November 2005

Happy 39th: Star Trek in Middle Age

Media Commentary By John Kenneth Muir

John K. Muir's Encyclopedia of Superheroes was picked by NY Public Libraries as a Top Ten Reference Work for 2004/5

Star Trek, the venerated sci-fi TV series and world cult phenomenon, just turned thirty-nine in September. By most reckonings not based on denial, this is—officially—middle age. So the Great Bird of the Galaxyís legendary creation, birthed on September 8, 1966, no longer remains a spring chicken, and no longer may boast that itís the hip and happening thing in pop entertainment. And—in fact—for the first time in eighteen years, nobody in Hollywood is exploiting the property on television.

If you look around, the people who made Star Trek such a special (forgive the pun…) enterprise, have made the transition rather successfully into their second, maybe even third acts. For instance, William Shatner just won his second consecutive Emmy Award for a non-Captain Kirk role on TVís Boston Legal…a career high that ten years ago not a soul would have predicted.

Leonard Nimoy has moved out of the public eye, to some extent, to pursue his love of photography. And just this week, George Takei (Mr. Sulu) came out and revealed to the world that he is a Gay American, a sign that this fine gentleman is comfortable in his shoes and happy with where the 21st century finds him. Of course, weíve lost DeForest Kelly and Scotty himself, James Doohan. Yet the Star Trek cast-members still with us appear to be doing quite well as the series teeters on the 40-year-old mark.

And what about the longtime fans? Itís interesting. Iíve attended conventions lately where Iíve seen the reality shift away a bit from the nineties status quo. Fans my age (and Iím 35…), who five years ago were championing Star Trek: The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine over the Original Series have returned home to the classic series. I know thatís been my journey. I was initially quite impressed by the spin-off series, but as time passes, I realize that it is Captain Kirk and his crew, not the late-comers (like Captain Picard or Sisko), who own my true allegiance, my heart and soul.

Perhaps it has something to do with the release of the 1966-1969 Star Trek on DVD last year. I viewed all three seasons (and 79 episodes) in a marathon early in 2005 and was stunned and happy to find that these programs, which I had not watched in some time, are still endlessly entertaining. Written and performed with charm and wit, these original episodes reveal a heart, a candor, a joie de vivre and kinkiness that makes the later efforts seem, well, letís say it, plain dull. I suspect that a great number of fans who flirted with The Next Generation for a decade are making this same discovery now. The original Star Trek is still the best. By a light year or two.

And the franchise itself? Like the best of us, itís had its ups and downs. At least a handful of the motion pictures are classified as quite good (Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, The Undiscovered Country, and First Contact), but itís interesting that the ten-strong film series has not created even one acknowledged cinema classic, like, say, Star Wars, or if weíre talking continuing movie franchises here, Goldfinger. Thereís not a Planet of the Apes (1968), 2001, (1968), Blade Runner (1982) or even The Matrix (1999) in the bunch.

If any of the Trek movies has seen an increase in critical appreciation over the years, itís probably Robert Wiseís vastly-neglected first entry, The Motion Picture. It was so easy to hate that movie when it was initially released on Pearl Harbor Day, 1979, but of all the Star Trek films, it remains the most cinematic, and—perhaps—the most noble. It didnít focus on militarism and warfare, but rather first contact with a mysterious (and dangerous) life form and so truly captured the optimism of the TV show…the feeling of mankind confronting his destiny and other cultures amongst the stars. And that alone makes it a fine representative, I believe of the Star Trek aesthetic. The Motion Picture is also, quite simply, Gene Roddenberryís ethos represented on the big screen in its most undiluted form, not interpreted by other producers such as Rick Berman or Harve Bennett.

Being candid now—as a friend wishing a buddy a happy birthday—Star Trekís early adult years (say from 20—35) suffered from the same deficit many youngsters (myself included…) invariably go through: a big helping of self-importance and arrogance. Star Trek: The Next Generation represented a triumphant return to television, but feels so ponderous, so entrenched in political correctness that a lot of the fun seeped out of the franchise. Kirk took himself seriously, to be sure, but never at the expense of a fist fight, a kiss with a green Orion slave girl, or the phaser banks. On the new Star Treks, our heroes sit on the bridge and talk. And talk. And then...talk some more.

And it was somewhere in one of Picardís philosophical musings, I believe, that Star Trek lost the child within and the child without…the one with the finger on the remote control.

So as Star Trek reaches middle age, I say to the franchise with lots of love: hold onto your ideals, but find again your sense of fun. If Star Trek wants to return to its former glory—the cadillac of science fiction television—then itís time to loosen up and not worry so much about making a BIG statement. Space adventure can be dangerous. Space adventure can be funny. Space adventure can be profound. But the one thing space adventure should never be is boring. I think Enterprise lost track of that prime directive. That series was the Star Trek equivalent of the Vulcan nerve pinch, guaranteed to put the viewer to sleep. By contract, look at how much fun Firefly is. Or Farscape.

So my belated 39th birthday recommendation to a Star Trek creeping into middle age is this: Ask William Shatner back. Yep. Heís not too old to play Admiral Kirk.

Assuming, that is, you can also get James Spader to play his young friend, the new Captain of the Enterprise

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Copyright © 2005 by John Kenneth Muir. All Rights Reserved.