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.

JWH

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