Star Trek and more...
The Original Series
William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols, James Doohan, George Takei, Walter Koenig
(NBC; US: 8 Sep 1966)
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
Without a doubt, Star Trek is one of the most innovative and influential TV series on this side of the galaxy. In the nearly 40 years since its original airing, Star Trek spawned four other quality TV shows that take place in the same fictitious universe, inspired hundreds of science fiction films, and generated a powerful cultural phenomenon. The creation of the late Gene Rodenberry (1921-1991), Star Trek was envisioned as “Wagon Train to the stars”. In addition to deconstructing the Western mythology in a futuristic environment, Star Trek swiftly embodied the 1960s cultural anxieties that engulfed America.
Indeed, the conflicts between the Federation and the fearsome Klingons and Romulans encoded the paranoia of the Cold War period. Also, every time that Captain Kirk (William Shatner) reformed alien cultures that did not accommodate to the capitalistic scheme of production and commerce, the series became an allegory to the cultural and racial xenophobia that engulfed America during those years. And finally, Star Trek reflected the militarism that characterized the Johnson era when the Enterprise had to use its superior weapons technology to suppress those who dare to challenge cultural and social paradigms. In spite of their age, many of the episodes of Star Trek remain thought provoking and feel relevant to the complex problems that continue to haunt our modern world.
Star Trek: The Next Generation had a tough act to follow when it debuted in 1987, but it quickly proved to be the equal of the original series. Modernizing the Star Trek universe to largely abandon the casual sexism of the original show, Next Generation offered a more cerebral captain and adventures that touched on all our modern fears and prejudices. Oh, and this this show had the Borg, perhaps the most terrifying set of villains in all of the Trekverse.
Recasting the wandering and exploratory nature of the first two shows, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was instantly different. Set primarily in a space station, many of the adventures came to the DS9 crew. The overall tone of the series was much darker than Star Trek had ever been before. At times, the show felt quite theatrical and certainly the Shakepearean quality of Avery Brooks’ presence and dialogue delivery contributed to that. Over the course of seven seasons, DS9 had a central story arc that framed the entire series, another marked departure from the first two shows and it also interrogated the motivations and effects of war more effectively than perhaps any other show before or since.
The Outer Limits
The Original Series
(ABC; US: 16 Sep 1963)
It’s always been a shame that, when they are compared outright, The Twilight Zone gets so much of the smothering praise and The Outer Limits is usually left holding the rotting raspberries. Granted, Rod Serling’s brilliant and sometimes breathtaking television show offered more than its fair share of startling ideas and engaging writing. The Outer Limits was always classified as clever junk, reducing its obvious special qualities into something resembling juvenile pulp comics. Limits was often referred to as the “Monster of the Week” show, since there was a reliance on aliens, robots, demons, and beasts as the means of crafting fear and dread. The Twilight Zone loved to flaunt its “psychological” terrors and fright, hoping you’d be inspired to think as well as shrink in your seat. But pound for pound, The Outer Limits really outdid Serling’s showcase in the true science fiction arena. Much more than ideas played out subtly, The Outer Limits went for broke, exposing outright the bug-eyed ants, floating Venutian apparition or the alien Kyban assassins. Did the lack of stellar special effects mean that, occasionally, the zipper and strings were readily apparent? Yes. Did this factor detract from the show? Absolutely not. If anything, they reinforced the post-‘50s ideal about space, the supernatural, and the scientifically sinister. The Outer Limits indeed pushed the envelope of believability. But more times than not, they managed to totally ignite the imagination.
Both seasons of the show (they are all available on DVD) were and still are a wonderfully constructed, consistent set of ideas, each trying to outdo the other in storytelling, acting talent, and thought-provoking content. Limits had a special allegiance and emphasis on the writer, something many other shows failed to recognize. Really, the only way you can sell an interstellar being or escapee from a future Earth was to intelligently and passionately provide the proper words to describe or discuss it. The Outer Limits, like its brother in arms, The Twilight Zone, boasts scripts that, in today’s market, seems like some manner of supernatural Shakespeare. Indeed, when felt and paint and monster masks let the visuals down, the word stepped in and came alive in a way that rescued entire shows from ridicule. When viewed individually, there are some shows that clearly stand out over and above others. But in total, the attention to detail, the introduction of philosophical ideals, and the well-drawn characterizations make The Outer Limits a true creative treasure. If the second season got a little darker and more morose than the first, it’s more than compensated for by the overall quality and ideology offered.
Perhaps second only to the original Star Trek in terms of concrete cult status and lingering fanbase frenzy, star Patrick McGoohan’s smalls screen gamble remains an astounding masterpiece of mangled mainstream intent. Tired of playing the standard special operative, and realizing that the entire James Bond franchise had upped the anti when it came to such storylines, the UK superstar came up with The Prisoner as a way of completely deconstructing the rules regarding such shows. In its place, he devised a puzzle box of prospective mysteries, filtered them through an inventive framework, and then proceeded to make each episode an illustrated battle between conservative, Establishment ideologies and the personal preferences for freedom, liberty and choice. Even the title held a three-pronged connotation. It created an image that reflected the lead character, his state of mind, and the world(s) in which he lived. It’s the kind of thematic stance that has allowed the show to thrive in the four decades since it first aired in Britain.
Thanks to A&E, who has released the entire series in a spectacular multi-disc DVD set including pristine transfers, lots of added features, modern audiences have a chance to appreciate the series and it’s sizable imagination. Indeed, premises don’t get any more intriguing than this one. McGoohan plays a nameless British intelligence officer who quits his post and prepares to leave town. Just before he’s able to escape, he’s gassed and wakes up in a weird little seaside burg known only as The Village. There, he is referred to by a numeric tag, in this case, Number Six, and forced to report to a Big Brother-like interrogator named Number Two. A captive, and held for the information in his head (the main question being “Why did you resign?”) Number Six learns that there is no fleeing this bizarre, baffling place. Indeed, whenever he or anyone else attempts such a strategy, a large floating orb (nicknamed “The Rover”) is released from the ocean. It tracks down anyone attempting a getaway, and encases them in its opaque elastic shell. Like Alice in a cold war Wonderland, the show still stands as a deep, layered look at individuality vs. conformity. And it has only gotten better with time.
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos
(PBS; US: 28 Sep 1980)
Arguably, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is the best scientific TV series ever produced. Indeed, Cosmos received both an Emmy and a Peabody award, it has been transmitted in more than 60 countries, and perhaps more important than anything else, this series continues to inspire the study of science. Envisioned and written by the celebrated physicist Carl Sagan (1934-1996), the 13 episodes of Cosmos were produced between 1978 and 1979, and featured ground breaking special effects, a beautiful soundtrack that combined the classics with the new age tonalities of Vangelis, and one of the most inspired discussions of science and its impact on human culture and society.
In this regard, perhaps the key to the success of Cosmos was that it did not restrict itself to a mere astronomy documentary: the series also talked about evolution, neuroscience, physics, genetics, history, pseudoscience, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and many other interesting topics. In the world of Cosmos, science is an elegant and crucial human endeavor necessary to understand the position of mankind in the Universe, and to assure that we survive our own weaknesses in order to become a race of space explorers.