Star Trek: A 50th Anniversary Celebration, Part One

original Star Trek cast

Star Trek turns 50 this year. Think about it. One of the greatest sci-fi franchises is now half a century old. While there are countless other sci-fi properties that are older than Star Trek, very few will match the popularity, relevance and staying power of Gene Roddenberry’s TV creation. As with other properties, Star Trek has had its highs and lows, but it has had a positive impact in our culture and society. That is why we are celebrating Star Trek’s 50th anniversary. Many of us will take this figure for granted but diehard fans know too well that Star Trek has often been on a touch and go basis, especially in its early years.

Noble, But Rocky Beginnings

From its inception Star Trek faced an uphill battle. The pilot episode “The Cage” was rejected by the network NBC for being too cerebral and having then-outrageous concepts like a woman in a leadership position and a character who looked like the devil. But Star Trek’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, would not give up and fortunately, others recognized its potential.

Star Trek, the actual series, debuted on September 8, 1966 with the episode “The Man Trap”. Following the cold opening, a starfield filled TV screens, wistful music played, the iconic and majestic Enterprise spaceship appeared and William Shatner’s bold voiceover announced that we were witnessing the voyages of the starship Enterprise and its crew with a mission to explore space and “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

the Man TrapAt first glance, it looked like another schlocky monster-of-the-week episode that defined most sci-fi fare at that time. But this being Star Trek, there was more to the episode than some ugly monster that had to be destroyed. It had a moral dilemma for one of the show’s main characters, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), in that the monster took the shape of a former lover and he had to confront it. Then there was the morality of killing off an endangered species versus the threat of the creature to the crew of the starship Enterprise.

Other episodes also had even more intriguing and smart plots and multilayered characters that made Star Trek stand out from most genre efforts. A huge factor in the show’s appeal was not just its imaginative and provocative scripts but its characters. The suave and confident Captain James T. Kirk (Shatner), the stoic and collected Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the opinionated Dr. “Bones” McCoy formed the perfect triumvirate as they explored new worlds. These were complicated people with strengths and weaknesses, and we identified with them. In fact, most of us wanted to be in their place as they explored the unknown.

At the same time, the show had wild imagery for its time. Star Trek technology impacts our livesThink of the time a giant hand appeared in space and grabbed hold of the Enterprise. Or when Abraham Lincoln showed up without warning or when ancient Roman soldiers donned firearms. Matching the imagery and action scenes were the fantastic plots that often dared viewers to think. Star Trek wasn’t afraid to make veiled social commentary and broke cultural and racial taboos. In the futuristic world of Star Trek, it was commonplace (as it is now) to see non-whites and women in prominent positions. We take it for granted now but this was groundbreaking for TV at the time and fortunately Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future was validated as our society began to catch up to his vision. We’re still not there yet, but we’re making progress.

For all these reasons, the show caught on with fans, who could enjoy it on many levels, but it wasn’t enough. After three seasons the show was killed due to low ratings, however, it would not stay dead.

Comebacks & Striking Gold Again

Fervent fandom kept the memory of the show alive as it dominated syndicated runs after cancellation. During the ’70s Star Trek increased its presence in the public consciousness thanks to the reruns, merchandising and a short-lived animated show. It wasn’t long (though it was long enough for fans) before Star Trek returned in the form of a successful film series starting with Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.

Star Trek TMP

By the time the franchise celebrated its 20th anniversary, Gene Roddenberry was given the chance to strike gold again. He returned to TV and created the first of many Trek spinoffs Star Trek: The Next Generation. When the show first aired in 1987, it had many detractors who complained that basically it wasn’t the old Star Trek because of undeveloped characters and dull and preachy scripts.

But ultimately the spinoff succeeded as the writing improved and the characters were allowed to grow. Now that Roddenberry had more of a free reign with his show, he indulged in creating his version of a more perfect futuristic society where no one squabbled over pettiness. Whether or not this utopian view is viable is besides the question. Being that humanity had evolved in Roddenberry’s viewpoint, the human conflicts were gone, which led to problems with the scripts that needed conflict.

Gone were the bombastic space captains and cantankerous frontier doctors. In some ways it was as if the stoic character of Mr. Spock was replicated many times over with most of the new characters. That is an exaggeration of course, but Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) was the anti-Kirk in that he was more level headed, collected and cerebral than the swaggering Kirk we all love.

The Next Generation of Star Trek

Over time Picard and his crew won over new fans who saw the spinoff’s merits. People saw the value of creating a show that was decidedly different than its predecessor. Gene Roddenberry passed away in 1991, but left behind a timeless legacy that was in competent hands (such as executives Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Ron Moore and others) who ensured that his vision remained intact. On the whole, Star Trek was reinvigorated since the original cast were obviously much older and passed the torch to the new generation. Meaning, that Star Trek: The Next Generation concluded its successful run in 1994 and the cast were graduated to the big screen starting with Star Trek Generations in the same year.

Trek At Its Peak

In the same time period of the early to mid ‘90s, Star Trek could be considered to be at its peak creatively and in popularity. Two more spinoffs debuted, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager and the Next Generation crew were promoted to the film series.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, which premiered in 1993, set out to be the most distinct Star Trek show of all time. It didn’t take place on a spaceship, most of the main characters weren’t even human and its lead character was an African-American. Incredibly enough, back then there wasn’t much hoopla made about having the lead character be a non-white person and it shouldn’t have. The showmakers bravely let the character of Ben Sisko and the actor (Avery Brooks) sell the character who stood apart from Kirk and Picard as being more of a military commander with his own doubts but a similar thirst for knowledge and exploration. From the start, most viewers forgot about Sisko’s race when he was surrounded by a bunch of non-humans.

Star Trek Deep Space Nine cast

But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had its detractors who complained they wanted to old familiar shtick of a spaceship-based show and that it was too dark. In reality, this darkness birthed many of Star Trek’s best and most complex episodes and is why Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is very highly regarded by many today who recognize its merits. In fact, it can be argued that it was the best of the Star Trek shows, but that is for history and fans to decide.

As a further sign of the strength of Star Trek’s brand, Paramount Studios decided to produce yet another spinoff  which would be used to kickoff its new network UPN in 1995. Star Trek: Voyager premiered to a lot of hoopla and fanfare. This was due to the fact that the lead character was a woman named Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), a first for Star Trek. However, while the franchise was at its zenith at the time of its 30th anniversary, the first signs of problems began to seep in as it started to feel tired creatively. But like any solid property, Star Trek would weather the setbacks as it did in the past. Each time the franchise would find a way to reinvent itself and move beyond Gene Roddenberry’s vision of Wagon Train To The Stars.

José Soto

To Be Continued…

Star Trek Belongs On TV

 ship

After the release of Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013, the state of the Star Trek franchise had once again been called into question. No doubt, the film was a success at the box office and initially received high critical acclaim. But vocal critics of the film and director J.J. Abrams’ handling of the revered franchise soon drowned out any good will. Many of them decried how dumbed down Star Trek had become, how it just pandered to the action crowd at the cost of Star Trek’s loftiness.

Abrams’s films should be lauded for resurrecting Star Trek. Before he came along, the franchise was considered dead; the last film Star Trek: Nemesis was a box office flop and the last show Star Trek: Enterprise was cancelled for poor ratings. Star Trek felt tired and used up, which necessitated the reboot. And frankly, the reboot did the job of bringing back Star Trek as a flashy, exciting and invigorating property, but many felt alienated.

Fluctuating Reboot

enterprise crashingThese critics saw a ray of hope when J.J. Abrams jumped ship to direct Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which precluded him from directing the next Star Trek film. That hope turned into disbelief and exasperation when screenwriter and producer Roberto Orci was hired by Paramount Pictures to direct the upcoming film. Even though he is a professed Star Trek fan, Orci didn’t have any directing experience and such a decision to entrust the franchise on a novice was troubling. But once again, the director’s chair went empty when Paramount announced this past November that Orci would no longer direct the film.

For a brief moment, hopeful fans opined on who should direct the film. The rumor that Abrams’ production company Bad Robot was trying to woo Edgar Wright was heartening. Some fans even started a campaign to get veteran actor/director Jonathan Frakes to return for a third turn as director. Then Paramount released a short list that precluded Frakes and Wright. Soon after, they announced that Justin Lin, the director of many Fast and Furious films would take the helm.

kirk and khan

That announcement was applauded by some, but it confirmed the suspicion that Paramount is only interested in making more shallow, action-packed fare. Many feel that reducing the Star Trek films into pyrotechnics-laden, empty adrenaline fests besmirches the property’s name. Most of the films and TV shows were lauded for offering something more. They had themes, messages, and commentaries of current topics. In Star Trek Into Darkness’ defense, that film did explore issues about terrorism, security and the need for Starfleet to get back into exploring, but those messages got lost in the lens flares, high-octane thrills, and sloppy plotting.

Enduring Aspects

True, many fans have a romanticized view of Star Trek. The old shows and films weren’t strictly intellectual fare, they did have their fair share of action episodes and flashy special effects. It’s part of Star Trek’s legacy. Think of how often fans would hum the pulsing action music from episodes like “Space Seed” while acting out Kirk’s famous drop kicks and fisticuffs. But Star Trek struck a proper balance between action, storytelling and food for thought.

One of the many reasons why all captainsStar Trek and its spinoffs have endured in popularity has been due to provocative episodes like “City on the Edge of Forever”, “The Visitor”, “The Inner Light”, and “The Naked Time”. These shows didn’t rely on action scenes and stunts, though they were welcomed when they did occur. Instead their selling points were character development and morality plays. That is why Star Trek continues to resonate. The action scenes and spaceship battles were just icing on the cake. This reverence also extends to many of the films. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek: First Contact are universally beloved for exploring many themes and character development. This especially applies to Star Trek II which was an action film, but presented memorable themes about revenge, growing old and renewal. Meanwhile, Abrams’ two Star Trek films were initially well received, but later derided by many for pandering to adrenaline junkies and betraying the spirit of Star Trek.

That is why there has been a call for Star Trek to return to its roots and have stories about exploration and so on, and the best way to achieve this is by returning to television. Continue reading

Star Trek Movie Retrospective–Star Trek: The Motion Picture

“Out there. Thataway.”

Admiral James T. Kirk replying to a request for a course heading

posterWith the new Star Trek film coming out in a couple of months (Star Trek Into Darkness), it’s time to take a look back at the many Star Trek films that preceded it. Let’s start off with the one that launched Star Trek’s cinematic voyage, Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

This film isn’t regarded as a top tier Star Trek film and for good reason. It’s slow moving, yet seems rushed and for good reason. Director Robert Wise recounted how far behind schedule they were that the effects work was only completed just before the film made its debut, translation: Wise didn’t have time to properly edit the film. On the other hand, it does have undeniable merits.

Out of all eleven Star Trek films (twelve counting Star Trek Into Darkness), Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the most majestic and oddly the most Trek like. Meaning that this film captures the core concept of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s optimistic view of humanity’s future. That is largely because Roddenberry produced the film and it’s the only one where he was directly involved. After its perceived failure, Roddenberry was relegated to a “consultant” role in the other Star Trek films until his death. In this film, we get a few glimpses of Earth and see that it’s a bright, pastoral paradise where people either wear New Agey type of clothing or bland Starfleet uniforms. The conflicts in the film are largely internal believe it or not. Sure, there’s the threat of this V’Ger entity that wants to annihilate life on Earth, but the problems that capture viewers’ attention are those with Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Commander Will Decker (Stephen Collins). Anyone expecting a mustache-twirling villain will have to look elsewhere.

cast

In between the original Star Trek show and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Kirk was promoted to a desk-bound position as an admiral and he’s bored. He’s in charge of refitting his old ship the Enterprise, which was supposed to be commanded by Decker, but Kirk uses the V’Ger threat as a excuse to take command of the Enterprise, which naturally angers Decker. Now with Spock, he’s retired from Starfleet and off in his home planet Vulcan undergoing this ritual to purge all emotions from within him, but he finds himself unable to go through with the process. He feels a calling, which so happens to coincide with the coming of V’Ger.

The film opens with V’Ger, seen as an immense multi-colored energy cloud in space that dematerializes three Klingon battle cruisers. It should be pointed out that this film is responsible for introducing the modern take of Klingons, now adorned with thick armor and sporting their distinctive sagittal crests on their foreheads. While the film properly shows how badass the Klingons were with their guttural speech, armor and a tribal music soundtrack, they are quickly taken out by V’Ger. It effectively illustrates the entity’s power and deadliness. And of course, it’s heading towards Earth.

enterprise 2

Equally convenient to the plot is how the Enterprise, although not finished with its refitting, is the only starship that can intercept V’Ger. How many ships does Starfleet have? But hey, what’s a Star Trek film without the Enterprise and its crew being the only thing standing between life and death?

Despite’s Chief Engineer Scott’s (James Doohan) usual protests that the ship isn’t ready, Kirk orders that the Enterprise be launched to confront V’Ger. Afterwards, the engineer entreats Kirk to an exhaustive external inspection of the Enterprise while in drydock. It’s at this point, that the film first rears its indulgent tone. Continue reading