The 8th September 1966 saw Star Trek emerge like a glistening technicolor butterfly on American television network CBS. Seen as mere space opera by science fiction purists through the decades, Star Trek in all it’s different incarnations has shaped the 20th and 21st century in obvious, and not so obvious ways throughout the years. Although the concept often slips into space opera (the seedy next door neighbour of ‘proper’ SF), there’s a lot going on in Star Trek that belies it’s simplistic roots with episodes that deal with racism, terrorism, gender, sexism, pacifism… in fact, pretty much every ‘ism’ one can imagine, and creator Gene Roddenberry imagined the lot. Star Trek is a global phenomenon that speaks to millions of people of a more hopeful and better future of a galactic Federation of Planets.
50 years ago I wasn’t yet born, so I didn’t experience Star Trek from the start when it made it’s way to UK televison, so I must have caught one of the almost perpetual repeats the programme had throughout the 1970’s on the BBC. Being brought up on a diet of Doctor Who’s idealistic policy of non-violence for The Doctor, seeing Captain Kirk regularly beating up monsters (men in rubber suits), Klingons (men with dodgy moustaches) and romping with alien babes (women painted green) all in shining bright colour was the Yin to Doctor Who’s Yang.
Star Trek was positive, optimistic, bright, American! It was a vision of a future where humanity had put all negative things behind it, grew up and went out into the galaxy to find like-minded races who they could co-exist with in harmony. Even now 50 years later that’s an amazing message. The positive message was clear to see in the cast; you had William Shatner’s strutting confident Captain Kirk, a profoundly decent man shaped in the image of JFK; there was Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, a mysterious Vulcan; De Forest Kelley’s Dr. McCoy, a good old boy from the American south; then there was Scotty, the Scottish engineer; Sulu, the Japanese pilot; Chekov, the Russian navigator and most of all, Uhura, the black communications officer, who in 1966 was that rare thing on American TV; a person of colour on a major network. The cast spoke of unity, positivity and optimism, which in the mid-1960’s was something much needed by an increasingly jaded public.
Sadly though the public seemed to prefer being jaded, as along with the programme being stuck in a bad time slot, Star Trek was cancelled in 1969, and there the story would have ended. Star Trek would today be an oddity, something middle aged SF fans would swap stories about but thanks to the fans (Trekkies, never Trekkers) the series survived on syndication in the US, and across the world as said previously, the series seemed to be locked in endless repeats. Some new stories came in 1973 with The Animated Series, but although some of the stories are good, the animation is so poor that trying to rewatch the series today as an adult is a chore.
Animation though wasn’t enough for fans; it was like getting a hand-job from someone wearing boxing gloves to them. They wanted the real thing, so in 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture (STMP) hit cinemas. A big budget version of the TV series that reunited the original cast and directed by Robert Wise, STMP had a reaction which was at best, mixed. The pacing was slow, the script was poor, the direction was often flat, and special effects sequences seemed to go on for weeks. STMP took a critical hammering even if it was a commercial hit. Personally I actually like the film as it’s the closest the cinema has got to a ‘pure’ Star Trek film in 13 attempts. The Director’s Cut is especially recommended.
Things didn’t stand still. Star Trek moved to an inevitable sequel in 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan which is most people’s favourite Star Trek film, and is indeed a great film in it’s own right. Directed and written by Nicholas Meyer, this film did more to shape the future of cinematic Trek than any other as Khan (a villain from the original series) returns to menace the crew of the Enterprise, who defeat Khan but at a tragic cost. Wrath of Khan was a monster hit mixing the camaraderie of the crew fans had grown to love with action and adventure. It also dealt with the fact the Enterprise’s crew was getting old; Shatner was now in his 40’s and no longer the dashing young space captain but a man hitting middle age. This ageing of our heroes was touched on in subsequent films, 1984’s The Search for Spock and 1987’s The Voyage Home (yeah, the one with the whales and Shatner’s dodgy wig) but Paramount (the studio that owned Star Trek) wanted to keep the franchise going as Shatner, Nimoy, etc would at some point stop doing the films.
This was one of the things which led to the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation (STNG) in 1987. The old crew were gone replaced by a younger crew, but the philosophy was different. Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard was less prone to violence than Kirk, while Spock’s alienation from humanity was split between several characters; the android Data and the Klingon (these were now the Federation’s allies) Worf. There was also Geordi La Forge, the blind engineer, Doctor Crusher and her annoying son Wesley and Deanna Troi, the alien empath who sat at Picard’s side on the Enterprise-D’s bridge and the character who most personified the 1980’s attitude of discussing problems and rectifying them that way.
STNG was different to the Original Series. The crew were more diplomatic and more of a unit. Enemies were sparse and not that threatening. In short the first season of STNG is dreadful. There’s no drama, not even when a major character (Tasha Yar) is killed off does STNG feel like actual drama. Fans were less than happy with this new crew let alone the quality of stories which in that first season are almost all universally terrible so it’s amazing it survived let alone it becoming one of the best bits of television SF to have been broadcast anywhere. By the third season all the issues and problems had been ironed out: drama was introduced via strong protagonists (the Romulans and the Borg) while the series itself took on moral arguments and yes, all the ‘isms’ Roddenberry used in the 1960’s were very much on show. The Next Generation was a massive hit with audiences and critics unused to science fiction realised the potential of the genre.
Meanwhile the original crew limped on in 1989’s dreadful The Final Frontier, though 1991’s The Undiscovered Country saw the return of Nicholas Meyer as director who gave Kirk, Spock and the others a fitting send off, though Shatner as Kirk did return in 1994’s Generations which passed the cinematic baton from the old crew to the Next Generation crew, who were themselves by this point showing signs of age themselves. Roddenberry himself passed away in 1991 leaving his creation in what seemed like safe hands.
Back on television another spin off, Deep Space Nine (DS9) was being broadcast from 1993, and unlike all Star Trek series previously this wasn’t episodic TV, but there was a plan of sorts for the characters from the start. Also instead of being based on a starship, the series was based on a frontier space-station near the disputed planet of Bajor and a mysterious wormhole. I despised DS9 at the start, and indeed, it doesn’t help itself by having an iffy at best first season, but like The Next Generation, it comes into its own in the third season. DS9 ended up giving the Star Trek universe a dimension it’d never had before, plus this series did the unthinkable in questioning the Federation, something Roddenberry never would have allowed had he been alive.
The 1990’s were a golden age for Star Trek. TV series’, films, comics, video games, books and other media further expanded the universe, as did Voyager, a new series which started in 1995 which saw the first female captain with Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway, who commanded the starship Voyager trapped on the other side of the galaxy on it’s long journey home. It was a patchy affair, but sift through the series and you’ll find some good, even great, episodes throughout it’s seven year run.
As for the films, 1996’s First Contact saw Captain Picard fight the Borg on the big screen and it remains my favourite Next Generation film, which is more than can be said about 1998’s Insurrection, and let’s pretend 2002’s Nemesis never happened.
The new millennium saw the films dry up after the poor Nemesis, but a prequel to The Original Series began in 2001. Enterprise was set before the original Star Trek and starred Scott Bakula as Captain Archer. Lets just say I’m not a fan of this series but there’s a few nuggets in the chaff which makes up most of the series, and you can safely say at this point Star Trek as a ‘franchise’ (a dreadful expression which reduces art to commerce) was creatively exhausted. When Enterprise limped to an uninspired end in 2005 the future of Star Trek looked to be anywhere but the cinema or televison.
Then BOOM! 2009 saw J.J Abrams Star Trek released in cinemas, and this did a nice trick of rebooting the series, while keeping all the other stories in continuity by shifting the action to a parallel universe. With a young cast and a focus on dynamic action, it didn’t feel much like Star Trek; the film is intellectually on a par with a bag of salt and vinegar crisps, but like a good bag of crisps it was satisfying junk entertainment. Star Trek was hot again and for the first time in it’s history truly could be called space opera, but this reboot hit a bump with 2013’s Into Darkness which took the set-up of the first rebooted film and wasted it trying hard to reference too much of the original series of films. This year saw the slightly better Star Trek Beyond released, but it still isn’t quite what Star Trek is as this isn’t just big spaceships, weird aliens and phasers going off every other scene. Star Trek needs a moral and intellectual heart for it to work as Star Trek and not Generic Space Opera.
Which brings me to the future. In 2017, Star Trek: Discovery will be released on televison. Set a decade before the adventures of Kirk and Spock, this new series centres on the starship Discovery and promises much, including a move away from the feature films focus on action to something more ‘Star Trek’.
Star Trek has been with me all my life. As a kid I used to play with my Mego dolls, read my Gold Key or TV21 Star Trek comics, I’d read the odd book. I lapped Star Trek up not just for the phasers, aliens and hot green alien babes, but because it gave hope that we as a race and people wouldn’t tear ourselves apart, that in fact we’d reach to the stars and go as far as our imagination could take us. That’s Gene Roddenberry’s gift to us, the gift of hoping for a better world, a better galaxy where we’d all be equal, all be able to work and live together without hatred, spite or bigotry. That in 2016 is as important a message as it was 50 years ago in 1966.