Opinion

9 Lessons Learned from Re-Watching Classic ‘Star Trek’

William Shatner reigns supreme, but other elements have aged ... badly

We all have different ways to cope with the never-ending pandemic.

For this critic it’s revisiting a beloved show from my youth -- “Star Trek,” courtesy of Netflix.

The series didn’t live long enough to see the 1970s but famously grew its fan base over the next decade. That, along with a space western from George Lucas, made it possible for “Star Trek” to soar again.

Only it did so via “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” a film only the most forgiving of fans adore. A quick read of the film’s back story suggests it’s a miracle it ever made it into theaters.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

The film’s sequel, the movie that gave the flailing franchise its legs -- and heart -- similarly struggled. They slashed the budget, juggled a number of possible story angles and fretted that “Motion Picture” may have jettisoned all hopes of an enduring franchise.

The powers that be even made sure Gene Roddenberry, the man who created “Star Trek,” had little say in the project.

We all know what happened next. Ricardo Montalban hit the gym long enough to get his pectoral muscles in Khan-like shape, ensuring a second round with James T. Kirk.

That’s Admiral Kirk, lest we forget.

Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (2/8) Movie CLIP - Khan, You Bloodsucker (1982) HD

Sure, the “Fantasy Island” star spat out chunks of scenery during his second “Trek” visit following TV’s “Space Seed.” The results delivered both the joy and camaraderie that made the show age so gracefully.

And oh, what a series it was.

Re-watching classic “Star Trek” -- and several “Trek” films -- for the first time in decades has been eye-opening on a number of fronts.

All Hail, William Shatner:

The prolific actor, still going strong at 89 and a feisty Twitter follow, became a cultural punch line for a while. The star leaned into that persona, emerging with yet another classic role -- Denny Crane on “Boston Legal.” Cultural critics finally stopped sniffing long enough to must a golf clap in his honor.

What took them so long?

His contributions to “Trek” alone is the stuff of legends. Can you name another actor who combined charisma, swagger, empathy and masculine grit each and every week? Sure, he embellished his lines now and then, an appropriate choice given the genre and platform -- ’60s era science fiction.

The results? A hero sure to engage audiences for decades to come.

Chris Pine suitably captured Kirk’s persona in three “Star Trek” reboot films. Nothing, and we mean nothing, can duplicate what Shatner brought to the U.S.S. Enterprise, though.

The Pleasure of One-and-Done Stories

Some of the best TV shows today tell stories that demand multiple episodes, or even seasons, to complete. The approach allows for more complicated narratives, enhanced character development and themes that mature over time.

It’s wonderful. What would “The Sopranos” be without that modern storytelling trope? The trope is equally frustrating for anyone craving a more compact experience.

Classic fare like “Star Trek” delivers just that.

The show’s hour-long running time allows for storytelling that isn’t in a hurry, yet the final 10 minutes typically resolve matters in a satisfying fashion.

Some endings can be bittersweet, like the fate of the trouble teen known as “Charlie X.” Others end with a now-absurd laugh-a-thon, where the key players find the same element uniquely hilarious.

Still, it’s refreshing to commit a mere 60 minutes to a show, knowing matters will wrap without further obligation.

Mudd on Their Faces

The comic “Trek” episodes, from stories involving Harcourt Fenton Mudd to those lifeless Tribbles, aren’t nearly as funny as they were at the time. Comedy often ages poorly, and these “Trek” installments reinforce that maxim.

The Title Says It All

Today’s film titles often reek of desperation, if not groupthink on steroids. Consider the recent political satire “Irresistible” as Exhibit A, B and Z.

“Trek” episodes were different. Consider:

  • “City on the Edge of Forever”
  • “A Private Little War”
  • “Errand of Mercy”
  • “I, Mudd”
  • “A Taste of Armageddon”
  • “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”

They weren’t all instant classics, but the forces behind the series took great care making episode titles that mattered.

Progressive, not Woke

No one knew the word “woke” in the 1960s. Still, “Star Trek” can reasonably be described as progressive in the best of ways. That sentiment held plenty of story lines together, even if some stealth conservatism found its way into the show’s DNA.

What didn’t “Star Trek” do? Slow the story to a crawl to lecture audiences on how to feel, think or process the narrative in play. Team Roddenberry had a utopian vision of Earth during the 1960s, like the United Nations if it had a soul and sense of purpose. The show’s creator let that vision play out with rigorous plotting, sharp dialogue and effortless performances by Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley.

The newer “Trek” incarnations, alas, too often lead with their agenda.

Young Audiences Can’t Forgive Those FX

Baby Boomers who either watched “Trek” during its late ’60s run or caught up with it in reruns realize why the show’s special effects are … less than special. The show’s budgetary constraints, combined with the era’s crude technology, prevented Roddenberry’s vision from flowing like it could.

To be fair, the exterior shots of the starship and the beaming process remain impressive, if not downright spiffy. My oldest son, all of 11, cringes with every rudimentary effect. He howled at one episode where the show’s production team slapped a furry coat on a dog to conjure up a nasty alien. This critic laughed along with him, despite loyalty to the series.

Audiences weaned on today’s magnificent FX work, from “Jurassic Park” to any “Star Wars” sequel, struggle to process what passed for FX in “Star Trek.”

Beauty Is in the Eye of the Camera Person

“Star Trek” is a product of its era, which means today’s tendency to downplay beauty wasn’t part of the formula. In fact, many a “Trek” starlet got the gauzy lens treatment or, more dramatically, the special lighting approach to enhance their pulchritude.

It’s refreshing given how modern storytellers aggressively play down beauty, something Quentin Tarantino gleefully avoided in “Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood.”

Stunt Doubles Get Time and a Half

We’re used to modern stars doing many of their own stunts. Charlize Theron is really kicking you-know-what in many “Old Guard” fight sequences. Tom Cruise takes it as a badge of honor that it’s really him doing some of Ethan Hunt’s crazy stunts.

Tom Cruise Describes His Dangerous Mission Impossible Stunts

That wasn’t how it worked on “Star Trek.” Stunt doubles played a major part in the show’s fight sequences, even skirmishes that looked like your wheezy Uncle Sal could handle them.

Shatner shared a key reason for all those stunt doubles in a fascinating interview about his “Star Trek” days.

“I did a lot of stunts. You do it if your face is there, but you let the stuntman take the hard fall. Because speed is of paramount importance you’re more likely to do your own stunts on a TV show than a film, but don’t believe any actor when they say ‘I do [all] my own stunts’ -- that’s ludicrous because if you should hurt your pinkie and have to get it taped up, that’s a lost half-hour, which is a lot of money. Really hurt yourself and the whole production can come to an end.”

The results, alas, can be giggle inducing today.

Music Matters

It might be the least heralded aspect of “Star Trek” lore. The original show featured recurring scores tied to the mood of the moment -- whimsy, danger, distress or discovery.

The cutesy strains might make modern ears hurt. Roddenberry eagerly added humor to the series, and these snippets played up that sentiment to an eye-rolling degree.

It’s when the Enterprise or its crew hit a rough stretch when the show’s music soared. Consider the epic battles from “Amok Time,” “Arena” and “The Gamesters of Triskelion.”

UPDATE: Days after this story went live I received an email from Joel Engel, author of “Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man Behind ‘Star Trek.'” 

Engel allowed me to share his thoughts on both “Star Trek” and Roddenberry’s relationship to the franchise during the early “Trek” features.

“Obviously, the making of the first movie was quite a detailed narrative, and so was the reboot for the second, which began by bringing in Harve Bennett. Charlie Bluhdorn, chairman of Gulf+Western, asked him if he could make a good Star Trek movie for less than $40 million. Harve said something like, “Mr. Bluhdorn, where I come from [TV], I can make five movies for $40 million.” (I quote from memory.)

Harve Bennett saved the franchise. There’s no way around that. And he was a lovely man. Had a flagpole in his front yard in Brentwood and a statue of Eisenhower. Was also civilian liaison to the Dept. of the Army.”

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3 Comments

  1. “…Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” a film only the most forgiving of fans adore.”

    Alas, after Star Trek II”, the franchise descended into lunacy. The Next Generation only became bearable after Roddenberry died, and the writers and producers were free to abandon The Great Bird of the Galaxy’s exceptionally questionable politics. Deep Space 9 is really the only Star Trek series to actually represent what Star Trek should have been all along. The rest of the shows and movies are pap for simpletons.

  2. Roddenberry may have created Star Trek, but he had to be dropped. His politics were destroying it. In this respect he was not unlike George Lucas.

  3. The original episodes scripts were – for the most part – based on classic SCI=FI short stories written in the 30 or so years between 1930 to 1960. Well written, and FASCINATING science fiction is what made the show so memorable and timeless. The writers for the show also did a great job in turning them not tv scripts.

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