Fifty Years Ago Today…

Posted: September 8, 2016 in Star Trek
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Fifty years ago today NBC aired the first episode of Star Trek. It wasn’t the first episode made, not by a long chalk, Gene Roddenberry had made ‘The Cage’ a pilot featuring Captain Christopher Pike rather than Captain James T Kirk (or is it James R Kirk?) over the winter of 1964/65, but it was famously rejected by NBC for being too cerebral and the episode in its original form didn’t air until the late 1980s (although substantial parts of it were used in the season 1 two-parter The Menagerie).

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Too cerebral? I think NBC were just bighead’ist!

By the time NBC authorised a second pilot Pike (actor Jeffrey Hunter) had jumped ship and the only character to survive from the first pilot was Leonard Nimoy’s Mr Spock (Majel Barrett would return, but as nurse Chapel rather than Number One). The new captain was William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk (though no one knew that’s what the T stood for for a long time!).

Oddly this second pilot—the wonderful Where No Man Has Gone Before— wasn’t aired on 8th September 1966. Instead the first episode anyone outside of the production team saw was The Man Trap, with  Where No Man Has Gone Before airing a couple of weeks later. The Man Trap is, in fairness, best described as a run of the mill episode of Trek, though it does have a few advantages over the second pilot. Firstly the crew are in the uniforms they’ll wear for the entire three season run, more importantly The Man Trap features Deforest Kelley’s Dr McCoy, and even though the triumvirate of Kirk/Spock/McCoy probably wasn’t quite planned at this stage (initially only Shatner and Nimoy got top billing) it’s clear from the off that McCoy will be an important character-heck the episode revolves around him.

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“Gimmie some salt, baby!”

This tale of an alien creature impersonating McCoy’s lost love also sets the tone for plenty of Trek episodes to come; the barren frontier world, long dead civilisations where threat still lurks, alien creatures beyond comprehension, the expendability of redshirts (ok technically none of the expendable crewmen were in red but metaphorically speaking they’re redshirts!) …and it also provides a handy lesson; if your ex comes back on the scene complaining about a lack of salt in his/her diet, RUN!

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Damn it, Janice, stop leading on the salt vampire with your sexy condiments!

Opinions on that first episode were mixed, but I doubt even the most fervent supporter of the show would have thought that, fifty years later, we’d have just seen our 13th Star Trek film at the cinema (Star Trek Beyond) and that we’d be preparing for the arrival of our sixth Star Trek series (Star Trek Discovery, though in fairness it’s the seventh series if you count the animated series).

This is the third big 50th in the last few years. First Bond, then Dr Who and now Trek. As with 007 and Who I was not around at the beginning, but when the BBC began showing Star Trek in the 1970s I was immediately and irrevocably hooked. Some shows from my youth are, in hindsight, a trifle naff but some are still magnificent. Star Trek, along with Blakes 7, falls into the latter category. I could list the naff ones but, oh for the sake of argument let’s just say I’m looking at you Buck Rogers in the 25th Century!

When The Next Generation was announced I had trepidation. A new Star Trek? A Klingon on the bridge? I needn’t have worried and I loved Next Gen (though time has not, I fear, always been kind to it.) Initially I was wary of Deep Space Nine but it rewarded my patience, whilst with Voyager I experienced the opposite reaction, and when Enterprise came along I think I, like many other Trekkies/Trekkers, was somewhat tired and jaded. It was time for a rest.

When in 2009 the movie series was rebooted I was initially horrified at the recasting of Kirk, Spock et al, but I quickly grew to love the new versions of my old favourites (especially Karl Urban’s exceptional take on Bones). And now, fifty years after The Man Trap aired, we’re just a few months away from a new series; Discovery.

But what makes Trek so enduring? In part it’s the notion of a future that hasn’t fallen into dystopian chaos—the 23rd and 24th Centuries are no Hunger Games, instead Trek is one of the few sci-fi franchises that manages to be hopeful about humanity. Beyond this though Trek has the kind of broad storytelling canvas that many storytellers can only dream of. Trek can be thoughtful and cerebral (don’t tell NBC!) but it can also be gritty and action orientated. It can be funny, moving, romantic and, let’s be honest here, downright camp and cheesy. Perhaps only Dr Who comes close in having that expansive kind of pallete. I’ll always love Star Wars, but however great it is the franchise rarely deals with big ideas or with anything controversial in the way Trek has.

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I think they’re trying to tell us something but it may be too subtle to figure out…

Yes the show could be clunky and heavy handed at times, but this was a show that put a woman, and a black woman at that, on the bridge of a starship and mentioned her ethnicity precisely once in three seasons (said mention coming courtesy of an alien representation of Abraham Lincoln.) An Asian man was at the helm, it had an alien science officer, and at the height of the Cold War a Russian! Later series would feature an African American captain, a woman in the centre seat and, yes, women in catsuits, but don’t hold that against it.

Fifty years on Trek still has stories to tell, and as you may have noticed I have a new category on my blog dedicated the Star Trek, so expect a fair few blogs in the coming months, along the lines of ones I’ve done for Bond. I plan to rank the shows, rank the captains and, if I find the time, rank the films.

These are the continuing voyages of the Star Trek franchise, its ongoing mission to go where no one has gone before…

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Oh my God! I only just realised that I picked a Next Gen pic that didn’t feature Beverly Crusher! For shame, Starkey, for shame!

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Comments
  1. Can’t beat a bit of Trek. Well, I could happily live without Voyager. But otherwise…

    • starkers70 says:

      Really? It’s Enterprise I’d expunge if I could. Voyager isn’t great, but it’s lightweight fun on occasion. I think it worked best as a counterpoint to DS9, but once DS9 finished it never seemed as good.

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