Monday, May 27, 2013

Star Trek: The Original Series (Season 1) (1966-1967)

I started re-watching the first three seasons of Arrested Development. I thought I'd go through all the old episodes on Netflix in preparation for the debut of the new season, but, turns out, I would have needed to have started a lot sooner in order to have been done in time for the premiere, because, as much as Arrested Development was one those shows remembered as having been canceled too soon, its original run actually lasted a fairly long three seasons.

Likewise, the original Star Trek TV series, although considered unsuccessful in its original broadcast, actually managed to make it three full-length seasons. That's about half what later series got, but, for a non-serialized show, that's still a lot of material to burn through on Netflix (or watch it for free on I did finally get through all of the first season, and, as a brief overview, I think much of the writing still holds up, and the show has probably aged better than just about any other TV series of its era. Much of what is good in The Next Generation and Voyager is found in The Original Series, albeit it's far more raw.

Some of the stories are ridiculous (e.g. "Mudd's Women," "Shore Leave," "Arena,"), but often that's owing to the poor production values and weak special effects of the time limiting the places they could venture, hence a notable lack of aliens that actually seem, well, alien, and not merely regular humans, storybook characters in outlandish costumes, or straight-up monsters. Even the bad episodes have intriguing ideas with promise; they're just laughably executed.

What you don't find in these early episodes, I imagine again owing largely to technical limitations, is a convincing fully realized universe that the characters inhabit—so much a part of later Trek. On an average episode, I don't think you'll see the characters in more than four or five distinct locations (and that's counting a single room or hallway on the Enterprise as a "distinct location"). Rarely is there ever the sense that there is anything at all that exists beyond the immediate set. That surely is partly due to the cheapness of the sets, but also, in these early goings, they have yet to establish much of the fictional history of Starfleet, the Federation, or really any developed human-like alien societies. Instead, the crew of The Original Series really do feel like explorers of old, mapping uncharted territory.

When they do encounter alien lifeforms, they are, more often than not, well out of humanity's league. As a result, The Original Series often feels like the "Old Testament" of Star Trek, in more ways than the obvious. Many episodes follow a basic formula of:

  1. Crew is faced with alien threat.

  2. Crew contemplates moral dilemma over how to deal with threat.

  3. Crew ultimately has moral choice taken away. (Either they're forced to choose the more expedient of two evils, or else a greater power literally makes the decision for them.)

Repeatedly, Kirk and crew are made to realize their own ultimate powerlessness and failure to match their moral agency with sufficient wisdom to guide it.

Where The Original Series has its descendants beat is in the strength of its cast, despite it having only three characters of regular consequence. In fact, only William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy are credited as regulars, but DeForest Kelley is early on established as a de facto regular. The other familiar faces—Uhura, Sulu, Scotty—are distinguished from the random one-off crew members only in that they are recurring; they never contribute significantly to the plot. Nevertheless, Spock and Bones, and the men who play them, are so brilliant that the show doesn't require much more.

Spock purports to operate on pure Vulcan logic, but his barely veiled smug superiority belies his supposedly nonexistent emotions. As the season develops (and, since the episodes weren't even aired in production order, there are no character arcs but only a gradual stabilizing of character identities), we observe him as a person of enlightened morality; far from having an unemotional disregard for life, he is the crew's one true pacifist, who regards the preservation of life (for all lifeforms) as a matter of chief primacy on principle. He's also intensely loyal and readily self-sacrificing. The combination of all these qualities, matched with a performance from Nimoy that is deceptively brimming with humanity, makes for a character that, despite being the one alien on the crew, frankly embodies most purely all that is good in any of us.

McCoy, the ship's doctor, appears on neither the rejected pilot "The Cage" nor the chronological first episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Those episodes feature two different characters and actors in the medic role, and, in retrospect, there was really something lacking in them. McCoy is such an essential component of the classic Trek that it's a real shame that the character has become such an afterthought in the new movies. They've gone in a different direction, giving more prominence to the new Uhura instead, which is fair enough—the new movies don't have to, and probably shouldn't, just try to replicate the old—but the characters of Kirk and Spock actually suffer without Bones there to complete the trio. McCoy is not just another crew member, but his unwavering sense of compassion motivates him to consistently be the one guy to disregard chain of command and openly speak to his captain as an equal and his friend. Likewise, he is able to constantly spit forth seemingly bigoted remarks in Spock's direction, and yet there is never any doubt as to his genuine respect and affection for the Vulcan. This is such a common reality of the playful ribbing among the closest of friends of different races, and yet it's also such a difficult thing to pull off on TV without offending someone. McCoy manages it because Kelley's portrayal of the character is so honest and unpretentious that the viewer feels an instant easy familiarity with the character.

William Shatner's Kirk is such a peculiar character. As an actor (and maybe just as a human being), Shatner has gotten increasingly eccentric over the years, and this original TV version of Kirk is definitely more subdued than the character he would eventually become in the movies. Still, he already feels always like a character that seems to exist, to some extent, in his own world, even apart from Spock and Bones. Bones clearly treats Kirk as a friend, but it's less clear how Kirk really feels about Bones, or about anyone. There's just something always slightly off about the guy, as though he's operating on a different wavelength from normal human beings, and, even as he is charming and charismatic, there are parts of him that seem unapproachable. His is such a singular self-motivated, self-confident ego that you don't quite believe that he could even have real friends. But he's believable as the captain of a ship, precisely because he's the kind of one-in-a-million maverick, before whom others will naturally fall in line, not because he's a tyrant but because he simply exudes a larger presence—a veritable god in whose footsteps follow mere mortals. You get the sense that, more than any other captain on any other Trek, he is the one that really rules his ship, and every important decision must be his call to make.

As I ready myself for Season 2, I leave you with a list of my favorite episodes from Season 1 (episode numbers reflecting broadcast order):

Episode 11 "The Menagerie, Part I"

This is actually the first part of a pretty dreadful two-parter. My advice: Do NOT watch the canned pilot "The Cage" before watching this, because most of the footage from "The Cage" ends up recycled in "The Menagerie." Nevertheless, the first part is notable for being the first episode to really highlight the character of Spock, hinting at there being far more to him than just his purely logical exterior. He defies orders, going to extraordinary lengths and placing his career in jeopardy, in order to see through a kindness to a man he once served under, all the while never breaking his outward stoicism, which we learn can just as well signify modesty as arrogance.

Episode 14 "Balance of Terror"

A clear precursor to Wrath of Khan's submarine-inspired combat, it's a gripping and uniquely shot episode concentrating on a single protracted battle, as much of wits as of ships. This is also the first episode to feature an alien race that, rather than being either a monster or a god, is analogous to a foreign nation.

Episode 21 "The Return of the Archons" and Episode 23 "A Taste of Armageddon"

A pair of episodes showcasing Star Trek at its ambitious, allegorical science fiction best.

Episode 28 "The City on the Edge of Forever"

Arguably the greatest story in all of Trek, the time travel fun in the first half prefigures the genius of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, while the ending is a standard inclusion on any "greatest moments in television" list. The unforgettable climactic scene is brilliant, and so are all three actors in it. That said, Kirk's decision doesn't strike me as especially Kirk-like. I always thought of him as that guy who overcame no-win situations and always searched for a way through, even when there was none. But TV Kirk seems quite often ineffectual in the face of moral dilemmas, so at least here he finally takes the burden of most crushing responsibility upon himself.

Episode 29 "Operation: Annihilate!"

Another precursor to the movies, here we see the "needs of the many" argument laid out, and the friendship among the three main characters cemented. After some erratic early episodes, the writers and actors really found the core three characters—Spock and McCoy especially—and it's remarkable how, as early as this first season finale, we could see exactly who these men were and what they were made of—qualities and characterizations that would last and continue to be fulfilled in the movies more than a decade later.

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