When you’ve been a Star Trek fan as long as I have, you’ve heard your fill of the Star Trek narrative, the story we tell to justify the enduring popularity of, it could be claimed, a rather silly sixties television show and its spinoffs. The popularity of the show is supposedly explained by our being inspired by Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of humanity’s future, in which mankind defeats war, racism, and poverty through technological wizardry and liberal platitudes. There are a lot of smart Trekkies out there–I’ll bet Mr. Spock was the childhood hero of half the people in my physics department, myself included–many of whom would give some credence to this story, but it’s not true. Roddenberry’s human utopia is so boring, so repellently inhuman, that even liberals can’t take much pleasure in it, and the shows almost completely ignore it in favor of the more interesting and appealing alien races. The most popular aliens, the Klingons and the Vulcans, are extremely illiberal. The Klingons are a warrior race with strong kinship groups, while the logical Vulcans are strictly patriarchal (wives referred to as property, must obey husbands), mystical, and ritualistic. Nor does anybody value Star Trek for its social commentary. Contrary to how the show’s creators like to remember it, there actually wasn’t much, which is good, because fans never liked the “preachy” bits, even when the message was unobjectionable.
So what is the show’s attraction? First, the affection for things familiar, what C. S. Lewis called the humblest of loves. Even before one has seen a bunch of episodes, the show is able to create a feeling of pleasant familiarity. Fry in Futurama was on to something when he said that Star Trek made a loser like him feel like he had friends even when he didn’t; the characters quickly come to feel like old friends, well-known even if not especially well-liked. One might deny that this is any sort of dramatic merit rather than a side-benefit of repetitiveness, but this is to ignore what makes a television show successful. Long-term success in television depends, not on constant bursts of creativity to avoid falling into a formula, but finding a formula that works.
Second, there was the blend of silliness and seriousness. One-sentence summaries of Star Trek episodes often sound comical. “A transporter malfunction splits Kirk into his good and evil halves.” “A transporter malfunction sends Kirk to a parallel universe where everyone is evil and Spock has a goatee.” “Kirk is forced into one-on-one combat with an intelligent space lizard.” However, granting the silly premise, the story is executed seriously, and our appreciation of it is serious–not Mystery Science Theatre-style mocking bemusement. The storywriters were actually quite good with the one-hour drama format: building suspense, providing satisfactory climaxes and resolutions. The fact is, all three of those episodes I just mentioned were pretty good. If we were to give a word to this mixture of silliness and seriousness, it would be “fun”. This is why I think the original show holds up better than any of its successors. I was a big fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation when it was first on television, but while I still enjoy rewatching the original series (Kirk-Spock-McCoy) shows, I feel no desire to see Next Generation episodes again. The storywriters had grown too serious, too self-conscious, and it wasn’t fun in the same way. The same thing goes for Deep Space Nine, which was even less fun. Voyager was dreadful, and I couldn’t force myself to watch it. Enterprise erred in the opposite direction. There was no seriousness to it, no building of tension; it felt like fan-fiction.
So why do I say that the popularity of Star Trek is ironic? Because it is really based on the opposite of what it’s creators like to imagine: illogical affection and escapist unseriousness.
In retrospect, I may not have invested my time in the wisest way, but I choose to remember the fun.
Arena (Kirk fights the guy in a lizard suit)
We let my oldest girl (4 yr old) watch this, and now she says that she is a gorn. She staggers toward me, hissing “Heesszzz. Heeszzzzz.” I’m supposed to run away, but it’s more fun when I don’t react properly. Me: “Gorn, I’m in love with you!” Julie, in a growling voice: “No, you are not in love with me. I am scary to you! Hezzzz!!!” Yesterday at nine o’clock, she informed me that “gorns don’t go to bed; they stay up.” I fear I have created a monster.
Balance of Terror (the Enterprise battles a Romulan ship)
This episode is a remake and tribute to The Enemy Below, a WWII film uncommon in its relatively sympathetic portrayal of both sides. I fear that we have lost a faculty we once had to set aside ideology and appreciate the human virtues of our enemies, so ironically enough I find some solace in stories about two good men locked in mortal combat.
City on the Edge of Forever
Probably the most dramatically effective episode. Edith Keeler puts into words the Roddenberry faith (space travel will somehow solve mankind’s problems), and viewers all think to themselves “What a ditz!” The episode itself seems not to share her optimism, because Kirk and Spock must make sure the timeline is not disturbed, and Keeler gets hit by a truck before her silly pacifism can keep America out of WWII. It’s a sign that consequentialism hadn’t wormed its way into the show as deeply as it later would (most egregiously in Enterprise) that Spock never suggests that, if it really comes down to it, they could always just kill Edith Keeler themselves.
Space Seed (Khan)
You all know what a big fan I am of Khan, also star of the Star Trek movie that didn’t suck.
Turnabout Intruder (crazy chick takes over Kirk’s body)
This episode wan’t very good, but it’s nice to know that Star Trek went out in a blaze of unPC glory. In the 23rd century, women are not allowed to be Starfleet captains, so Dr. Janice Lester decides to get a command by taking over the body of Captain Kirk, a plan that goes well until she betrays herself with her womanly hysterics. (Seriously, that’s what happens.)
And there’s so much more! What about the one with Spock’s girlfriend the cavewoman? And the one with the Romans? And the one with the shoot-out at the O. K. Corral? And the one with Zefram Cochrane and the girl cloud creature? Best not to exhaust my readers’ patience.
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