Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Three Ages of Star Trek (viewing)

From about the third grade on, I would walk home from school (which was only about three blocks away) and find some way to entertain myself until my mother got home from work. This would generally give me around two and a half hours of time to fill, and Mom didn't allow me to go outside until I got into junior high school. So I read and, more often than not, watched TV. I was probably about 9 or 10 years old when a local station picked up the syndicated repeats of the original Star Trek series (this would be about 1974-5). As a burgeoning fan of speculative fiction—by that time I had devoured E. E. Smith, Burroughs, and Heinlein, and probably more—this was a real treat for me. There was a profound lack of speculative fiction on TV at that time; in fact, as I recall, there was a pretty profound lack of science fiction on the big screen as well. It would be another two years before Star Wars would come out and almost singlehandedly revitalize interest in the genre. So it was in this setting that I stumbled upon Star Trek and was immediately enchanted. Here were starships, alien planets, and sometimes even big weapons firing at said starship and planets. E. E. Smith was (and still is) a favorite, so I had this image in my mind of science fiction being starships that got larger and larger over successive generations with amazing destructive powers, and alien races that just despised mankind so that those starships had to be deployed against them (I just had a vision of the Enterprise placed side-by-side with the Skylark IV and chuckled to myself at the panic that Kirk and Crew would probably feel). And only having the covers of those books and my mind's eye as tools to envision those images, finding Star Trek was like an epiphany. I was engrossed in it, and watched it over and over, fascinated by the things I had read about made at least visible.

Here were alien races that worked with and against mankind. Here were heroic captains—and Kirk really does personify the pulp captain exemplar to the last decimal point—and sneaky villains. Here were alien races barely understandable in their biology or motivation, and our feeble attempts to interact with them. It was like the quintessence of everything I loved about science fiction boiled down and then given out in daily doses. To my eternal gratitude, my mother also enjoyed (or at least pretended to enjoy) the shows, arriving home about fifteen minutes into them and sitting down to see what would happen next. I was delighted, and that delight buoyed me along until Star Wars did come out, and then the first Star Trek movie a couple of years later.

By the time I entered college, my appreciation for Star Trek had waned considerably. As I watched the episodes again and again, their flaws were magnified in my (perhaps overly critical teenaged) mind. Shatner's (and really DeForest Kelley's) acting is not very good. The writing can be somewhat overblown. The effects were sometimes laughable. And that music—oh my, couldn't they come with more than just two or three themes? And it really wasn't terribly science fiction at times. Some critic somewhere, or perhaps it was Roddenberry himself, described it as Wagon Train to the stars, and it was true. A lot of the episodes could have been written for different genres—it was only science fiction because the setting was a space ship. And I knew that science fiction could be so much more. And then there was the whole Trekkie phenomenon…it was such an embarrassment and distracted non-genre fans from what science fiction was really all about. This isn't to say that I didn't go to the movies as they came out; I just didn't talk about it with many folks.

(You'll notice that I am calling it science fiction up to here…the very idea of speculative fiction hadn't entered my mind yet. I knew there was something similar in science fiction and fantasy, but I hadn't really given it much thought or tried to quantify it.)

In my late 20s and early 30s, I had been to graduate school and begun my interest in genres—what makes them and especially what happens along the borders of the different genres. I had spent a great deal of time critically examining works of literature and, despite being mocked openly by faculty in some cases, began to perceive that those tools could be used for genre studies as well. It turns out that I was dancing on the fringe of pop culture studies, but I didn't know that as my scholarly interest was in Renaissance poetry, and pop culture people were…well…weird. My training, and the preferences of those who had trained me, had made it clear that those things weren't literature and not worth the effort to use the toolset I had been given to use. But fortunately, I also took some post-modern classes, which blew the door off when it came to bias in literature. Anything was fair game. (Not to mention I had taken a science fiction class from an award-winning author as an elective, and he allowed us to use those same tools as well.)

My reading had also grown more expansive—my mentor wasn't really interested in much after the early 1960s, but I had gone on to read wonderful works up to the present. And as a result, I was able to see how much more could be included in speculative fantasy, that there was room beside galaxy-spanning space operas for stories about computers or advanced biology. Sometimes the aliens were more interesting than the ships. And with this more refined and yet more expansive vision, I looked back at Star Trek and rejoiced again at the powerful elements of speculative fiction that lay buried beneath the dross. While I could still recognize that the acting was not so good and sometimes the effects were pretty shabby, I could also recognize that there was some powerful stories and ideas being used. Going beyond "The City on the Edge of Forever" which is rightfully recognized for the powerful piece it is, Star Trek often had episodes that dealt with the limits of being human. One of the first episodes, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," examines the effect absolute power has on individual humanity, and at what point humanity ceases to be human. "Devil in the Dark" deals with the nature of alienness, as miners are attacked by what they perceive to be a monster, but it is only a monster because it is so very different in appearance and make-up than humanoid life forms, and once the crew of the Enterprise begin to understand it, they recognize in it some of the emotions that make humans so wonderful.

And there are more. Of course, there are real clunkers in there as well. The show does veer off into other genres. Sometimes the reach exceeded the grasp. Everyone recognizes the silliness of "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" dealing with two different races on the same planet, alternately striped black and white. And gosh, it was sure heavy-handed in its attempt to deliver its message, so much so that it has become something of a joke. But the idea behind it, especially coming out of its time period still gives it something of a relevancy, because nothing else on TV at the time was trying to make similar statements.

Star Trek hurts to watch sometimes exactly because it is on the small screen. It attempted to do things that needed more time to evolve, more effects to explore. But if you can get past that smallness, it's not so difficult to see just how groundbreaking the series was, and how important to both television and to speculative fiction. It made these ideas mainstream, so much so that what it attempted to do has been lost in the generic idea of cinematic science fiction. And now, I long to find TV shows and movies that cared as much about the genre as the creators of Star Trek obviously did, and regret those times when I wasn't so proud to say that I am a fan of the show.

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