Thursday, September 8, 2016

Its Fifty-Year Mission: To Entertain, to Inspire, and Occasionally to Provoke Discussion

Much has been made in the media this week about the fiftieth anniversary of the debut of the original Star Trek:

While slightly before my time, I fell in love with the series as a kid when it was in its long run of syndication on local television stations across the United States. Star Trek was occasionally scary, often funny, always interesting. The colorful menagerie of monsters and aliens appealed to my nerdy young self, and the cast of main characters seemed to have a wonderful chemistry (I was unaware of tales of offscreen rancor). Amid all the flashy, sometimes cheesy entertainment, I was (like many contemporaries) absorbing the liberal, humanistic values that I espouse today. Gene Roddenberry's original vision for Star Trek was even more liberal than the version which was aired on television- a female first officer was nixed by the network because execs considered it controversial.

Looking back, it's a bit appalling to think that the mere portrayal of an African-American woman being portrayed as a bridge officer was considered controversial, especially since Lt. Uhura was depicted by Nichelle Nichols (as critic John Kenneth Muir puts it "one of the most beautiful women ever to appear on American television")as a proud, intelligent woman from a United States of Africa, bearing a Swahili name. When she expressed a desire to quit the show, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr urged her to remain:

In the midst of the Cold War, when Gene Roddenberry added a character to appeal to the teenage demographic, he added a young Russian with a Beatle-cut. The character often delivered laugh lines about the Russian origin of various proverbs and fictional characters, but he was a far cry from the typical sinister Russian of Cold War propaganda.

The show wasn't perfect, having imagery firmly rooted in the male gaze... this screengrab gives the game away, one episode seemed to play the trafficking of women in a jokey fashion, and the miniskirts and bouffants of the women's Starfleet uniforms seem silly and dated by today's standards. That being said, the show also offered male eye-candy for viewers. Still, the show's values were remarkable for the time- in the famous 'Arena' episode, Kirk shows mercy to a fallen foe and another portrays a successful attempt to establish communication with an alien lifeform known to have killed humans... as a kid, watching a grown man emoting while playing opposite a giant pile of dog poop was funny, but the scene does achieve a sort of pathos:

As far as plots go, the show ranged from tragic romance to allegory to comedy. It also utilized the talents of such pulp-fiction luminaries as Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, and Frederic Brown- notably, the story editor and a scriptwriter for the series was a woman, D.C. Fontana (the show debuted three years after the embarrassing back cover blurb of Margaret St Clair's The Sign of the Labrys). 'Trek' was an introduction to Science-Fiction fandom for countless fans.

About those fans... even though the show only had a three-year original run, it hit a nerve and spawned a vibrant fandom, perhaps the ur-fandom. 'Trek' fans had an enormous influence on the development of fandom itself, having originated such concepts as the 'Mary Sue' and slash fiction (which has branched out from the relatively mundane Kirk/Spock to more outré offerings such as Kirk/Horta). Hey, as long as it's between consenting sentient lifeforms, who am I to judge? The show was the origin of many common tropes, and words and phrases such as 'redshirts', 'he's dead Jim' and 'beam me up' have passed into the modern lexicon.

Besides spinning off numerous television series, including an animated series, and a plethora movies, the series has inspired parodies aplenty and songs of various styles. For a short-lived original television series, the show certainly worked its way into the cultural landscape star system.

The cast of the show has had varied relationships to the roles, ranging from denial to acceptance. Their relationships with their fans has also evolved, with this 'SNL' skit being a perfect illustration of fandom frustration, even though William Shatner has come around on his famous 'Get a life!' line. While James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, and Leonard Nimoy are no longer with us, we fans still have William Shatner, who has now taken on the role of a beloved, but hammy elder statesmen, Walter Koenig, who has gone on to a career as a science-fiction author as well as an actor, Nichelle Nichols and George Takei have continued to advocate for human rights, with Nichelle having worked as a diversity consultant for NASA.

The enduring appeal of Star Trek is due to the show's evocation of a sense of wonder, and its optimistic view of humanity's future. The show combined action, humor, and strong characterization with a firm moral core. It exhorts viewers to put aside the petty animosities of 20th century societies and band together as one human family to achieve wonders. The society portrayed in Star Trek isn't perfect, and the lives of the Federation citizens isn't perfectly safe, but with a sense of unity, a sense of curiosity, and a sense of decency, humans can go out and explore the universe, and the species can live long and prosper. That's a message which still rings true a half a century after the show debuted.


mikey said...

I've watched a bunch of the original and a few of TNG, but I never became any kind of true fan. Star Trek did, however, contribute to my interest in physics. Understanding what they were saying when they said 'Warp Drive' and learning about anti-matter were important points in my existence, but they also led me to a point where I had (and still have) a great deal of trouble suspending my disbelief around faster than light travel, maneuvering spaceships and directed energy weapons. I also remember wondering at some point in almost every episode why so many aliens were esentially the same physical layout and size as humans. Why would the dominant species of Vulcan Be nothing but humans with deformed ears. Is the human physical structure an inevitable result of the evolutionary process?

Obviously, it's because they needed to use human actors, but it's deeper than that. It's incredibly hard for humans - the only intelligent species we've every seen - to imagine the alternative courses evolution might take.

Not to mention all the planets they visited with earthlike gravity and breathable Oxygen=Nitrogen atmospheres, or the fact that their tiny little phasers could in no way have delivered enough power to be anything other than fancy laser pointers. But I WOULD recommend Lawrence Krauss' 'The Physics of Star Trek' for a thoughtful analysis of how some of these things MIGHT be possible and what they would require...

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

The society portrayed in Star Trek isn't perfect

No question, but it's better than ours.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

The science of 'Trek' is pretty execrable. The physics of FTL-travel is dubious, but the needs of the narrative, with the 'planet of the week' structure, necessitated a lot of handwaving.

Regarding alien evolution, H.P. Lovecraft actually imagined some pretty convincing aliens in his pulps, and Poul Anderson is also pretty good at imagining how evolution could work on alien worlds. David Brin and Vernor Vinge also wrote some interesting aliens, though the whole 'ancient alien intervention' theme seems a bit Von Dänikenian to me.

Yeah, Thunder, it's better than ours... maybe we need hostile lizard people to threaten us in order to convince us not to kill each other so often.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

I believe the Clintons and Trumps are hostile lizard people. It's not working, Captain!

bowtiejack said...

Actually, I'm coming around to the view that Trump's circle of advisors (Giuliani, Ailes, Steve Bannon, Lewandowski, Roger Stone, et al.) are pod people dropping their human disguises.