Remembering Star Trek—50 Years

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, August 6, 2016

Leonard by William ShatnerThis is my week for revisiting Star Trek. Last weekend I saw Star Trek Beyond, and this weekend I read Leonard by William Shatner, a biography of Leonard Nimoy, explaining their fifty-year friendship. Between that movie and book I watched three old episodes of Star Trek:TOS just out of nostalgia. I have a rather love-hate relationship with Star Trek. Fifty years ago this summer, while staying with my dad in Key West, Florida, I saw the previews for a new science fiction show that would start in the fall. I can’t convey how excited I was waiting for Star Trek to premiere. Then the first episode was about a shape shifting monster that sucked the salt out of people. WTF? (Although, we didn’t talk in initials back in 1966.) The crew and ship was cool, especially Mr. Spock, but that first show disappointed me. Eventually, I saw other episodes that did wow me, so Star Trek was always a hit and miss kind of experience. To be honest, the only character I really liked was Mr. Spock, so what appealed to me were the stories, and their quality varied greatly from week-to-week.

The new Star Trek Beyond is a big hit – but not with me. Now I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, that would be silly when so many people love it. I just have some grumps, and that’s probably due to being old. I’m worn out on special effects. I’m tired of action movies. I’m sick to death of unrealistic violence in movies, especially the ones where the violence is less real than Three Stooges or Wile E Coyote. Superhero films have ruined action, thriller and modern westerns for me. They’ve all become power porn for people who fantasize that can pound people like Jack Reacher or Jason Bourne. Not my thing. I know I’m weak and gimpy, and would get my ass kicked by anyone over twelve. Especially those kids trained on action films.

I’d love to see a Star Trek film where special effects were kept to a minimum, with no martial arts, no space battles, and for god’s sake, where the damn crew don’t become hostages. How many times has Captain Kirk or crew been captured? How many times has the Enterprise been destroyed? And where’s the damn science fiction? Essentially Star Trek Beyond could be summed up as terrorist threatens civilization with bioweapon. The only sense of wonder I found in the film was when they introduced Yorktown. That was pretty cool. If they had spent the whole film just hanging out on that space habitat I would have been a happy moviegoer.

The three old TV episodes I watched were:

All three episodes were enjoyable, but none deserved an Emmy or even a Hugo. Each had a nice gimmick, and even though she didn’t do much, “Assignment: Earth” made me remember Teri Garr (although I had already seen in her in several films as an extra according to IMDb).

I’m going to give up on the Star Trek movies, and just watch the old TV shows from time to time. All three of the recent reboot films have been heavily laden with nostalgia I don’t feel. I like the new actors, and if they could break away from being clichés and caricatures of the originals, I would enjoy seeing a new Star Trek story that had some original science fiction concepts. The trouble is they have to make a film that will earn hundreds of millions and that means a cartoonish action film. I’d love to see them create a story that has the feel, pacing and creativity of Gattaca, Her and Ex Machina, but set it on Yorktown.

Now, the best for last. Leonard proved to be a surprisingly good read. I don’t know if Shatner or his co-writer David Fisher did the writing, but it’s very readable, and full of well research details. Shatner and Nimoy were born months apart to Jewish families. Both wanted to be actors and struggled for years to find success. Shatner’s chronicles of how he and Nimoy took any acting job they could get. I found that particularly interesting, especially when he covered television jobs in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Since I haven’t read any other histories of Star Trek or its actors, I’m not sure how much of the information in Leonard is new. It was enough to give me a satisfying sense of working on the original show and movies, plus memories about the Star Trek conventions. Shatner also summarized Nimoy’s work in theater, directing, poetry, singing, photography and philanthropy. Shatner convinced me that Leonard Nimoy was an exceptional person. The book is a moving eulogy to a friend. And like I said before, the book is very readable.

But Leonard is more than a biography. It’s a kind of confession. Shatner claims Nimoy was his best friend in life, and then admits that Nimoy had stopped talking to him years before he died. The psychology of this book is one for psychiatrists. Evidently the story of these two men is very complicated, and we’re only hearing Shatner’s side of things. I’m not sure if Shatner is very self-aware, but he does struggle to appear honest, and express his feelings. Even if you knew nothing about Star Trek, this book might be a worthy read because of how the story is told. It’s about acting, and what it means to become a pop icon success. Anyone interested in acting, old television, making movies, or working in the theater should find insight in this story.

The reader feels Shatner loved Nimoy, but like Shatner, can’t understand why Nimoy hated him in the end. I searched the internet for answers, but realize I’d be jumping into a black hole and quit. It would be interesting to read an impartial, definitive biography of Star Trek, its creators, writers and all the actors. Is there such a book? I’m not a Trekkie/Trekker, so I don’t know. Star Trek is a phenomenon, so that makes it an interesting subject separate from the show’s fan appeal.

From the details within Leonard, and a bit of Google research on Star Trek, I get the feeling the Star Trek universe is huge. If you count the number of TV episodes from all the series, all the movies, all the books, comics, and so on, there must be well over a thousand artifacts to study, maybe a lot more. Even though, from 1966 on, I watched most of ST shows, I never took it seriously enough to become a true fan. And even though I’d like to know more, I’m not sure I have the time, or even if the endeavor is worth while. Leonard does convey the immense success of Star Trek, and that might be all I need to know, but it’s beyond my comprehension to really understand the Star Trek universe.

Personally, I have a kind of resentment against Star Trek and Star Wars. I remember how science fiction was before 1966, and I preferred when the genre was mostly unknown. Those franchises exploded the world of science fiction twice. Science fiction was defined by magazines in 1926, began shifting to books in 1946, then in 1966 the audience expanded tremendously with television, and in 1977, it’s appeal exploded again worldwide. Even though media science fiction can be fun, it was never the science fiction I found in magazines and books. In many ways, I think the definitive science fiction has always come from magazines. Of course, my view might be age related, and I’m revealing I never kept up with the times.

The difference between me and real Star Trek fans, is I never fell in love with the characters. With both Star Trek and Star Wars, I think their fanatical fans love the characters and can’t forget them. And to me, science fiction has always been about insightful ideas – the sense of wonder at discovering something that could or should exist in reality but something I never imagined. For me, the science fiction digests of the 1950s and 1960s had more sense-of-wonder revelations then anything I ever found in television and movies.

I still like Star Trek about as much as I liked it during the 1966/67 TV season. It has its moments.


16 thoughts on “Remembering Star Trek—50 Years”

  1. Nice blog entry. I grew up on star trek. I watched every episode of the old series and the next generation series before the age of 12, and when I was young I was genuinely thrilled.

    When I see the opening titles of the next generation series, I feel a sense of wonder that the series hardly deserves. And rewatching the series, I cannot find any episode that would explain this feeling. But it was my first real experience with science fiction.

    I also get the impression that Nimoy was an exceptional person.

  2. I was a pre-teen when Star Trek first hit the airwaves. I’d been an avid book and comic book fan for several years. I’d just begun reading the A. Norton and Heinlein “juvenile” science fiction novels and hooking into the visual media of Star Trek was pretty exciting. It definitely beat the over-used lukewarm scripts that TV westerns seemed to recycle endlessly.

    At the same time, I didn’t become a true Star Trek fan. It was fun, it took place on a cool space ship and at least some of the characters were believable. After a while, Shatner’s scene chewing got a bit old, and the relegation of otherwise potentially interesting characters to rote and repetitive behavior lessened my interest. I agree that the Spock character was the most interesting, probably because Roddenberry and Nimoy managed to make him sufficiently “alien” and yet human enough to relate to. NASA was much more interesting and getting up early in the morning to watch launches from Cape Canaveral/Kennedy was much more exciting.

    Still, it has a warm place in my heart and memory as it helped fan the flames of a life-long interest in science, space and of course, science fiction. And I too appear to have an old-fashioned visual cortex; with the exception of Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey most science fiction films have not been as important and memorable to me than the best stories and novels. Really good writing doesn’t need a cathode ray tube, LED screen or an IMAX theater when it runs in 4D in the theater of the mind.

    1. Jim, I guess I’m a couple years older. I discovered Heinlein and Norton a few years earlier. I find it amazing that people love Star Trek so much. It was a fun show, but there’s been lots of fun shows on TV, and none of them ever generated a mass cult following. I re-watched Forbidden Planet with a friend that had never seen it just a couple weeks ago. It felt like it was a model for Star Trek.

      I have a general passion for science fiction because I was crazy about the space program, and I love thinking about the future. Star Trek connects with that passion, but when you study it, it’s really for its time, just an average television show, with average plots, with average acting. Trying to understand why it inspired people is fascinating. It’s fans resonated with something that I don’t see. And since they focus on the actors, I have to assume they loved the characters. But why didn’t millions of people love other TV characters that way?

      1. JWH,
        I suspect there was a sweet spot, a confluence of youth, interest, societal imperatives and the fantastic idea that there were worlds out there that allowed free thinking and alternate choices when compared with the local hum-drum belief systems.
        And with Star Trek, there was at last a visual medium that didn’t require reading comics under the covers with a flashlight. Not that it stopped me.

        But more than that , I really think that all of us star-struck kids who wished-for and believed that space, aka “The Final Frontier” was a true and realistic opportunity for our world to grow and become something special. And I don’t mean to rest that argument solely on Star Trek. All of the Sci-Fi juvenile stories were stamped from pretty much the same philosophy. Norton and Heinlein did it best; young people stuck/dropped into an alien situation that they must use their own abilities and beliefs to overcome the evil that has become their current reality.

        Well, that also suggests that those of us who wished for that new reality were sorely disappointed and therefore turned to other things to believe in. Things like money, power, and one-up-manship, as so many stories do.

        I do not know, nor can I even believe that what we searched for in SF back in those days would make this world better. I just know that what I (and others) hoped for was much, much better that what we ended up with.

        One thing I do believe is that if a large portion of people (ages 25-55) in these United States were truly fans of the SF of the 50’s and 60’s, they would be preparing for a much uglier 21st Century USA. And with a little luck, a much, much better future for that same, remarkable experiment in societal and governmental associations of living human beings.

  3. What you might see as gimmick about TOS I see as sense of wonder. The Tribbles are a cute way to introduce the idea of overpopulation. And realize that cute might mean dangerous. A Piece of the Action was a period piece without the period. A whole planet tried to model itself on gangster era Chicago. How’s that for a clever way to do “time travel”.

    Yes there are duds. I’m not particularly a fan of the energy beasts which can do anything at all. All Starfleet would have to do is befriend one of these and the Romulans and whatever future enemies Starfleet met would be toast.

    I saw TOS on reruns just as I was beginning to read real science fiction. I like both.

    Plus it was great at the time, different ethnicities and women working alongside the Wasps. Spock wasn’t just an interracial character, he was an interspecies character. While this likely is impossible no matter how many logic games you try on it, it said “interracial babies, oh that’s just normal”.

    1. I didn’t mean to imply gimmick in a negative way. I merely meant the neat idea they come up with to build the story around. Have you read The Rolling Stones by Heinlein. Heinlein invents a create called flat cats that are much like Tribbles. I’ve often wondered if Tribbles weren’t inspired by flat cats.

      What a coincidence, I watched “A Piece of the Action” after the others I mentioned.

      1. I hadn’t even heard about the flat cats. But of course tribbles probably weren’t made out of thin air. I was thinking of the Niven/Pournelle brownies which followed Star Trek in The Mote in God’s Eye. After transport booths, it’s the second thing Niven riffed on from Star Trek. A Piece of the Action is usually in the top ten Star Trek the original series lists so I’m not too surprised that you watched it.

    1. Give us a review of the Blu-ray. The picture quality on Netflix streaming is pretty darn good. Are there are lot of extras? $65 is not bad for the complete series.

  4. I’m a fan of the original STAR TREK series so the Blu-ray set trumps Netflix for me. But, that being said, this is TV broadcast from fifty years ago, not HD picture quality. The picture fits your screen but the left and right sides will have a large black area. That doesn’t bother me, but it might bother some people used to real HDTV.

    1. Jim, thanks for that article. I had just read elsewhere about Star Trek’s connection to the Rand corporation. William Marcellino sums up how many fans feel. I remember when the first Star Trek movie came out, and we had to get in line that snaked around the block. I was so surprised to see so many Star Trek fans. Before that I always thought people who love science fiction were few. It’s really hard to convey the impact Star Trek has had on our culture.

  5. Shatner and his fellow cast members: the impression I have, from reading tons of stuff over the years, is that Shatner thought that he was starring in The Captain Kirk Show, and his co-stars resented that attitude. I do believe that Shatner’s direction for the movie “Star Trek V” (a very bad movie) showed that he had little grasp of what made Star Trek appealing.

    Star Trek started when I was 9: I had to present arguments to my parents about why I should be allowed to stay up an extra half hour to see it each week, because it was IMPORTANT. I loved the James Blish books of Trek story adaptations. My critical self has largely moved on, but my inner 12-year-old is always ready to go back and revisit the Federation.

    A pal who was a literary academic proposed that original Star Trek is our generation’s equivalent of Sherlock Holmes, and just as likely to become immortal.

    (( I discovered your blog today while searching for guides to 1990s SF novels. ))

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