Star Trek: The Original Series

4 out of 5

Created by: Gene Rodenberry

covers season 1 – 3

There’s surely not much I can add to the conversation, except: Star Trek just works.

I am absolutely not the most schooled fellow in sci-fi TV of this era, or even in Star Trek in general, but nonetheless: the show works. It worked then, it works now. It’s casual – a key word here – combination of familiarity and the new; of “strange, new worlds” and ones that conveniently mimic certain historical events or parables; of pleasing popcorn qualities and interesting shakeups; and of its accidental / purposeful perfect balance of character types, creating an instantly memorable core cast – all of these qualities make the show both easy to watch and engaging, and help to elevate it above ensemble shows that play in a similar sandpit.

The stereotypes from the show you know are true: Captain Jim Kirk (William Shatner) occasionally speaks in an odd, staccato rhythm, has a tendency towards haymaker punches in a fight, and apparently always has to kiss whatever female “alien” he encounters on any given mission; Spock (Leonard Nimoy) likes to call everything “fascinating,” can easily down any opponent with a lil’ neck pinch, and will often raise an eyebrow over the, er, fascinating illogic of humans; most of the universal cultures are rather humanoid, but when we get otherwise, it’s generally achieved via kaiju suits or off-screen omniscience, and is probably a tad goofy. But, similar to classic Doctor Who, these limitations of the era and budget in terms of visuals don’t stop the show from treating it seriously, and generally delivering (most) script with gusto, supplanting or adding to the low-rent charms with creativity and intelligence. And while Shatner’s dramatic flair does get worse as the show goes on, he’s still perfect as the headstrong but attentive lead – you buy him in the captain’s role easily (just as you do Spock as a science officer, and etc. down the line of all the name cast), and when there are scenes requiring some more nuanced deliveries, he’s wholly capable of selling them.

The “it was the times” habit of sidelining females into short-skirted secretarial types is annoying – even when they’re doctors or scientists, they swoon and shriek – and we’re certainly decades from hints of representation that’s not Christian, and straight, but… Star Trek is nonetheless surprisingly progressive in terms of cultural representation, and in one way that even modern shows often bungle: it never makes a point of it. Black, Asian, Indian – the Enterprise itself is very multi-cultured, and Kirk and crew are frequently interacting with leaders and races comprised of people of color, and no one bats an eye, or makes any reference to it. It sells the fact that the future of Star Trek isn’t affected by racism / discrimination of that nature anymore. It normalizes the normality of it.

The flipside, of course, is that there’s no discussion on it, either, though some episodes do attempt to use wars / conflicts on other planets as metaphors for such things, which can sometimes add to that progressive feeling, but also can be indirectly racist itself, falling back on morals that were bred from a very white, 60s America. However, cheap as it sounds, creator Gene Rodenberry’s heart was absolutely in the right place, and you can feel the show pushing that agenda as much as was possible at that point: that peace and individuality and equality are all good things for which we should be striving. Again, sometimes our wrap-up moral reminds us too much that God Is Good and Man Loves Woman, but, yeah, the intention was there.

Repetition does create some fatigue with the series, even as early as the first season. The show liked dropping the crew onto Edenic planets and then rolling out some awful secret regarding how those Edens worked, or creating scenarios that were thin veils for moments from our history, and out come the platitudes; as adventurous as the show could be, it was hemmed in by needing to soothe the viewer and let them know that being a modern day US citizen was A-Okay. And sometimes drama is created by requiring Jim (or others) to act atypically dumb, but that’s TV. And both of these sins are rare enough to not change my initial statement: that Star Trek works. Almost every episode has, at bare minimum, a fun hook, and the vast majority stay ahead of their indulgences with a good balance of drama, action, and comedy. You might chortle at its campiness, but then realize you’ve watched all three seasons while doing so, enjoying the way the world-building and crew chemistry come together over the course of those episodes.

Star Trek is about a future in which “The Federation” has sent out the starship Enterprise, captained by James T. Kirk, on a five year exploratory mission. That’s all the structure and justification you need for alien worlds and sci-fi-draped social commentary, week after week.