Thursday, September 15, 2011

Forty Five Years of Star Trek

It is remarkable that any entertainment property has been able to sustain itself for a full forty five years and it certainly is not over.  I myself became a fan in the second season of the franchise’s run, but never really bothered to watch the succeeding reincarnations.  I had aged out I guess.  Yet I did take in the movies thereafter with my enthusiastic daughter.

Longetivity has imparted a cultural importance to Star Trek far beyond the wildest dreams of any writer or artist.  It presently remains the prime platform for putting the imaginary worlds of science fiction onto the screen.  It is the true inheritor of the pulp literature of the thirties.

None of us ever thought that this particular show could actually be generational as it has been.  I also have little doubt that the next incarnation will emerge just as successfully and grab many more years of fan loyalty.  It is not as if the winning formula needs to be discovered.

To boldly go: Ars explores 45 years of Star Trek

By Ryan Paul | Published 5 days ago

NBC viewers were introduced to an innovative new television show called Star Trek on September 8, 1966—exactly 45 years ago today. The original groundbreaking series ran for only three years, but it left a lasting mark both on television and the science fiction genre.

After the cancellation of the original series, Star Trek continued with 11 feature-length movies, four additional live-action television shows, an animated series, and numerous adaptations to other media—ranging from video games to a major Las Vegas attraction. In this retrospective, we will take a look back at Star Trek's bold beginnings and powerful legacy.

Space Seed

Star Trek was created by television writer Gene Roddenberry. He reportedly began crafting the concept for Star Trek as early as 1961, but the idea didn't sail out of drydock until 1964 when he proposed the series to Desilu Studios. Roddenberry's original vision for Star Trek is preserved in a first draft of the pitch, which is dated March 11, 1964.

Although some key elements of Star Trek appear in that early document, the show it describes is quite different from the Star Trek that fans know and love.

Roddenberry intended to model Star Trek after the 1957 show Wagon Train, bringing the successful formula of the popular Western television series into a science fiction setting. The cornerstone of the original Star Trekproposal was the idea that the characters would visit "parallel worlds" with similar culture to our own, but with differences "ranging from the subtle to the boldly dramatic."

The pragmatic Roddenberry thought that the familiarity of earth-like parallel worlds would make it easier for viewers to relate to the events and situations depicted in the show. It would also simplify production because it would allow allow conventional locations and props to be used in the series.

The "parallel worlds" idea (which seems slightly similar to the premise of the 1995 show Sliders) didn't really stick when Star Trek entered production. Although a number of earth-like planets—including some with histories that parallel earth's—appeared throughout the show, the settings were more varied than Roddenberry had originally anticipated.

Who am I to argue with history?

That wasn't the only major change between concept and production. According to the early draft, the show would feature the starship S.S. Yorktown, captained by Robert M. April. The main characters were to include an unemotional female first officer called only "Number One," a half-Martian lieutenant named Mr. Spook (yes, an extra "o") with "satanic" red skin and pointed ears, a cynical old doctor named Phillip "Bones" Boyce, and a South American navigator named José Ortegas.

The original unaired Star Trek pilot, which was called The Cage, was sort of a stepping stone between the original concept and the actual Star Trek series. The pilot features the starship USS Enterprise, piloted by captain Christopher Pike. Number One appeared in the episode, played by Roddenberry's then-girlfriend (and future wife) Majel Barret. Leonard Nimoy played Mr. Spock, but with a human-like personality.

The pilot had fairly slow pacing and an introspective flavor. It tackled the existential implications of illusion and delved into the troubled Pike's struggle with the isolation of command. The pilot was rejected by NBC because the station thought it was too heavy for a mainstream television audience. Despite this setback, the show was still destined to move forward. NBC requested a second pilot with a number of changes and were eventually satisfied.

Pike became Kirk, played by William Shatner. The character of Number One was dropped (though the nickname would later be used in the The Next Generation), Mr. Spock became the emotionless first officer, and Barret was recast in the role of Nurse Chapel (she would later play the voice of the computer and Lwaxana Troi on subsequent series). A considerable amount of footage from the first pilot would later be used in a two-part Star Trek episode called "The Menagarie," which won a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

Star Trek was culturally significant and broke new ground in several different ways. The show featured an ethnically diverse cast and the very first inter-racial kiss (Kirk and Uhura) ever shown on television. Its depiction of an idealized future for humanity, without poverty or conflict, was bold.

Despite the progressive characteristics, the show was still quite shallow in some ways. Roddenberry advised writers to avoid discussing or visiting Earth in their scripts because "television today simply will not let us get into details of Earth's politics of Star Trek's century; for example, which socio-economic system ultimately worked out best." Writers were instructed to extrapolate an optimistic future while avoiding specificity in areas that would make people uncomfortable.

Another area where the progressive tone and culture of the show falls short is in its treatment of alien species. The original series is relentlessly ethnocentric—it often depicts alien cultures as deficient and in need of human influence (in the form of mainstream 1960s American values, no less) to set them on the right track. It wasn't until the later series that Star Trek gained deeper anthropological substance and a more balanced view of humanity's cultural strengths and weaknesses relative to other alien species.

Fated to die of suffocation in the icy cold of space?

Although Star Trek was initially successful after the airing of the first episode in 1966, the positive ratings didn't last. The show had a loyal following, but its popularity was not broad enough to win NBC's continued support.

NBC was going to cancel the show after its second season, but reluctantly agreed to renew it for a third season after receiving a significant number of letters from fans. One of the chief organizers of the letter-writing campaign was Star Trek enthusiast Betty Jo Trimble, who would later be granted a minor role in the first Star Trek film in honor of her commitment to the show.

At the start of the third season, NBC decided to air Star Trek on Friday nights—a highly undesirable time slot that is typically used for sagging shows because it is notoriously bad for ratings and viewership. There was little hope that Star Trek would survive for a fourth season. Although a second letter-writing campaign was launched, NBC canceled the show.

With only three seasons, the original show is the shortest of the live-action Star Trek series. It continued to gain popularity after the cancellation, however, when reruns started to play after its cancellation in 1969. It remained enormously popular in syndication for two decades after it was canceled.

Turning death into a fighting chance to live

As the show gained post-mortem popularity, Paramount Pictures began talks with Roddenberry in 1975 to launch a feature-length film based on the series. The project was fraught with problems during its earliest stages and was practically abandoned. The were many iterations on the script, but none that satisfied all parties.

Paramount salvaged the project by dropping the film and instead preparing to launch a new series, an initiative that was called Star Trek: Phase II. A pilot concept for the new series that was written by Alan Dean Foster impressed Paramount executives so much that they decided to shift the project back to the big screen after all. They expanded it into a feature-length movie that became Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The movie was a major production, with some big-name talent and a big enough budget to show viewers the Enterprise as they had never seen it before. It was directed by the legendary Robert Wise, who had won academy awards for The Sound of Music and West Side Story (he was also the chief editor on Citizen Kane, which earned him an academy award nomination).

Although the underlying plot of the Star Trek movie was sound, the writers had difficulty delivering a solid ending. There was also reportedly some friction between Roddenberry and other contributors. The script endured frequent modification throughout production.
Main filming for the first movie began in 1978 and it was released the following year. It was a financial success, netting $139 million in box office revenue with a budget of $45 million, but it was not as profitable as Paramount had hoped. The budget had grown far higher than they had originally planned.

Opinions about the first movie vary greatly among fans. It drags during some parts and there are elements that feel too contrived. The fact that it's an episode-quality story stretched to a feature-film length really shows. Despite its deficiencies, it offered Star Trek fans something really special: a much richer view of the Enterprise than the original television series had ever provided. Indeed, the plot of the film is less memorable than the gorgeous long shots of the Enterprise from the outside and multitude of interior shots that better reflect the scope of a Star Trek starship.

The original film was followed up by The Wrath of Khan in 1982, which was a vastly superior movie. It brought back the much-loved villain Khan Singh, played by Ricardo Montalban, and offered a riveting plot with vengeance, death, and creepy little alien parasites. The second movie was adored by fans and critics, though Spock's death was highly controversial.

The Vulcan was resurrected in The Search for Spock, which was released two years later. That was followed by The Voyage Home in 1986, The Final Frontier in 1989, and The Undiscovered Country in 1991.

A new ship, but she's got the right name

Motivated by the continuing success of the Star Trek films, Paramount decided to start a new series calledStar Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). They got Roddenberry on board and started collaborating on a whole new Star Trek with a new Enterprise and a new crew. The show launched in 1987 and was a major success.

TNG got off to a good start, but the writing during the first season was flat in a lot of ways. Roddenberry had a very strong desire to minimize conflict between the crew members, a mandate that was hard for other writers on the show to accommodate.

As many viewers remember, philosophical conflicts between McCoy and Spock were a really fundamental ingredient in the original series. Toning down that kind of interpersonal sparring made it more difficult to create an engaging story, but eventually forced the writers to find better ways of drawing out drama and building tension without making the characters seem petty. As Roddenberry's involvement decreased due to health issues, the writers gained more flexibility.

Several characters from the original series made prominent appearances in a few TNG episodes. During the first episode, "Encounter at Farpoint," the now-ancient Dr. McCoy inspects the Enterprise-D prior to its launch. In a later episode, the TNG crew encounter Montgomery Scott when they investigate a Dyson sphere and discover that the engineer preserved himself in a transporter buffer after crashing there many years ago. Spock also makes an appearance in a celebrated two-part episode called "Unification" in which the elderly Vulcan travels in secret to Romulus with the aim of reconciling the estranged Vulcan and Romulan races. These characters are all played by the original actors in their TNG cameo appearances.

TNG picked up a lot in quality during season two and three. By the fifth season, it was delivering some of the best stories that have graced science fiction television. "The Inner Light," a beautiful episode that came towards the end of season five, won a much-deserved Hugo award for Best Dramatic Presentation.

TNG was originally intended to run for eight seasons, but was concluded after the seventh season so that work could begin on new feature-length Star Trek films. The TNG cast participated in four feature-length films:Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, and Nemesis.

The spin-off series Deep Space Nine (DS9) was launched in 1993, one year before TNG went off the air. The two shows had some sparse overlap, but were largely complementary due to thematic differences. DS9 took place on a former Cardassian space station in Bajoran space near wormhole that connected the alpha and gamma quadrants. DS9 moved Star Trek forward in some important ways, by shifting to longer plot arcs and showing a less idealized view of the Federation during the desperate war with the Dominion.

A second spin-off called Voyager was launched in 1995, featuring a joint Federation and Maquis crew that was stranded in the delta quadrant. It offered many opportunities for unusual first-contact scenarios and difficult moral conundrums that emerged from the ship's relative isolation from Star Fleet and the Federation.

The last Star Trek series was a prequel called Enterprise, which went back and showed the first mission of the Enterprise under captain Jonathan Archer in 2151. This series included many homages and allusions to the other Star Trek series, often showing the origins of technologies and ideas that make up the Star Trek canon. The series itself features a divergent timeline, however, due to the crew's entanglement in a temporal cold war.

Like TNG, Voyager and DS9 each ran for a total of seven seasons. Enterprise, which was decidedly less popular, was canceled after only four seasons. After the cancellation of Enterprise, the decision was made to let the franchise have some rest. It was eventually revitalized with the 2009 Star Trek film, which was a reboot that depicted the original series characters in their youth on an alternate timeline.

You told him about the statue?

Although Roddenberry's relationship with Star Trek was sometimes contentious and the franchise reached its greatest heights after he stopped participating, he is still rightfully regarded as the father of Star Trek's greatness. He was a gifted writer and science fiction visionary who deeply understood how to create a meaningful narrative.

A 26-page guide that Roddenberry produced to help writers for the original series understand the Star Trekformat offers some insight into his vision for the series and creative expectations. The document stresses the importance of believability and instructs writers to avoid confronting viewers with scenarios that defy common sense.

Writers were encouraged to ask themselves whether each situation they drafted for the show would still make sense if translated into an equivalent present day, real-life scenario. This was especially important for character interaction and other constants that are outside of the spectrum of incongruities that can be comfortably explained by science fiction.

As a parallel maxim, Roddenberry insisted that Star Trek stories should always focus on people rather than technology. Just like Western shows don't discuss the mechanics of guns or the breeds of horses, Star Trekdidn't need to offer specific details about its technology.

These characteristics humanized Star Trek, distinguishing it from more technical science fiction and enhancing its accessibility to a mainstream audience. This philosophy has attracted some valid criticism over the years, but has also been tremendously influential in television science fiction and is likely responsible for the genre's continued sustainability on the screen.

Roddenberry passed away in October 1991, a few months before the launch of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He reportedly viewed an early cut of the movie shortly before his death. During the later stages of production, the film was dedicated to him.

Treat her like a lady and she'll always bring you home

After 45 years of exposing delighted fans to strange new worlds, new life, and new civilizations, the Star Trekmission continues—another full-length film from J.J. Abrams is expected to arrive next year.

Star Trek's legacy is prodigious and its contributions to science fiction and television are too numerous to count. The show has an immense and highly loyal audience of fans that has continued to grow as new viewers discover it for the first time. Although Gene Roddenberry is no longer with us, his brilliant vision of the future might just endure into the 23rd century.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

star trek, live long and prosper!