Jim handed me two Star Trek 3 Lists of 3 last month and somehow your uncle Geekly only posted one of them. My bad. I don’t have a whip on hand, so I may have to flagellate myself with my back scratcher.
Thanks for the Trek article, Standard Issue Star Trek Geek Jim.
In my last Star Trek article, I listed The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine ahead of The Original Series. Lest some of our readers take that as a knock on The Original Series, I want now to give credit where it’s due and explore some of what makes TOS special.
Things to Love about Star Trek: The Original Series
Each Star Trek series reflects its time in a certain way. Now, with everything happening in our twenty-four-hour-news world, it seems the product of that is post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. In the 1960s, we faces race riots, the Vietnam War, and the threat of mutually assured destruction with the USSR. Somehow, Star Trek managed to imagine a future that had taken all of that and persevered onto better things. I know, in Trek canon, there is an apocalyptic war, but we survive it and we prosper.
In a time when Americans feared a communist takeover of the world, we see Chekov, a Russian, on the bridge of the Enterprise. Twenty years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we see a show put a person of Japanese ancestry, Sulu, on the bridge with Chekov. An African American woman, Uhura, is a bridge officer herself. This is the world we’re still striving for today.
Star Trek has always had episodes that posed philosophical questions, but it all began with The Original Series. Yes, there were plenty of episodes that focused on seducing green women, but TOS questioned its viewers with what we might do in a situation where we found ourselves the inferior life form, and how we might respond should a superior life form treat us as indifferently as we, at times, treat our own planet’s less evolved animals.
You knew he’d have to be here, so let’s skip the how and get into why he’s a special character without having to compare him to other Trek captains. James Kirk is the prototypical romantic idea of a starship captain. He’s young to hold such a high rank, he’s handsome and charismatic, but he’s also evolved in a way that fits with the idea of our future the show sets out. Yes, we can get into his sexual proclivity and criticize the character for that, but episodes like Balance of Terror and The Enemy Within do a great job of complicating Kirk as a character and showing an appreciation for his gentler nature, his respect for life, and the effects of the strain of command.
Another one you knew would have to make the cut, but let’s talk about why. Spock introduces us to Vulcans on the show, but he’s only half Vulcan. In that way, he’s a surrogate for the audience in understanding the differences between the races, but in another, very progressive way, he represents the joining of worlds the show hopes for, and what is mirrored in the civil rights movement of that time.
Doctor McCoy is gruff, old fashioned and at times, even a little backward in his thinking by comparison to the other characters aboard Enterprise. Somehow, however, there’s still a place for him. He’s still a part of that world, still thrives in it, and the crew is better for having him there. Maybe this is Roddenberry’s way of acknowledging there will always be holdouts where progress is concerned, and maybe that’s okay.
Things We Can Forgive
I love the optimism in Star Trek. It’s probably my favorite things about the franchise, but there are some things that get a little too sugar-coated. One thing that comes to mind is Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that currency does not exist in the Federation, despite references to “credits” in the show. Who would volunteer to scrub plasma conduits, or wear a red shirt in a landing party if they weren’t being paid? What does the Federation do if not enough people aspire to mine dilithium on colony worlds? Do they force them? That’s suddenly a much darker world, isn’t it? Even so, I’ll take a little wishful thinking over mindless pessimism. The issue of currency rarely comes up in the show anyway.
For those who don’t know the term, “retcon” means retroactive continuity. In essence, it’s what happens when a story contradicts itself and needs to be explained away. The Klingons’ appearance, and the changing color scheme of crew members’ jerseys are examples of this in the show. Gene Roddenberry described himself as a notorious revisionist, and told fans whatever the most recent instance laid out should be taken as canon. Given that Star Trek boasts improvement and evolution as some of its major themes, can’t we accept a little revising now and then?
It didn’t do more
Simon Pegg, in promoting Star Trek: Beyond, expressed disappointment in the fact that some fans bristled at Sulu’s portrayal as homosexual in the movie. This was meant as an homage to George Takei, who originally portrayed the character, and is homosexual himself, but I think this portrayal may have undercut Roddenberry. We may feel discouraged by the intolerance we see in our daily lives today, but there’s no denying that whatever bigotry exists in our world, it isn’t the same as the institutionalized intolerance of the past. Some have said Gene Roddenberry would have loved to portray a gay character, but we have to remember he was facing bans in the south for having an interracial kiss on screen (Kirk and Uhura). Roddenberry may have wished he could push the envelope further. Today, an interracial kiss on screen isn’t even noteworthy, so before addressing the social issues Star Trek didn’t tackle, it’s only fair to acknowledge that we today aren’t up against the same things Roddenberry was in the 1960s.
Hopefully giving a little love to The Original Series assuages some of the perceived shade my last Trek article may have thrown in that direction. If you’re a die-hard fan of TOS, and you still feel I’ve wronged the classics, just remember that all I’ve really said is Star Trek is a franchise that has improved on itself. Would Gene Roddenberry have wanted it any other way?