On this, the 50anniversary of Ars’ favorite (well, almost favorite ) TV show, we’ve decided to resurface this Star Trek retrospective from a writer who only ever watched the show as an adult. Whether you’re a die-hard junkie or merely watched the Tribbles episode once on late-night reruns, we hope you’ll find something interesting about the franchise in these year-old words.
Here at Ars Technica, we have Star Trek on the brain. A lot. It’s a thing most of us have strong opinions about, and without a physical office, sometimes the IRC watercooler chat devolves into half-hour-long discussions about the relative merits of such and such a character. That is, until a senior editor implores us to write up our thoughts instead of wasting time arguing idly over chat; we are writers, after all, and writing is what we ought to be doing during the work day.
I, too, have strong opinions about characters in Star Trek, but I came at the show from a much different perspective than most of my peers. My colleagues were astounded when I told them that I’d only seen one episode of Star Trek as a child (I don’t even remember the plot) and my first real exposure had been as an adult, when I watched the entirety of The Original Series and The Next Generation in order, over the course of three years or so.
My colleagues, and in fact almost everyone I meet who I end up talking to about Star Trek, can’t seem to understand why I’d do that. I realized a year ago that this disbelief comes from the fact that almost everyone who did watch Star Trek as a child watched it syndicated on TV, particularly The Original Series. While they may have seen all or close-to-all of the episodes in all the various series, they saw them randomly and sporadically over the course of an entire childhood, with other shows to fill the space in between.
Not I. Thanks to Netflix, I watched The Original Series over a two-year period, with other shows and movies in between, and I watched The Next Generation in a little under one year as my primary after-work TV. From a modern TV viewer’s perspective, the Original Series, with all of its 1960s storytelling quirks and anachronisms, was the hardest entry in Star Trek canon to get through. That’s what I’ll focus on here, because talking about both series from a novice’s point of view would make this article longer than the distance from Earth to the Delta Quadrant.
I’m still working on Deep Space Nine and I haven’t even touched Voyager yet, so my view of the Trek universe is still incomplete, but I’ve learned a lot about the franchise by living with it for the last few years. Set your phasers on “read,” because here’s how I got into watching my Trek marathon, and here’s what I’ve gotten out of it.
Where no Geuss has gone before
I didn’t watch much TV as a kid. I had two Nickelodeon shows—Clarissa Explains It All and Legends of the Hidden Temple—that I watched religiously, but after my mom got home from work, TV was pretty much done for the night. In fifth grade, I started watching The Simpsons with my dad, but besides whatever half-hour of crap Fox wedged between the two Simpsons syndicates, that was it.
I never really saw TV as a medium for science fiction. I read a lot, so I had favorite sci-fi books, but I tended toward historical fiction. I figured Star Trek for a second-rate TV show revered by the likes of The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy. (Now that I’m older I appreciate the fact that The Simpsons creators were undoubtedly massive Star Trek nerds given the number of references tucked away in there. All that stuff flew right over my 14-year-old head.)
After college and a couple of entry-level reporting jobs, Wired called me back for a fact-checking internship position. Once I started working there, I found that the world of sci-fi TV was more than a punchline. I was good at fact-checking math-heavy articles and I could bust out a Philip Pullman reference or two, but I had never heard of Dr. Who or Lost (which the magazine was in the middle of putting together a giant feature package on). As I mentioned before, I’d still never even seen a single Star Trek, a cultural touchstone for many of my co-workers.
I looked Star Trek up on Netflix one night and saw that the canon was huge—way bigger than I’d expected. “Well, you have to start somewhere,” I thought. “Might as well start at the very beginning.” I checked out the first DVD.
Beam me up, Netflix!
If I recall correctly, the DVDs that Netflix sent me skipped over the original pilot episode “The Cage” entirely. Even as a Spock fan, I would have been won over much faster if the Enterprise’s first officer was played by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry as in that pilot—she deserved to be so much more than just Nurse Chapel! That left me with the as-aired pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” and “Mudd’s Women.” I started watching about one or two DVDs a week when I had time for TV after work, usually while folding laundry or doing some other menial task.
You would think that for someone whose only exposure to TV has been 26-minute comedy cartoons, I would have bowed out of this project by the second exceedingly-long staged fight sequence. But I also cut my entertainment teeth on long and sometimes old books. I’ve learned over the years that sometimes you have to slog through 200, or 300, or sometimes even 400 pages (or minutes?) of tedium before you get to the payoff. Then, once you’ve proven that your heart is pure and your soul is willing, you get the special reward that everyone who left the race early won’t get.
I approached The Original Series the same way. Every episode was a challenge, sometimes just to see if you were still awake at the end. You’d be rewarded with a particularly engaging plot line here and there, but the real reward didn’t come until the second season, when I started to feel like I was on the inside of some hilarious joke. Maybe I cracked? Maybe it was Stockholm Syndrome? By this time, I had left my job at Wired and moved on to other things. I had no external push to keep watching. And yet, there I was.
After a while, it was like the same crazy hand-to-hand combat moves, cookie-cutter planet landscapes, and terrible setups to get the characters back in time were not just jokes that modern me could laugh and gawk at as much as they were clues to understanding a very, very different world. And I’m not talking just about the Federation—I’m talking about the real-life generation immediately before mine, too.
Speaking of a different world, there was one big barrier to entry into TOS: its ladies. I’m still not quite sure how to deal with the way women were treated in the show. I’ve found that when watching many movies or shows from the ’60s and ’70s, it’s incredibly hard to relate the characters—not just because plot pacing was slower and diction was different than it is on TV today, but because I’m almost guaranteed to be disappointed by the way the story treats women. Generally, one just has to accept that there is going to be out-and-out sexism in a lot of old movies and TV, and you can either toss out the whole thing or watch it from afar like you’re in a museum, analyzing an ancient culture.
At the beginning, this is how I approached The Original Series. Despite how much everyone wants to talk about Star Trek’s progressiveness in 1966, you can tell just by a quick glance at the costuming that womankind is not going to be treated as equal, with all the rights and responsibilities pertaining thereto.
But around the end of season one, I couldn’t help but become a little bit invested in the world of the Federation. I was always happy when Lieutenant Uhura was given real lines in an episode, because she was just what you’d want in a starship officer of the future—brave and serious, but with a human side, too. Nurse Chapel was also welcome—she had gravitas without being robotic and cold.
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