The third season of the original Star Trek represents the nadir of the series’ short but memorable run. The fight to keep the show on the air had pushed creator Gene Roddenberry away, leaving the adventures of the starship Enterprise in far less capable hands. This unfortunate turn of events led immediately to “Spock’s Brain,” the first episode of the season, and without a doubt the worst episode of any Trek series, ever. It resorts to one of the hoariest clichés in the history of Saturday matinee sci-fi—the stolen brain. Somehow Spock’s goes missing (without killing Spock), somehow the Enterprise tracks it down, across space on an unexplored planet, and somehow the brain has become the ruler of an ancient underground city. It’s worse than it sounds, and all the more dispiriting when you consider just how consistently strong Trek‘s writing had been up to that point.
The season produced a few other disasters, though none as wholly unredeemable. “The Savage Curtain” features an improbable guest appearance by Abraham Lincoln, whom the Enterprise encounters flying freely through space. The series’ last episode, the unremarkable “Turnabout Intruder,” relies on another unspectacular sci-fi trope, the body exchange, as Captain Kirk’s mind is switched with a woman who despises him.
As bad as these episodes were, however, the third season also gave us “The Tholian Web,” a classic every bit the equal of the “The Carbomite Maneuver” in terms of sheer nail-biting tension. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” featuring Frank Gorshin’s memorable appearance as a half-black, half-white alien in a rather obvious but still effective parable on race relations, is another highlight.
Banality is hardly news in the history of television. The medium’s commercial nature has dictated that the most successful shows are the least adventurous and provocative. While it may come as a shock to younger readers to learn that the original Star Trek lasted a mere three seasons—a truncated run that belies the show’s later, massive cultural significance—the fact makes perfect sense in the context of tv’s dogged conservatism, a conservatism that remains firmly entrenched to this day. How many other jobs pay so handsomely, to do the same thing year-in, year-out, changing the actor’s clothing and updating the vernacular, but otherwise keeping the formats and content exactly the same?
That said, Star Trek certainly wasn’t perfect or even consistently progressive. Although the production team did an admirable job with limited resources, the fact is that Star Trek was, even for the time, slightly cheesy. The challenge of presenting a new alien civilization or interstellar menace just about every week stretched everyone’s ingenuity to its utmost limits. Witness the 1930s gangsters (“A Piece of the Action”), cowboys (“Specter of the Gun”), and even ancient Greeks (“Plato’s Stepchildren”) who served as antagonists for the intrepid space travelers.
Even more so than the limited special effects, the acting is an unmistakable reminder of a bygone era. Actors like William Shatner, DeForest Kelley, and Leonard Nimoy cut their teeth during the “Golden Age” of television drama on programs such as the Kraft Television Theater and the legendary Studio One, and their chronic overacting (yes, even the unemotional Spock was something of a ham) shows it. Take a look at “Plato’s Stepchildren,” which repeatedly shows Kirk and Spock writhing in agony as they are mentally manipulated by the telepathic Platonians. There’s lots of mugging, lots of dramatic gasping, lots of straining against impossibly heavy invisible barriers.
But still, Star Trek remains enjoyable today in ways that other, similarly important or influential shows do not. It was an instant success with the only audience that ever mattered: science fiction fans. The key to Trek‘s success is that—for all the acting excesses—it never condescended to its viewers. Too often, science fiction has been dumbed down by the Powers That Be behind broadcast television, people who don’t understand or don’t appreciate the genre’s potential for literate and provocative storytelling. (There were, of course, exceptions, primarily anthology programs like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. But during the exact same period when the literary genre of science-fiction was blossoming thanks to the persistence and talent of writers such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Harlan Ellison, who would go on—with no small attendant controversy—to write one of the most famous Trek episodes ever, “The City On The Edge of Forever.”)
Star Trek holds a deserved place of reverence in pop culture history. Most importantly, it asked its audience to suspend disbelief long enough to accept the image of an optimistic future where humanity’s seemingly insurmountable problems could be solved through judicious applications of reason, intuition, and compassion. The 24th century of Star Trek is devoid of overt sexism, poverty, international strife or racial tension—if not bereft, sadly, of familiar political and military tensions.
Paradoxically, the absence of these hot-button issues allowed the series to attack these topics with more honesty than almost any show on tv at the time, through the liberal use of metaphor and allusion. At a time when race could not even be mentioned on national television, Star Trek offered an effectively poignant parable on the topic by coating a renowned character-actor with black and white greasepaint. When the tensions of the Cold War were running hot, Captain Kirk and Co. could break the brittle détente in order to engage the Klingon threat. It was a fantasy show, but the subtext was very real.
But despite the show’s ongoing influence and unmatched relevance, it was still effectively a product of its time. The series’ most controversial episode is the aforementioned “Plato’s Stepchildren.” It includes a passionate kiss between Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols), an incendiary moment during an era of intense racial conflict across the U.S. Star Trek pointed to an essentially optimistic and egalitarian future, but it couldn’t change the realities of the present. Thankfully, we some of Trek‘s promises of tolerance have been realized before the 24th century.
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