Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Thoughts on TREK's 44th Anniversary

That Star Trek  debuted on television forty-four years ago this week makes me feel suddenly quite old. I remember vividly another Trek anniversary--the twentieth in 1986. In September of that year, a friend and I published the fourth issue of our monthly Star Trek zine The Alternative Warp. In our youthful enthusiasm, we committed ourselves to making that issue a 100-page spectacular commemorating twenty years of Star Trek. A normal issue ranged from 32 to 48 pages (and we didn't quite make our goal of 100 pages--I think it was about 88 when done). If I had a copy of it here, I would take a pic of myself holding it up and post it here. I doubt many of its original 120 copies are extant, but I believe that my father has one at his home in Wisconsin. Indeed, I am somewhat glad that I do not have my own copy here because I am sure that I would find the whole thing quite embarrassing now and would need to bury it in the bottom of a drawer.

But embarrassing or not, it was the work of fifteen-year-olds, and created with great enthusiasm and attention to detail, and it even had a little bit of fairly high-end content in it as compared to most of our issues. The 20th Anniversary edition featured a fairly extensive interview with David "The Trouble With Tribbles" Gerrold (which he graciously allowed us to conduct with him by phone) and a transcript of a speech by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry that I tape-recorded when I saw him speak at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh and then painstakingly put on paper in columnar format with a manual typewriter. Other items included our "news" pages where we would gather short articles about Trek-pertinent current events. How we even found anything to report on during the pre-Web Era, I have no idea, but we did. The biggest bulk of it was filled with Trek fan fiction, written mostly by my co-editor and me, including a novella-length concatenation of nonsense titled "Peace in Our Time" by yours truly. I don't remember many of its details, but it dealt with a vast and secret infiltration of the Federation by a mysterious alien menace called the "Exoscan." As I recall, the Federation was being taken apart from the inside by this entity as a gigantic spacecraft or huge cluster of linked spacecraft of unknown (possibly extra-galactic) origin moved toward Federation space. It was all very portentous and frightfully epic. (Interestingly, a couple years later, the TV series Star Trek: the Next Generation presented a story about bug-like alien critters taking over the minds and directing the actions of Starfleet personnel as part of an insidious conspiracy. Picard returns to Earth to find Starfleet Command in the thrall of these beings. This was not entirely unlike the conspiracy in my own story).

Over the twenty-four years since then, my enthusiasm for the overall Star Trek franchise with its many TV shows, movies, books and other projects has waned considerably. I did follow faithfully the Next Generation series, the best seasons of which happened during my college years, and I was sad when it ended. I'll still occasionally turn it on when I see that a rerun is on one of the cable channels. I also watched Deep Space Nine. While it took me some time to warm up to it, I eventually became deeply engrossed in the story arc that dominated its last two or three seasons. But it doesn't hold a lot of repeat-viewing appeal for me. The Voyager series had a lot of good in it, but was very troubled and it was during its run that I realized that I didn't necessarily have an obligation to see every single episode of any show bearing the Star Trek brand. The last of the TV shows, Enterprise, was deeply disappointing. It had so much potential to rekindle what was great and fun about the Original Series and almost unerringly missed the mark, particularly when its creators made the inexplicable decision to sink the whole thing into a lame long-running story arc that only the most hardcore Trekker could have cared about. Also, the feature films of the last couple decades have been a mixed bag. While First Contact was wonderful, Insurrection and Nemesis were very weak (the former with too small a story for a feature film, the latter with a really big one that was realized in too small a way). The Abrams re-boot film last year was very entertaining but wholly preposterous.

None of these disappointments, however, have stripped away the luster of the Original. It remains, to my eye, one of the most lovely, most charming and engaging things of the whole television era. When I first got a DVD player, I set about collecting the entire Original Series on disc, and I still reach for these discs when I want some soothing ambient light and sound. I don't even necessarily watch the episodes: they might just be playing in the background, and more often than not, I will fall asleep on the couch halfway into it. There has never been anything quite like it; no other show has ever even looked or sounded like it. It's a thing of its period, the 1960s, yet seems to stand slightly outside its period and culture, as if it intruded from an alternate timeline just a little bit different than our own. And it's just plain weird and cool and hypnotically re-watchable. The worst episodes of Star Trek are better than almost any currently-running television program. Right now, as I finish this post, I am half-watching/listening to one of the best, "Mirror, Mirror" on the CBS website.

[The images are of Leonard "Spock" Nimoy as he appeared in the original, un-aired pilot "The Cage," and William "Kirk" Shatner as he appeared in the second pilot episode "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Because of some kind of TV scheduling weirdness, however, even this second pilot was not the first episode shown on TV. That honor went to the fifth episode in production order "The Man Trap," the one starring the shape-shifting salt vampire]. 

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