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So, today is the 50th anniversary of the original airing of the first episode of the original series of Star Trek. Only three years late, Trek! ;)

It’s not something I’ve ever really talked about extensively online, but I like Star Trek. I like it rather a lot to be honest, or perhaps more accurately it’s been one of my pop-cultural touchstones for as long as I can remember. It’s not as intense as my obsession with Doctor Who (I don’t think I’d presume to claim to be a card-carrying Trekker; they probably have entrance exams and everything before you get granted a licence), but it’s something I keep coming back to, and watching, and even thinking about in a fannish way from time to time, although I’ve never to my knowledge committed Trek fic. No, not even the ur-text of all fanfic everywhere, Kirk/Spock…

TOS is definitely my first love, where Trek is concerned. I think it would be fair to say that I dig the later incarnations in proportion to their age. All of the later series, I think, have lots of standout episodes and great actors playing great characters, but there’s something about them, something I find it hard to put my finger on, that I find dissatisfying. I think it’s that the later Treks seem to have a certain smugness about them, a certain self-referential self-regard. At some point, I think Trek started believing in its own “canon” and technobabble, and its writers started thinking that obscure bits of made-up technology or arcane aspects of the setting were sufficient to hang entire stories on rather than, you know, themes and ideas and good writing. That thing often remarked about 80s Who, that the worst thing that can happen to a genre property is it starting to be made by and for its fans to the exclusion of “civilians,” was definitely the case, to an extent, with 90s Trek.

TNG is the best of the latter-day bunch, I would probably say if anybody pressed me, but it has a certain blandness to it. Even when TOS failed, it failed interestingly, I would argue, or at the very least entertainingly. And it failed a lot less often than it is perhaps fashionable to think nowadays.

Let’s be honest, TOS is a lot less progressive, ground-breaking or prescient than hardcore Trekkers would like to think. If you think it was doing anything radically new, watch Forbidden Planet or read some 50s Heinlein stories. Admittedly, it did probably bring the sorts of tropes that had been going around in print science fiction to a mainstream television audience for the first time. As far as predicting anything either socially or technologically, remember that massive war that broke out in the 1990s when eugenically-bred supermen took over a quarter of the globe? Or the time those Romulan hackers stopped the Enterprise cold with a DDoS attack on Starfleet Command’s communications infrastructure? Me neither.

As to progressiveness, for every anti-war parable or first interracial kiss (an endlessly debated topic; was it the first? Was it a kiss?! Does it count if it’s done under alien psychic control??!), TOS has Kirk making an impassioned and stunningly mendacious speech that could have been penned by Robert McNamara about how the Vietnam War is entirely justified, or Klingons made up in virtual yellowface (glittery yellowface, but still), or whole planets of blond-haired Yankee (or Yang, anyway) lovers of freedom fighting against vicious Asian Communist (or Kohm?) oppression. Hippies are, without exception, naïve, annoying, and in the thrall of nasty guru figures who will almost certainly lead them to their doom. TOS is also, from time to time, almost surreally sexist to modern eyes and ears, but that is hardly an uncommon thing in pop-cultural artefacts of the era.

It’s easy to enumerate such failings, of course, and to forget that while the fans may overstate the case, compared to the sort of buttoned-down affairs occupying US TV primetime drama slots in 1966, at the time Trek almost certainly was a massive, brightly-coloured, breath of fresh air. It’s easy to dismiss the first interracial kiss as not being what it is presented as by Trekkers, but also easy to fail to understand what a striking image it must nevertheless had been in that time and place, giving hope to those that needed it and anguish to those that deserved it. Sulu and Uhura may be secondary characters (let’s be honest, everybody in TOS who isn’t Kirk, Spock or McCoy is a secondary character), but just the fact of their existence was a step forward for the era. Similarly, even though Trek can’t quite shed every vestige of its Cold War US zeitgeist, it really is trying its hardest most of the time. The basic message of hope and optimism, of human beings overcoming their vices and prejudices and working together to build a better future, is easy to sneer at in our more cynical times (or if you’re British, I suspect, a bit), but isn’t hope better than cynicism? Star Wars may be massively entertaining, but isn’t relatively peaceful (or not needlessly aggressive) exploration a better thing to aspire to, one day?

The other thing that’s easy to forget about TOS, especially when you’ve seen it as many times as some of us no doubt have, is how good it is artistically, at least in its first two seasons. And even Season 3, at its worst moments, is hugely enjoyable to my way of thinking. The series as a whole does admittedly have its misses as well as its hits, but when it hits, it hits. The writing is deceptively smart at times, but when you pay attention to some of the credited names (proper science fiction writers writing proper science fiction?!) you can see why. The actors also can’t be overlooked. Shatner is hammy, of course he is, but sometimes it really works. Leonard Nimoy, it isn’t said often enough, is stunningly good in the role that, at times to his chagrin, defined the rest of his career. He is in many ways the real star of TOS. And just look at the production design and values, the spacecraft, the costumes, the lizard-man outfits. Even if it looks cheap now, at the time they were allegedly spending more on an episode of Trek than on a whole season of Doctor Who (but we love our vacuum hoses and bubblewrap, don’t we, eh?).

And I think the other reason why it behoves us to commemorate this anniversary is that Trek, in the aftermath of the original series and during its growth and evolution beyond, has been so immensely influential in English-speaking pop culture (and well beyond, I think). Everybody knows what Star Trek is, even people who have never watched an episode, or would want to watch one. Beam me up, Scotty (never said, of course), set phasers to stun, to boldly go where… You get the idea.

So, raise a glass of Saurian brandy, or some of Scotty’s “green” stuff, or whatever that stuff is those little gold people in Journey to Babel are having. And let’s hope Trek is still boldly going in some form in another 50 years.
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