[NOTE, Sept. 12, 2016: The Ars Technica science website has a review article posted of a new two-volume history of the Star Trek franchise, covering all the television series and all the movies. It sounds fascinating, particularly in its account of the very rough first two seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when almost everyone wanted to abandon ship; and in its account of the less-than-stellar movies and the successful effort to push Gene Roddenberry aside in making them. I have drawn upon it slightly in making some revisions and additions to my original essay. The Foreword to volume one is written by Seth MacFarlane, who did the Kirk speech parody I refer to below, but who also appeared twice on Enterprise. He was uncredited on his first appearance, in the episode called “Azati Prime,” one of the finest episodes in the entire five series canon of Star Trek, and in the following week’s episode, “Damage,” this time referred to as “Ensign Rivers.” I didn’t know who he was and did not recognize him, but I certainly remember these episodes. MacFarlane is not the first actor to have done what turned out to be a cameo appearance on a Star Trek series: Pianist and celebrity host John Tesh once played a Klingon on ST: The Next Generation.]
It was on this day, also a Thursday, on September 8, 1966 that Star Trek made its debut on the NBC television network. I’m certain of very few things in this life, but one of the things I am certain about is if you had asked any of the people writing or producing the show at that time–Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon, Bob Justman, or Dorothy Fontana–whether they thought anybody would be watching Star Trek or talking about Star Trek or writing about Star Trek fifty years later, every one of them would have said, “Absolutely not.” It was, first and foremost, a television show, a consumable commodity, an ephemeral thing, and it was treated that way by the network, by the people who wrote the show, and by the actors who made their livings on it.
Having admitted this much, though, it also has to be said that there were people who believed in the show, and believed it could be done every week. Roddenberry had proved he could do the show by masterminding the extraordinary first pilot, “The Cage,” which will be re-broadcast this coming Saturday night on the Svengoolie program on the MeTV cable channel as part of the many television tributes to the show’s genesis. The brief notice of the first pilot’s re-broadcast in the link gets the years wrong, but suffice it to say that the captain of that Enterprise, Christopher Pike, played in 1964 by Jeffrey Hunter, was a weary soul, a man on the edge of taking a medical leave, just before his crew encounters the inhabitants of Talos IV. He was not, in the eyes of those who watched the pilot (including Roddenberry), the kind of fellow one might expect to be commanding a starship, nor was the idea of mind-controlling Talosians what executives expected out of science fiction; but those drawbacks did not deter NBC from asking for a second pilot to be done in 1965, and Roddenberry was not deterred from trying to replace Hunter, whose wife wanted him to remain focused on making movies, with someone who brought a little more energy to the role. Roddenberry had originally considered Lloyd Bridges from Sea Hunt for the role of Captain; he had considered Jack Lord, whose profile and jawline, you’ll recall, bore a rough resemblance to that of Hunter’s. Problem was, Lord wanted fifty percent ownership of the show. He was a hungry actor and hungry for money, but in this respect he was the exact match of Roddenberry himself who, some years later, demanded (and got) fifty percent of the profits from Stephen Whitfield’s flawed but very useful book about the series, The Making of Star Trek. Lord, who later did get fifty percent ownership of the original Hawaii Five-O, was moved aside, and Hunter was signed. No one could fault Hunter for his good looks or his pleasantness to his castmates, but he was faulted–by himself and others–for not quite capturing the commanding spirit required of the character he was playing. The responsibility for this failing, however, lies mostly with Roddenberry’s script. It was he who wrote Pike as a tired man. Hunter simply played the script as it was written, and many fans–myself included–liked him very much in the role, although it is true, as others have suggested, that the dynamic between Captain Pike and Mr. Spock would have been quite different, or non-existent, had Hunter stayed with the series. Hunter had misgivings about committing long-term to a series, especially a sci-fi one, and ultimately decided to pass on the opportunity, despite earnest efforts to keep him. William Shatner, who had worked on a science-fiction series in Canada in the early 1950s, and had done guest spots on both The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, read for the part, worked cheap, though not at a bargain-basement price ($10,000 in 1965 money for the second pilot), and brought an energy to the role of Captain Kirk that everybody loved.
We can see that energy from the first moment Kirk steps onto the bridge in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” the first episode shot in regular production in 1966. Striding from the turbolift over to Mr. Spock’s science station for an update on the curious cube-shaped object they’ve discovered while star-mapping, Kirk is the captain of that vessel. The camera lets us see things from his point-of-view, and we hear the confident, commanding tone in his voice, as well as the deference in Spock’s voice. That same energy is present again in “Balance of Terror,” as Kirk locks his crew into mortal combat against a Romulan ship that can make itself invisible and can also fire an incredibly-powerful weapon. It’s an episode with a lovely rhythm, and Shatner gives his Kirk a stride in the corridors of the ship that is just wonderful to watch, as it conveys an action and kinetic confidence that is the equal to any phaser that was ever fired on the show.
I was somewhat distressed to learn a week ago, during Leonard Nimoy’s 1983 retrospective on the series and the first two movies, that the producers actually had six episodes ready by the time the first episode, “The Man Trap,” aired in September. I was always under the impression that the visual effects–expensive and time-consuming to produce–were slowing down production, and that “The Man Trap”–the creature-feature about a beast that draws salt from its victims in order to survive–was broadcast first simply because other episodes were not ready. That was not the case. “The Man Trap” was chosen for the initial broadcast by the network itself, because it fit the executives’ idea of what science-fiction was. Bob Justman may not have had a role in the choice, but after his stint on The Outer Limits, he was certainly familiar with the BEM–the bug-eyed monster–that was the staple of that series’ first season, and a staple of much science fiction of the 1950’s. The press did the show no favors, either. The newspaper critics did junkets in those days, setting up the fall TV season for viewers, and they visited the Star Trek set on the day the crew filmed the “The Man Trap” scene of Mr. Spock in sickbay, saying to Captain Kirk, “It wasn’t McCoy. It was the creature. It hit me. Wondered about McCoy. Doubt had crossed my mind.” The scene lasted less than a minute, but it was B-movie schlock to the critics, who didn’t believe Roddenberry’s claim that the show was going to do good, interesting science-fiction without being violent.
The decision to air “The Man Trap” first meant that NBC bypassed “The Corbomite Maneuver,” with its clever, non-violent resolution of the plot, and Kirk’s first foray as a philos0pher-king. After he makes the decision to board the distressed First Federation vessel, McCoy chimes in, “Jim, don’t you think–” and Kirk cuts him off: “What’s the mission of this vessel, Doctor? To seek out and contact alien life forms, and an opportunity to demonstrate what our high-sounding words mean.” Those words set the tone for the entire series, as do the words Kirk utters when he sets up the landing party: “I’ll take two men with me. Dr. McCoy to treat the sick and injured, if necessary, and you, Mr. Bailey,” he says, looking at his frightened navigator. “Me, sir?” Bailey replies. “The face of the unknown,” Kirk says. “I think I owe you a look at it.” Spock pipes up: “Captain, request permission to–” Kirk cuts him off, too: “Denied. If I’m wrong, if it’s a trap, I want you here.” There is Star Trek in a nutshell, even after Roddenberry made the necessary adjustment years later to nearly always have the ship’s first officer head up the landing parties. That’s the way it’s done in real life, but I think all of us have to admit it makes for great drama here to have Kirk at the head of this landing party and so many others.
The network also bypassed “Charlie X,” which was a sensitive story about a human boy gifted with great powers–a script that had a spooky yet heartbreaking ending that once again affirmed humanity even as it suggested something not so pleasant about us as people. Kirk stands before the Thasian specter and says, “The boy belongs with his own kind. If he can be taught not to use his power. . . .” The Thasian replies, “We gave him the power so that he could live. He will use it, always. And he would destroy you and your kind, or you would be forced to destroy him, to save yourselves.” Does the Thasian’s speech not represent a crux in humanity’s behavior? Has it not been our way for thousands of years to face destruction, or to destroy others to save ourselves? We think of Star Trek as a television show that tells us that in the future many of our problems will be solved, and the series did do that. But just as often, the series pointed back the other way, and suggested that problems we’ve always wrestled with will remain to be wrestled with in the 23rd century.
I often said to my barber in Illinois, who was a Star Trek fan, that the first season of the show should be framed in gold. Sure enough, when DVDs were invented, here came Star Trek‘s first season in a gold box. I’ve already written about how episodes like “Space Seed” and “The City on the Edge of Forever” fit into my earliest experiences with superb science-fiction, but this is not to say that season two didn’t have some fine episodes and great moments. “Amok Time,” wherein Spock is driven back to Vulcan by the urge to mate, was always Nimoy’s favorite episode, and the scene in which Kirk forces him to reveal his problem is wonderful work: “You’ve been called the best First Officer in the fleet. That’s an enormous asset to me. If I have to lose that first officer, I want to know why.” Nimoy himself shines in “Journey to Babel,” in the scene where his mother, played by Jane Wyatt, begs him to relinquish his temporary command of the Enterprise and give his father the blood transfusion he needs to live. The two of them go back and forth, and the anguish on their faces–palpable on Ms. Wyatt’s and restrained on Nimoy’s–makes it a moment gloriously hard to watch. I saw it again just last week, and was amazed at how well it holds up. Good work will last as long as there are people around to recognize it.
Some episodes, like “Mirror, Mirror,” and “The Doomsday Machine,” were just plain fun, and the guest actors, like Barbara Luna and William Windom, had fun participating in them. Yet, the episodes represented merely a job, this week’s script, before they moved on to the next job. They never quite understood why viewers attached so much importance to various episodes or to the series as a whole. Even the regular cast, working every week, took a long time to catch on. But Nimoy, at least, understood. He grasped that if the ideas of a show are powerful enough, and if one sees various episodes several times over the course of one’s life, the show cannot help becoming part of one’s mental existence. That is certainly true in my case, and in the case of my friends. We don’t merely watch Star Trek. We dwell with it. Its ideas, and its way of expressing those ideas, are powerfully memorable, and they are part of us. Take “Mirror, Mirror.” Kirk and company are transported to a parallel universe and parallel Enterprise where everyone behaves like savages. But the parallel Spock, brutal though he could be, is like the Spock we know. He’s aware that the empire he serves will not last forever. Kirk calls him on it in the moments just before he and the landing party are beamed back to their own universe: “I submit that your empire is illogical, because it cannot endure. I submit that you are illogical to be a willing part of it. If change is inevitable, predictable, beneficial–doesn’t logic demand that you be a part of it?” The bearded Spock replies, “One man cannot summon the future.” Kirk fires back, “But one man can change the present. Be the captain of this Enterprise. Push ’til it gives. You can defend yourself better than any man in the fleet.” That little exchange, “One man cannot summon the future”/ “But one man can change the present” has always resonated with me. It represents the liberal humanism that was at the core of the show, and the hopeful extension of that humanism into our future.
While “Space Seed” and “The City on the Edge of Forever” remain my favorite episodes, neither one contains my favorite moments of Star Trek. For that, I have to turn to the twenty-third episode of season one, “A Taste of Armageddon.” Kirk and the landing party are made prisoners by the ruling council of Eminiar 7, a planet that has been been at war with its neighboring planet, Vendikar, for 500 years. Some of Kirk’s speeches in that one have been parodied, by Seth MacFarlane among others, but I forgive him because I’m a fan of Family Guy, and I’m aware that MacFarlane himself was a driving force behind the new version of Cosmos that aired a couple of seasons back. A speech that MacFarlane has not touched, however, is this one, wherein Kirk justifies his threat to wipe out the planet and his destruction of the computers that have allowed the perpetuation of a war that has lasted half a millennium. I’d invite you to watch it and pay attention, not just to Shatner, but to everyone who speaks in the scene. It’s a great bit of ensemble acting and an example of what can happen when actors follow James Cagney’s advice, “Learn your lines. Say them like you mean them.”
So is the exchange between Kirk, Spock and McCoy in the tag to that episode. “Captain, you took a big chance [with General Order 24] down on the planet,” Spock says. “Did I, Mr. Spock? Kirk replies. “They had been killing three million people a year. It had been going on for five hundred years. An actual attack wouldn’t have killed any more people, but it would have ended their ability to make war. The fighting would have been over.” “But you didn’t know it would work,” McCoy comments. “No,” Kirk concedes, “but Eminians have a very orderly society. I had a feeling that they’d do anything to avoid that kind of destruction, even talk peace.” “A feeling is not much to go on, Captain,” Spock replies. Kirk smiles wryly and says,”Sometimes, Mr. Spock, a feeling is all we humans have to go on.” Spock considers a moment and then says, “Captain, you almost make me believe in luck.” Kirk comes back at him, “Why, Mr. Spock. You almost make me believe in miracles.”
The whole last sequence of “A Taste of Armageddon,” lasting five minutes, is my favorite single bit of Star Trek, encompassing not only the byplay among the lead characters but also the 1960s greatest fear–total war–and the twenty-third century’s call to find a solution to the dilemma. In its essence, the scene does a lot to illustrate Star Trek‘s value. For we have to ask ourselves, “Why Star Trek?” Other shows have been on much longer or been much better written. Why not Hill Street Blues or ER or Gunsmoke? Why don’t we remember them the way we do Star Trek? The answer is that just about every fine show we can name is relentlessly devoted to the here-and-now, and to a realistic depiction of our present-day problems. Only Star Trek in its original incarnation dealt with the world that is as we know it and the world as it can be. It hardly matters that the later series in the Star Trek canon developed a darker, more complex twenty-fourth century. In fact, I’m proud of Roddenberry’s pupils for doing so, and doing it so well. But most shows that we watch encompass at best only the lifespan of the persons watching them. Star Trek dared to claim that there will be a twenty-third century–that life will go on long after the present moment has passed–and that the people who live in that century will live harmoniously with all other races. They will feel liberated, not oppressed, by the clothes they wear, the thoughts they think, and the other civilizations they encounter. No other show of the 1960s, be it science-fiction or some other genre, was offering what Star Trek offered: a look simultaneously at what is, and what can be. No other television show has offered so powerful and compelling a conception of hope as Gene Roddenberry’s creation has. I watch it these days with a little sadness, for I have measured a good deal of my life by it, and the clock is ticking a bit more insistently in my ear as I think about all the actors on it who have passed away. But I watch it also with a great deal of warmth and satisfaction because when the show was good, it was really good. It entertained us, yes, but it also pointed out how all of us could be part of a better world to come. No wonder it has lasted so long.
[Postscript, September 10, 2016: The third season of Star Trek is best passed over in silence for an essay like the one above. A few of the episodes in that season–“Spectre of the Gun,” “Spock’s Brain,” and “Whom Gods Destroy”–were so badly written and so sloppily produced that everybody involved ought to be ashamed of themselves for being a part of them. The trouble with these stories and others goes back to the halfway point of season two, when Star Trek‘s middling ratings began to dip further, and rumors spread of the show’s cancellation. It is true that a vigorous letter campaign from devoted fans saved the show for its third season, but it is also true, as the public did not learn until much, much later, that NBC’s suspicions were correct: a lot of those “fan” letters came from Roddenberry himself, first-hand or second-hand through his friends. The campaign caused a lot of resentment of Roddenberry, and the network punished him for it, consigning Star Trek to Fridays at 9:00 p.m. CST–the very time most of the show’s audience was out enjoying the weekend–and granting the show almost no budget for special effects or sets.
Roddenberry contributed to the show’s demise in another way: he stopped working on it. He was, once again, “Executive Producer” for season three, meaning he walked around a lot. He should have continued his prior practice of writing twenty or so stories that could be turned into scripts by others, but he stopped doing that, and the other routines which had worked so well for season one, under the grind of season two.
Still, season three did have a couple of good episodes, and interesting moments. “The Enterprise Incident” was a good Cold-War episode, well played by Nimoy and Joanne Linville as a Romulan commander from whom Spock steals a ship-cloaking device. A lot of fans seem to like “All Our Yesterdays,” in which Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are trapped deep in various parts of a dying planet’s past, but if Mariette Hartley didn’t look so fetching in a cave leotard, I wouldn’t give the episode a second thought. I do give a second thought to “The Empath,” an episode that features a very fine pantomine performance by Kathryn Hays as a young being who must demonstrate that she and her planet are worth saving from destruction. And, within the otherwise awful “Whom Gods Destroy,” there’s a couple of marvelous moments where Captain Kirk encounters Garth, insane now, but formerly one of the finest starship captains of all time. Kirk reminds him of his former status, but it is not until Garth receives treatment at the end of the episode that we see him as we should: a man with almost King Lear-like dignity. “Do I know you, sir?” he asks Kirk. A great moment, and a good performance by Steve Ihnat, a fine actor who died much too soon.]