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Star Trek: The Original Series - Season One Review

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The Enterprise' first crew boldy goes where no man had gone before

★★★★★

When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, nobody imagined it becoming a phenomenon of popular culture spanning five decades, a franchise of feature films (ten to date), a record number of spin-off TV shows, and attendant merchandise for a global multitude of Trekkies. The release, finally, of classic Star Trek on DVD is a welcome reminder of why the landmark series is still showing in over 100 countries and why its mythos continues to tickle the imagination.

The 1965 pilot, ‘The Cage’, was written by Roddenberry and starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. According to Leonard Nimoy, whose character was the only one to make it from pilot to series, the studio and NBC network executives thought it was too far-out. “They didn’t get it,” he says, and Majel Barrett’s appearance as Pike’s executive officer, Number One, met with, “You can’t have a woman second in command!” (Barrett, later Mrs. Roddenberry, was demoted to Nurse Chapel in the series.)

Roddenberry persuaded them to let him make a second pilot — an unheard-of move — with a reduced budget and less sombre tone. Hunter bowed out, but Canadian actor William Shatner was at liberty after the cancellation of legal drama For The People. The newly-cast, action-oriented pilot, ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’, was accepted. The series debuted in September 1966, with the ‘salt vampire’ episode ‘The Man Trap’ establishing the 23rd century ship and crew we have come to know so well.

Intergalactic Romeo and champion of democracy Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Shatner) romanced space babes and routinely saved the day, the ship, and civilization. Roddenberry cited his inspirations for Kirk as Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Hamlet (the self-doubt) and, chiefly, Horatio Hornblower. Unemotional half-human, half-Vulcan science officer Spock (Nimoy) glorified logic and telepathically mind-melded with recalcitrant guest aliens. Ship’s surgeon Dr. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy (DeForest Kelley) regularly pronounced, “He’s dead, Jim,” and, “Dammit, I’m a doctor, not a bricklayer/escalator/magician,” while engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) resolved recurring warp drive crises, bellowing in an accent the Canadian radio veteran mimicked from a war comrade who had hailed from Aberdeen (Roddenberry and Doohan reasoning that the world’s greatest engineers have been Scots).

Glamorous Lt. Nyota Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) provided communications expertise and emblematic racial integration, with she and Shatner delivering the first interracial kiss on US TV — albeit under the influence of alien mind control. Helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) was a nod to the Asian third of humanity, and in Season 2 Russia’s stake in space exploration was belatedly acknowledged by the addition of Ensign Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig).

Warm and humorous interplay characterised adventures celebrating the imperatives of the Trek ethos: comradeship, courage, curiosity and moralising cultural imperialism. There were ingenious, prophetic ideas (from alternative universes, time warps and genetic engineering, to the mobile communicator, the electronic notepad and the hypospray). The tone was exuberant, with an optimistic view of the future in which the elimination of poverty, racism, sexism and nationalism freed humanity for the pursuit of knowledge and interaction with other civilizations.

Despite the modest budget necessitating some daft-looking species, occasionally wonky sets and amusingly clumsy shifts between the stars and their stunt doubles, many of the stories offered thoughtful science-fiction that tackled ethical issues. Early on, name sci-fi writers — Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon — were brought in. D. C. (Dorothy) Fontana was made story editor and recalled that the main characters were great for writers: “Kirk was the action man, Spock was the brain, McCoy the heart. The three of them made a wonderful human being.”

The first season was a bumper crop of 29 episodes, including some of the best-ever Treks. Footage from ‘The Cage’ was cleverly interwoven with a new framing plot that combined Kirk’s crew with Captain Pike’s misadventure on a planet where all matter is illusion, for the gripping two-parter ‘The Menagerie’. ‘The City On The Edge Of Forever’ — disowned by Harlan Ellison after the many changes to his original script, but for many buffs an all-time favourite — sees Kirk and Spock follow a psychotic McCoy through a time portal to 20th century Earth, where Kirk falls in love with ’30s pacifist Edith Keeler (the lovely young Joan Collins), but must helplessly watch her die to prevent history being altered.

‘The Enemy Within’, written by Matheson and directed by Leo Penn (Sean’s father), poses a swell philosophical conundrum when a transporter snafu splits Kirk into two — evil Kirk and good but fatally weak Kirk. ‘Space Seed’, written by Star Trek’s
co-producer and major influence on its development, Gene L. Coon, introduced the subject of eugenics and, in superman Khan (Ricardo Montalban), a villain so memorable he was brought back for a feature sequel 15 years later in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982).

Within weeks, so-so ratings had the network threatening cancellation even as university seminars were being held to discuss the show. It was saved several times by fan letter campaigns. When it was axed after three seasons and 79 episodes, its lexicon and catchphrases (including “Beam me up, Scotty”, which no-one actually ever said) had entered the language, its icons and its cult continuing to live long and prosper.

Despite the mixed fortunes of the classic series, the phenomenon simply refused to die off. The principal cast made pin money voicing a 1973 animated series. By the mid ’70s, Roddenberry’s hard lobbying for a new series took a surprising turn when Paramount greenlit a feature film. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1977) was so titled because it was intended as a one-off, a final wrap-up to the series. The plot, regurgitating a second season episode, was lame, but the special effects were spiffy and people flocked to the reunion of Kirk and the gang. The rest, of course, is history; a history of the future as some would like to see it unfold, living on through the continuing missions of Trek spin-off series and the film franchise.

Recent mis-steps suggest that new crews have lost sight of the basics. Classic Star Trek has never really been about the action, special effects, or even the allure of outer space and cool gizmos. At its core, like all speculative fiction, it’s about a decent group of likeable characters exploring human nature and its mysteries in a culture that esteems energy, endurance and ideals.

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