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Boldly Going Where Few TV Shows Had Gone Before
September 12, 2016  | By Alex Strachan
 

For me, it was the salt vampire. As with an entire generation of Star Trek followers, I came to the original series late. I was in my early teens. The original Star Trek had long since been cancelled. It was airing in repeats on a local TV station, in what we now quaintly look back on as syndication.

The salt vampire, the last of its kind, was the creepy villain in The Man Trap, the first Star Trek episode I ever saw. In the episode, the crew of the Starship Enterprise are called to a remote research station on a distant planet, where a couple have been living alone. Unknown to them, the wife passed away years earlier and is now a space alien who feeds off salt, including the salt in human beings. She appears in different guises, chameleon-like, to whoever looks at her, aiding her in her hunts. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) must make a terrible decision: Kill the salt vampire, knowing it’s the last of its kind, or see his friends and colleagues. He makes the only choice he can.

This struck me as high art, drama of the first order. I was in my early teens at the time. Many other people had seen The Man Trap years earlier, but for me it was all new. Like those who came before me, I decided I liked Man Trap enough to keep watching Star Trek.

Star Trek marked its 50th anniversary just the other day, late last week in fact.

The Man Trap originally bowed on Sept. 8, 1966. Though it was the first episode to air, it was not the first episode filmed. The pilot aside — there were three pilots in all, the first one in black-and-white — the actual first episode, The Naked Time, aired three weeks later, on Sept. 29.

The Naked Time, in which space microbes affect the Starship Enterprise crew while orbiting an unstable planet on the verge of breakup, is George Takei’s favorite episode, in part because his character Sulu got to rush around the Enterprise, jabbing unwary passersby with the tip of a fencing sabre.

In the end, and not for the last time during Star Trek’s run, the unflappable Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) saves the day with his logic and ability to stay calm when faced with overreaction — and overacting — in a crisis.

Star Trek produced 79 episodes in all between 1966-’69, spread over three seasons. The odd number is in part because parent network NBC shortened the episode order for Star Trek’s third and last season to 24 episodes from the previous season’s 26.

That’s another quaint concept in our present day and age, when 22-episode seasons are the norm for network dramas.

The episodes themselves ran closer to 52 minutes, too, considerably longer than today’s 42-minute average for network dramas.

And there were fewer commercials, even though there were just three major commercial networks.

The writing was on the wall, though, to use another technologically dated metaphor.  Cancellation was imminent, despite a concerted letter-writing campaign — yes, written letters! by mail! — by fans to keep Star Trek’s five-year mission alive.

NBC had already flirted with the idea of cancelling Star Trek after just two seasons. Nothing short of a tectonic shift in the TV space-time continuum was going to alter the fact that Star Trek was headed for the shipwreck yard.

And yet. . . . 

Thanks to syndication and all those reruns on local TV stations at odd hours of the day and night — in my case, one o’clock on Sunday afternoons — Star Trek lived long and prospered in the afterlife.

The real question is, why?

Why, after all these years, does Star Trek, with its styrofoam rocks, ’60s acid-trip set designs, egregious overacting and frequently outré storylines — Nazis in space! ‘20s gangsters in space! Liberace in space! — so entertaining, so gripping?

Trek true believers have seen all 79 episodes countless times, and can almost recite lines by heart. Seth MacFarlane did exactly that during an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher not so long ago, launching into Captain Kirk’s monologue from 1967’s A Taste of Armageddon, with all William Shatner’s verbal inflections. In the monologue, Capt. Kirk lectures the locals on the damage caused by real war and how sanitized war-by-computer doesn’t give anyone the incentive to make peace. Maher was visibly startled that MacFarlane could recite a speech from a semi-obscure Star Trek episode by heart, without referring to any notes, but the true Star Trek fan can relate.

Those original Star Trek episodes hold up so well today in part because they impart moral lessons with an almost childlike innocence and simplicity — Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories for the TV generation. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone holds up today for its post-McCarthy take on political and moral issues of the day, but it lacks Star Trek’s sunny optimism and almost complete lack or irony. A seven-year-old and a 70-year-old can watch those early Star Trek episodes and enjoy them on completely different levels; no one could argue that Twilight Zone is anything but a science-fiction tinged political anthology for adults.

That Star Trek even happened in the first place was an accident of timing and seemingly opposing forces suddenly thrust together.

Creator Gene Roddenberry, the son of a career police officer who himself served with the Los Angeles Police Dept. after flying more than 80 combat missions as a wartime pilot in the Pacific during the Second World War, wrote a spec script about a future humanity that had solved most of the pressing problems facing earth and is now ready to explore outer space.

Roddenberry admitted in interviews that he was so disillusioned by the misery and deprivation he saw on a daily basis during his years as an LAPD officer that he wanted to create a TV drama about a future society built on hope and optimism — a very different motivation from the one that prompted Serling to create Twilight Zone seven years earlier.

NBC — God bless ‘em — simply wanted to make money. Color was the new rage in TV, and NBC wanted a new drama that would show off spiffy, psychedelic ‘60s colors in all their glory, and sell many, many color TV sets in the process. Color TV meant color commercials, which in turn meant more profits for the network and a fundamental rebalancing of the financial foundation on which the entire industry was built.

Roddenberry wasn’t entirely in the dark when it came to pitching new dramas to network chiefs, either. He once said that, in order for an idea to work as a TV series, it must be able to generate an almost infinite number of stories on its own. He said he would come up with an idea for a new series on a Friday afternoon, go home, and if he couldn’t come up with at least 50 workable story ideas for future episodes by Monday morning, he knew the idea wouldn’t sell.

Star Trek, he admitted, was the first time in his side-career as a would-be scriptwriter that the stories practically presented themselves. The Star Trek universe is infinite, after all.

From NBC’s perspective, Star Trek, together with series like Bonanza and the self-explanatory Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, were designed first-and-foremost to drive sales of new — and expensive — color sets. Telling a good story was a secondary consideration.

Somehow Star Trek managed to do both, though. For a short time, anyway. 

Inevitably, TV’s long-established business model — high ratings guarantee success, falling ratings, not so much — caught up with it. No one can deny Star Trek’s legacy, though . From the salt vampire to Nazis in space to Sulu running around the deck of the Starship Enterprise, jabbing people with his sabre, Star Trek changed the world in ways not even Roddenberry could have imagined.

Happy 50th anniversary, Star Trek.

 
 
 
 
 
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