I am a Star Trek fan. I have been for almost 35 years, since around the time I was in kindergarten. I don’t wear costumes, I don’t great friends with the Vulcan salute, I rarely (if ever) attend conventions, and I haven’t learned to speak Klingon. Yet, if Trek fans were ever forced into a 12-Step program, I would find myself in some meeting room or church basement, sitting in a circle of chairs, and introducing myself by saying, “Hi. I’m Dr. Geek, Ph.D. I’ve been a Trekkie since the days of the Nixon Administration.”
My interest in Star Trek, which celebrates its 40th anniversary tomorrow, comes from my mom. Although my parents have a lot in common, my mom is the one with the abiding interest in science fiction. She was the one who memorized the words “Gort! Klaatu barada nikto!” after seeing The Day The Earth Stood Still — which scared her to death. She also was the one who watched the original Star Trek on NBC, first on Thursday nights at 8:30, then on Friday nights at 8:30, and finally on Fridays at 10 pm.
She introduced me to Star Trek later on. I came along as the series was in its last season, but 10 pm was way after my bedtime and I seriously doubt that I saw any Star Trek during its original run. No, I started watching Star Trek in the early 1970s, when the series was enjoying an absolutely phenomenal run in syndication, and Gene Roddenberry, D.C. Fontana, and Filmation were working on the sadly underrated animated series.
I grew up in a small city about four hours away from New York City and Star Trek could not really be missed on television there in those days. My family was among the minority that had cable (only 11 stations with no premium “cable-only” channels like HBO yet in existence). Even with that comparatively small cross section of programming, I can recall seeing multiple episodes of Star Trek in the same evening on a combination of local network affiliates and independent stations like WPIX in New York City. Looking back, that kind of saturation seems incredible even for today’s cable-hungry world.
It didn’t stay that way forever, of course. First, the local affiliates dropped out. Then, WPIX and the other independent stations gradually took Star Trek off their schedules, from every weeknight, to one weeknight, and to once on the weekend. Finally, I was living at home in college when The Next Generation arrived on the scene and the original Star Trek began its erratic run on cable.
Through it all, I watched and watched and watched. I had my favorite episodes. The “Doomsday Machine” with its dramatic combat sequences and reliance on starship gadgetry is still probably my most favorite episode of all time. I also remember being both frightened and fascinated as a child by the disappearance of the USS Defiant in “The Tholian Web.” I am still thrilled by the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and marvel that so much of what is essential in Star Trek can be found in the second series pilot.
I drifted away from the original Star Trek in the ’90s as other series in the Trek Universe became available. I gave The Next Generation a look for the first two seasons just because Gene Roddenberry was at the helm, and was thrilled when the show hit its stride in season three. I watched most of the first four seasons of Deep Space Nine fairly regularly and then only watched intermittently for the rest of its run. Voyager really held my interest for only a season or two, and then caught my fancy only occasionally. The creative well really seemed to run dry by the time Enterprise came along, and I didn’t give it much of a chance after half of the first season.
All of those spin-off series were wonderful in varying numbers of respects, but there still is no love like a first love. I have been reconnecting with the Original Series in the last few months by watching the Saturday morning marathons of Star Trek Uncut on the G4 network. Seeing the show in its original form for the first time in several years has been a minor revelation to me. I am reminded that Star Trek was, at its heart, a good, solid television show with a definite sense of rhythm in the interplay between its characters. It is true that the show did not always succeed at what it attempted, but its ratio of excellent to good to bad episodes is pretty strong for a weekly TV series. That the special effects hold up at all after forty years says a lot about the imagination of the production staff and the quality of production. The fact that the cast was multi-racial, included developed characters of both sexes and no one smoked cigarettes says a lot about the progressive ideals behind the show.
One of the most dramatic things I notice is how the ratings slide of the series affected its production. The first season had 29 episodes with outdoor locations and a fair number of reappearing secondary characters (like Riley and DeSalle). Poor ratings during the season one cut the number of episodes to 24, reduced the amount of location work, and cut down the number of crewmembers on the Enterprise that appeared each week. Fans were able to save the series from cancellation at the end of season two, but little else; many of the episodes of season three feature only exisiting sets, focus only on the principal characters, and use plots that begin to drift into parody.
Where does Star Trek go now with 40 years under its belt? Part of the immediate future became clear last week with the announcement that the original Star Trek will be re-released into syndication later this month with HD-video remasters of the live action, all-new music, and new state-of-the art CGI special effects sequences by Trek veteran Michael Okuda at CBS productions. Is this merely an attempt by Paramount to increase the Star Trek revenue stream while no new series are in development? Or will this enhance our appreciation of a classic series that has inspired so many for the last 40 years? It will be interesting to find out. Certainly, newly dynamic battle sequences between the Enterprise and the Romulans in “Balance of Terror,” the first episode so-treated, ought to be a sight to see.
No matter what happens, the last 40 years have been a fascinating ride both for me and many other people. Here’s to hoping that the next 40 will be equally interesting because I think that Star Trek speaks to many people in a timeless way. As it is timeless, I think it will never be forgotten.