Star Trek: Gene Rodenberry’s Wagon Train to the Stars

In September of 1966 a man named Gene Rodenberry set forth a vision of the future that was unlike anything people had advanced before. It was utopian, a little silly and not particularly popular at the time. After three seasons Star Trek would go off the air, but not before giving a whole generation of science fiction fans their first glimpse of the wonder and possibilities of space. Not that Star Trek bears much semblance to reality – it was the dream that mattered to most of them. The dream that there was more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of in our philosophies.

Since going off the air Star Trek has spawned five follow-up TV shows and more than a dozen feature films. Not bad for a TV show that – arguably – failed on initial release. Star Trek came at an interesting time in American life. Man was on his way to the moon but he hadn’t made it there yet, in fact Star Trek would go off the air a little more than a month before the Apollo 11 landing. Space was still a long way off when Captain Kirk first beamed up to the Enterprise. The Star Wars franchise was still a decade away and space wasn’t a huge part of popular culture either.

Humanity was locked in a very tense, hostile position as the Cold War rose from the ashes of Korea. There was something going on over in Vietnam, had been for a decade, but resistance to it was only really starting to form in the US. This is where Star Trek was born, lived and died.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Star Trek is how much like the show’s present the future Rodenberry presented was. The United Federation of Planets – a loose parallel to democratic organizations like NATO or the UN – stood at odds with the Klingon and Romulan empires, two loosely allied superpowers that resembled the USSR and Maoist China in political situation if not culture. Old wars had exhausted all three superpowers until they no longer wanted to fight wars but no formal peace existed and small skirmishes were fought along the borders through political maneuvering or via proxies.

But for all that Star Trek resembled the present, it was built somewhat on the past. Rodenberry frequently compared the show to another TV series called Wagon Train, an old western series about settlers headed out west. Kirk led his small band of travelers ever up and outward into the unknown, stopping with friendly settlers and fighting off – or talking his way out of – any hostilities that took place. It was a blend of the old and familiar with the new and unexpected that worked very well in illuminating what Rodenberry thought of the present and where it should go.

The core of Star Trek in the original incarnation is three fold: Kirk, Spock, McCoy. Each of these men represented a force driving human development. Spock, the cool, rational and scientific mind, was passive and tended to observe with an eye for the simplest and most beneficial outcome. McCoy was driven by relationships and emotions, seeking outcomes he could accept and spurred to action by his sense of empathy and justice. And Kirk, riding herd on them both as the spirit of moderation and purpose, made sure that their goals were never thwarted by either inclination.

Of the three characters only Spock got anything like character development – that kind of thing was done very little on television in those days. Most of Spock’s growth involved him coming to grips with his dual Vulcan and Human heritage and trying to find a balance between the Vulcan need for emotional control and the human need for emotional expression.

The basic venue for the original Star Trek is the bridge. While many stories took place away from the Enterprise much of what needed to be said or decided was said or decided on the bridge of that venerable Constitution-class ship and the bridge itself served as the perfect metaphor for the show. We are in the driver’s seat, Rodenberry tells us, look sharp and mind your stations and we can get through this.

There’s no large plot to this run of Star Trek, instead it focuses on a number of short, concise and typically exciting high concept stories that inspect the human condition in ways both timely and timeless. Many have the feel of Twilight Zone episodes with a consistent cast. Surprisingly this run of the show, while the shortest of any incarnation of the franchise, has one of the highest memorable episode counts – undoubtedly due in part to its emphasis on strong individual stories.

Notable episodes include “The Trouble with Tribbles”, “The Day of the Dove”, “Balance of Terror”, “The Enterprise Incident”, “The Doomsday Machine”, “Where No Man has Gone Before”, and “Journey to Babel”. The episode “Mirror, Mirror” introduces the “mirror universe”, a timeline where the Federation went terribly wrong and the Terran Empire has locked most of the sentient species in the Alpha Quadrant of the galaxy in a tyrannical fascist regime. Spock finds himself stuck with a party from the mirror world while the same party from the main timeline winds up on the mirror Enterprise before hijinks ensue. While seeing the crew with swapped personalities is interesting and serves as a great look into the darker side of the cast, this idea became something of an obsession among the fans and some of the writers, rarely leading anywhere good. More on this in weeks to come.

A more positive influence on the cannon comes in “Space Seed”, which introduces the franchise’s greatest (or second greatest, depending on who you ask) villain, Khan. It also gives some history on the Eugenics War and humanity’s dark history of genetic modifications. Khan is a simple villain but an effective one, sure in his breeding and power and the natural right of rulership he believes stems from those things. Khan returned in the franchise’s second feature film, resulting in one of the tensest scifi battles of wits in cinema history followed by one of the genre’s greatest death scenes.

The most memorable episode of Star Trek is “The City on the Edge of Forever”. When McCoy accidentally travels back in time he saves an American peace advocate from an accidental death and winds up delaying the U.S. entry into the Second World War to the point that the Germans cannot be defeated, instead winning through wanton use of atomic bombs and leaving Kirk and Spock with a terrible task – let a virtuous and compassionate woman die as she was meant so a brutal and selfish man can be denied his prize. It’s a brilliant twist on the “would it be okay to kill Hitler before his rise to power?” question that demands we look past the immediate consequences of our actions. In fact, if you wanted to pick an episode of Star Trek that perfectly encapsulated the themes of the show in a single hour of viewing time, “City on the Edge of Tomorrow” might be the perfect choice.

After going off the air Star Trek lapsed for about a decade, then revived in 1979 with the first of six motion pictures. The Wrath of Khan is frequently cited as the best, with The Undiscovered Country and The Journey Home vying for second place. These films broke new ground in a lot of ways, destroying one Enterprise and building another. A whole film was spent with the crew in a captured Klingon ship. There was time travel and nearly omniscient space entities and wonderful science fiction adventure. Star Wars gave Americans a taste of modern myth but Star Trek gave them an idea of what the work of the future might be, and they loved it. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Deforest Kelley and the rest would find their names forever tied to the characters they portrayed in a way no other actor really had. And a new breed of scifi set out for the stars, to boldly go where no one had gone before.

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