Everything I know about kitsch, I learned from Star Trek .
At age 10 or 11, I’d dash home from school every day to catch the show with babysitter Jane, a high school girl from across the street. Watching Star Trek with Jane was different from watching with my brother (who thought it was cool) or my parents (who thought it was beneath contempt). Jane showed me how funny the show was – from the clunky, over-the-top writing, to the absurdly unlifelike acting, to the terrible fate waiting for any minor character who beamed planet side. Have you ever watched Kirk and Bones fall down? First graders playing cowboys and Indians do it more realistically. And the costumes! Who knew that in the 23rd century women on every planet, in every galaxy, would be wearing mini-skirts? We laughed until the milk squirted out of our noses.
Star Trek was already in its second, syndicated life by the time I got to it, like many classic TV shows more successful in reruns than it had ever been in prime time. Today this three-season phenomenon is considered one of the most influential television shows ever to be aired. It has spawned five additional television series, including the lauded Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as 11 feature films. And that’s just the beginning. There are lunchboxes, action toys, mugs, toothbrushes and detailed scale models. Right now eBay is listing over 1,000 Star Trek memorabilia items for sale – if you hurry, you might be able to snag a genuine Diluthium crystal, straight from the set, or a size-large replica of Captain Kirk’s yellow shirt. It’s not just a show. It’s a lifestyle.
This seven-disc DVD set covers the Enterprise’s third and final set of voyages, a season in which head writer and series originator Gene Roddenberry had mostly abdicated creative control and in which the characters seemed to take on a gleeful life of their own. When it was written and filmed, the show had already been cancelled once. Only vehement reaction from fans saved it from obscurity. Before the internet, before fan sites, before even photocopying had become very common, an enormous letter-writing campaign was organized.
NBC eventually received some 10,000 letters protesting the cancellation. They reversed their decision with a public announcement during the second season, asking only that people stop sending the letters. It was a temporary reprieve, however. In the third season, the show was moved from Monday night at 8PM to Friday at 10PM, a time when its largely teen to 30-something audience was sure not to be watching TV. Season 3 earned disastrous ratings, and the series was cancelled again.
You might almost intuit all this drama from the show, which has, alongside its moments of ponderosity and seriousness, a giddy party-on-the-Titantic vibe. Leonard Nimoy’s Spock, by a long margin the most nuanced and lifelike of the main characters, seems often to be suppressing a smirk. He has maybe the funniest line of the season, surely ad libbed, after Engineering Officer Montgomery Scott protests the sudden appearance of president Abraham Lincoln onboard the ship in “The Savage Curtain”. “He died hundreds of years ago on a planet light years away,” Scott says, pointing vaguely. “Actually, it was more that direction,” says Spock, pointing a different way. Later, on “Turnabout Intruder” when Captain James Kirk’s body is inhabited by a woman (don’t ask), William Shatner is having absolutely too good a time putting the swish into his hips and fussily filing his nails. No writer could possibly have put those bits into the script.
Star Trek was, as always, nominally about the future, yet under the surface, as much about the past and the present as some far-distant century. A good third of the episodes find the main characters in jeopardy on planets that replicate some period of human history. “The Savage Curtain” resurrects Abraham Lincoln and Serac, a similarly revered Vulcan. “Plato’s Children” takes the crew back to Ancient Greece (with the added diversion of telekinesis). “Requiem for Methusalah” finds them the guests of a many thousand year old human (he looks about 60) who has been Leonardo Da Vinci, Brahms and many others. Spock and Dr. McCoy end up in a snow-blown ice age during “All Our Yesterdays”, while Kirk is transported to a pre-industrial witch hunt. There is even a replayed shoot-out at the OK Corral in Season 3 an illusion cooked up for Kirk and his men by telepathic aliens.
When the crew of the Enterprise is not wrestling with some forgotten era of history, they are engaged in the issues of the 1960s. In “The Mark of Gideon”, Kirk is held captive in an over-populated dystopia, a theme surely inspired by late-’60s concerns about population growth and world hunger. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” plays on the themes of racism. Two implacable enemies continue their battle on board the Enterprise. The two are both half-black and half-white, split right down the middle, but one has the left side white, the other the right. And “The Cloud Minders” takes segregation and racial disparities a step further. An elite city in the clouds depends on an underclass of miners to ensure its well-being. The poor are considered less-than-human, of inferior intelligence, until Kirk and his crew prove that it is poison gas on the planet, not lesser abilities, that keeps these people in check. It’s like The Bell Curve 30 years early. But for sheer, bewildered consideration of the hippie movement, you can hardly improve on “The Way To Eden” in which a group of scantily clad counter culturalists (one is the son of an ambassador) seduce the crew with free love, a vision of Eden and an impromptu jam session.
Star Trek was mired in its times in some ways – when Captain Kirk is imprisoned in a woman’s body in “Turnabout Intruder”, it is taken for granted that he cannot be captain anymore simply because he has a woman’s shape – but it was strikingly ahead of the curve in others. It was one of the first television shows with an integrated cast, for instance, with men and women working together. Lieutenant Uhuru, as played by Nichelle Nichols, was one of the first black woman to be seen in a professional role ever in prime time. When she considered leaving the show, because she felt that she didn’t have enough lines, Dr. Martin Luther King himself convinced her to stay. She was simply too potent a symbol to lose. (Whoopi Goldberg has said that Nichelle Nichols inspired her to pursue acting. )
Just putting blacks and whites on the bridge together was innovative, but Star Trek went a step further during its third season. The show staged the first interracial kiss ever aired on television. The backstory is typically complicated. Captain Kirk, Spock, Lieutenant Uhuru and Nurse Chapel are captives of a vindictive society with the power to control minds. Their captors are putting on a show – Spock sings and plays the harp, Kirk and Spock fight and, finally, the two men are forced to kiss the women.
In an interview on disc seven, Nichols says that she saw the kiss in early drafts of the script and kept expecting it to come out. By the day of filming, the kiss was still in the script. The cast filmed the scene, and immediate chaos ensued. The director shut filming down, called in executives and the whole group of “suits” as Nichols called them, debated whether to allow the kiss. Finally, Gene Roddenberry broke the impasse, suggesting that two versions be filmed, one with a kiss, one without. They’d decide later. It was Friday afternoon. Nichols recalls the William Shatner dragged out the “kiss” filming, insisting on take after take until, finally, there was only time for one take of the non-kiss version. At the crucial moment, Shatner crossed his eyes. No one noticed until later…too late to reshoot the scene. The kiss stayed in.
It is, perhaps, typical of this series that a milestone in racial equality should occur during an episode as silly as “Plato’s Children”, and that the series’ integrity should rest, ultimately, on the fact that William Shatner made a face at the camera at the last minute. There’s a weird mix, in nearly all these episodes, of high-minded rhetoric and clumsy acting, of ridiculous plot points and philosophical musings. People talk about capitalized concepts like Truth, Beauty, Peace and Knowledge, almost as often as they discuss the stress the engines are undergoing. There’s a sophomoric quality to the dialogue, as if it might have been recorded verbatim at a three-in-the-morning, pot-smoke-filled dorm free-for-all. And you have wonder what kinds of drugs were on hand at the writer’s meetings when even some of the titles can induce LSD flashbacks ( for instance, “The World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”). Even if you admire the effort to engage with the big questions, you may recoil from the ham-handedness. No one can take the show as seriously as it takes itself.
This DVD set includes all 24 episodes on six discs, plus a seventh bonus disc, which has two versions of “The Cage”, the original pilot for the series, as well as cast interviews, home movie footage of the cast and an interview with a designer who has replicated some of the show’s props. The remastering on this set is a noticeable improvement, the pictures of the Enterprise inside and out, much sharper and clearer than what you may have seen in syndication.
The interviews are quite interesting, but the bonus disc’s centerpiece is “The Cage”. It is offered both in a cut version, the one that aired, and in its full expanded glory. It has an almost entirely different cast (only Leonard Nimoy remained for the regular series), but the look and feel of the ship, the theme music, and even some of the larger concepts are all there. There is a different captain Christopher Pike, as played by Jeffrey Hunter, and a different first officer. Number One is, intriguingly a woman (Majel Barrett who later turns up at Nurse Chapel in the series), suggesting all sorts of tensions and plotlines on the road not taken.
Still much is the same. The aliens are testing Pike. They are manipulating his own thoughts and memories for their own purposes. They are tempting him with a pretty woman in a short skirt. It’s very similar to a number of later episodes, yet it drags noticeably. You long for Spock and Bones to start a squabble, for Kirk to twist his lips into that devilish smile, for Scottie to announce all systems go in his improbable burr.
“The Cage” has all the arcane plot turns, all the scientific mumbo-jumbo, all the right-versus-wrong agonizing of the eventual series, but it isn’t nearly as much fun. There’s no kitsch factor in the pilot, no clumsy pratfalls, no sublimely overacted facial contortions, no eyebrow-cocked utterance of “Fascinating.” It’s just an unlikely space opera, overlong, clunkily put together and not the slightest bit amusing. Jane and I would have seen right through it.