Star Trek: Genesis
The blog I’m going to write isn’t meant to be an all-encompassing treatise on the making of Star Trek. Nor am I planning on including plot summaries, or details of guest stars, or anything to make these entries remotely encyclopedic. Instead, I’m going to provide the one thing that can’t be found anywhere else in the world: my personal reactions to the Star Trek franchise, in the order that they unfolded.
What qualifies me to do this? First and foremost, I have been a Trek fan since I stumbled upon Star Trek: The Next Generation while flipping through channels one afternoon around 1989 or 1990. I wanted my Dad to record it on the VCR (as we were about to leave), and my childish brain got very upset when he informed me that he couldn’t record it from the beginning of the episode. But what he did do was rent Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that night. I started gobbling up the show whenever I could find it in syndication. That urge has never gone away.
I am also a graduate of the Master’s Program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Aside from teaching my Art of Film class at Bishop O’Dowd High School, this blog seems like the next most appropriate use of my intellectual skills and academic professionalization accumulated in USC’s Critical Studies program. I’ve never undertaken a writing project of this scale, but I nevertheless hope that in years hence, I won’t have to finish it. Instead of ending with a tirade of righteous indignation against These Are the Voyages… or the reign of Darth Abrams, Star Trek will instead continue after Star Trek Beyond, and this project will never end.
On Historiography: While the tone of this blog will remain casual, my professionalization and interest in History will surely seep in. It’s all I talk about in this first entry, after all. And looking at what I’ve already written about The Cage, I am already citing several books. While I may not make direct citations for every entry, it’s worth noting the books that I’m reading while I write this.
William Shatner’s Star Trek Memories. While most people might guffaw while reading that, keep in mind that Shatner hired a very skilled ghost writer to conduct the interviews and do most of the actual research and writing. This book serves as a very thorough baseline for any discussion of the production of the series. It is one of the most readily available sources for things like the actors talking about their own characters. But most importantly it takes many of the most repeated stories about the genesis of the franchise and puts them in print.
Inside Star Trek: The Real Story by Herb Solow and Robert Justman. These two men were two of the four key creative personnel behind the development and production of the original series. Gene Roddenberry left an “Authorized Biography” that was published after his death, but didn’t write any kind of exhaustive treatment of the production of Star Trek. Similarly, Gene Coon died in 1973, well before Trek’s place in media history—and the importance of Coon’s narrative—was remotely cemented. What Solow and Justman were able to contribute was filling in a significant gap in the History of the franchise, and provide the first inside look at the making of the original series that wasn’t afraid of portraying the world of Television Production as the venal and corrupt world that it is.
While I haven’t read them cover-to-cover yet, I do own copies of Marc Cushman’s These Are the Voyages books. This new trilogy utilizes an unprecedented wealth of documentary sources to examine the production of the entire series, each episode individually. I will continue to read them an episode at a time as I progress through the franchise, and certainly pass along some of the previously unknown gems that they contain.
Finally, there’s just no nice way to say this, but Gene Roddenberry lied. A lot. The mythmaking surrounding him is pretty egregious. Yes, a plane Roddenberry was on survived a crash in the Syrian desert. No, he did not fight off a Bedouin tribe afterwards. Yes, Roddenberry contributed scripts to Have Gun, Will Travel, but no, he was not the Showrunner of that series. These little white lies, often told at conventions, were in turn amplified and repeated without critical examination by legions of adoring fans for years. This generally makes talking about Roddenberry and his position on the show very difficult.
While I certainly appreciate Roddenberry’s creative spark in inciting the entire franchise, he ultimately benefitted from being surrounded by excellent creative personnel during the production of the original series. Further, the Star Trek films and The Next Generation only began to flourish when he was removed from any kind of creative role. I am therefore writing from a perspective that is critical of Gene Roddenberry. I don’t do this out of any kind of personal spite or animus, but because I think that is the kind of perspective that is most sorely needed in the current state of both academic and fan discourse around Star Trek.
Regarding the order of episodes: for the bulk of the franchise, I will be writing in airdate order. This makes the most sense, as I will mostly be writing as it was presented to audience. The only exception will be at the beginning: I think that understanding the development of Trek as its producers molded it is more important than NBC’s generally arbitrary and haphazard decisions during the beginning of the show.
The length of these blog entries will also vary considerably. I have a lot to say about The Cage and Balance of Terror. But I can’t imagine that I will have anything more to say about The Alternative Factor than, “I fell asleep again.” This might lead to me doubling up some entries, but we’ll cross that hurdle when we get to it.
The Cultural and Commercial Origins of Star Trek
The people who turned their television sets to NBC at 8:30pm on Thursday, September 8, 1966 were greeted with a show that flummoxed the critics, the censors, and even the network that was airing it. But the younger generation, coming of age in a time of cultural revolution, took this genre-defining television show to heart. While it conveyed messages that some of the old guard were unprepared for, it did not come to fruition in a cultural vacuum. Star Trek was the aesthetic product of a long literary tradition, other film and television, and of 1960s social politics—all reappropriated to send Captain Kirk and his crew where no man had gone before.
Star Trek’s distant ancestors arose with the adventure novel. Jonathan Swift’s Captain Gulliver traversed a decidedly fantasy world, populated with giants, homonculi and immortals. Political satire was the most important component of these tales, as the fantasy served as a direct metaphor for contemporaneous political events. Science Fiction took an important early turn with Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which cemented the role of naval parlance within Science Fiction. Indeed, later writers took direct inspiration from the iconography of the Nautilus, placing similar tales of adventure in outer space.
These literary trends were galvanized with the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Amongst these were colorful action-adventure stories of interstellar conflict, often directed at children. They were further distilled in 1941, when Wilson Tucker proposed “space opera” as the appropriate term for the “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn.” Although the term was originally pejorative, it is now frequently used with nostalgic affection, applying to large scale space adventure stories.
During the 1940s some of the naive charm of literary space opera was lost as standards of writing rose. Plots became more complicated, and the trend shifted towards a more vivid and lush romanticism. Most notable were the works of A.E. van Vogt, a master of intricate, metaphysical space opera. His tales were populated with the monsters, time paradoxes and quasimessianic supermen which would later inform Star Trek. Yet van Vogt was hardly the sole influence from this period that Trek would later draw from. The canon of Robert Heinlein contrasted militaristic themes and a free sex attitude. And by the time Isaac Asimov wrote his Foundation series using the theme of the “Galactic Empire,” the impression of vast scale so important to space opera was no longer the sole prerogative of straightforward adventure stories; it could now be used in a more serious context.
As Science Fiction literature was experiencing its Renaissance, it found an explosion of creativity in the medium of film. At the apogee of this trend was Forbidden Planet, which served as the text that most directly influenced Star Trek. In this adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a regimented, military space vessel filled with male crewmen visits a planet; they encounter an unstable scientist; the captain romances his daughter; and in the end the narrative communicates an existential lesson. The plot, mixing the tawdry and the potent, is very sophisticated for its time—astonishingly so for a film ostensibly designed for a juvenile audience.
Television’s contribution to the genre of science fiction was largely postponed until the beginning of the 1960s. What the small screen did offer were serials that parroted Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. From Captain Video to Space Patrol, these kiddie serials were lacking in storytelling and character development. To be sure, the spirit of these entries in the genre continued with the collected works of Irwin Allen; yet they were eclipsed by a more mature piece of television programming.
American science fiction television changed forever in 1959. The Twilight Zone, the half-hour CBS series hosted by Rod Serling (with his trademark cigarette, thin black tie and rasping voice) was perhaps the most famous anthology series to ever grace television. Though most of the episodes were pure Fantasy, a number of them were science fiction, including the pilot episode “Where is Everybody?” Soon after, ABC premiered The Outer Limits, their hour long answer to the speculative fiction anthology format. Though leaning more towards the monster-movie end of the science fiction spectrum, the series was often innovative in both style and subject matter; indeed, many of its writers were literary science fiction professionals and expanded the conventions of the genre.
These circumstances led Desilu and NBC to investigate the possibility of a new series. The space opera serial was a proven television format, albeit for a younger audience; and the speculative fiction anthology had proven to be moderately successful at rival networks. Therefore writer Gene Roddenberry’s pitch for Star Trek operated as a nexus between two successful genres: the iconography and conventions of the kiddie space shows, and the format of the anthology programs. The spaceship would travel to a new planet each week and find a different array of challenges.
Roddenberry had pitched his show as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” expounding on the dearth of Westerns currently enjoying wild success on television. These shows drew on a diverse literary tradition. The ideology they espoused had found perfect expression in Fredrick Jackson Turner’s Frontier thesis, which optimistically viewed society as an organism evolving inexorably from “simple” to “complex.” While this characterization is ultimately an inadequate representation of profound transformations, several of the important films of the Western genre—notably Howard Hawks’ Red River and George Stevens’ Shane—propagated an erroneous perception of land on the Frontier and its “evolving” use, namely in their presentation of it as an unspoiled wilderness.
This American folklore was concurrently being redeployed in American politics, this time to serve a moderately liberal agenda. In 1960, John F. Kennedy stated that “We stand on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of unfulfilled hopes and dreams, a frontier of unknown opportunities and beliefs in peril. Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus.” In the minds of its creators, Star Trek would represent the natural fulfillment of Kennedy’s promises centuries hence; what would be termed “The Final Frontier.”
Of course, NBC and Desilu remained for-profit corporations more interested in pleasing stockholders and advertisers than communicating any overtly political message. Yet Kennedy’s message was not a radical proposal; the “New Frontier” represented a moderate strain of American political thought. And with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, progressive trends of inclusivity were codified in American law and began to work their way into the cultural mainstream. Therefore there was enough advertiser interest in a series that would cater to a broad audience, with special appeal to a youth demographic. And if the political talk remained coded and within the larger pluralist center, all the better.
Next: The Cage!