BACK TO THE FUTURE

star-trekYes, it’s anniversary time again, though the pop culture institution that notches-up half-a-century today didn’t reach British shores until after it had already been cancelled by the US TV network that had commissioned it three years earlier. The original ‘Star Trek’ debuted on BBC1 as a summer replacement for ‘Doctor Who’ in the week of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, whereas it disappeared from NBC just weeks before Neil Armstrong’s one small step for man. As the 60s gave way to the 70s and men were beginning to feel at home on the moon, ‘Star Trek’ looked very much of the moment during its first run in the UK. The series had been made on top-notch film and in colour, giving it a glossy cinematic sheen no home-grown show could compete with, but a quality that was ideal when the BBC was eager to promote the benefits of colour television.

‘Star Trek’ must have been one of the earliest spin-off merchandise generators, with the familiar faces of Kirk, Spock, Scotty, McCoy and co gracing everything from breakfast cereal boxes to comics, annuals and all the assorted paraphernalia of a 70s childhood. The show’s catchphrases entered common parlance in record time, no telly impressionist was worth a toss if he couldn’t parody the programme, and any kid at school with vaguely pointy ears had an instant readymade nickname whether he liked it or not. First time round, it was always the possibility of an alien species that would guarantee my attention, whereas repeat runs later in the decade made me aware there was a little more depth to it than that. Only three seasons of that classic original series were produced, though it never seemed to be off screens for long, giving the impression it ran for much longer.

American television has a proud history of innovative and adult-themed series rooted in fantasy with sci-fi elements. ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘The Outer Limits’ in the monochrome early 60s had been trailblazers, though ex-WWII fighter pilot Gene Roddenberry felt there was room to combine the intelligent writing of those with something that would also appeal to a wider audience, including children. Having become a full-time TV scriptwriter upon leaving the LAPD, Roddenberry had honed his craft by the time he conceived what he pitched as ‘Wagon Train in Space’. He interested Desilu, the company formed by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who commissioned a pilot. Titled ‘The Cage’, this pilot contained the majority of the factors that became familiar to viewers, though only Leonard Nimoy as Mr Spock was a crew-member on this initial outing.

A few necessary changes were made and the introduction of Canadian actor William Shatner as Captain Kirk was pivotal when it came to a second pilot. He was joined by a cast that reflected Roddenberry’s optimistic view of future human beings on a five-year mission to boldly go where no man had gone before. At odds with the fashion for dystopian sci-fi in the 60s, the USSS Enterprise’s international crew implied the planet would be able to rise above contemporary troubles to present a united front when confronting aliens – though pity the poor anonymous crew-member who beamed down to a planet with the regulars. We all knew he was doomed the moment he set foot on it.

Spock was, of course, half-human and half-Vulcan, which made him the most intriguing character; Kirk was dependably square-jawed and expert at holding in his pot belly; McCoy could be cantankerous when tested by Spock’s Vulcan side; Scotty was gruff but good in a crisis; Chekov was Russian with a Beatle wig; Sulu was Japanese; and Uhuru was a black woman – even if she had no choice but to join the other female crew-members in wearing the compulsory uniform of mini-skirt and knee-high leather boots. The multi-national crew was quite an on-screen mix during the age of the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam; but it worked. The banter between them created a chemistry that made you care about what happened to them, and the writing was generally of a high standard until it tailed off a bit near the end.

One particular episode, in which the crew find themselves travelling back in time to the 1930s, sees Captain Kirk fall for a character played by Joan Collins; in order not to change the course of history, Spock prevents him from saving her life in the road accident they know will kill her. In another, a fault with the transporter room mechanism as Kirk is beamed back up to the ship sees him transported to a parallel universe Enterprise wherein every regular crew member is considerably more sinister than their usual selves. Then there’s the one where Kirk is split into two halves – the good Kirk and the evil Kirk (the evil one wears eyeliner). ‘Star Trek’ was good at playing with the viewers’ heads.

In a way, ‘Star Trek’ belonged to that great generation of US TV fantasy series that encompassed everything from ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘The Man from UNCLE’ to ‘Batman’ and ‘Bewitched’ – even ‘The Monkees’; but it was also apart from them. It featured US TV’s first interracial kiss, for one thing – between Kirk and Uhuru. But Kirk always got the girl, after all; and the girl when seen through Kirk’s eyes was usually shot in a soft-focus lens. None of this saved the show from the axe, however. By the end of the 60s, fantasy TV as a mainstream attraction appeared to have had its day, and cop shows gradually superseded in it in the 70s.

In America, the real cult of ‘Star Trek’ began more or less immediately after its 1969 cancellation when the show went into syndication and was rerun on a loop, playing to a new and enthusiastic audience on a nightly basis at the same time as British viewers were taking it to their hearts. This posthumous popularity led to an exceptionally good animated series in 1973 and finally culminated in the first ‘Star Trek’ movie in 1979. From then on, it has become a franchise both on TV and at the cinema; but I would argue none of the subsequent spin-offs and revivals have come near that original series, which remains in a league – or galaxy – of its own. Happy birthday, even if ye cannae take it.

© The Editor

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5 thoughts on “BACK TO THE FUTURE

  1. I think all the follow ups, except “Enterprise”, were better than the original, in their wide ranging exploration of ideas and the interface between us and technology and what it means to be human.

    Captain Janeway – swoon.

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    1. I only ever saw a few episodes of ‘The Next Generation’ and it didn’t quite grab me. Perhaps it didn’t have the nostalgia factor the original series had. I did see the one where the Next Generation crew travelled back to the Kirk era, using the ‘Tribbles’ episode as source material; I thought that was a remarkable triumph of modern TV technology.

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  2. In its time, Star Trek was remarkable: not only a trendy space-based thriller series, but it also managed to encompass so many messages within its plots and personnel which were quite radical for the time. True, it was sometimes clunky, a bit like Thunderbirds without the strings, but it worked at the time and, as Windsock observes, laid a solid framework for smarter presentation in future versions.
    It’s easy to be dismissive of such earlier entertainments for their simplicity and technical limitations, but Star Trek, like ‘Muffin The Mule’ and many others, was right for its time and its audience, so that counts as good.

    Its impact may be best indicated in a UK court case reported around that time, when the judge asked the defendant if there was anything he wanted to say before sentence was passed – the guy in the dock put one hand to his ear and just said “Beam me up, Scotty”. Wish I’d said that.

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