Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
Half a century ago, an unusually shaped vessel charted a course that took TV viewers to places they had never gone before.
To a world in the grip of two wars – Cold and Vietnam – and still recovering from others, this new series Star Trek also held out an optimistic message for the future.
Three centuries hence, series creator Gene Roddenberry suggested, mankind would not have blown itself up. Instead, we would learn to control our selfishness and aggression (after some close calls with Armageddon), maturing as an inclusive civilisation to the point that Earth could take its place as a principal partner in a league of worlds – the United Federation of Planets.
Roddenberry’s vision of a bright, shining future was possibly something everyone needed at a time when most people’s greatest fear was looking out the window and seeing a giant mushroom cloud blossoming not too far away. (Granted, it’s not just his vision; numerous others, especially long-serving story editor DC Fontana, helped shape it.)
More than a hopeful look past day-to-day concerns, Star Trek also offered great escapism: high adventure, drama, suspense, action, romance, comedy (some of it unintentional), and mind-bending technology.
And what about all those far-out concepts? To name just a few: a space amoeba 17,000 kilometres across; the Guardian of Forever, a portal to any moment in time; creatures made of living rock; giant planet-destroying doomsday machines; and among a myriad of extraterrestrials, alien beings with immense mental powers who can force Vulcans to dance the flamenco.
Yes, that really happened (see: Plato’s Stepchildren). It was the Swinging Sixties, after all, and Star Trek also had some moments of supreme silliness and high camp to go with all its thought-provoking, cerebral content.
Oh, and Tribbles. Let’s not forget the Tribbles.
For all that Star Trek had to offer, though, not nearly enough people watched it at the time. The series was saved from cancellation for low ratings after its second season by a frenzied fan campaign. But typical network brilliance – like consigning the show to a ratings “dead zone” on Friday nights – and some pretty dodgy episodes in its final year ended the five-year mission quite early and unceremoniously, in 1969.
But Star Trek simply would not die.
The creators, the actors, the fans, continued to fan the flames, keeping interest and demand high, and eventually giving rise to hundreds of books and comics, six TV series (with a seventh coming next year), 13 feature films, dozens of games (video, board, card, miniature), tons of merchandise, conventions … each of these playing its part in establishing a legacy and influence unparalleled in popular culture.
Yet for all its lasting and wide-ranging influence, Star Trek: TOS (The Original Series) was far from perfect.
Roddenberry and his collaborators made use of the science fiction setting to tell socially relevant stories that would not have been possible in a more down-to-earth setting, but some of the allegory was so heavy-handed as to render some episodes almost unwatchable in these cynical times.
And some stories were just plain silly – we all have our pet hates, and the infamous Spock’s Brain episode is high on many “worst of” lists, though personally, it’s The Way To Eden that trumps them all.
It was apparently quite a minor miracle getting each episode on the air, too, with legendary tales of backstage feuds, clashing egos, forced rewrites and creative disputes – for the general idea, check out Galaxy Quest, the best Star Trek movie ever made … that is not Star Trek.
And still, with all these challenges, stumbles and fumbles, the fact that Star Trek: TOS went on to establish such a vibrant legacy speaks volumes about the many things that it got oh, so right.
There are just too many to cover in this limited space, but let’s take a stab at just the top five in our book.
5. Strange new worlds
Papier mache, scale models, rubber masks, ping-pong balls glued together … the alien worlds, ships and beings served up almost week after week were typically marvels of creativity forced on viewers by budgetary and technological limitations. Yet we willingly bought into them because more often than not, these otherworldly vistas were deftly woven into the overall structure of the show, with the actors’ reactions, the dialogue, the music and clever cutaways helping to cement the illusion. While the TOS you get on Netflix these days is the updated version with CGI, what we saw back in RTM in the late 1960s and on TV3 in the early 1980s was the “raw” form of it with the original, practical effects … it was cheesy, and we loved it.
4. Opening up frontiers
Not just in space, but the heart and mind as well. TOS presented tales that challenged our perspective on a great many subjects – pricking the conscience, tugging at the heartstrings, stirring the imagination. From the heart-rending sacrifice of City On The Edge Of Forever to the pragmatic sacrifices made in Amok Time, to exploring the human capacity for grasping at (and then abusing) power, to asking early questions about the pitfalls of artificial intelligence … the ambition in most episodes of TOS is undeniable.
3. Such wonderful toys
Oh come on. Transporter technology – who wouldn’t want it? TOS made no bones about its wonderful technology. Its characters just used the stuff like it was an integral part of their lives (and indeed it was, in the context of the setting), without dwelling too much on the nuts and bolts of things. Phasers! Warp drive! Medical devices that work – to 20th-century minds – like magic! Though Dilbert creator Scott Adams noted that Star Trek fails to take into account the stupidity and selfishness of the ordinary human being.
“On Star Trek, the doctors have handheld devices that instantly close any openings in the skin. Imagine that sort of device in the hands of your unscrupulous friends. They would sneak up behind you and seal your @$$ shut as a practical joke. The devices would be sold in novelty stores instead of medical outlets,” he wrote in The Dilbert Future.
So, yeah. Imagine transporting yourself to Hawaii for a holiday, and as you step up onto the platform you recognise your old secondary school nemesis at the controls with a sinister glint in his eye … guess it’s a good thing the 23rd century is a long way off still.
2. The crew
Frankly speaking, there’s no crew from any of the Trek series that we’d rather have on a five-year mission than the original “Magnificent Seven” from TOS. The central triumvirate of Captain James T. Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr Leonard McCoy yielded a dynamic that matured so beautifully in the films. Sharing the adventures were engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, communications officer Nyota Uhura, helmsman Hikaru Sulu and (from the second season) navigator Pavel Chekov. The characters are beloved, the original cast – William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, George Takei and Walter Koenig – nothing short of living legends among the fans. Three have passed on, as has Roddenberry, leaving a huge void in many hearts.
The Vulcan philosophy of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” is best expressed through this dialogue between Spock and the telepath Dr Miranda Jones (guest star Diana Muldaur) from the third season episode Is There In Truth No Beauty: “The glory of creation is in its infinite diversity …” “… and the ways our differences combine to create meaning and beauty.”
A belief that it is so much (infinitely?) better to appreciate our differences for being part of the infinite variety of things in the universe, rather than merely tolerate them, IDIC has become a cornerstone of the underlying philosophy of the entire Star Trek canon, and one of its most inspirational elements.
Apparently, however, the motive behind it was more commercial than altruistic: Roddenberry had this neat design for Vulcan jewellery (the IDIC pin) that was to be offered for sale to fans through his mail-order business, and so he needed to work it into a story.
We included this last anecdote not so much to pour cold water on beloved myths. It’s just a reminder that Star Trek was very much a human enterprise and, like all such ventures, rife with hidden motivations and consequently, flawed. But the way it has transcended the sum of its parts? Perfection.