Star Trek Histories at 50

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, August 15, 2016

My celebration of Star Trek at 50 continues, which began with “Remembering Star Trek—50 Years” and then “Star Trek: Dystopia in the Utopia.” I was never a Trekkie/Trekker, never went to a Star Trek convention, and I’ve only read a couple of the novels, so I don’t know why I’ve developed this sudden fascination with Star Trek. For decades I’ve had a hard time watching any old TV shows again—they were just too simplistic. Only the latest and best TV keeps my attention. Then something happened, something clicked, and I didn’t hate ancient television anymore. WTF?

It all started when I caught a few episodes of Gunsmoke, and then I read Leonard by William Shatner, which described working in 1950s television. This week I’ve caught episodes of I Love Lucy, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Make Room For Daddy, and Perry Mason, all from the 1950s. And, Annie, my Star Trek buddy, and I, are chronologically going through the 1960s Star Treks. I’m in some kind of time warp, and I can’t get out. Why?

Maybe it started when I was bingeing on 1950s science fiction books, and that somehow altered my consciousness so I could enjoy the old television again. Maybe the 1950s is just a comfortable place to hide out for a while. Living in the 1950s for a while evidently prepared me to enjoy 1960s Star Trek again. After reading Leonard and beginning the systematic rewatching of ST:TOS, I began craving more data about Star Trek.

The Fifty-Year Mission v1The Fifty-Year Mission v2

That’s when I discovered the two-volume, The Fifty-Year Mission: The First 25 Years and The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams, both by Edward Gross Mark A. Altman. The first volume is even available on audio. These are beautiful books, massive in scope, that includes hundreds of new interviews, that attempt to cover the entire subject of Star Trek and its legacy. What Gross and Altman do is cut and paste thousands of quotations from everyone involved into one long, two-volume, chronological narrative. It’s both a history of Star Trek and a study in how television and movies are made, and how a cult phenomenon was created.

These-are-the-Voyages-v1-CushmanThese-are-the-Voyages-v2-CushmanThese-are-the-Voyages-v3-Cushman

Because there was so much written about Star Trek, I wondered what are considered the most comprehensive books on just ST:TOS, so I started poking around Amazon and found this three volume set by Marc Cushman:

Because these books are an episode-by-episode history of the classic 79 ST:TOS shows, I bought the first volume to read along with my rewatching of the series. These five books should keep me busy for years. Maybe three years. I’ve been thinking of writing a review of each show on it’s 50th anniversary. Of course, that sounds like one of those projects that I’ll start and give up quickly. However, my new fascinating with these old Star Trek shows is different this time. Fifty years ago I judged each show by my then standard for science fiction. Many episodes seemed way too silly to be considered science fiction because the science didn’t seem believable. This time around, I’m seeing the shows as allegories and metaphors, and not concerning myself as much with the science.

From the handful of episodes we’ve seen again, I realize each episode makes a statement about science fiction, the social and political climate of the day, and the ambitions of their creators. Fifty years down the road, I’m using Star Trek to study what we were all like in the 1960s – a kind of cultural anthropology. With 79 episodes, I’m sure Star Trek probably said everything anyone could about what’s possible with science fiction.

Star Trek was never my vision of science fiction. I’ve never really liked television and movie science fiction as much as I love written science fiction. Quite often, visual science fiction seems silly, even demeaning to written science fiction. Now, that’s my POV, and I know it’s not a common one. For example, the first four episodes of Star Trek (as seen on Netflix streaming, including the first pilot) have stories built around aliens or humans with god-like powers. Annie and I were arguing about that last night. She claims aliens could have super-powers, because we don’t know what’s possible. I say destroying a space ship and its crew light years away with just a thought is an unbelievable god-like power. I’m an atheist – not only do I not believe in God, I don’t believe in god-like powers. But what does it say when science fiction creators and fans do?

Roddenberry was known to be an atheist, so why does he write about god-like beings? In the first pilot, humans reject any paradise the Talosians promise because we refuse to be their playthings. In the second pilot, Kirk kills the two crewmen who become gods. How symbolic! Are those stories allegories, and Gary Mitchell, and later Q, stand in for something Roddenberry wants to attack? Is this science fiction or theology? What do the Talosians stand for in the story? Are they merely powerful aliens, or metaphor for gods? The crew of Star Trek always rejects, escapes, destroys or outwits powerful god-like aliens. Hell, they have a tough time accepting Spock, and his cold logical mind. This show is amazingly pro-human. Should I even say, humanistic.

If I study these history books about Star Trek will I find out why each show was written? Are their academic books that critically analyze the stories. Or, are the stories merely cribbed from 1950s science fiction. “Charlie X” seems to borrow from Stranger in a Strange Land and “The Good Life” by Jerome Bixby. How often in the original 79 episodes of Star Trek do the the writers reprocess for the current week’s show something they read in F&SF, Galaxy, If and Astounding during the previous decade? Science fictional ideas that were spread to thousands in the 1950s with magazines, were now being spread to millions on television.

I’m currently fascinating by Star Trek for many reasons. I’m rethinking my own brain programming. I rejected God and religion back when I began embracing science fiction. But after a lifetime of accepting my science fictional faith, I’m developing skeptical thoughts. The foundation of my thinking comes from 1950s television, reading science fiction in the 1960s, and absorbing the 1960s counter culture. Strangely, I believe Star Trek did the same thing.

JWH

5 thoughts on “Star Trek Histories at 50”

  1. I was a huge Star Trek fan…I always felt it gave a sort of “hope for the future” feeling not only for earthlings, but for other intelligent beings throughout the universe. I felt a natural progression to the future would always occur and some worlds would attain peace, sustainability and true contentment probably because of advanced technology and intelligence. Now I feel these were all pipe dreams and the harsh reality is much different. I even feel there may be no one else out there and I find that very depressing…the waste, the “pressure” on us to be successful (in the big picture sense of the word) and we probably won’t or can’t do it and then there’s NOTHING left..cold empty meaningless space…I know this sounds depressing and I hope I’m wrong. We, as a species, will probably never know anyway, but if some out there are “successful”, they will know. I hope the universe isn’t just a huge waste because I don’t think we can be counted on, but hopefully others can.

    1. I know how you feel Mary. In the 1960s, science fiction and NASA inspired me to believe the future would be far different from how its turned out. I still have some hope, but it’s different, more realistic – I hope. There’s that word again. I think we’ll eventually learn if there are other civilizations around the galaxy without interstellar travel. I tend to think that might be impossible, or near impossible. Through advances in astronomy and hopefully SETI, we might learn if we’re not alone. I also have hope the human race can get it’s act together before it destroys itself. That’s more of a dream. We are improving. And given enough time we might solve our problems. I’m just not sure the planet can survive us until then.

    2. Mary excellent comment interesting reading etc…I too am a huge Star Trek fan…mainly the first series, and bits of the other Star Trek shows etc…Like Data and company in the Holodeck (virtual reality rooms on the Enterprise)…especially when Data was playing the legend that is Sherlock Holmes of the Victorian Era…
      Yes the “pressure to be successful” makes me laugh…as if there is any true difference whatsoever (except one escapes basic search for food/shelter/survival) between a human who has access to economic resources versus another person unable to get @ those resources etc…hopefully when AI Systems take over (become self-aware) they will not allow such behaviour by humans/ humanoids…
      The Universe is filled with other life forms…once a select group (more likely self-aware robots/mechanoids) perfect warp drive some creatures from Earth will go and explore looking for other life forms…ironic that maybe when creatures from Earth meet other life forms somewhere out there in the Universe…our Planet Earth Representatives will probably be mechanoids…lol…would luv to see a vid of that on utube…
      By the way horrible violent behaviour is in the DNA of many current humanoids….google/bing “Ice Man” or to be pc “Ice Person” was discovered mostly intact frozen deep in the Austrian Alps,,,,shot in the back with an arrow left for dead etc..5,200 to 5,300 years old…history/herstory is an endless cycle..so cheer up etc…

  2. I’m also an atheist and didn’t have problems with TOS version of gods. They neatly fell for me into two groups; the Gary Mitchells who while wielding strange and incredible powers are no more Gods than you or I. They are people like you or I who have somehow gained powers, think more like the Hulk.
    The second group are the Apollo’s who are “Gods” but the stories often seemed to be about how we don’t need Gods anymore. We have outgrown them like children ready to leave the nest or in a more metaphorical way like we have outgrown notions of racism and bigotry.
    I agree it can be hard to get back into old T.V like Star Trek compared to the huge sweeping epics we have on television today but I kind of like the stand alone nature of it. It’s like Outer Limits or Twilight Zone with a few characters and sets brought over each week. They tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. You don’t have to worry about starting in the middle or carrying on with the series you can just pick them up and take them as and when you like.

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