Today marks the 50th anniversary of the airing of the first ever Star Trek episode on television, September 8th 1966. Star Trek was and remains one of the most beloved television shows in history and has influenced television and culture generally perhaps more ways than any other.
It’s hard to define what it is that made Star Trek special. Right from the beginning it was clearly a more intelligent style of science fiction, forgoing the usual monsters of the weeks and hokey, childish stories of contemporary shows such as Lost In Space for something more sophisticated.
It’s easy to laugh at aspects of the original Star Trek now but for its time it was cutting edge. A number of established and upcoming actors playing out stories written by serious sci-fi writers. Unlike earlier shows, “almost” everything in Star Trek made sense. It took place in a futuristic setting that was increasingly well thought out with established rules and boundaries that didn’t change week on week or simply to get out of difficult situations.
Graphic from StarTrek.com
The stories were smart and often thought provoking, tackling tough issues that made people think about issues that many had never considered before. It was set in a future where everyone was equal and treated each other with respect whilst gave hope that we as a planet and a species would eventually have a bright future. It also made science fiction a respectable genre for television and cinema.
Sadly just as in the 1960’s, though we have progressed in many ways, some parts of our planet and our societies remain mired in old problems, let alone new ones and in my opinion, science fiction has one again returned to a base, implausible level.
Star Trek wasn’t just revolutionary television, it was revolutionary. Compare the USS Enterprise, essentially a Navy warship in space with believable functionality, communities and systems. As opposed to the rocket ships and flying sauces of earlier decades. In fact, just compare the Enterprise to almost any other space vehicle on television or cinema such as a Star Wars fighter which for all intents and purpose is just a fire-splewing descendant of a jet fighter plane. Communicators, computer networks, 3D printing were all commonplace to us Star Trek fans and some of us went on to make these things a reality.
Though Star Trek was a relatively expensively produced television show when it first came out, the show can sometimes look relatively cheap due to the massive amount of work that had to go into each show. It’s easy for a contemporary show to create sets, costumes or locations. We all know what a bag looks like or a room interior or a life-support machine in the current day. Television companies can simply rent what they don’t own or can’t make. It’s a bit harder to come up with a Romulan table or Vulcan townsquare. Similarly human actors are easy to cast but from experience, it is harder to find real life Andorians or Gorn. Everything had to be created from scratch, for as little money as possible and generally in the scope of just a few days.
Despite or perhaps because of its revolutionary nature, Star Trek was never a big hit with the television studios and it barely figured in the ratings. Year by year, the budget was cut and its airing time moved to the dead-slot and 3 years and 39 episodes later, Star Trek was finished or so it seemed.
However, just weeks after Star Trek was cancelled, the studios came up with a more accurate way of calculating viewing figures and Star Trek which barely reached the Top 100 instantly ranked as a very top show to a very import demographic. Some talked of resurrecting the show but it was too late, the sets had been trashed.
Instead Star Trek began to be shown in what is known as syndication, airing on the same TV channel at the same time each week or even each day. It was cheap to show and its regularity brought it to ever increasing numbers of viewers. Those who watched Star Trek, frequently loved it and even lived it at conventions.
A new Star Trek show that was in the works was shelved when Star Wars hit the big screen and it was decided that Star Trek should return to life on the big screen with Star Trek The Motion Picture. A grand and slightly stodgy affair, more 2001 than Star Wars and a film that despite costing a fortune, delivered only a smattering of the characters that fans really watched the show for.
Happily it was still enough to set off Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan that would prove to be one of the most well-loved and frequently quoted science fiction films of all time. A series of variably successful and entertaining Star Trek films followed through the 1980’s and into the 90’s.
The huge success of Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home or the one with the whales as non-fans might know it as, led to the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation. With the original cast no longer up to the demands of weekly television, Star Trek moved forward a century. Some of the stories became more sophisticated and definitely they looked glossier onscreen with bigger budgets and more advanced technology. It was Star Trek but not as we know it! Deciding quite rightly that no one could out-Kirk, out-Vulcan Spock or out crotchety McCoy, new characters were created that were entirely different though many of them were loved just as much as there forebears.
Contact with the original Star Trek characters was kept to a minimum, sometimes to the annoyance of long-time fans for fear of the new show being at first overshadowed by its big brother and then latterly because the older Star Trek became relatively old and unfashionable… at least in the eyes of new showrunner Rick Berman who liked to steralise and blandify the universe in comparison to the pumping music and brightly lit originals.
In 1991, the final Star Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country was aired, like so many original Star Trek adventures, it told a contemporary story about the fall of the Berlin Wall in space. The baton was passed in 1994 to Star Trek: Generations where finally Captain Kirk and Captain Picard met. It was a momentous moment but a generally less good film with the most enjoyable moments seeming to be the first 20 minutes with the original characters and the final third with Kirk and Picard.
With the exception of the rather excellent Star Trek: First Contact and The Borg, the Next Generation ran with their own series of slightly disappointing and less than epic in scope films whilst on television we were treated to Star Trek Deep Space Nine.
DS9 to its fans or DS( to those with bad shift keys was a totally different type of Star Trek. It’s characters were grittier and its setting slightly grim. Many storylines were told in a complex web over an entire year or even 7 years in a way that rewarded dedicated fans. With a team of writers and producers that were largely independent from Rick Berman and Paramount Studios, we were treated to some of the most amazing Star Trek shows ever and many every bit as thought provoking as the original Star Trek. However its divergence from TNG in particular did split the fanbase.
Whilst DS9 strutted its stuff, Star Trek Voyager exploded on the screen. Voyager is often cited as the lamest of the Star Trek shows. Rather a TNG-lite in a show that didn’t really respect its premises. Characters that weren’t incredible, aliens that were largely forgettable and barely any of the wonder or morality of Star Trek or TNG. In fact it was possible to see dozens of episodes in a row where every alien was bad. Lots of relatively bland writing, often copies of earlier Star Trek episodes. It was still Star Trek but for the first time, the quality was almost palpably less good.
Despite a strong urging not to, the studios felt the need to create another Star Trek series immediately after Voyager finished and with largely the same production team. Though the new prequel setting provided for interesting stories and this time for more interesting characters and perhaps better actors, Enterprise boldly went where we had all gone before until even the studios realised the current set-up was burnt out. At last a talented writer and fan of the original show, Manny Coto, took to the helm. Immediately the show was revitalised, and it became much more like Star Trek. Unlike Voyager or earlier Enterprise shows, it didn’t shun 60’s Star Trek but instead actively embraced it and the spirit of the show. Despite a real surge in quality of the shows and improved viewr satisfaction, it was all too late and Star Trek Enterprise was cancelled. To make it worse, Manny Coto wasn’t given the chance to take the show to wonderful places we all knew he wanted and in fact Rick Berman came back to make one of the most horrendous final episodes of any TV show almost as if to spite the fans who now generally despised him.
Star Trek fans had to make do with the over 700 hours of old Star Trek and for many TNG and DS9 were often made as familiar as the original Star Trek and even the classics of Voyager and the final season of Enterprise became much loved. They were strange years for those of us used to new Star Trek shows but then news emerged that Star Trek was back and to be helmed by talented Sci-Fi geek JJ Abrams.
Many fans worried that the new Star Trek would be worse than before or even worse, as bad as the Star Wars prequels. Yes, it would become modernised but the original characters were back and the essence of Star Trek was back too. It was said that the whole enterprise (did you like that) wouldn’t have got off the ground had Leonard Nimoy not come back to lend credibility to the whole affair. Mr. Nimoy had rather finished with Star Trek after he correctly concluded that the TNG era films (and subsequent shows) were being made by the numbers on a conveyor belt of cash making but largely bland writers with little care for the quality or integrity of the show.
Happily Star Trek came back to life and Spock Prime connected the old universe with the new in a way that wiped the slate clean but didn’t in anyway invalidate everything that came before it. Three largely successful and entertaining movies later (this summers was in many ways the most 60’s feeling Star Trek since the 60’s) and we are on September 8th 2016. A fourth film has been promised and more excitingly, a new Star Trek show on the USS Discovery is in the works and under a talented team is set to aire in January 2017.
Will Star Trek be here for its 100th birthday, 3 years after Vulcans make Firs Contact with us? As Mr. Spock would say, there are always possibilities.
I’ve always loved Star Trek. Born as I was in the final week of 1973, I wasn’t around for the original screening of the original show. I did though quickly become a fan. I remember seeing a beer advert featuring a Vulcan when I was 3 years old which made me laugh as I knew very well who Spock was. I remember my first episode too, The Paradise Syndrome.
I must have watched each episode of the original series 500 times or more. I love everything about the show, the characters, the story lines. I gorged myself on books on the production stories behind the scenes, learning how they made everything to do with Star Trek. The onset disasters and behind the curtain politics. It even got me into writing.
I frequently hum the music from the shows, pretty much know every line of dialogue before it appears on tv and can guess what episode is being shown not just by the colour or orbit of the planet but often by the star patterns too. I like spotting goofs and I like spotting how they re-utilise sets and objects in later episodes. How the Engineering pipes have GNDN as if they carry energy or chemicals but it really only stands for Goes Nowhere Does Nothing. How the necessity of invention and lack of money created great storytelling techniques. Transporters invented because there was no way to cheaply land the Enterprise on a planet also were a great way to cut to the action of an episode so to speak.
I like the optimism of the show and the heart on sleeve nature of the characters. Captain Kirk, the brash and brave Starfleet Captain whose very word meant life or death and the man who met God and wasn’t even impressed. Mr. Spock, the most famous alien of all time. Conflicted between logic and emotion. A Vulcan on a ship of humans, neither Vulcan or human and feeling at home with neither and yet somehow being better than both. Dr. McCoy, the most old-fashioned and principled person on television and my favourite character. Scotty with his technical wizardry… the list goes on and on.
Whilst many of us take our moral compass from family and friends or religion; I know I am not the only one who is hugely influenced by Star Trek. When something really tough comes up with no easy solution… what would Captain Kirk do? If any writer or writers or performers can make people think or inspire them 50 years on then I don’t think anyone can ask for any more.
I think Star Trek is needed now more than every both for the real world we live in and the entertainment world too. I don’t want the characters that I want to always be less than I am. I don’t want mindless action. I want dialogue that tests me, not the brain-dead vocabulary of Comicbook films that would have been beneath me when I was 5. Yes I want to be entertained but I want to be challenged too. I don’t want big explosions and characters I don’t aspire to be, I want pointy-eared aliens who can quote Shakespeare or related Babylonian legends. I want to believe in characters at least as good if not better than I am and I want to see them challenged too, in ways that spark my imagination. I want weird and wonderful, I want Star Trek.
I could say I love the show, what my favourite episodes are or ongoing themes, perhaps narrow down my favourite quotes to perhaps 100 but I won’t… I will leave that for my upcoming Star Trek book! I will say though Happy 50th Birthday to Star Trek and all those connected to it in any way at all. You’ve been my friend and companion for 42 years and I sincerely hope to be there when Star trek hits 100, 3 years after Vulcan First Contact.
Will I still be here? Will Star Trek? Who knows but as Mr. Spock would say… there are always possibilities.