He's Sassy, Jim
Star Trek: The Original Series: Season 1
I have to acknowledge that up until watching it for this review I'd never actually watched my way through Star Trek: The Original Series. I like to consider myself something of a Trekkie, having a greater love for Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture. than I do for the universe presented over on Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same.. Of course, with the wealth of movies and TV shows going on right now it's pretty easy to watch a ton of Trek or Wars without watching all the original material. Hell, how many Star Wars fans living today have gone back and watched the original movies in their true, original editions. I doubt there are many.
Still, I have always considered it something of a gap in my viewing knowledge that I never went through and watched all the episodes, in order. I've seen bits and pieces here and there (including a nice set that I watched for the top 5 episodes article I wrote a few years back) but it absolutely was time to go through and do a proper deep dive of the whole series (and, likely, the whole franchise over time). No more half-measures, we gotta go back and Watch Kirk and the Gang trek all over them stars.
We've already gone through and looked at "The Cage", the first attempt at getting Star Trek on the air. I had watched that episode before, but I'd found it slow then (and found it slow now) and can appreciate that the show was retooled some to make it livelier. The version presented in the first season had marked improvements in a number of aspects -- better cast, faster pacing, generally better writing -- but some of the flaws of that pilot carry through to the series as a whole. Namely that would be the production values.
Considering when this series was made, 1966, many of the issues with production values (and even some of the stories) can be blamed on the technology of the time (or, really, lack there of). The show doesn't look much better than its sci-fi contemporaries. Cheap sets, silly props, goofy costumes. You can tell a lot of what was used on the show was re-purposed from the studio back-lots and put to work on this series. There's very much an improvised, "we don't know how to make the future look futuristic, but we'll give it a shot" vibe to the series. It is endearing but it looks positively quaint in comparison to basically anything in the franchise to come after.
Watching The Original Series, you have to divorce yourself now from what you expect the "future" to look like because this very much looks like something made in the 1960s. It worked for the time period, to be sure, and we have to judge it based on that from. But even a decade later, with George Lucas's Star Wars, the whole of sci-fi production values took a massive leap forward. It's night and day over the span of just 10 years, and it leaves the original Trek looking much worse for the comparison.
Once I got past my expectations about production values (which took a couple of episodes as I kept seeing how cheesy everything looked) what I found were a number of episodes that were really quite solid stories. Not every episode is a winner in this run, like with any TV show, but there are quite a few really good episodes that can stand on their own despite the era they were filmed. "The Naked Time" begins the work of fleshing out much of the crew of the show, giving them strong personalities while also pitching a tale of lowered inhibitions and dangers to the ship. "The Menagerie" re-purposes "The Cage" into a compelling two-part episodes that puts it properly in cannon, which is pretty cool. "The Conscience of the King" delivers an interesting murder mystery plot that seems very different from the normal episodes of the series. And, of course, there are greats like "Space Seed" and "The City On the Edge of Forever" that would top anyone's best episode list.
With that said, the series also has a tendency to rely too heavily on god-like figures that play games with the ship just to test mortals. Reportedly this was a favorite storytelling device of creator Gene Roddenberry and it shows with just how often, even in this first season, the show goes to that well. There are variants of it in "Charlie X", "Where No Man Has Gone Before", "The Corbomite Maneuver", "Shore Leave", "The Squire of Gothos", "Arena", and "Errand of Mercy". That's a lot of god-like figures for such a small sector of space, frankly. By the third time the trope appeared I was already bored of it.
Sometimes the trope was used in better ways, such as the "god-like" being actually being a computer. "The Return of the Archons" plays with this, having a society that regularly has "festivals" where all the people go crazy and murder each other (serving as inspiration for The Purge), and this whole event, and the civilization built around it, is a part of the control exerted by Landru, a computer with an over-blown sense of self. There's also "A Taste of Armageddon", a tale of two planets locked in a constant state of war, driven on by their computers which calculate the deaths of each attack but, instead of actual attacks being perpetrated, the citizens just march to their deaths in suicide booths. Here, the concept of war has been made so bloodless the actual war itself could never stop.
Frankly, though, the series was better off when it focused on its futurism and what it could mean for humanity to be out among the stars. I think one of the best for this is "the Devil in the Dark, a story about miners on Janus IV who are getting slaughtered by a strange, underground creature. The creature, as it turns out, is a silicon-based lifeform unknown to the universe and all it wants is to survive and get its babies to hatch. It starts as a battle between miners, Federation officers, and this "monster" and ends up being a peace negotiation between two species just looking to coexist. That shows the hope for humanity this series really strived to illustrate.
The best episodes of the season do come in the back half, once more writers came on board and could really start pushing their ideas. The front half of the season, naturally, was the part where the series was just feeling itself off and those episodes show the strongest "growing pains". Once it gets going, though, the series does take off and get pretty interesting. The stories broaden the scope of the show and you can tell the creators enjoyed the idea that anything was possible, planet to planet, and all they had to do was come up with cool ideas that pushed humanity forward.
Beyond the tales of space-based daring do, though, the real reason to watch the series was the chemistry between the leads. This quickly comes to the forefront even in the early episodes of this season. The interplay between Kirk (William Shatner) and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), which grows quickly over the course of the season, is written like a sassy and fun friendship, made all the better as Spock is supposed to be an emotionless alien. And yet, the little barbs that come out, the sarcastic back and forth between these two, and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelly), really sells the idea that these are friends traveling the universe together, people that care about everyone under their command as well as every civilization they meet. The ideals of the Federation really come forth when these guys talk with each other, and you want to be there because they're having a great time while travel.
Gene Roddenberry sold Star Trek as "Wagon Train among the stars", using the reference to a then popular TV show (and a popular genre, Westerns) to get studio heads to understand what he wanted to do. Going through the first season, though, you can see that Roddenberry sold them on a lie. He had this specific idea for what the show would be and it isn't really a space western at all. It's more Utopian, more idealistic. Of course, now Star Trek is the franchise people reference and no one talks about Wagon Train anymore, so Roddenberry had to have the last laugh on that accord.
This first season is rough in places, but quite fun, and you can see just from the bones set forth here how this franchise could grow to be one of the biggest in the world. It might not have everything worked out yet in these first 30-odd episodes, but it's getting there and, at least for another season or so, that journey should be quite fun.