by Paul Zurheide
Part II: Shatner tries to out act Shatner, Nimoy declared winner.
I’m going to start with the most basic question of all. What is Star Trek? On a large-scale, Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS) is the many stories and adventures of Captain James T.Kirk and his crew on and off of the Starship Enterprise during their five year mission. The Enterprise is one of only a few of the topline of starships in Star fleet. It takes place centuries in our own future, when first contact with alien life has long since been made, and space travel has become common for us. We have joined a union of planets known as The Federation of Planets. Star fleet is their exploratory/military faction, similar to our own Navy. On the smaller scale though, at its heart, Star Trek is the story of three men whose only similarity is their loyalty and friendship to one another. These three, and a few others in the crew have to deal with hopeless situations, unimaginable problems, and various issues that often blur the line between good and evil.
That being said, do not think that Star Trek TOS is too involved, or is in any way difficult or confusing to watch, that it most certainly is not. There’s not even an introductory episode for these guys. We just jump right in on an already established story. The plot of one episode will not effect the others. Each episode is its own contained story. Our heroes of the Enterprise travel down onto some planet, or someone visits their ship and there’s some sort of catastrophe. Sometime, roughly forty-five minutes later, and after a series of dramatic pauses from William Shatner
, that catastrophe is solved and over. Sometimes these story lines are intelligent and imaginative. Sometimes they’re tragic and emotional. Sometimes though, well… not so much.
Now Kirk and co. have been to the edge of the galaxy, the past, and other dimensions. They’ve dealt with quasars, and radiation, meteor showers, super novae, and ion storms. These are things we would have to deal with when traveling through space. However, they’ve also been to a haunted house, and the OK corral, and have met with Abe Lincoln, hippies, Da Vinci, Jack the Ripper, Alice and the White Rabbit, and The Greek God Apollo. Our heroes have been dressed up as Nazis, Romans, gangsters and Native Americans (to blend in with aliens on other planets who do the same, of course).
This sounds silly doesn’t it? It is. Star Trek certainly doesn’t lack in cheesiness. There’s many sides to the series though, and the best way to really explain it is through the three main characters. I will start with the largely unsung hero of the series.
Dr. Leonard “Bones”McCoy
"He's dead, Jim." - Dr. McCoy's primary diagnosis
It’s understandable, though unfortunate that Kirk and Spock get all the credit, because Bones is just as integral as the others. The Enterprise’s chief medical officer, portrayed by DeForest Kelley, is a no-nonsense bad ass. Most probably the inspiration for Dr. House, McCoy has the bed side manner of a cactus. McCoy’s the type of guy that, in the episode “The Empath”, when he knows he’s hopelessly about to be tortured to death he says simply “Get on with it!” He finds a good old-fashioned slap in the face a good medical practice (even if that patient is pregnant) as shown in “Friday’s Child.” McCoy represents everything understated about Star Trek that I truly fell for. He’s a solid character, an example of Star Trek’s greatest attribute.
McCoy and, how he would put it, the pointy-eared half-breed.
McCoy’s built a tough exterior around an emotional, often panicked southern gentleman. He seems so far out of his element you could stick this guy in “Little House on the Prairie” and he’d fit in just fine. Is McCoy needed in most cases on these planets? Usually no, but Kirk will barely leave the ship without him. He’s loyal to his friends even over the Federation’s rules, and often serves as Kirk’s reminder to “get the hell out of here.” His ever rocky relationship with Spock is always great to watch play out. The two stand on opposite sides of Kirk, literally and figuratively. He’s insulting, he’s crude, he’s grumpy, but there’s a great underlying respect between him and Spock that at times makes me wonder who McCoy considers himself closer to, whether he knows it or not. Star Trek is full of characters with different fears, strengths, and purpose. Leonard McCoy whole heartedly identifies that mold.
|Spock in a very good mood.
If Bones is the beating heart of Star Trek, than Spock is its brain, and possibly its soul. The subtlety of Leonard Nimoy‘s portrayal of Mr. Spock is flawless. He’s uncomfortable and misunderstood. His arms are forever crossed as he stands quiet, lost in thought. The Vulcan race long ago suppressed all emotion in favor of absolute logic. Spock, though from Vulcan, is not entirely Vulcan. He’s half human, and fits in nowhere. He is logical in his thought process, and therefore an entirely reliable ally for Kirk. Underneath his Vulcan exterior though is a harshly suppressed human being. Spock finds comparisons to computers a compliment, and to humans an insult. He occasionally, against his will, is forced to let emotion out. Here you find the beautiful, tragic truth of Spock. He does have a constant emotion running through him, shame. Shame of his human side, shame of the shame he feels. He can not let this out, he doesn’t know how. When McCoy rips into him Spock will not react, but Nimoy will always, for a millisecond, have a physical reaction. A quick blink, a tightening of the lips, or the ever-present eyebrow raise. You know there’s an emotional person in there, but you won’t get to meet him. Spock is not entirely tragic though, he’s invaluable, tender, and the epitome of understanding. He’s stronger than any other on the Enterprise and always comes through in a “Vulcan neck pinch.”
Spock is the perfect first officer. Often enough, Kirk will get himself in trouble and Spock will find himself running the show. He executes the perfect and well calculated logical response. More often than not though, this does not turn out well. He makes strict demands to the crew with no sympathy for error. This will frustrate and upset the crew, especially McCoy. He’ll make logical choices against illogical beings and then be surprised by their illogical reaction. Don’t feel bad for Spock though. Lost and alone as he could be, he did find his perfect place in the universe. In Star Fleet; on the Enterprise; and with Captain Kirk. Spock can’t be captain, and doesn’t want to be. Spock is the perfect right hand for Captain Kirk, and Kirk knows full well he can’t function without him. Spock represents the intelligence of Star Trek, the realistic view into our own future, and the possibilities of the problems and values we can find from other intelligent life that could be out there.
In the end though, as integral and important Bones and Spock are, Star Trek is not about them. No, the primary focus of this show is one man:
Captain James T. Kirk
The crew of the Enterprise will come across many beings. Immortals, crazed scientists, ruthless leaders, etc. Khan is a fine example of a great character they meet. Then there’s Harry Mudd, an example of a dumb and silly character (who for some reason gets to make a second appearance.) More often than not though, they will come across an incredibly beautiful, doe eyed, scantily clad, large breasted, alien woman. Whether she is super intelligent or dumb as hell, this is Captain Kirk’s time to shine. Here’s an example of the way of Kirk. In “The Gamesters of Triskelion
” Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov are captured as slaves and forced to fight as gladiators. (Not even joking, Uhura gets raped in this episode. Legitimately, raped. No second thought or mention is given to this.) Now, Kirk meets some dumb little alien slave. He teaches her the importance of freedom, and the meaning of love. He uses his charm, good looks, and soft words to make her fall in love with him. He promises her the universe and she becomes putty in his arms. At last, Kirk brings her close for a passionate kiss and embrace. He then punches her in the face, knocking her out cold and escapes.
|Captain’s log: supplemental;
Look’s like I’ll have to bang my way out of another one
Kirk is not a dignified leader. He’s cocky, he’s a playboy, he appreciates and flaunts the benefits of power. This is not to say he’s not a good leader. He’s devoted to the federation and sticks, best he can, to the rules. He fights for the sake of good and peace, but he can’t resist getting himself a fine piece of tail along the way. He is quite likely to use sex as his go-to weapon of choice. He’s a blue-collar hero, an everyman who will demand respect, but you’ll want to give it to him before he has to. Kirk is the very definition of this series. Fun,light-hearted, adventurous, and his own version of cool.
Obviously, there’s more to TOS than these three. There’s third in command, chief engineer Scott (James Doohan
), Scotty as he’s better known. A friendly and warm Scotsman who won’t say no to a good drink or twelve every once in a while. There’s our small, young Russian friend Chekov (Walter Koenig
). A welcome addition to season two who’s mop top, thick accent, and mispronunciation of the letter V (Wodka, or Wulcan) adds a light-hearted quality to the show. Communications officer Uhura (Nichelle Nichols
), underused, but always a beautiful sight to see on the bridge. Also rather underused is Sulu (George Takei
), though normally a glorified extra whose lines stay limited to “Yes, Captain” and “Increasing speed,” the few episodes he does get to shine in keep him likable. Lastly, there is Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett
), she is scarcely used at all, she does however have a deeper layer with an unrequited love for Spock barely hinted at but ever present throughout the series.
|From l: Scotty, Chekov, Dr. McCoy, Nurse Chapel, Capt. Kirk,
Lt. Uhura, Spock, and Sulu.
Family portrait provided by Sears.
|Kirk: Kirk to enterprise. One to beam up.
Red Shirt: But I’m not dead yet Captain.
Kirk: You will be red shirt, you will be.
There are of course underlying plots other than the characters. The federation itself, though all for peace and advancement of species, is fighting two wars. One against the Klingon empire, and the other with the Romulans, who both occupy parts of our Milky Way. We try to maintain peace through treaties but in space, like on Earth, this is not always possible. The too few episodes featuring The Federation’s enemies are some of the best. As you find out these other races are not evil, just different, and just as stubborn as we can be. Remember this series is from the late sixties, a turbulent time in America’s history where The Cold War, a nuclear arms race, racial tensions, and looming threats from different cultures were ever-present at every turn. Star Trek does a marvelous job of mirroring these issues and not simply saying “We’re right, they’re wrong.” They show a thoughtful, intelligent, and objective point of view and says “We’re different, there’s a peaceful way to resolve this.” It shows a possible future where we have made mistakes, but we’ve learned from them and have become better and smarter for it.
Say what you will about William Shatner. Is he the greatest actor? No. Does he make dramatic choices that make perfect sense? Nuh-uh. Is he entertaining? Absolutely! Shatner is, above all things, an entertainer. This series is obviously his culme de triomphe, and you have to take Shatner, and therefore Star Trek for what it is. Sometimes you’ve got to laugh at his overacting, as you do some ridiculous story lines, but this certainly isn’t a bad thing. As bad and over the top as this series can be, that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. There’s plenty of mediocrity in Star Trek, it has more than it’s fair share of stupidity. Though, even the plot lines that are some of the most ridiculous are based on a concept that is actually kind of clever. The series has plenty of laughs, lots of action, and no shortage of strangeness. In the end though, some episodes are drop dead fantastic. Theres a certain Shakespearean quality to some of these tales. The dynamic at it’s core; between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, and all they represent; will most certainly keep you hooked and have you return for more, whether or not you’re shaking your head and laughing at (not with) the episode you’ve just seen.
Star Trek: The Original Series is available on DVD, and Blu-Ray.
The series, in its entirety is also streaming on Netflix.