Friday, December 16, 2016

Star Trek at 50: Back to the Beginning

There were times, while watching all 79 episodes of the original “Star Trek” television series, when I could imagine the conversations that must have been going on back at Starfleet Command.

“Commodore! The Starship Enterprise is supposed to be in Alpha Quadrant!”


“Well, it’s on the other side of the galaxy headed toward the Romulan Neutral Zone at multi-warp speeds! We haven’t received a transmission from them in days!”

“Don’t worry about it. They probably ran into some alien that took over the ship. Kirk and the rest of them will figure it out.”

Therein lies the fun. Fifty years ago, during the only time in human history when earth’s two most powerful nations were engaged in regular space travel aiming beyond the planet’s atmosphere, a few American television viewers began watching what they thought was the future.

In the fall of 1966, no one probably thought, even for a moment, that “Star Trek” would still be around in 2016. No one could have seen a billion-dollar television and film franchise, spanning generations, different series and different cast members. In fact, if they thought anything at all, it might have been that in 50 years’ time, they would be seeing real-life voyages much like those that the Enterprise crew enjoyed. We got the pocket communicators and automatic doors. We just didn’t reckon on all that leveraged Chinese debt.

It was in this spirit, with its anniversary this year in mind, that I decided to watch the whole series, in order, along with the six films featuring the original crew. I am aware of the other “Star Trek” spinoffs, but I have not followed them as intensely. My concern here was only to return to the original and see if what I remembered was still there. I had seen probably two-thirds of the shows and some were as familiar to me as pictures from my childhood. I was watching “Star Trek” the memorable day in 1977 when the death of Elvis Presley was announced on a Huntsville television station’s crawl, so as not to disturb Mr. Spock’s Vulcan mindmeld with the Nomad space probe. 

More than any other show of its era, “Star Trek” more closely resembles the modern television series with a showrunner preaching a specific vision as part of a somewhat continuing story. Gene Roddenberry, a former airline pilot who survived a plane crash, started with the idea of a “Wagon Train to the Stars” and told stories of exploration that envisioned an inclusive human race which had overcome its lust for violence. (Or so they say, though those phasers could still be set for kill). Still, it was a show in an era when characters could change from episode to episode given the needs of the hour, when series weren’t expected to create a universe, or give character arcs – yet it managed to do all of these without resorting to the camp of “Batman” and “Lost In Space” to survive.

It’s also hard to remember this now, but “Star Trek” is not “Star Wars.” There was no pressure to deliver a set piece chase or fight every 10 minutes, even though the show exists in a time when we have to have a dramatic swell of music just before we break for the commercial. Though Spock’s Vulcan abilities dwell in roughly the same zipcode as the Force, there is too much science to overwhelm the spookiness – though not the wonky science of the later “Star Trek” incarnations. The Enterprise knows when to deliver a good explosion, but “Star Trek” more often relies on crescendos of drama rather than sword clashes.

Much of “Star Trek’s” first season is about establishing the setting, however haphazardly. The bridge is sometimes a brooding, dark nexus of action, with a lonely light illuminating Captain Kirk’s alert features. There is more attention to detail in creating the universe around the Enterprise, more action going on in the corridors, more of an effort to make this look like a living, working ship functioning in space.  

By now, it is axiomatic that William Shatner is one of the great scenery chewers of television history, but his performances as Kirk in the beginning are models of underplaying and restraint. He only marshals his voice in controlled outbursts, and he does very well with the questing lines Kirk has to employ at key moments on the bridge and the briefing lounge.  He gives us a mix of leftover Kennedy-era optimism delivered with a rogue’s grin when in a jam. His concern at all times is “my ship” – the Enterprise, a remorseless mistress who needs constant protection, even as he risks it time and again.

By now, it’s obvious that “Star Trek” would never have lasted so long had it not been for the character of Spock, and the performance of Leonard Nimoy. Roddenberry’s creation of a half-human alien only barely sketched out Spock beyond his pointed ears and logical ways. It fell to Nimoy to borrow from his Jewish background and his own imagination the key points of Spock’s biography – the Vulcan salute, the paralyzing neck pinch, the mind meld. He later said his way into the character was a director’s suggestion of how to read one of Spock’s signature lines – “Fascinating.” The show’s writers soon followed the lead. Though Spock often threatens to overwhelm the show, the contradictions within him have never failed to spellbind. 

The J.J Abrams’ incarnation of “Star Trek” gets Spock right, though I have never really bought Chris Pine’s fratboy Kirk. But the key ingredient distinguishing old from new is DeForest Kelley’s Dr. Leonard McCoy. “Star Trek” is more than an intergalactic buddy picture, for McCoy is the unsung member of the show’s trinity. He both antagonizes Spock and encourages him; he acts as Kirk’s confessor and Devil’s Advocate. He is sometimes too emotional, too homespun, annoyingly quick on the judgments, but he serves as the show’s conscience. In “Amok Time” when Spock is unable to stop himself in a duel to the death with Kirk, it is McCoy who shrewdly administers a paralyzer on the sly to gently end the combat. Problem solved. In these latest movies, McCoy is little more than comic relief, though Karl Urban is enjoyable.

The power dynamic between the three is front-and-center in one of the earliest episodes, “The Enemy Within.” A transporter malfunction has cleaved Kirk into two identical-looking versions, though one is his dark side, prowling the ship in search of satisfying his appetites. The good Kirk, analytical and compassionate, finds himself indecisive. It is Spock and McCoy who help Kirk cope and eventually reunite the two aspects of his personality. It is an episode with plenty of drama and action, a fine line many big budget features still can’t adequately navigate.

Once the characters are established – Uhura’s empathetic communications, Sulu’s steady steering, Scotty’s miraculous engines, and later, Chekov’s navigation and wry Russian commentary – we are ready to see what the galaxy unfolds. I knew this going in, but I was still surprised at how many times the same story lines kept showing up: Kirk vs. a super computer dominating a planet’s life, eventually foiling the machine through a battle of logic. Kirk vs. a superpowered alien, prevailing either by some instrument or the timely intervention of a being even more powerful. When the shooting starts, the key to survival is to not be wearing a red shirt.

There were mad scientist tales, obsessed explorers and commanders, time travel scenarios and civilizations either on the verge of or already making mistakes that have plagued humans on this planet since the beginning of time. Budgetary concerns resulted in many parallel earth scenarios, where the Enterprise encounters Romans, gangsters, Communists, Nazis and an ancient god.  There were also the Klingons and Romulans, stand-ins for the Soviets and Red Chinese, and even in the cold of space one finds grudging admiration. The Cold War, the threat of nuclear oblivion, the dangers of prejudice are familiar perils, clothed in alien garb and heavy makeup. When Spock is astonished midway through the series run that the language on one planet is English, it only calls attention to the fact that English is spoken on virtually all of the worlds the Enterprise has visited.

“Star Trek” was a creature of the sixties, but one odd aspect is that it came in the late sixties, when the optimism of the time had given way to the harsher realities of riots, assassinations, unrest, war and pessimism. The further out into the universe the ship gets, the more its concerns become recognizably human. As Faulkner admonished in his Nobel Prize speech, stories function best when dealing with the “courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory” of human activity and exploration. On “Star Trek,” our flaws have followed us here in the depths of space, staring us in the face from these other worlds. Space is a vast, mysterious, endless reflection.

In the second season episode “Return to Tomorrow,” the Enterprise encounters three disembodied beings of incalculable age and immense power, the only survivors of a self-destructive civilization. They appropriate the bodies of Kirk, Spock and Dr. Ann Mulhall (Diana Muldaur) through possession in order to build robotic bodies for themselves. However, two of three soon find the allure of flesh too enticing, and it is only through the power of friendship and love that the humans escape with their lives. We sometimes don’t care if a story feels familiar if we agree with what it says. The oldest, truest stories are always old friends.

“Star Trek’s” second season, which featured some of the series’ highpoints in action and character development, would have been the final one except for a letter writing campaign. But the third season was mired in an awful timeslot, and it soon became apparent the Enterprise’s five-year mission would be ending prematurely. That’s why the main storyline that year appears to be about survival, as the ship becomes a microcosm, its corridors bare, its voyages largely dealing with our three leads. The bridge is now brightly lit, all its secrets gone. “Spock’s Brain,” universally known as the worst in the series, gives us an apt metaphor – Spock, wandering around by remote control, deprived of his mind.

The storylines become less challenging and even more familiar. Spock falls in love, Kirk falls in love (repeatedly), Scotty, Chekov and even McCoy find love. Poor Uhura.  Kirk goes missing at least four times, leaving Spock to locate and rescue him. Crew members go temporarily mad. The main characters die just before the commercial, only to be revived before the next break. Spock becomes the all-purpose solution to nearly every storytelling problem, and Shatner’s energy occasionally overwhelms the wooden material he is asked to embody, leaving you in unintended stitches. At some point, you’d think an engineer, a security officer, someone, would see the pitfalls of leaving the auxiliary control room staffed by only one or two people, if at all.  Just when you’re about to give up on the whole thing, the show remembers itself in “The Lights of Zetar” and “The Cloudminders.” 
The Enterprise even manages to rendezvous with Abraham Lincoln before warping out into history. 

Or not. Syndication soon ensured that everyone who hadn’t watched “Star Trek” the first time could discover it, and in a time before Netflix and binge watching, fans managed to link up at conventions and through fanzines to share their love of the Federation. The eruption of “Star Wars” into pop culture ensured the Enterprise would make other voyages, this time on the big screen.

But again, the stories are familiar and the galaxy smaller. “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” is merely a rewrite of “The Changeling” with endless shots of the cloud that threatens to engulf the cosmos. Beyond the new uniforms and refitted Enterprise, the only story-telling innovation sometimes seems that the bridge has an extra turbo-elevator.

The rough trilogy that exists for films II through IV covers Kirk’s coping with age, the death and resurrection of Spock, and his coming to terms with his human and Vulcan sides. It resolves into a “humorous climax” with a jaunt back to Reagan-era America to rescue a pair of humpback whales and save planet earth again.  Of them, “The Wrath of Khan” is easily the best of the bunch, perhaps the best of them all, engaging themes of death, life, birth, age, regret and renewal. The performances are familiar and yet manage to break new ground. The action of these movies is not about adventure “out there” as much as discovery within. When the galactic probe V’Ger asks the question, “Is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” one might ask the same of “Star Trek.” 

Towards the end of “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” the last film with the show’s original cast, Spock lies brooding in his cabin when he is interrupted by Kirk, summoning him to the bridge for their last engagement.

“Is it possible that you and I have grown so old to have outlived our usefulness?” Spock asks. “Would that not constitute…a joke?” Our characters are supposed to be timeless, but the camera doesn’t lie. Our heroes, and the actors who play them, are ready for retirement. It’s probably worth asking if “Star Trek” as a phenomenon still suffers from the limitations imposed on it by television, and whether its ultimate success is tied too closely to the actors originally responsible for its longevity.

The two films in the “Star Trek” reboot are supposed to be set in a different, disrupted timeline separate from the original cast’s. But the high point of the 2009 movie is when Leonard Nimoy interacts with the new Kirk and Spock, and “Star Trek Into Darkness” is basically a not-too-imaginative rewrite of “The Wrath of Khan.” Instead of telling new stories, we seem to be telling new versions of yet again the same familiar stories. Time will tell if “Star Trek Beyond” later this year reaches any as yet untouched corners of the galaxy. 

The key to both lead characters comes when they are separated from each other at the end of their respective runs. In “Star Trek: Generations,” Kirk tells Capt. Picard (Patrick Stewart), “Don't let them promote you. Don't let them transfer you. Don't let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship, because while you're there... you can make a difference.” When Spock meets his alternate reality version (Zachary Quinto), he tells him simply, “Do what feels right.” Kirk realizes how much he needs the urgency of activity; Spock realizes how much he needs inner peace. 

The greatest weapon the Enterprise possesses, time and again, is not its technological power but the extraordinary beings on board. The lesson of each voyage is that the spirit of exploration demands of humanity that even as our horizons broaden, so must our ability to comprehend, cope, subdue and prevail over whatever obstacles lie in our path. That message projects an optimism that isn’t always borne out here at home, but that’s another familiar story. 

If “Star Trek” is to survive to a century, it will have to find new ways of engaging us in its still enduring characters, and keep selling us on optimism at the heart of every star.

Maybe that guy back at Starfleet in our imaginary scenario had it right – Kirk and the rest of them will figure it out. They usually do.   

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Read the first chapter here

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
The Alabama Baptist wrote about the book here.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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