what i'm watching: to boldly go: in which captain james t. kirk returns to my tv

I am so enjoying re-watching the original Star Trek series, in order, from the beginning, on my US Netflix/Roku.

I half-dread writing about "Star Trek TOS", because of... well, you know. The whole Star Trek thing. The whole sci-fi thing. If you read the "what i'm watching" and "what i'm reading" posts on wmtc, you know I am not a science fiction aficionado. Obviously I am not a Trekkie or a Trekker. I don't know or care about Star Trek trivia. Shatner* memes can be mildly amusing, but really, whatever. I just really like this show.

(This is a problem when you casually enjoy something that has a cult following. I've never written about Xena, either, for the same reason. I'm not a fantasy fan. I just love that show!)

I watched Star Trek as a kid, back when there was no need to append "the original series" to the name,** but before stumbling on it on Netflix, I hadn't seen it in more than a decade. I thought I had seen the entire series, but now have discovered that I've seen only about half the episodes. I think the metro New York channel that showed Star Trek re-runs in those days only owned certain episodes. So while I saw about 30 episodes multiple times, there are a good 40-odd episodes that I've never seen at all.

Watching the show from the beginning, in order, is terrific. Early character development, references to back story, various early combinations of crew, the glam close-ups of Kirk as Ladies' Man - it's interesting to watch it all develop. And new stuff, right away! I had seen the famous two-part episode "The Menagerie," where Spock appears to face court-martial for kidnapping his former captain and hijacking the Enterprise, but I had never seen "The Cage," the pilot episode The Menagerie refers to. I'm waiting for my favourite episode: silicon-based life.

One thing that makes Star Trek TOS so interesting is the show's signature mix of the progressive and the conservative. There's the Enterprise's multinational crew, people of all backgrounds working together in harmony... but the captain is a WASP with two monosyllabic names. Women have been promoted to space travel and many are distinguished scientists... but their uniforms barely cover their butts.*** (I've read that Gene Roddenberry would have clothed the women in even skimpier costumes if television standards had allowed.) Thematically, the entire show is a vision of what exploration could have been. Imagine if the Europeans had followed The Prime Directive! Yet the Enterprise travels through a galaxy colonized by Earth. Starship command, as far as I can tell, are all Earth people. Something tells me United Earth is another name for the American Empire.

So far, all the episodes are based on a few templates. There are the being-with-superior-powers-toying-with-Enterprise-crew, who turns out to be a childlike figure controlled by superior beings. There is time travel in which the crew must not disturb the past in order to preserve the future. There is - a bit strangely, I think - fear of humans becoming slaves to technology. There are moralistic stories of tolerance, avoiding war, and what happens to beings with absolute power.

In the 1960s, as I understand it, the technology imagined on Star Trek was groundbreaking, almost prescient. Nowadays, it's amusing to spot the bits where they guessed wrong. Most of these come down to not anticipating the digital revolution, imagining advanced space travel in an analog world. So you get a chronometer that looks like an old car odometer, and a voice-activated computer producing microfilm-like pictures of typewritten index cards. When I re-watched the first season of Red Dwarf, I noted Lister waiting for his film to be developed in the ship's darkroom. It was not meant to be a joke. Funny how people imagined long-distance space travel but not instant photography.

* Obligatory Canadian sightings: William Shatner and James Doohan (who played Scotty) are/were both Canadian.

** No, I have never seen Star Trek "TNG". But yes, I have heard it's very good and I would probably like it. If I ever find out, I'll let you know.

*** I originally wrote "cover their boobs and thighs", but upon review, I see that there was rarely any cleavage seen on female characters. The uniforms were the miniest of mini dresses, with hemlines just south of unmentionable. The only chest exposed was male, usually sweaty, and almost always Shatner.


UnEvil One said...

If you ever start watching TNG, please be aware season one wasn't considered a strong one by most trekkers. Roddenberry basically wanted a remake, unfortunately including the formula based writing.

Hate to say it, but the show got better after the old man kicked off, starting in season two.

laura k said...

Duly noted! Thanks. :)

James Redekop said...

Have a listen to the Mission Log podcast. The hosts are watching all of Star Trek (every series, in broadcast order, if they can keep it going for years) and analysing them in terms of story, message, morals/ethics, etc. The themes you mention get a lot of coverage, including the whole conservative progressiveness of the series.

The show is produced by Rod Roddenberry (Gene's son), though he isn't one of the hosts. There's a great "Mission Log Supplemental" interview with Rod in which he explains how he eventually came to terms with his father's "Star Trek" legacy.

And if you start watching TNG -- UnEvil One is right about the first season, but Wil Wheaton has put together a great memoir (the first in a hoped-for series) covering the first half of the first season (so far) called Memories of the Future (he also did an abridged podcast version).

James Redekop said...

By the way, are you watching the episodes with the reworked special effects? They're gorgeous, but still completely true to the originals (unlike, say, Lucas's reworkings of the original Star Wars films).

laura k said...

Hmm, sounds interesting, but I never have the patience for those types of commentaries. As Allan can attest, I never make it through five minutes on a DVD. But I'll listen for a bit to hear what it sounds like.

I'm watching the originals via Netflix, so I assume there's nothing enhanced about it. It all looks as cheesy and low-budget as I remember, which I like. I wouldn't mind seeing what the new effects look like, but only as a sample.

I will never, ever see reworked Star Wars. I love the original Star Wars movies. I saw the first prequel, hated it, and never saw another.

James Redekop said...

Here is a sample reel of the remastered FX. They're completely true to the originals, just spiffier.

The Mission Log podcast isn't like DVD commentaries -- it's not "this is how we did this, that's how we did that" as-you-watch thing. Each episode starts off with a little background & trivia, then a synopsis, a discussion of the message/moral of the story (if any), and finally a discussion of whether the episode holds up, both as a production and in terms of its message.

I'm currently listening to them without rewatching the episodes, but I'm thinking I need to pull my remastered BluRays out and catch up.

laura k said...

Thanks, I'll try one!

laura k said...

The remastered fx are really good, and you're right, they don't change anything substantially, only visually.

Did they change fx that are embedded in plot lines, like Kirk fighting the Gorn?

James Redekop said...

Speaking of Star Trek: William Shatner and Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield had a short but fun conversation on Twitter yesterday.

Also, concerning the skimpy outfits female characters had to wear on the show: the odd waistline on this one comes from an NBC directive that female bellybuttons were not to be shown on TV.