But the original Trek also drew heavily on Cold War-era sci-fi series like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone -- groundbreaking and experimental in their ideas, but with a traditional moral and dramatic approach. Their serious tone fit the fifties, that uneasy, schizoid time of cultural confidence, space exploration, and looming nuclear Armageddon. Star Trek's cautious presentation probably helped viewers to swallow its innovations, from flip-phone communicators and automatic doors to alien characters like Leonard Nimoy's Spock. The idea of a character motivated by "logic" instead of emotion is pretty silly (they're not opposites), but it was perfect for the liberationist sixties -- and it was a powerful gimmick that generated years' worth of story ideas. (In one of season three's last episodes, "All Our Yesterdays," Spock goes back in time, loses his civilized veneer, and develops a primordial passion for Mariette Hartley.)
The original Star Trek was never a big hit, and for its third and final season (1968-'69) it was moved to a Friday night graveyard slot and had its budget slashed. Not coincidentally, the series' worst episodes are in season three -- starting with the season opener, "Spock's Brain," which is exactly as good as its title. The allegorical or "message" episodes (antiwar, anti-superstition, etc.) like "Day of the Dove" are fairly entertaining, but lack the nuance of earlier, more thoughtful episodes such as "A Private Little War" and "A Taste of Armageddon." Still, there are a few high points in season three, such as "The Enterprise Incident" (in which Spock gets another shot at romance). Without recourse to expensive effects or sets, episodes like "The Empath" are essentially theatrical, and some scenes are surprisingly intense.
The messages are mostly naive, but after all, it was the sixties... and how many TV dramas since then have even tried to make us think? By 1969, the likes of Sherwood Schwartz were already demonstrating the mindlessness of the medium, and in the politicized, often vapid landscape of seventies TV, the innocent introspection of the sixties was lost forever. How Star Trek would have changed if it had lasted into the seventies is an interesting hypothetical. By the time Star Trek moved to the big screen in the eighties, the influence of Lucas and Spielberg had turned sci-fi into pure mainstream entertainment. Today, even the best sci-fi series (Battlestar Galactica, Firefly) are basically dramas or action shows with an out-there setting -- not morality plays. (Even the mediocre TV incarnations of Trek in the nineties were more cerebral than say, the Star Wars prequels, which is probably why Star Wars is much more popular now.)
All three seasons of the original Trek have now been re-released on DVD in remastered format with new CGI effects added. The additions are less egregious than Lucas' in the Star Wars re-releases, but still misguided -- half the charm of the original Star Trek was its brave struggle to make believable science fiction on nano-sized budgets. Still, it's fun to rent the original series again and enjoy the innocence and originality of a TV show which was both of its time and ahead of it.
Aka Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS): Season 3.
Genre: Sci fi/Fantasy
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Producer: Fred Freiberger, Gene Roddenberry
Screenwriter: Gene Roddenberry, Gene L. Coon, D.C. Fontana