Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Original Series and the Myth of Originality

When I spoke in my last post about Star Trek as a myth, I used that term in a very specific sense: that of a body of stories produced by a society and reflective of it.  I did not use in its more common, colloquial sense, of a story that is simplistic, fantastical, and false.

However, in discussing Star Trek The Original Series (as it is now commonly known) and its origins, I must use the term in the second way.  I must now talk, not about Star Trek itself, but about the stories told about Star Trek--stories that are commonly believed, but false.

I first heard these stories when I was a child, reading various officially licensed "behind the scenes" books about the franchise and its development.  These books were the product of the great 1990s zenith of Star Trek, when Star Trek shows and movies multiplied in abundance, along with their officially licensed offspring.  I still hear these stories repeated from time to time, and their influence is still easily discernible among fans and even in the culture at large.

This cycle of myths begins with the Myth of Gene Roddenberry: a kind of modern-day creation myth about a benevolent deity, his "grand vision," and his many heroic struggles to create, preserve, and protect that vision from the evil forces of Bigotry, Pessimism, and Studio Politics.

Gene Roddenberry, of course, is generally acknowledged as the Creator of Star Trek, and is commonly worshiped by fans under the title of "Great Bird of the Galaxy."  Roddenberry, the story goes, had a grand and original vision in the 1960s...a vision of a bright, optimistic future, where mankind had at last outgrown its troublesome childhood, abandoning war, hatred, and religion, and creating a global utopia of peace and plenty for all races and nations.  Unfortunately, when Roddenberry tried to share these ideas with the world, he was cruelly defeated by the awful, reactionary Television Censors of the Studios, who refused to allow him to share his Gospel.  Undaunted, Roddenberry came up with the idea of sharing these ideas through a science fiction show, where the foolish Censors would be unable to detect their presence.  With the Great Bird working heroically and almost single-handedly to bring his vision to life, in the face of setbacks and omnipresent Studio opposition, Star Trek was born, an utterly unique and original vision of a progressive, rational, and enlightened future for all.

This was, more or less, the story that was repeated, ad nauseam, by licensed Star Trek products in the '90s.  It has much to commend itself: a noble hero, dastardly villains, and a magnificent triumph against odds.  What it lacks is the truth. 

The truth is, this narrative is almost entirely a fabrication, created by Gene Roddenberry himself in the '70s, when, having fallen down on his luck as a television writer, Roddenberry made his living off of the convention and lecture circuit.  It was at this point that Roddenberry decided, or at least pretended to decide, that he was in fact a brilliant visionary with a unique message that needed to be told to all...just in time to help drive fan outcry for his return to fame and glory with a revived Star Trek.

Gene Roddenberry was, in truth, a very interesting man: bomber pilot in WWII, commercial airline pilot, police officer, struggling writer, purported visionary of a moneyless future who labored to make every penny for himself he possibly could (including writing lyrics to the original Star Trek theme, written by Alexander Courage, so as to take a portion of Courage's royalties), sometime friend of L. Ron Hubbard, and a serial adulterer frequently addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol.  According to many people who knew him, Gene Roddenberry was a frequent liar who did not scruple to stab his closest friends in the back for money, control, and credit.  For others, he was a brilliant, if colorful man.

Whatever he was, precisely, the myth of Star Trek's origins is just that: a myth.  Star Trek as it was originally conceived and presented was no wildly original vision of a bright future.  In fact, it was rather a conservative effort; and it was precisely this which is responsible for its success.

The real genius of Star Trek as a show was not in its originality, but rather in its essentially derivative nature.  For what Star Trek, as originally conceived by Gene Roddenberry, did was to take science fiction, and do it in precisely the format of the '60s most standard, most popular shows: Westerns, police procedurals, and military dramas.

This was, in fact, a rather intelligent move.  Previous attempts to do science fiction on television had either relied on horror or Gothic tropes (like the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits), or been essentially silly and aimed at children (like Lost in Space).  No one previously, as far as I know, had ever successfully done science fiction on television simply as an ordinary adult drama with an ensemble cast.

Gene Roddenberry, in fact, had served as a bomber pilot during WWII, and his writing credits prior to Star Trek were almost entirely on police and military shows.  This was, quite simply, something he knew how to do.  His initial pitches to studios, likewise, focused on Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the Stars" (Wagon Train being a popular Western show of the time), a vehicle by which science fiction could be easily and cheaply done as a modern Western drama.  According to Roddenberry at this stage, Star Trek's virtue was primarily in the ease with which familiar Western stories could be taken and recast as Star Trek episodes.  Roddenberry was a sci fi fan at a time when sci fi did frequently wrestle with Big Ideas; but his contribution to science fiction was not Big Ideas, but practical television-drama know-how.

One other influence Roddenberry did have, however, that was rather more unusual and personal: the adventures of Horatio Hornblower.   Hornblower was a dashing (fictional) English sea captain, based on Lord Nelson, who served as hero of a series of adventure novels by CS Forester through the thirties, forties, and fifties.  This Roddenberry treasured, and its influence shows through clearly in the exceedingly naval setting of Star Trek, with a heroic, dashing Captain out alone on the high seas with only "a tall ship, and a star to steer her by."  Hornblower, and hence Star Trek, is in its essence a romanticized vision of English Imperialism: great ships, an open sea, and many strange, new "worlds."

Likewise, Star Trek's fabled optimism was, to a great extent, simply ordinary Kennedy-era American progressivism.  Indeed, it is hard not to associate Kennedy with Kirk: young, virile leaders for a young, virile America.  For this America, nothing was impossible, and triumph was essentially inevitable.  America had won WWII, triumphing against evil, and stood now as the champion of freedom for the entire world; even closer to home, the Civil Rights movement was in the process of triumphing against odds, finally and belatedly (as many saw it) bringing the embarrassing backwater of the South into alignment with the rest of the country and the times.  I imagine many progressives during these years, if they took time to imagine the future, would have imagined it much like Star Trek: a stable, prosperous United States of America (United Federation of Planets), multi-racial (African-Americans, Japanese-Americans), taking to the stars.

It is only against the background of the '70s, with its near-universal social malaise, that Star Trek seemed a wildly optimistic light in the darkness.  Indeed, it was not until the '70s, when Star Trek ran in second-run syndication, that the show became a bona fides phenomenon and even a movement.  In the '60s, it was just a generally well-received drama show.

Indeed, for all the later boasts about Star Trek's radical progressive nature, the original Star Trek is rather staid, not to say conservative in its general outlook.  Star Trek's was not the progressivism of the Age of Aquarius, the trade unions, or even the popular anti-war Left; it was the progressivism of Truman and the Kennedys: passionately pro-American, anti-Communist, heavily institutionalized, pro-military.  Gene Roddenberry famously had what he described as a religious experience when viewing the original Declaration of Independence in Washington, DC, and consequently wrote The Omega Glory, a parallel-Earth parable where fur-clad Mongoloid Communists are defeated by manly, Ango-Saxon Yankees who consider "freedom" a "worship word" and revere the Constitution as a religious text; whereupon Kirk gives a speech on the glories of freedom and passionately recites the Preamble for all to hear, like a character in a CAR play.  Likewise, when Star Trek got around to commenting on the Vietnam War, in A Private Little War, its conclusion was that the war was tragic, but necessary, with the Federation (America) undoubtedly in the right.

Tellingly, these two are some of the relatively few Star Trek episodes that Gene Roddenberry wrote himself.  When it came to the day-to-day operations of his show, however, many other hands soon took over; and their contributions are arguably just as vital for Star Trek's success.  Among them, Gene Coon is generally considered the most important, as the man responsible for the (largely uncredited) bulk of writing and rewriting on the show for its first two seasons.  Many of the most iconic episodes, concepts, and relationships were his creation, as he toiled away day and night to make the show work.  But of course, as soon as it began to exist, Star Trek became a truly collective work, as numerous writers (a few of them famous science fiction authors, like Harlan Ellison and Norman Spinrad), directors, and actors made the show a reality.

It was at this point that Star Trek began to soar--and it did so not on the lead feet of its creator's stilted didacticism, but on the wings of its colorful, likeable cast of heroes.  What made Star Trek work, what made Star Trek in time into a legend, was not its ideas, but its characters--archetypal, likeable, human.  This is one reason why the Myth of Gene Roddenberry, besides being untrue, is rather misleading in understanding Star Trek as a phenomenon.  If Star Trek was really nothing more than a didactic attempt to present a vision of the future, then it must be judged a failure: it was in simply telling stories about its characters--Western morality plays, military dramas, monster movies-- that Star Trek achieved universality.  It was here it became myth.

What can we say about these characters?  What is there that can be said about them, and the strange fascination they have had, over generations, for people of all ages, sexes, and nationalities?

First, there is Kirk.  I say first because it is this firstness which, above all else, defines Kirk as a character.  He is, as the Jem'hadar would say, the First; the Leading Man; Clark Gable in a Clark Gable Movie; Hamlet in a world of Horatios.  This, at least, is what William Shatner wanted him to be, and what he continued to labor to make him for three seasons and seven movies.  What Gene Roddenberry wanted him to be was simply Horatio Hornblower--a heroic, (mildly) womanizing Master and Commander, an exemplar of heroic, boyish masculinity for the '60s.  As Nicholas Meyer points out in his autobiography, Horatio Hornblower (and hence Kirk) is really a pre-pubescent boy's fantasy of manhood: responsible, universally admired, but decidedly unmarried.  In moving from the mind to the screen, however, this archetype took on flesh and blood in the remarkable form of William Shatner; and is then that it came to life.  Here it is helpful to compare Kirk with his immediate predecessor, Captain Christopher Pike, of the unaired pilot episode The Cage (later clip-showed by Roddenberry into The Menagerie).  By most measures, Jeffrey Hunter and William Shatner are playing precisely the same character; but where Hunter plays his character straight, in military fashion--stern, controlled, at turns angry and reflective--Shatner is boisterous, unrestrained, larger-than-life.  Shatner's acting is (justly) criticized on many marks; but for embodying a boy's adventure novel hero come to life, it is a rousing success.  In Shatner's unrestrained, Shakespearean acting, Star Trek found a thing--at turns riveting, bizarre, unintentionally hilarious--that could hold attention and the screen like no other.  This is a crucial ingredient of its success.

Spock, of course, is by almost every standard the exact opposite; and it is precisely this that makes him Star Trek's most famous creation.  Whereas Kirk is the boyish fantasy of masculinity, Spock is a nerd; where Kirk is boisterous and theatrical, Spock is restrained and deadpan; where Kirk is the All-American, Spock is the Indian half-breed, the elf, the changeling.  Thus is born Spock's unique appeal; where Shatner-as-Kirk is attention-grabbing, Spock is fascinating.

What makes Spock work as a character, though, is difficult to put into words.  What it definitely is not is Gene Roddenberry's rather sketchy and incoherent idea of "logic" versus "emotion," which has become proverbial despite making no damn sense at all.  Here, once again, the Big Ideas often get in the way; what makes Spock compelling is much less literal, and much more universal.  When Meyer approached Nimoy to talk about his character before the filming of TWOK, Nimoy explained to his director that he had never played Spock as a man without emotions.  In contrast, he had played him always as "a man of deep passions, who is constantly struggling to keep those passions in check."

This, I think, is the key to understanding Spock and his appeal.  If Kirk is all bright, boisterous exterior, unrestrained and larger-than-life, Spock is one of the most genuinely interior characters in all of fiction.  His inside is bigger than his outside; and what he lives out in that interiority is simply the universal conflict of a human being with himself.  It is this that, watching Spock, we are intrigued by, drawn to; it is that we identify with.  If Kirk represents the colorful, artificial images of ourselves which we project to the outside world, Spock shows the interior selves we labor to hide away: vulnerable, uncertain, conflicted, capable of great joy but also great pain.

As played by Nimoy, Spock's face bears a palpable gravitas, like a bust of Cicero; its every movement is loaded with significance.  As Darren Franich points out, whereas Shatner's acting is essentially theatrical and Shakespearean, Nimoy is a film actor through and through: what Shatner says with grand gestures, Nimoy says with a lift of an eyebrow.

All, this makes him, ironically, a much more human character than Kirk.  It also means that he exists on a very different plane, almost a different universe, from Kirk.  On some level, they don't belong together in the same work of fiction at all.  In most works of art centering around a Spock-like character, Kirk would be either a laughable fool or a villain; in most works of Kirk-fiction, Spock would be an insignificant sidekick at best.

The real genius of Star Trek was to put these extremes together, to bond them inseparably, as equals and friends-- and to take, episode after episode and movie after movie, that friendship entirely seriously, as a bond of genuine and even heroic charity.  According to legend, this idea, of making Kirk and Spock close friends, was Isaac Asimov's--a way of dealing with the problem of Spock's burgeoning popularity and the annoyance it was causing William Shatner.  Yet in truth, the relationship is there from the very first episode, in all its bizarre wonder.

Then there is the third point on this triangle, McCoy; often, and not unfairly, overlooked in comparison to the archetypal grandeur of the other two.  Indeed, in comparison to Kirk and Spock, McCoy can come off as rather...well, ordinary.  Yet it is precisely this quotidian quality that makes him, in some ways, the key to the whole Triad.  For while Kirk's natural home is boy's adventure novels, and Spock's some more introspective work of "serious" art, McCoy is a character straight out of a contemporary Western: the wise, curmudgeonly doctor, gruff exterior hiding a heart of gold.  Even his nickname, "Bones," is taken directly from the 19th century.

Like Nimoy, DeForest Kelley was basically handpicked by Roddenberry for his role.  Of all of the Star Trek performers, Kelley was both the oldest, and the most successful previously: and successful precisely as an actor of Westerns, playing villains, heroes, and occasionally even doctors in productions going back to the '40s.  Along the way, of course, he played in his fair share of non-Western military dramas as well, making him a kind of walking embodiment of Roddenberry's initial vision of Star Trek.  This, then, is the basic recipe of McCoy's character: Kirk and Spock are, even in conception, rather strange and archetypal figures; McCoy is just a character from Gunsmoke.

This was the concept: in practice, McCoy turned out to provide an essential grounding for the bizarre alchemy of Kirk and Spock, Shatner and Nimoy.  As an actor, DeKelley's is somewhere in between the two: neither grandly theatrical, nor subtly filmic; used to inhabiting a larger-than-life world, but doing it in relatively low-key fashion; a television actor for a world of heroes and villains.  By today's standards, his performance can sometimes seem a little artificial, a little over-the-top; but there's an underlying calm to it as well, a sense of ease and self-possession that contrasts strongly with Shatner's and Nimoy's carefully controlled and stylized performances.  More important than this, though, is Kelley's constant, underlying humanity and warmth.  Immeasurably more than either Kirk or Spock, McCoy comes off as a person, someone we would feel comfortable having a beer with, talking about life, love, and sorrow.

This is, it seems, fairly true to life.  A good Baptist boy from Georgia, Kelley married young and stayed married, retiring to his house in the '70s never to act again except in Trek feature films, while Shatner and Nimoy directed films and underwent bitter divorces.  According to them, his reply to queries in later years was always the same: "Still living in the valley with the same wife," a state he obviously took great satisfaction in.  He also passionately enjoyed playing McCoy and spending time with his co-stars, and was grateful for all that Star Trek had given him: he appeared in the pilot of the TNG as a personal gesture of gratitude to Gene Roddenberry, and some of his last words to his co-stars on his death-bed were purportedly "We should make another Star Trek movie.  I sure do miss making those movies."  Even so, his greatest pride, to his dying day, was in his status as an actor of Western movies; when he received a Golden Boot award on his deathbed, it was, according to friends, one of the proudest accomplishments of his life.

To people unfamiliar with Westerns, McCoy's character can seem a little strange-- not least in his occasionally racial jibes at Spock.  In a sense, in the specifics of his character, McCoy is more fixed in time than either Kirk and Spock.  What makes the character truly eternal, though, is simply Kelley; a warm, generous, very human man.  What he provided to the Kirk-Spock dynamic was never really a true third pole--"passion" as opposed to "will" and "logic," as it's sometimes put in fandom.  His contribution was at once more basic and more essential: he provided someone, someone warm and human and real, for these bizarre archetypes to talk to.  McCoy's interactions with Spock are not so much philosophical as they are comedic, with Spock and McCoy alternately playing straight man to each other--but through these playful interactions, Spock can show his character and emotions in ways that the more direct relationship with Kirk would never allow.  Likewise, McCoy's interactions with Kirk are some of the few things in Star Trek that ever really manage to turn Kirk into a recognizable human being, showing up his own internal contradictions and conflicts against a warm and sympathetic background.  Without McCoy, the Kirk-Spock dynamic would not really be missing some essential element: but both Kirk and Spock would be shallower, less interesting, and less real.  Without McCoy, both could quickly become insufferable.

And then there are, as I have jokingly referred to them in the past, the "supporting cast of ethnic stereotypes."  This is unfair--by the standards of the '60s, Star Trek's commitment to having characters of different hues and nationalities is indeed exceptional.  Likewise, looking back on the series--as opposed to the movies--it is remarkable how much effort the show does expend towards developing its supporting characters as people.  This is most noticeable for Uhura, who has become legendary for her status as a "futuristic switchboard operator."  Yet, while there are indeed episodes where saying "Hailing frequencies open" is the sum of her contribution, the show actually develops her remarkably well: we see her off duty, singing, joking, and engaging in conversation with her crewmates, and she ultimately comes off as a rather rounded and interesting person.  Scotty probably comes next in terms of development, with probably the most sheer screen time, in one capacity or another, after the Big Three; while his comic accent is a heavy load to carry, Scotty is frequently turned to as the "brave, competent military leader" of the crew (fittingly, as James Doohan had lost a finger at D-Day), taking command in the absence of Kirk and Spock, heroically saving the ship and working miracles in Engineering, and even getting some off-duty time and a few romances of his own.  Sulu is similar in his competent military role, but his development other than this is rather more limited, confined to strange hobbies and interests: what makes him stand out is primarily Takei's rather bizarre, fervent performance.  Chekov  is, alas, by far the least-developed of the cast; partly due to being added only in the Second Season, partly due to his being saddled initially with the unfortunate role of "youth character" (as well as, for his very first appearance, a horrible wig meant to make him look like a member of the Monkees)--but mostly just due to the nature of his character.  While his "Russian joke" is one of the series' best running gags, while Walter Koenig's performance is always energetic and likeable, and while I admit that he was by far my favorite supporting cast member as a child, his character never proceeds very far beyond "young officer."

In retrospect, though, for all the later, heavily mythologized complaining by the supporting cast about their tiny roles, Star Trek does remarkably well by them.  True, there is never any question of parity--never any question that it is the primary responsibility of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy to wrestle with and resolve the plot and its themes.  Yet as a supporting cast, Star Trek's secondary characters still come off unfailingly as colorful, interesting heroes in their own right.  Almost as much as Kirk and Spock, they exude a strange, archetypal attraction.  The fact that people so passionately wished they had seen more of them is itself an indication of this.  They are people we could imagine as leads in their own stories; we want to see more of them, and we are gratified by what we see.  And for all that, they are mostly in the background of the story.

Here, Homeric mythology is a helpful referent.  The lead characters in Homer's Iliad are relatively few: Agammemnon, Patrokles, Hektor, Achilles.  Yet for all that, the story is populated by innumerable other heroic figures, some of which do get their own moments of immortal kleos; and many were to get, if they did not already have, their own myths centered around them.  It is no shame to be (either) Ajax in the Iliad; and it is no shame to be Sulu in Star Trek.

In terms of the show itself, these supporting characters provide a similar rich backdrop for the actions and reactions of our main heroes as the lesser heroes in the Iliad.  They are an important part of the myth, even if they may not be an important part of the plot.  That the world of the show is rich enough to have such characters is part of its power.

All of these things, of course, are only the ingredients; Star Trek itself was three seasons of stories, told and acted with greater or lesser skill.  Some of these stories are sublime; some of them are utterly abysmal; even in the worst of them, though, we can still recognize the basic elements, and characters, that made Star Trek a success.  This, then, was the real stroke of genius of Gene Roddenberry in creating Star Trek; not coming up with Big Ideas or doing amazing individual Science Fiction stories--if Star Trek had been a high-concept anthology series a la Twilight Zone, with different characters and actors each time, it would have been a failure--but coming up with a format where character and archetype were central, and ordinary human stories could be told, with or without monsters, aliens, and wormholes.

Still, even the best characters need a story in which to shine.  Next time, then, I will pick out a handful of episodes from Star Trek's run, good and bad, sci fi and not, and comment on them in more detail.


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