by Evan Stair
It has been thirty years since the last Star Trek television program aired on the National Broadcasting Company. At the time it was considered a good idea but the show had become stale. Few remember this until they watch a late third season episode. Despite the dimished third season during its original run, Star Trek has become a monumental entity.
No other television show has come close to changing society as Star Trek. How many astronauts, scientists, engineers, and even writers have been influenced by this incredible creation of Gene Roddenberry? His vision was to create a “wagon train to the stars.” Influences from Westerns, fairy tales, classic literature, current social and moral issues, politics, a good dose of comedy relief and a touch of cheese cake created a vibrant, rich, timeless, television show. Star Trek, unlike most science fiction stories, has worn well. Maybe this is because it is not pure lowest-common-denominator-science-fiction: “Oh by the way we need a story to show our special effects.”
As a Star Trek fan, I dislike the term “Trekkie.” I have taken the original series and examined it under critical standards that would be applied to actual scientific experimentation. For example, in the pilot episode the unemotional Mr. Spock smiles. In the first few episodes Mr. Spock, the science officer, is responsible for “warping” the ship out of orbit. As the series evolves, others such as Sulu and Chekov take on this responsibility. In other words, the original series evolved and viewers were left to try and make sense of the inaccuracies: Well, you can run the ship’s engines from the science station can’t you?
Spin No More!
I am not as kind to Star Trek spin-offs. The productions are too tight and the characters are unbelievable. It was considered a mistake to have persons other than those sitting in front of the ship’s captain to “warp out of orbit.” Detailed, strict, standards were applied to the spin-offs probably even before the pen went to the paper. This is why the techno-generation loves the new series and I don’t.
True, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Star Trek Voyager all employ and, in fact, continue to evolve state of the art science fiction special effects as the original did. Moral issues are still examined. There are still the battles Man versus Man, Man versus Machine, Man versus himself etc. The costumes are even as corny as the original tee shirts, cheap black slacks, and Beatles boots.
However there are major differences between the 1960’s Star Trek and the modern equivalents. The spin-offs are more cerebral and also more dependent upon their electronic gadgets than their bodies. Data would have destroyed the Doomsday Machine by devising a formula to find its weakest spot for a quick phaser blast. Kirk had to destroy a starship and lose a shuttle craft piloted by a valued friend who lost his life to save the galaxy from this beast.
The original characters were more three dimensional. For example, is McCoy a racist? No, but he has a singular streak of racism as demonstrated in the “Vulcan Half Breed” episode. If you were to write a biography of McCoy you could probably fill a book. Could you do the same with the two dimensional Beverly Crusher from The Next Generation? Hardly.
Both series are flawed but the flaws in the original series fade into the human drama. The technology is the canvas of the human drama. The flaws in the spin-offs are too numerous to name but they are all result of trying too hard to be topical, innovative and different from the original series. The spin-offs remind me of modern art: cold and callous. Technology solves all problems. The original series is more comfortable because it allows the viewer to believe that man, not technology, will ultimately save the human race.
The Wisdom of Genius
Roddenberry’s genius in the original series was to put believable twentieth century people in future roles showing that the slow rate of Man’s evolution doesn’t quite keep pace with technological evolution, but it does advance. Money is not an issue in the 23rd century but strangely the arms race is still the driving force behind many of Mankind’s madness.
So what is the reality of Star Trek? Lets not give it more credit than is due. Star Trek was a television series and arguably the best ever on network television. It is a wonderful flawed collection of weekly fables which entertain. It died a timely and natural death. This death was also necessary in order to generate a clamor for its return. This fueled its current success.
However, Star Trek’s final legacy will probably be defined as the catalyst which drove many to envision the twenty-first century long before the twentieth century was complete. Some believe that Gene Roddenberry should get a portion of the credit for the following technological devices: The flip phone, the MRI, 3.5 inch floppy discs, and computer monitors.
The fact is, Gene Roddenberry was more of a techno-prophet and not an inventor. And as prophets go he didn’t see into the 23rd century, he only saw a couple of decades in the future. Well, lets see if the transporter replaces the Interstate soon. I don’t expect to see that one in my lifetime. I salute the late great Gene Roddenberry for many hours of entertaining television and for being an inspiration in my selection of a career as a mechanical enginner.