data looked like a lame attempt to copy the Spock character. Picard was just way too old to be the captain. And what was that pre-teen doing on the bridge?
But there was one point when I just knew that the show was in big, big trouble. Some of them were being put on trial by Q. At one point Lt. Yarr gets up to give a speech about how great the Federation is. Captain Picard tells her to keep quiet, and she says, "I'm sorry sir, I must..." and keeps on going. What? *What*??? WHAT?!?!?!?!?!? Apparently in the future military discipline wasn't as strict as it had once been. That NEVER would have happened in the original show. As far as I was concerned the show had already jumped the shark, and the pilot episode was just getting going.
As time wore on and I saw more episodes, the show began to grow on me a little. I got the concept that the captain's role was no longer to get into fisticuffs with aliens, but to sit back and let his first officer take the punches. I didn't think that arrangement worked as well from a story-telling perspective, but at least it was explained. The whole concept of having wives and children on board further served to reduce the Enterprise from a military exploration vehicle to a cruise ship in space. The two major technological innovations were the replicators and the holo-deck. Both were a pretty far stretch from a scientific perspective. The former was really just a convenience for story-telling. They no longer had to explain how they were able to keep unlimited quantities of fresh food aboard. The latter, while quite fanciful on a conceptual level, wound up being the basis for some of the most bogus and unwatchable episodes from the entire series catalog (e.g. "The Big Goodbye" "Elementary, Dear Data" "Hollow Pursuits" "A Fistful Of Datas" "Ship In A Bottle"). Still, which of us hasn't fantasized about what we would do if we had a holo-deck at our disposal. All that I can say is that if I had a go at it, even after the program ended and all the holographic elements disappeared, they'd still need to clean up the room with a mop and bucket.
Patrick Stuart's remarkable acting ability brought real depth to his character. This was another case of judicious casting. I didn't like him at first, but I quickly became a convert. He became one of the most compelling characters on the show. Data proved to not be a copy of the Spock character at all. He had some similar qualities, but ultimately had totally different issues, and had an entirely different outlook on the human condition. He was a new and unique character unto himself, and he often wound up being one of the more interesting ones. Some people were really put off by the presence of a Klingon on the bridge, but I thought that the Wharf character was well-executed and provided a lot of breadth to the crew dynamic. He turned out to be the fish-out-of-water character, and in later seasons he was the center of some of the most compelling episodes produced (e.g. "The Emmisary" "Sins Of The Father" "Redemption 1&2").
I was pretty ambivalent about Geordi, Tasha, and Beverly Crusher. They didn't bother me, but there were like, yeah so what. They tried to make Geordi interesting with the whole blind thing, but he wound up being a girl-shy pussy-boy nerd.
I wasn't bothered by the Wesley character so much, but didn't like what they did with him. He seemed to get a free ride. How was he able to serve duty on the bridge without ever having been to the academy? And why bother to go if he was already allowed to do the job? Similarly, I didn't have a big problem with the Will Reicher character, but I totally hated how Jonathon Frakes played him. I don't think I've ever seen a more two-dimensional portrayal. No depth at all. His gestures, his verbalizations, his facial expressions, all seemed very "acting workshop" to me. Not unlike Jeffrey Hunter before him, he seemed to be all hard-ass all the time. And on those rare occasions when he wasn't, it just didn't reconcile with the other side of the character. I seem to be alone in this evaluation. I've never met anyone who feels about Frakes' portrayal as I do.
And then there was Counselor Troi. The character would have been fine on a star base, or a home for shell-shocked veterans. But the presence of this character totally took the balls out of the show. Or rather, it set the tone for the show as being less about conquest and struggle, and more about "human interest." The original series was supposed to be like "Wagon Train" to the stars. This show was shaping up to be more like "The Paper Chase" in space. In the right setting that would be a perfectly fine approach to the content, but Star Trek was supposed to be an action/adventure series.
I started to understand why this happened when I saw an interview with Gene Roddenberry before his death. He said that he felt that in the future, the human race would have risen above conflict and petty disputes. They'd all be one big happy family flying around space in peace and harmony. I knew then and there that he had succumbed to the "grandpa syndrome." When he was young he was hungry and ambitious, and his writing reflected this. But by now he had aged and mellowed, and he saw the universe through grandchild-tinted glasses. The problem with this was that it may be an optimistic vision, but it didn't make for good television. He would have done better to write for Sesame Street than for a science fiction adventure series.
Unfortunately this dug a rut for Star Trek from which it would never escape. By this time Gene Roddenberry was all but deified, and no one was willing to say that the emperor had no clothes. Looking back, I admit that there were some action-packed, ballsy episodes of TNG. But they were all built on a foundation of hugs and kisses. Probably two-thirds or more of the episodes were utterly forgettable.
Beyond this undercurrent of feel-good sentimentality, TNG developed a couple of bad habits from a plot perspective. The first problem was that they tended to linger too long on plot development and not leave enough time for the resolution. We began to call it "The Next Generation Ending Syndrome." They'd spend nine-tenths of the show getting deeper and deeper into some dilemma, and then in the last minute or two pull a bogus solution out of their ass. Which leads me into the other bad habit. They relied way too much on technical mumbo-jumbo to pull their fat out of the fire rather than actually write something clever or ingenious. They'd get themselves into some gnarly predicament, and get out of it by "generating a quantum-phase inversion tachion field" or some such incomprehensible gimmick. Granted the original series had a tendency to solve all their problems by pushing one magic button, but they primarily relied on good old fashioned wits.
For the record, some of the best episodes in my opinion include "The Measure Of A Man" "The Ensigns Of Command" "The Defector" "Yesterday's Enterprise" "The Most Toys" "The Best Of Both Worlds 1&2" "Remember Me" "Night Terrors" "The Nth Degree" "Redemption 1&2" "Cause And Effect" and "The First Duty".
Deep Space 9 tried to address some of these shortcomings. The Quark / Odo relationship was a direct reaction to the "no conflict" handcuffs. Because the characters weren't human, they could still be consumed by conflict and aggression without contradicting Roddenberry’s rosy vision. But including those characters was like putting a spiked collar on a poodle and calling it a pit bull. DS9 had some interesting story lines and some exciting action, but the sappy sentimentality was never far off. And in a way that only made things worse. There would be one episode that had you on the edge of your seat, and the next episode would be all flowers and kittens. I would have kept up with it none the less (turning your back on Star Trek is like quitting smoking), but I moved into a house in an area that wasn't serviced by cable, and I had no choice but to stop watching.
By the time Star Trek Voyager debuted I had upgraded to satellite, but DirectTV did not carry the channel that was airing it. I was able to catch the occasional episode if I happened to be at a friend's place while it was on, and I caught quite a number of episodes after it went into syndication. My evaluation is not unlike that of DS9. It had the potential to be very exciting, but it still suffered from the same proclivity for mushy emotionalism, which seemed to have infected the Star Trek franchise like an incurable virus.
Surprisingly I was not bothered by the female captain. It may have been controversial to some, but it worked okay for me. The African-American Vulcan was a stretch, but that was really just visual. Since the character didn't have the human half, he wasn't as interesting as Spock.
And Voyager also suffered from the same "Gilligan's Island" syndrome that Battlestar Galactica did. The show opened with them being catapulted to another part of the galaxy. They then spent the rest of the series trying to get home again. You know they ain't gonna get there. It's like watching a mouse running on a wheel. There's frantic action, but no progress.
And finally there's Star Trek Enterprise. I was totally stoked when I heard that they would be producing this series. Many years prior I had the idea of doing a pre-quel. I had even written up an outline for a pilot which established the characters, their interactions, and the general geo-political environment in which the Enterprise would function. The whole scenario was rife with possibilities. But once again, my DirectTV dish didn't carry the show. Even Time Warner Cable didn't carry it in my area. I could only speculate.
Then some months later a co-worker told me that a friend had sent her the first several episodes on VHS. I promptly borrowed the tape and started watching. Well, I was disappointed from the very start. I felt that the writing showed no creativity at all. It was the same old deal in a retro package. The show had no balls. It had no teeth. I could tell they were trying, but they'd fallen asleep in the post-Roddenberry poppy field, and there was no getting out. I think I gave up part way into the third episode.
Alas, Star Trek devolved from one of the most ground-breaking, compelling series on TV, to a tired old cliché that had overstayed its welcome.