Monday, June 8, 2015

These Are the Voyages Of...Binge Watching Star Trek

You'd probably take my geek card away if I admitted I had never really seen the original Star Trek series.  I don't think it's really my fault.  I mean I was born in 1977, almost 10 years after the series was cancelled and about 4 years after the animated series was cancelled.  I grew up with the movies and then Next Generation, DS9, and Voyager.  I caught a few episodes of the original series, here and there in reruns on a local UHF station.  But really it wasn't until the 21st Century where you could watch the whole series in order without needing like 25-30 VHS tapes.

I mentioned last month about reading the original script for Harlan Ellison's episode "City on the Edge of Forever."  After I read that I figured I might as well go watch the version that aired, so I looked the series up on Netflix and watched it.

Then a few days later I decided for the hell of it to start watching the original series in order.  Because, why not?  I didn't really have anything else in my queue that I was dying to watch.

I didn't start with the original pilot "The Cage."  That episode is pretty much repeated in the first season anyway.  What's funny is Netflix lists the second pilot (the Kirk one) "Where No Man Has Gone Before" as the 4th episode.  I'm not sure why that is.  It's pretty obviously the second pilot as the uniforms are still mostly like the ones from "The Cage."  That was an OK episode and apparently the secret origin of the evil Dr. Kelso on "Scrubs" in Lt. Kelso, who is one of the first redshirts to die.  OK, he didn't actually have a redshirt, but still.

I started binge watching after that.  For the most part it was a lot of fun. Really I compare it to listening to a William Shatner album; you know it's cheesy and you should probably hate it, but something about its corniness is endearing.  The Netflix version features "upgraded" effects that instead of hokey 60s effects are hokey 2000s effects on par with Sharknado.  In a way I didn't like that as I wanted to see just how bad the original effects were but on the other hand it makes some of the episodes less cringe-inducing.

You soon realize that while Kirk is supposed to be the main character, Spock is really the star of the show.  It's like how Richie Cunningham was supposed to be the main character of Happy Days but Fonzie turned out to be the star.  The reason was more than the ears; it's because Spock is the only one they really bothered to write a backstory for.  Otherwise every character was defined by either race or position.  Kirk was the captain. Bones was the doctor.  Scotty was Scottish, Uhura was African, Sulu was Asian, and Chekov was Russian.  That's pretty much it.  Even in "Operation: Annhilate" when Kirk's brother and sister-in-law die, by the end of the episode he's joking around with Spock and Bones.  The reason people like "City on the Edge of Forever" is that it let Kirk have more emotional depth, especially Ellison's version.  Even at the end of the aired version when Kirk says, "Let's get the hell out of here!" it still shows that the experience had damaged him, though of course by the next week he was fine again...even when his brother died.

On the other hand, Spock has an entire second season episode dedicated to his strained relationship with his Vulcan father Sarek.  In that episode and in many others we're reminded about him being half-human.  There are also episodes dedicated to how the crew doesn't really mesh very well with Spock, especially on those occasions when he has to take command.  Ironically by not showing emotion, Spock actually has more emotional depth as his will is tested time and again.  It's not something we see for anyone else on the show.

One thing that's known about Star Trek is it aggressively tried to preach unity and harmony.  That's why you had characters of different races and nationalities all working together.  There were frequently black characters as doctors and technicians, not just redshirts.  In one episode there was even a black commodore.  There was an Asian guy in charge of an insane asylum and an Indian woman (like from India) at the helm in another episode.  There's a famous 3rd season episode that parodies our race problem with one character who is black on the right and white on the left and another who is black on the left and white on the right.

But all this talk about unity and harmony did not trickle down to the portrayal of women on the show.  Which is kind of funny when many of the episodes were written by women and the story editor for the show was a woman.  All you need to do is look at those miniskirt uniforms the women had to wear.  (In "The Cage" the women got to wear pants but I guess someone decided that wasn't sexy enough for the second pilot.)  In the early episodes it seems Yeoman Janice Rand is being pawed-up or threatened with rape in just about every episode.  In "City on the Edge of Forever," Uhura's big contribution is saying, "I'm frightened!"  That was of course not in the original script.  In a second season episode Spock talks about how women are naturally more easily frightened than men.  I bet if a woman asked to go on an away mission Kirk would say, "This is man's work!"  The last episode, "Turnabout Intruder" says that female captains aren't allowed in Starfleet, to the point a woman gender swaps with Kirk so she can be in charge.  The fact this woman is mentally unstable probably says something about how female captains would have been viewed.  The last line of the episode (and series) is actually Kirk lamenting, "Her life could have been as rich as any woman's, if only.  If only--"  He trails off but he probably meant to say, "If only she had been content to wear a miniskirt and fetch me coffee."  Because unity and harmony is great--as long as women know their place.

Star Trek was referred to as a "wagon train to the stars" and as the series goes on you can see how the Enterprise was basically the pioneers and the aliens were all Indians--literally in one case they were Native Americans transplanted to another planet.  The Indians come in two types:  the "noble savages" and the just plain savages.  It gets to kind of wear on me after a while.  I mean couldn't there be aliens who were both smart and good?  The Klingons and Romulans were the most notable of the evil aliens but there were plenty of others.  The third season episode "Plato's Stepchildren" was famous for the interracial kiss between Uhura and Kirk, but what I found disturbing was earlier when the jerk aliens were using the away party for their amusement and had a dwarf riding Kirk like a horse--with Kirk making appropriate horse noises.  That's just fucked up.  It's pretty typical for how that class of aliens was portrayed.  Which again is kind of funny for a show that wants to promote unity and harmony.

Another type of episode I got really tired of was the episode where they go to some planet that's pretty much exactly like Earth.  This seemed especially a problem in the second season.  First they go to a planet where Apollo the Greek god is hanging out.  Then later there's a planet where they model themselves after Chicago mobs of the 20s.  Then there's Nazi World.  And a planet based on a 20th Century version of the Roman Empire.  And as I mentioned, a planet where Native Americans were transplanted by aliens.  I know it was cheaper to make Earth-type planets, but after a while it got kind of silly.

The general consensus is that "Spock's Brain" is the worst episode.  I actually really hated the one before it, the 2nd season finale "Assignment:  Earth."  The problem is that it wasn't really a Star Trek episode.  It was supposed to be the pilot for another show.  And it's really not subtle in that regard.  I mean I didn't even know it was supposed to be a pilot for another show and I thought, "This seems like they're trying to set up a spin-off."  The episode starts off with the Enterprise going back to 1968 Earth...just cuz.  They traveled back in they could hang out and see what was going on back then.  In the process they accidentally beam up a dude telepathically linked to a black cat who was kind of a Dr. Who type even with his own sonic screwdriver multi-tool thing and a "companion" in the form of a young Teri Garr.  Watching it I wonder why I'm watching it because it's obvious that the only point was to set up another show that I didn't really give a shit about.  I saw this same thing when I was watching Married With Children on TBS a few months ago and there was this episode that didn't even feature Al Bundy (except in a cameo); it was focused on a young Matt LeBlanc and his dad and it's just like WTF is this?  It was a pretty lame way to end a season.  And then starting the next with "Spock's Brain" makes you see why this show ended up being cancelled.

Probably the best thing about binging on this show is it decoded a lot of references in my favorite Trek-themed comedy, Free Enterprise.  Now I know what they mean by "We'll do a special on you, Flavius!" or "She is for you Lt. D'Amato!"  Or when they sing, "Stepping out to Eden.  Yea, brother!"  If you never watched that movie, find a way to do it because it's hilarious.  And Shatner rapping, what else do you need?

And to end here are some gaffes I noticed.  In the second pilot a tombstone for Kirk appears that says "James R. Kirk" which as we all know his name is (later at least) James T. Kirk.  It took a while for them to actually come up with Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets.  I really can't keep track of the different variations they used before that.   In the episode "Charlie X" at one point Kirk gets into the turbolift wearing that ugly greenish uniform with the v-neck.  When he gets out of the turbolift he's wearing his normal yellow shirt.  So, um, he changed his shirt in the elevator?  Or maybe he stopped off on the way to the bridge to change.  In the Khan episode "Space Seed" when Kirk and Khan throw down in the engineering room it's really obvious that it's Kirk's stunt double fighting.  I mean I had turned away for a moment, turned back, and thought, who's that guy fighting Khan?  Oh, wait, it's supposed to be Kirk.  Basically every time in a fight they go to a long shot you can tell it's a stunt double instead of the actor.  In one of the last episodes, "Ashes of Eden" near the end of the episode on the planet Eden for some reason the little stylized A on Kirk's shirt is on the wrong side!  I'm not sure if they were using a mirror or if that day Shatner had his shirt on wrong or what.  In the last episode, "Turnabout Intruder" Chekov and Sulu are at the helm and navigation stations but at one point they cut to what must have been a stock shot of the bridge and you can see Sulu and someone else instead of Chekov.

Despite all that it's still a fun show to watch. If you've never gotten around to watching it, you should.  Or else your geek card will have to be revoked.


  1. I've tried to go back and watch the original series, but I too found them silly. Maybe I should give it another try. And I do remember watching that last show of the second season. I read somewhere that the spinoff was made just in case Star Trek got cancelled.

  2. I've been meaning to watch all of the Star Trek fan service stuff that's on YouTube. Apparently there are literally hours of Star Trek movies created by fans with decent special effects and starring actors from the original show (like Walter Koenig).

  3. This makes me feel old in some ways. When I discovered Star Trek (the original) it was already in re-runs and Walter Koenig is about the same age as my Dad. But even though it was re-runs I really loved it. I think I was in second grade and I was hooked. There are silly things, but many good stories.

  4. You should binge watch "Enterprise." It's the best of the Star Trek shows. And Spock was way cooler than Kirk.

  5. I never thought about how Spock came to re don't simply because he was a better developed character than the others. They tried to give Kirk more back story in the new movies but none of it translates to his character so it's pointless. I prefer the old school effects to the remastered ones too because they were such a labor of love



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