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Nigel Watson

Talking Pictures alias






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Mark Pilkington's review of 
Star Trek: 
First Contact

Star Trek is more than a television or film series it is a social phenomenon. Even people who don't particularly like science fiction know such Trekkie expressions as "beam me up Scottie" and could easily recognise Mr Spock in a police line-up. 

The devoted Trekkies who buy the Star Trek technical manuals, novelisations, posters, model kits, attend the constant round of meetings and conferences, and just manage to find time to watch the videos and films, are seen in a rather condescending light. As an example, this review of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, starts by stating: 

Captain's Log, Stardate 1992: I'm sitting in a cinema surrounded by loads of strange people wearing anoraks. 

They come in all shapes and sizes, some are wearing big stick-on ears, some simply have big ears...They are a mysterious humanoid life form, not unlike train spotters (they are) known as Trekkies... 

(Haringey Independent, 27 February 1992.) 

It is a pity that there is such a stereotyped attitude toward anyone who likes Star Trek. The programmes represent the optimistic view that humanity will explore and colonise the galaxy. Out there we will encounter strange new worlds and lots of alien life forms. Predictably not all the alien beings are friendly. From the very beginning the Klingon and Romulan Empires are hostile threats to the peaceful Galactic Federation. The crew of the USS Enterprise have the mission of being ambassadors for the United Federation of Planets in the relentless exploration of the Galaxy. The Federation mirrors the work of the United Nations rather than being a military organisation, but it has to employ weapons and force when absolutely necessary (usually every episode!). 

The idea for the original television series was simple; Gene Roddenberry sold it to NBC as a Wagon Train tIn Space. The time for such a concept was ideal (the series ran from 1966 to 1969 in the USA), the Space Race between the USA and USSR was at full throttle and this showed what was at stake in the future. Unfortunately, the pilot episode was regarded as too cerebral but Roddenberry was given a second chance. His second pilot brought in William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, and it included more action sequences. This time the green light was given and Star Trek was first screened on US television in 1966.

Despite its popularity the Nielsen ratings for it were surprisingly low. The sponsors, no doubt thinking about the high production costs and the possibility that the remaining audience would eventually lose interest pulled the plug on it after 79 episodes. A further explanation for its demise was put this way: 

The plots became familiar parables; mediocre historical adventures based on time travel and even gangster stories. These were pitfalls they had wisely avoided at the beginning, but once they fell into them, Star Trek was buried. The show was cancelled as of June 3, 1969. 
(Gerani, Gary and Schulman, Paul H., Fantastic Television, LSP Books Ltd., 1977, p. 108.) 
Although Wagon Train has been cited as a catalyst for the series, its form is very similar to the World War II submarine dramas. In both forms the ships are often isolated from the command headquarters, which means the Captain and crew have to rely on their own resources to sort-out the situation. Indeed, Captain Kirk is always shown as usurping the instructions of his superiors in order to resolve the problem in his own swashbuckling fashion. Captain J. J. Adams conducts matters in a similar manner on board his United Planets flying saucer in Forbidden Planet (1956). This ship has a "Doc" who is a close friend of the captain and the command structure and personnel are very much like those on the Enterprise. The craft itself was able to travel at normal or hyperdrive speeds which compares with the Enterprise's impulse and warp drives. The logical character of Mr Spock could well have been borrowed from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) which features Klaatu who powerfully shows the folly of human behaviour and political actions. 

It has also been argued that a television series called Rocky Jones: Space Ranger (1952-1956) anticipated Star Trek in many ways: 

Rocky Jones worked for an organization called the United Worlds, instead of the United Federation of Planets. He flew his rocketships (The Orbit Jet and The Silver Moon) to interplanetary trouble spots and provided whatever understanding aid was needed. He was answerable directly to Secretary Drake, who usually let Rocky have his own way. Rocky handled all types of emergencies, including the evacuation of doomed planets and the uncovering of villainous plots against the United Worlds. Rocky also came up against a race of space pirates who specialized in attacking Earth's defensive space stations and looked just as hostile as the Klingons. 
(Asherman, Allan, The Star Trek Compendium, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1981, p. 24.) 
Intriguingly Gene Roddenberry's first wife, Eileen, said that she had encouraged him to tell his daughters stories about the stars when they went on camping trips, which might have triggered his Star Trek concept. Christopher Knopf, a TV writer, claims that in the summer of 1963 Roddenberry told him:
"I've got another series idea. I'm going to place it at the end of the nineteenth century. There's a dirigible, see? And on this dirigible are all these people of mixed races, and they go from place to place each week, places no one has discovered yet."
(Engel, Joel, Gene Roddenberry:The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek, Virgin, 1995, p. 33.)
Several months later his agent, Alden Schwimmer, suggested he create a science fiction series and this was the catalyst for putting his various ideas into a suitable sf format.

In the Classic Star Trek Captain Kirk represents the benevolent leader of men. His own hero is Abraham Lincoln and he can be seen as the kind of man whom the creators and viewers of Star Trek would vote President of the USA. This is not such an unusual idea considering the success of the ex-cowboy film hero, Ronald Reagan. 

The crew of the Enterprise is meant to represent the races of Earth but they reflect better the multi-cultural make- up of the USA. Roddenberry was justifiably proud that he was able to include a black woman, in the role of officer Uhura, on a primetime TV show. Though it has to be considered that she has never received any higher rank than this and her part is nothing more than that of a switchboard operator, in addition the TV series shows more of her legs than any other aspect of her person. 

Science Officer Spock represents the emotionless and rational scientist whilst Doctor "Bones" McCoy represents the emotion-ridden illogical, caring and frail human. McCoy's main role seems to be that of arguing with the logic of Spock's reasoning, and declaring that 'he's dead Jim" whenever a previously never-seen character has met an unfortunate end. Kirk mediates between their two viewpoints to tackle the situation at hand, he also usually has to have hand-to-hand combat with an alien life form and gets to seduce the beautiful young women who providentially crop up wherever he goes. His combative and seductive prowess are both neatly sent-up in Star Trek VI - he beats his alien opponent by hitting him where it hurts most (his kneecap!) and the beautiful woman is none other than a being who can change into any shape (this is reminiscent of the shape-shifter in Terminator II). 

The saving grace of Star Trek is that it does have a sense of humour and the crew of the Enterprise do show some personality beyond their obvious stereotypes. The lesser players, such as Scotty, the Scottish engineering officer, are an integral part of any episode or film. In his case he is always fighting to keep the ship together but over the years he shows that he has lost the battle against keeping his own body in full flight trim. 

Although Kirk is the obvious hero his actions never totally dominate the series. Instead the actors become part of a real crew and the invented mythology partly takes shape in the real world. This has got to the point where in Star Trek VI their retirement from service with the Federation is also a goodbye to Trekkies everywhere - this (allegedly) is their last film together. Also, their last film explicitly shows the thawing of relations with the Klingons as an obvious political parallel with the thawing of relations between East and West. The Klingons have to settle matters diplomatically, due to an ecological disaster, which means they cannot afford to have military protection and food on their tables. 

I'm not sure that such political stories altogether suit Star Trek and if we look at the first feature film the metaphysical importance given to the story seems far too heavy for such a shallow vessel as the Enterprise. No doubt they had in mind the success of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind when they should have looked towards Star Wars as a better model. Having succeeded as a feature film series it is obvious that those involved have tried to include more "messages" about ecological vandalism and political isolationism. Yet, they are no more than the cries of star trekking hippies, and they never really address problems head-on. Like many us television programmes the creators seem to think that if people realise there is a problem and talk about it, the problem will be solved. In addition, the characters in Star Trek, as with most other US TV series are never truly threatened (with one leap Kirk always escapes); though in Star Trek: The Next Generation their female security officer was killed but this was a very exceptional event (one often used by more conventional soap operas to attract higher viewing figures). 

Certainly the saga will continue through the Next Generation who might soon graduate to feature films. Against the odds they have preserved the ethos of the original series (you only have to see the British attempt at such a series, namely Space 1999, to see how fantastic special effects cannot hide the lack of any reasonable characters or situations). Often the Next Generation do seem more like a bunch of social workers in space who address such real issues as dealing with Vietnam war veterans, genetic and social engineering, social responsibility in general, etc. The plots are couched in sf terms but the Earthly references and parallels are quite easy to spot. 

This I think is the main flaw with Star Trek it either over-reaches itself metaphysically especially in Star Trek V where Captain Kirk actually gets to meet an entity posing as God, or it tries to address more down-to-earth issues. In the latter case we might wonder why such issues cannot be addressed head-on rather than being dressed as science fiction. Part of the answer might be that sponsors of such shows don't like to upset the audience. This was a problem for Rod Serling in the 1950s and he got round this by using sf to question such matters as racial prejudice in his Twilight Zone TV series. In the USSR many writers used sf to disguise their criticism against the party machine. However, I feel that Star Trek should combine adventure and entertainment with a subtler nod towards the fundamental questions of life, death and the universe. By firmly showing that the Klingons are indeed a thinly veiled representation of Soviet Communists (as in Star Trek VI) it is rather insulting to think that Americans regarded Communists as such monsters. It would have been better to have shown this as a more fundamental battle between good and evil rather than as a battle between East and West. Indeed, if the Americans have to "censor" real feelings about important issues by presenting it as science fiction it doesn't give them much right to feel superior over the former Communists. 

Whatever we think Star Trek looks like it will have a bright future in all forms of media. The Star Trek universe is so well thought-out and established that it can become the basis for magickal belief systems. 

As we 'get into' the Star Trek universe, we find greater depth and subtlety. We find that the universe has its own rules to which the characters are subject, and is internally consistent. Each episode, we may find that we are being given insights into the personal world of a key character. Like our everyday worlds, the universe of Star Trek has a boundary beyond, which is the unknown - the future, unexplored space, the consequences of our actions - whatever wild cards we may be dealt. So we watch TV and enter, as an observer, the unfolding of a mythic event. 
(Hines, Phil, Belief: A Key To Magic in Wild Places, No. 3, p. 11.) 
If you feel the urge to slip into an anorak and start babbling about warp factors and phasers you have nothing to worry about. You have become a Trekkie and are now one with the universe, God, democracy and our mass culture.

After publishing this article in Talking Pictures No. 3 we got this response:

Nigel Watson's piece on Star Trek made some valid points about the way critics dismiss the films and patronise the fans. 

One aspect of the movies which reviewers never fail to notice is the age of the cast. If a new Bergman film was released this year, how many critics would carp about whether Max Von Sydow was wearing a wig? 

These condescending attitudes were epitomised on TV's The Late Show, in which a group of intellectuals sat around laughing at director Nicholas Meyer's claims that serious points were being made in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The previous evening's show had reviewed a pile of rocks scattered across a gallery floor, but no one laughed at the prospect of calling that art. 

Geoff Sheldrake.

See Mark Pilkington's review of 
Star Trek: First Contact

See the book review of
Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek

Episode guides and cast/crew details about Star Trek and subsequent series can be found at:

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Material Copyright © 2001 Nigel Watson