Survey of Star Trek – Part 1: Intro & The Original Series

Star Trek is ostensibly the kind of thing I should be really into. It’s nerdy, detail-driven science fiction more focused on ideas than action. It presents opportunities for a vast array of plots, characters, settings, and themes to be presented and explored. Reportedly, it has done those things and frequently done a good job.

But I can’t get into it. I’ve never been able to.

Every time I’ve tried to watch a Star Trek TV series I’ve come away with no desire to continue after an episode or two. The shows in actuality seem slow, boring, dumb, and inconsistent.

I like three pieces of Star Trek fiction I have seen: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek (2009), and The Next Generation episode “The Best of Both Worlds.” Everything else has bored me or insulted my intelligence.

But Star Trek is such a mainstay of culture and especially nerd culture that I keep coming back to the idea of trying to watch it. And now, with the return of Star Trek to television (sort of), I figure this is as good a time as any to do a little experiment.

I am going to watch the pilot or first episode of each Star Trek series to see if any grab me this time around. Even if the actual episodes are still boring, comparing the different series of this vast and long running franchise should make for an fascinating trip through some television history.

The Original Series

As the oldest Star Trek show, this one has aged the worst in many ways. The style and culture of the 60s are dripping from it. It’s colorful, boisterous, and self-assured. Despite being incredibly progressive with a diverse cast for its time, there’s still a palpable air of 60s misogyny about it.

Looking at Star Trek with entirely modern sensibilities is probably wildly unfair. Clearly the show is special for its lasting impact and for the strides it did make in being more inclusive of minorities and other nationalities which is particularly notable in the midst of the civil rights movement and the Cold War. Its probably fairly sophisticated for 60s TV as well.

A simple Google search of “1960s TV dramas” returns a list of names that are only vaguely recognizable to this millennial. I’ve heard of Perry Mason, The Avengers (a British spy show, not Marvels superhero team), The Wild Wild West, and Adam-12, but haven’t seen so much as a single clip from any of them. Other shows from the time like Mission Impossible, The Twilight Zone, and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. have all had recent reincarnations (or lasting influence on other series in the case of Twilight Zone). But none of those have had the staying power of Star Trek. None of them turned into a massive TV and film franchise on that level.

Finding the “first” or “pilot” episode of The Original Series (TOS) is a bit tricky. Technically “The Cage” is the original pilot of Star Trek. It was rejected for being “too cerebral” which makes me kind of curious to watch it. I’m dubious about what “too cerebral” meant back then.

Even so, “The Cage” is listed on Netflix as the first episode of Star Trek which I have to imagine confuses a lot of people looking to experience the earliest adventures of Kirk and Spock. Kirk does not appear in that episode. The original protagonist of Star Trek was Captain Christopher Pike, but after the rejection of this pilot, the actor who played Pike dropped out.

Lucille Ball (of I Love Lucy fame) who ran the studio where Star Trek was produced liked Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, and convinced the network to give Trek another chance at life. William Shatner came aboard to play Captain James T. Kirk, the new lead character for the series’ second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

I thought about watching that episode instead since it’s the one that got the show greenlit. I actually did watch about 20 minutes before I got sick of the dumb ESP-related plot. Then I decided to view what’s broadly considered to be the “first” episode instead.

“The Man Trap”

People like to point out how Star Trek predicted cell phones. Pssh. Kirk’s got a lame old flip phone there. Get with the times, Jim!

“The Man Trap” was the broadcast debut of Star Trek way back in September of ’66. It features much of what’s iconic about the Original Series: the Enterprise, beaming, expendable crewmen (eventually known as “red shirts”), sick bay, strange aliens, and of course its memorable cast of characters (although Scotty and Chekov were still absent and Sulu wasn’t on the bridge just yet.)

This episode strikes me as pretty typical of the Original Series. There’s a strange, alien happening at the beginning of the episode which the characters gradually unravel through the rest of the runtime concluding with a fistfight or speech or both.

One thing that’s extremely out of step with modern television is a lack of setup. “The Man Trap” doesn’t do anything special to introduce us to the characters or the concept of the show. The only explanation we’re given is the famous opening monologue that was present in every episode.

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Though I am no Trekkie, I could have written that from memory. It’s another iconic piece of the show.

No matter how dorky the show might be, the Enterprise is still a cool spaceship

In this episode, Kirk, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, and the obligatory expendable crewman beam down to a planet to conduct a routine medical checkup of researchers Nancy and Robert Crater. Bones has a special interest in this mission as he used to be romantically involved with Nancy.

The mission goes awry when the crewman ends up dead. Kirk, Spock, and Bones launch an investigation. They eventually discover that a shapeshifting alien disguised itself as Nancy and then several Enterprise crew members in a fight for survival. The creature is the last of its kind, but eventually they are forced to kill it after it threatens the lives of several crew members and Kirk himself.

The plot itself is relatively uninteresting. I think it could have been more compelling to watch if the show had been directed differently. The audience knows far more than the characters know. We’re shown early on that the alien presents itself differently to Bones, Kirk, and the doomed crewman so we know something’s up. We aren’t solving a mystery with our characters, we’re waiting for them to catch up to what we already know. The director’s already showed us the answer.

That’s a recipe for suspense rather than mystery, but I don’t think the suspense works for a modern audience. It’s hard to be truly concerned about the fate of any of these characters. We know Kirk, Bones, and Spock are all going to be fine though I supposed the original audience wouldn’t have the same assurance. It’s also become a well-known cliche that Star Trek would kill off otherwise unimportant crew members to heighten the stakes. Knowing this does a lot to dispel the illusion of danger. You can see the scriptwriter pulling the strings all too clearly.

Regardless, the first half of the episode mostly works. It’s a decent setup and there’s ample opportunity for the leads to interact and show off their character traits.

Kirk is a confident, charismatic leader who’s much less brash than pop culture’s collective memory has lead to me believe (granted, this is a tiny sample size). Bones is a soft-hearted, down-to-earth kind of guy. Spock demonstrates his perceptive intelligence and, of course, lack of overt emotion.

The episode falls apart in the second half, however.

There’s a hamfisted “moral” to the story. After being questioned, Robert Crater reveals that he’s known about the alien creature. It killed the real Nancy years ago, but since it was the last of its kind, he spared its life. He was content to let the creature play the part of Nancy as the next best thing. That’s super weird and creepy. Fortunately we aren’t given much time to think about that before Crater draws an absurd parallel between the creature and the buffalo.

This is really funny now. The concept of species extinction must not have been commonly known because the word “extinct” is never used. The show literally has to explain it to the audience and thus to the “enlightened” 23rd century crew. You’d think explorers might understand that already.

It doesn’t work as a parallel either. Buffalo (by which they mean American bison) aren’t extinct although it’s true that they were nearly hunted to extinction. It’s a touchpoint for the show’s audience, not for the show’s characters.

This is just like the buffalo

I guess there’s supposed to be a message about conservation or something in there? It feels incredibly tacked on. Still, this was an example of how Star Trek would at least attempt to highlight social, political, and environmental concerns even if it didn’t always work.

It’s also frustrating to watch our lead characters slowly catch on to what we already know. There’s a good scene where the ship’s officers are discussing what to do about the creature onboard and how they can find it. The creature is present at the meeting disguised as Bones. The real McCoy (ha!) was lured to sleep earlier by the alien in disguise as Nancy. I thought Kirk was catching on to fake Dr. McCoy in this scene. They kept cutting to his and Spock’s faces like they might know what’s up and I thought he was baiting the creature into revealing itself which would have been really clever.

Actually, Kirk behaves rather stupidly in the end. Spock is assaulted by the creature. He tells Kirk that the alien was disguised as Bones. Kirk rushes to Dr. McCoy’s quarters knowing that he’s likely to find the creature there. Like a moron, he goes with no backup (not even a red shirt) and he nearly gets killed because of it. He only lives because Spock conveniently shows up at the last second.

There are plenty of other silly details too. While it makes sense for a starship captain to lead the away team on diplomatic missions, it’s pretty silly that Kirk beams down with Bones and the crewman at the beginning for this “routine” medical mission. It would set a precedent for things to come – high-ranking officers regularly getting involved in mundane tasks that would spin out into larger adventures.

Given that this was a TV show, I’m impressed by the effects for the time. Just two years later, 2001: A Space Odyssey would blow away everything that had come before it in terms of convincing space travel special effects. But TV has a much more constrained budget than feature films – especially features by high-profile directors like Stanley Kubrick.

2001: A Space Odyssey came out two years after Star Trek’s premier featuring special effects that would not be eclipsed for decades

I hesitate to call the acting outright bad. It’s certainly dated. Sure, some of it seems outright poor. But acting sensibilities have changed a lot. Dramatic acting today tends to be a lot more naturalistic and subtle. I don’t think they were going for that back then.

Nevertheless, I like the lead actors in their roles. Nimoy is great and judging by this episode, he was great as Spock from the very start. DeForest Kelley is charming as Dr. McCoy which goes a long way for a character that seemed to provide so much of the show’s soul and humanity.

Whether William Shatner can act is somewhat controversial. I’ll simply say that he seems well cast and comes off as capable, and charismatic apart from the dumb decisions at the end of the episode. I like him in the role.

The Verdict

If nothing else, the characters are iconic for a reason

According to contemporary retrospectives, “The Man Trap” is one of the worst episodes of The Original Series. Dull and pointless as it was, I can still see why Star Trek became beloved. The Kirk/Spock/Bones dynamic really does work and, like I said at the outset, the concept of the show allows for all kinds of plots, characters, and themes to be explored.

If it’s true that most of TOS is better than this, I may give select episodes a watch, but I have no intention of going front-to-back through the show.

Unlike later series, TOS doesn’t have a ton of continuity to keep up with. I think its more episodic approach will allow me to pop in and out of the series at virtually any point and not be lost.

The episodic approach is a double-edged sword. On one hand, shows that don’t leverage continuity can feel weightless without significant consequences from one episode to the next or one season to the next. On the other hand, the serial approach necessitates viewers wade through most, if not all the previous canon, to get the most out of the show. That’s a high barrier to entry. We’ll talk about that next time.


The Walking Dead (Seasons 1 & 2)

I hadn’t really watched any of the recent slew of high-quality, critically acclaimed cable shows. Then, Netflix happened. *dun, dun, dun*

What did I choose to check out first? That zombie show, of course!

Well, strictly speaking that isn’t true. I tried to watch Portlandia which was recommended to me, but I really couldn’t stand the sketch comedy format and despite growing up in the nineties, I think I was missing the big joke of that show right from the get go.

So I clicked on Walking Dead out of sheer impulse. I’d also heard good things about it. And it had this awesome promo image attached to it.

NetflixHow could I resist? I don’t love zombies, but I do love post-apocalyptic, survivalist, skin-of-the-teeth dramas. Well, some of them. I generally love the settings if nothing else. There’s just something really interesting to me about poking around in the remnants of civilization all rules and objectives having been removed except survival and whatever else (if anything) is truly important to the characters.

The zombies, I thought, I’ll just put up with. Besides, I’d heard that the show was just as much about the dangers posed by the other survivors as by the zombies and indeed this proved to be true.

“Days Gone Bye” has got to be one of the best pilot episodes of any show I’ve ever seen. There are precious few shows that have engaged me this much from the very first episode. I usually find I have to be more patient with television. I realize it’s a serial medium. They’re taking it slower than cinema and often that’s very rewarding. So unless I am finding no enjoyment at all, I usually give shows until halfway through the first season to grip me. That wasn’t necessary at all with Walking Dead.

It wasn’t until I’d watched a few episodes that I realized the show was produced and adapted for TV by Frank Darabont, the director behind the well-known and regarded Stephen King adaptations Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile (also The Mist, but let’s not talk about that). I’m probably slightly less bullish on Darabont’s films than the next guy (which isn’t to say I dislike them) but I have to admit that his ability to tell compelling and memorable stories-within-stories is a huge strength when it comes to a television series. I sometimes felt like Shawshank and Green Mile were being drug out like a TV series.

Darabont’s cinematic experience shows especially in the first episode and all throughout the first season. The season plays out like a long movie and, with the exception of occasionally dodgy CGI (which is forgivable), the show looks cinema quality as well. That’s pretty cool.

I want to play Left 4 Dead with these characters. Actually they mention Portal at one point which is funny because I’ll bet L4D doesn’t exist in The Walking Dead universe.

The best thing about the first season is its sense of urgency and mystery. There are always a couple of important questions the characters are trying to answer in these kinds of stories like: how widespread is the infection? Are there any safe places left? Is somebody working on a cure? Or even just the basic survival question: will I get eaten today?

And even though the answers to a lot of these questions are vague or standard, that last lingering question of survival is always there. The show builds an environment where you really don’t know who will live and who won’t. For that reason I really recommend you avoid any and all possible spoilers if you want to watch the show.

Something that constantly bothers me in fiction is when the writers let characters off too easily. If you build up a big threat and topple it without the slightest bit of trouble then you’ve pull all the teeth from your story. I will no longer believe anything you say when you tell me something is dangerous or threatening.

The Walking Dead has no such problem. There are consequences for all of the actions of the characters and consequences that are merely inherent in the harsh post-zombie world. In fact, this might be the only show I’ve seen where the writers could stand to be a little nicer to the characters. But, hey, seeing someone go through hell is a lot more interesting than seeing them go through Candyland… unless it’s full of zombies too.

Even if someone doesn’t die, there are nearly always negative consequences to plague the characters. Sometimes dying isn’t the worst fate.

Season one had me absolutely hooked from the get-go. For me it was the television equivalent of a “page-turner.” Do we have a phrase for that? We need one.

Then came season two.

I liked it. I watched it with almost as much enthusiasm as the first, but I also watched it directly after the first season without waiting a year. I imagine if I had been anticipating season two for a whole year I might have been disappointed with what I got.

The more you anticipate something, the more you expect of it and are likely to be disappointed with the actual outcome. It’s an interesting little bit of media psychology. I guess it relates to everything though, but it seems especially true and obvious when it comes to media. I saw the Matrix films years after they had all come out so I wasn’t nearly as disappointed with the sequels as most people.

Season two’s production, from what I understand, was plagued by budget cuts and the ousting of Frank Darabont. It shows. It’s not that the production quality decreases. The focus just narrows. The entire season takes place in more-or-less the same location rather than covering a lot of ground like in season one. So the sense of discovery is lost to a great extent. It is replaced by an increased focus on interpersonal drama and the supporting cast both of which are welcome… for awhile.

Unfortunately, the show also gets a little too bogged down. A little too slow. And characters start making the kinds of stupid decisions common to horror which really flies in the face of the caution exhibited by the survivors in season one (well, generally speaking).

There’s one point where a character who is in no position to leave the group goes off on her own because… I donno. She took stupid pills, maybe? Heck, when I was growing up we weren’t even supposed to go out on our own at scout camp and there were a lot fewer zombies there. Maybe only 50 or 60.

Of course they never call them zombies

Ultimately the story arc of season two proves rewarding although it gets even darker by the end. So, yeah. This isn’t a show for the faint of heart… in case you didn’t summize that from the – y’know – zombies and mass destruction.

It’s quite bloody and gory. I mean really bloody and gory. It’s probably average for zombie stuff, but I don’t watch horror myself so I wouldn’t know. Apparently there’s no such thing as blood borne illness in The Walking Dead or zombie fiction in general because these people are regularly covered in blood and gore but nothing happens to them so long as they aren’t bit.

The show is also quite tense and filled with conflict. So if that kind of thing gets on your nerves then you won’t like that aspect of the show either. I know some people object to such infighting when the characters are faced with overwhelming odds. But it’s pretty hard to argue that people (especially untrained people) don’t tend to act rationally or calmly when they don’t feel safe.

While it is far from unique or groundbreaking to incorporate Nietzsche’s well-known adage “be careful when you fight monsters lest you become one” as a theme, it works really effectively in Walking Dead. As one critic said, the show it at its best when it’s not being subtle.

The surprising theme of the show is family. It’s actually quite sweet and heartfelt many times. There were individual scenes in the show I could picture my mom really connecting with… in between the scenes of zombies eating people’s intestines. Seriously! The themes of sacrifice, family, hope, and faith ring true most of the time they’re explored. Maybe it’s because it’s set in the South, but the show seems to be actually quite steeped in traditional values when it comes to family and the roles of men and women. That’s a refreshing change of pace from some of the more “progressive” shows which are clearly pushing for new paradigms in gender roles and family values (although is it just me or do all the women seem either heartless or abused?)

Family is a surprisingly big theme for a show featuring so many entrails

There’s one really touching scene in the first episode of the second season where a woman begs God for help and you really feel the desperation of not only her situation but of the entire group and humanity as a whole. I at least saw this as symbolic of how truly desperate humanity’s plight is. Our society and our transient accomplishments blind us to the need for reliance on God but stripped of that these characters must put their faith in something or else become suicidally hopeless or inhumanly monstrous. Of course the show is more interested in exploring “faith” in that silly, hollow, trite way television does, but I’ll take what I can get. It’s not like I expected The Walking Dead to be the show that gets theology right.

The show has hooked me. Season three starts in October and I’ll be happy to have a current drama to watch again (my last was Stargate Universe which I’m still mad at SyFy for canceling just when it was getting good). It does feel like it’s going in a bit more comic-bookie direction. Yes, I know it’s based on graphic novels, but I’m worried that they might start doing “cool” stuff for the sake of doing cool stuff. Hopefully instead it will continue to be well-written, unpredictable, and thrilling. For the most part, it has been so far. I finally like zombies for something more than video game target practice.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Candyland zombie movie pitch to work on.