I’ve been a huge fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation since it debuted in 1987. I own the series on DVD, I’ve seen every episode many times, and have even written a couple of articles about it. I’ve also watched and loved the subsequent series and movies. But here’s a little-known fact for ya: did you know that there was another Star Trek series before TNG?
I did not grow up as a Star Trek fan. I never watched the show when I was a kid, or even as a young adult. I did watch and enjoy the movies, and so I knew all of the characters from there but other than that, by the time TNG started, here’s what I knew about the original series:
- “Space… the final frontier.”
- Captain Kirk was popular with the ladies, particularly those with green skin (Bones’s “what is it with you, anyway?” in ST:IV was classic)
- The visual effects were not very good
- The theme song had no words but did have a woman singing “ahhhhhh” over the music
- I had a vague idea what Tribbles were
- There was apparently an episode with Khan in it
- They went where no man had gone before while the TNG crew went where no one had gone before
That’s about it.
So a while ago I decided to take full advantage of my Netflix subscription. I was going to see what the big deal was and watch every episode of Star Trek. I didn’t binge-watch it; it took me several months to get through all three seasons. Here are my thoughts. In a nutshell, it was OK. It was ground-breaking in some ways, and hopelessly dated in others. Some of the stories were interesting and clever, others were silly and inane. Long story short: I’m glad I watched it, but I doubt I’ll be watching it again.
Let’s start with the positives. Some of the episodes contained some very good storytelling. There were a few really interesting and thought-provoking episodes that reminded me quite a bit of TNG. “A Taste of Armageddon” was a new twist on a war story, “The Paradise Syndrome” showed a different side of Kirk, and “The City on the Edge of Forever” was the quintessential time travel paradox story. William Shatner is often criticized (though sometimes also lauded) for his overacting, but there are a number of some occasions where he is very good. Leonard Nimoy shows that he’s a great actor by keeping a straight face as much as he does.
Having a black woman, an Asian, and a Russian as major and important characters at that time was ground-breaking, so full props to the writers and producers and such for that. There were episodes that dealt with anti-Semitism and racism; in one, Spock explicitly mentioned racial bigotry as “distasteful”. In the late 1960’s, that was a big deal.
I thought the introduction of the Prime Directive was very interesting. The United States is known (rightly or wrongly) as a country that likes to project its own values onto the rest of the world – if “they” don’t think the way “we” think, they’re wrong. Star Trek was on during the war in Vietnam, and many said that Americans had no business being there at all. In contrast, the Federation has a rule that they will not interfere in the affairs of other cultures. For Roddenberry to state this rule and make it the Federation’s top priority (their “prime directive” you might say) was quite the political statement.
For all the hand-to-hand fighting and phasers and photon torpedoes, Kirk and the crew did attempt to solve a lot of problems without violence. We didn’t see “we’re more powerful than you, so you better do things our way”. Weapons were a last resort, most of the time, and there were even times when they were faced with violence but didn’t fight back.
Now onto the negatives.
Captain Kirk’s vocal style and occasional mid-sentence pauses were a little odd and has become fodder for many. William. Shatner. Impressions. But in general, I barely noticed it. Usually his overacting was no big deal (and as I said above, sometimes he was very good) but other times the overacting was quite a ways over. Leonard Nimoy and George Takei were very good acting-wise, Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig were pretty good as well, but I found the acting of DeForest Kelley and James Doohan was just OK.
Despite all of the forward-thinking I mentioned above, the treatment of women on the show was firmly set in 1967. Every woman who was in trouble needed to be saved by a man. Every woman who was an enemy could be swayed by Captain Kirk’s manliness. In a few episodes, Chekov was even more of a horn-dog than Kirk. I shook my head every time a cute yeoman gave Kirk a box to sign and his eyes lingered on her a little too long as she walked away. In one episode, he even made a comment to Spock and McCoy about the yeoman that was a double-entendre which was probably mildly amusing in 1967 but made me uncomfortable.
The visual effects in general were terrible. The beaming of people wasn’t bad for the time and external shots of the Enterprise in space were usually pretty decent, but I laughed whenever someone fired a hand phaser. Great visual effects aren’t mandatory if the story and writing is good but many of these effects were bad enough that they took you out of the story. I realize the show was on a tight budget but every planet they beamed down to looked exactly the same (most were a rocky desert with a red sky), except for the ones that looked like Earth. They even mentioned in one episode how amazing and against the odds it was that this planet looked so much like Earth, while having been to three other such planets in the previous five episodes.
Fight scenes were usually pretty bad too. The choreography and stunt doubles were far too obvious and once again, pulled you out of the story. If you’re going to have people fight with swords or knives, at least replace the clicking sounds of the wooden blades hitting each other with metallic sounds. The Vulcan neck pinch is implausible, but I’m willing to suspend that much disbelief. But knocking someone out with a karate chop to the neck is just funny.
I didn’t mind Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek movies. His semi-playful verbal sparring with Spock was amusing, and I liked him even more in the reboot movies (Karl Urban). But in the series, it seemed over the top – nothing Spock did was good enough for McCoy and he was more hostile in many cases than I thought the situation warranted. Despite the anti-racism messages of some episodes, Dr. McCoy’s continual talking about Spock’s ears and making comments like “are you out of your Vulcan mind?” made McCoy look like an old-time southern racist. After watching the series, I ended up liking Spock more and McCoy less.
I’d have to watch all of the episodes again at least once to come up with actual favourites, but here are some episodes I enjoyed: Miri, Space Seed, A Taste of Armageddon, This Side of Paradise, The Devil in the Dark (the Horta was the most hilariously terrible alien but the story was good), City on the Edge of Forever, Journey to Babel, Elaan of Troyius, All Our Yesterdays, Turnabout Intruder.
Episodes I didn’t like:
- Amok Time. Spock must mate or die. This is so critical that he hijacks the Enterprise and once Kirk finds out what’s going on, he risks his career and his own life to save his friend’s life. First off, it makes no sense that a species would evolve that way, but whatever. As soon as they arrive on Vulcan, Spock’s symptoms disappear. For the rest of the episode, even when fighting Kirk, he seems in no danger of dying. In the end, he doesn’t mate and doesn’t die. And everything that happens in the ceremony is as far from logical as you can get (the bride is allowed to choose someone who must fight the groom to the death?) but the Vulcans are OK with it. That is explained away by the Vulcans saying “yeah, this part of Vulcan culture isn’t all that logical but hey.” Almost every part of that episode made me think “Oh come ON.”
- Assignment: Earth was supposed to be a pilot for a spinoff series that never happened. I thought it was terrible.
- Is There in Truth No Beauty? – an alien so ugly it drives humans insane? Come ON.
- Spock’s Brain – Come ON.
- There were a couple of time travel episodes where they explained it away with “Captain’s Log: We’ve travelled back in time…” as if this is something they can do at will.
I realize I’m comparing this fifty-year-old show that had a small budget and crew and didn’t gain huge popularity until a decade after it was cancelled with newer series with much bigger budgets. TNG was thirty years ago but had the highest budget of any TV show at the time. So it’s possible that my expectations are too high and I’m being unfair. In fact, I’m sure that’s the case.
Like I said, I likely won’t be watching it again. However, if you grew up watching it, I can certainly understand how this show would hold a special place in the your heart.