Thursday, September 8, 2016

STAR TREK & I: Some Personal Reminiscences

Golden Anniversary Dept. - Fifty years ago today--8 Sept. 1966--STAR TREK made its television debut on NBC. A poorly chosen premiere ep ("The Man Trap"), it nevertheless went on to draw a large and loyal fanbase that unfortunately never really showed up in its ratings. After three seasons, it was canceled, sold into syndication and then rose to become the most successful property ever launched on television, eventually spawning a merchandising empire, an animated series, a string of hit movies that go on to this day and four mostly shitty (but mostly successful) sequel series.

Unlike so many "successful" projects, STAR TREK earned its success. It really is one of the greatest things ever produced for television and that's why it has endured.[1] It certainly became one of my favorite things. It has been with me from the beginning. The show was a big success in syndication before I was born and it occupies some of my earliest conscious memories. Somewhere, I have a spiral-bound notebook with drawings I made when I was maybe 3 or 4 years old; one of them is my crude--ever so crude--rendition of a critter that appeared in "The Galileo Seven" (the 16th episode of the series, for any cultural illiterates out there). I remember my delight as the movies began to appear. One of the ads for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE had Spock blasted with some sort of energy bolt--I was very keen on stuff like that at that age and the image stuck with me. I only started to see the flicks on home video some years later. I saw THE WRATH OF KHAN, which is the single-best Trek adventure ever created, before I saw THE MOTION PICTURE, which wasn't.

When I was young, there was a local Chattanooga UHF channel, WDSI 61, that had been broadcasting religious programming for some years and basically wasn't worth the trouble of all that cranking of the dial necessary to tune it in. But someone there was--or became--a Trekkie and when he wanted WDSI to become an actual tv channel instead of an obnoxious blot on the airwaves, he picked up STAR TREK. More than that, WDSI made the show a sort of flagship for a few years--ran it all the time, ran marathons on various occasions and eventually began sponsoring a Star Trek convention in Chattanooga that, in a run of years, brought George Takei, Walter Koenig, DeForest Kelley, Nichelle Nichols and Jimmy Doohan to town. I never got to go to any of them, damn it.

When STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION came around, good ol' channel 61 was the one to carry it. I was probably more excited for that show than I'd been for any of the movies before it. On the night it debuted--a Saturday--I remember the hours leading up to it seeming like days. I killed the time reading "The Star Trek Compendium"--a favorite of mine at the time--or just pacing around. Yeah, I had it bad. Then finally, it appeared! And it turned out to be a godawful trainwreck, only my second major experience with the phenomenon people describe as "seeing my childhood raped." That particular case of pedophilia went on for years and the less said about it the better.

And anyway, we still had the movies when we needed an injection of real Trek. Even William Shatner's significantly less-than-spectacular STAR TREK V (which continued the tradition of subpar odd-numbered Trek flicks) was eons better than anything TNG ever did. But all good things must come to an end and the noble starship Enterprise finally reached its terminus on the 25th anniversary of the series with the release of the 6th feature, THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY. The cast wrapped it up with one more solid adventure and flew off into the void.

The movies that came later were strictly Trek-in-name-only. The TNG cast took them over, every new installment seemed to be competing with the last for the title of Worst Movie To Bear The Trek Name and by the end, the audience had dwindled to nothing and the run was killed, providing TNG with its one noteworthy contribution to the franchise.

When the current Trek run was percolating, I was vaguely intrigued by the idea of returning to the original characters in their younger days. Harve Bennett had come up with the idea for STAR TREK IV but it hadn't been used at the time. I'd grown older and more cynical about such things. It's a huge-budget studio tentpole picture--I figured they'd just fuck it up, the way they do everything else. I didn't follow its production or even pay it much mind, really. I went to see it one night with a friend shortly after it debuted because it was the most interesting thing showing at the time. And going into it practically blind, I had one of the two best theatrical film experiences of my life. Involving a movie, anyway. J.J. Abrams got a lot of criticism later, assertions that he'd reduced Trek to a simple action movie, that he'd eschewed too much of the intellectual content and so forth and I even agree with a lot of that (and other) criticism but goddamn, that was a GREAT movie! It got into my head and my heart and down deep into all that Star Trek stuff that had been encoded on my DNA from my earliest memories and brought it all rushing back to the surface, lubing all the rough edges I'd accumulated with age and overawing my cynicism with pure joy. I was bouncing in my seat through the whole thing and by the end, when the film did the riff on the closing credits of the show, I was cheering and nearly in tears. I'd gotten my Trek back--something I thought had ended years earlier and that I never even dreamed I'd see again.

And maybe I never will again. The follow-up to that picture was entertaining enough but not special--certainly not in that way. I haven't even seen the third one yet. There's a new tv series on the way too; I haven't mustered any real interest in it. Maybe it or other Trek projects will find success.

Whether they make it or fizzle out and die though, the original is still out there, the qualities that have made it endure still shine, its themes still resonate and even as its "strange new worlds" have become familiar to us, it goes on. That five-year mission became a 50-year one today and it goes on. STAR TREK will outlast those who created it. It will outlast me and everyone else reading these words today. Its final frontier isn't to be found in the stars, it's in immortality. May this Enterprise achieve that--if anything spawned on television has ever earned that, it certainly has.



[1] I disagree with a lot of its fans on the matter of why it's so great and maybe that disagreement would be worth some time to outline but I've left it aside here. Trek touches different people in different ways. That's part of why it does endure.

Twitter: @jriddlecult