Thursday, September 8, 2016

Star Trek's 50th Birthday!

Fifty years ago today, NBC aired "The Man Trap," the first broadcast episode of Star Trek.  The rest is history, right?

In sum: The series struggles to remain in production, limping to three seasons before finally being cancelled.  Then the fans truly emerge, and it just keeps coming back, in one form or another.  It makes history any number of ways: the mixed ethnicity of the crew, the interracial kiss, the technology, Vulcan culture. 

Everyone has a reason for why this happened, and why it endures to this day.  The more high-minded commentators point out that it was a perfect embodiment of all the best '60s ideals.  Today, Star Trek's legacy can perhaps best be summed up as: Star Wars' main competition.

Now, this is somewhat more interesting to me, as I am a fan of both franchises (it can happen!), and this has been the most relevant dialogue of the past forty years, ever since Star Wars helped revive Star Trek once and for all.

I think Star Wars invented a whole new class of Star Trek fans, actually.  Fans today moan about how JJ Abrams, who later directed Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens, turned Star Trek into Star Wars with his 2009 revisions, but this is something they've secretly wanted since they emphatically made the Star Wars-chasing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan into the franchise standard-bearer, so it's hard to explain. 

Remember how I noted everyone has their own reasons why Star Trek has persisted for fifty years?  Well, the fans who think Wrath of Khan, which often seems to be all of them, is worthy of such consideration seem to think it's because of Star Wars.  Yet Star Trek existed a full decade before anyone had seen Star Wars, and its wild and woolly legacy was already well underway by the time George Lucas started hammering out the specifics of his grand space saga. 

What makes Star Trek special is that it can embrace the Star Wars conceit, along with everything else.  I mean, Kirk was always a kind of Han Solo anyway, right?  What was Spock but a Jedi Starfleet officer?  There's a reason why he became so philosophic in the movies, because the filmmakers were suddenly concerned with how well he compared to the wise little Yoda.  They never had to worry.  Kirk and Spock are still Kirk and Spock, and people still have an easy time telling these franchises apart.  Star Trek Beyond was not the massive hit The Force Awakens was, because again, it embraced the complete wild and woolly legacy of its franchise.  It doesn't take three movies to tell a Star Trek story (unless Spock dies).

Star Trek was born for the Internet Age.  In some ways, it created the Internet Age.  Everything's up for debate, and things are either loved or loathed.  There's rarely any middle ground.  That's how fans have talked about Star Trek all along.  That's what put it in the position to be cancelled, all those years ago, because it was so polarizing, like the decade that spawned it.  But today, nobody thinks of Star Trek as a product of the '60s.  It's somehow transcended its own origins, even while fans continue to pour over the original series as if it were biblical truth (if that's your thing, and it certainly wasn't Gene Roddenberry's!), and only a heathen admits Star Trek might actually have...improved in later iterations.

The Next Generation, at its prime, did become the standard-bearer, but was quickly relegated to the same woes of its successors, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise, as having to defend its legacy tooth and nail, its movies easy to dismiss, an era when Star Trek fell out of favor, not just among viewers but fans.  There came a time when the franchise looked all but dead, with no one much interested in reviving it.

Today, you have absurd debates about Star Trek Into Darkness being the worst of all possible Treks, because it dared echo Wrath of Khan, and you wonder, what's it all about?  Is it about rancor, about putting up little fences and finding enemies everywhere?  Not the Star Trek I know.  Apart from everything else, it's a message of hope, that we can overlook petty differences, finally, that we can find common ground.  Like Star Trek.  I can sometimes seem as if I want everyone to like everything.  That's never been the case.  I don't like everything.  But it's always been odd, seeing how much passion Star Trek fans put into hating various pieces of the franchise.  There's a million ways to love the franchise, to celebrate it, to boast about it.  If Star Trek really did create the Internet Age, I think fifty years ago, something very different would have aired.

If there's something that hateful in "The Man Trap," and other episodes, I never saw it.  Today, I remember, I choose to remember, the best of it, because that seems to be the standard Star Trek tried to set, all those years ago.  If it's remembered in another fifty years, I think fans will have finally figured that out.  Hopefully.  The future's funny like that.  Constantly going where no one has gone before...

Best Episodes:
  • "The Trouble with Tribbles" (Star Trek 2x15) Nothing quite captures the spirit of the original series as this lark featuring the most unlikely menaces in the galaxy, plus Klingons!
  • "Yesteryear" (The Animated Series 1x2) This crucial episode formed the basis of Spock's backstory as featured in 2009's Star Trek.
  • "The Inner Light" (The Next Generation 5x25) The dignity of the series, and Picard, in a nutshell.
  • "The Visitor" (Deep Space Nine 4x3) The deep bond between Sisko and his son embodied the soul of this series, and this is the best opportunity to explore it.
  • "Distant Origin" (Voyager 3x23) The series often said to on the whole be the most generic of the franchise also made the quintessential episode of the franchise.
  • "Twilight" (Enterprise 3x8) The third season Xindi arc helped define this series, and this is the episode that helped define the Xindi arc.
Best Characters:
  • Spock (Star Trek) With all due apologies to Kirk, this was the indisputably logical selection.
  • Picard (Next Generation) They used to teach leadership lessons based on this guy.
  • Sisko (Deep Space Nine) As noted above, he was the necessary soul of his show.
  • Seven of Nine (Voyager) The curvaceous ex-Borg transformed what it meant to be human.
  • Trip (Enterprise) The final episode revolved around him.  People tend to forget that.
Best Movies:
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Star Trek) This Cold War capper perfectly encapsulated what it meant to love the original crew.
  • Star Trek: First Contact (Next Generation) Picard's best showcase.
  • Star Trek (2009) The introduction to the reboots is perfect.

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