Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Does Star Trek: the Original Series belong on this blog?

Alas, that's what I'm thinking about these days.

This year I am teaching much the same courses as I've been teaching for the last four years. My teaching, thinking about basic facts and concepts that should be presented to my students, is a major source for much of my blogging. Then there are current events. Right now I find little to inspire original thought in the news. I don't have such respect for my own opinions as to think that my readers will be interested in hearing me go on about American politics, Canadian politics, or even Middle Eastern politics. I find all these developing stories to be stalled in patterns that I have either talked about before or are just as obvious to interested readers as they are to me. I am not interested in being another political ranter, not unless I have a really good rant to trot out.

Similarly, I don't have much new to say about chivalry or deeds of arms right now. I should have a book out this spring on Charny's Men at Arms, and I continue to work on the Chronicle of the Good Duke Louis of Bourbon, but I'm at the stage where I really can't offer up new material from either  source.

I am working away on various projects but I am not reading really interesting material of the right size and complexity to be described in a blog entry. My thoughts recently tend to be suitable for a Facebook post. Namely, a couple of sentences of reaction linked to an article that has something to do with current events.

Which leaves me with my TV watching habits, especially my use of Netflix to look over and reevaluate some of the more interesting popular phenomena of my lifetime. One of these, one of the most important really given its great popularity, is Star Trek. What does Star Trek tell us about the last half-century?

I have put a little bit of this material in the blog already, in part because I was pleasantly surprised by how good average and above average television series are when seen through Netflix, without commercial interruption, and at a pace set by the viewer – who if he or she is really interested will not wait a week to see the next episode of the series that really appeals.

So what about Star Trek? As I expected Star Trek: the Next Generation was really entertaining when seen through Netflix. I was rather surprised to see that Deep Space 9 was far better when viewed rapidly than it was in its original presentation, which caused me to give up on it early in its second season. I was very impressed by most of what I saw on my recent viewing.

So what about the original series? My memory of the original series is that it was not really very good. I was only about 15 when it came on, but I'd already read a lot of high-quality science fiction in print, and I thought that the TV show was not really giving the best selection of science-fiction ideas available. The series was better than most of what was on TV, but most of what was on TV was pretty lame.

Part of me wondered why the series had such a tremendous impact. I knew plenty of people who really loved it.

Well, re-watching the first season of the original series has confirmed me in these opinions:

It was pretty lame.

At least, the first half of the first season was really leaden. The characters are poorly drawn and poorly presented.

A good half of that season focused on exactly one idea, which is not really much of a science fictional idea as much as a horror genre idea. That idea is that universe is filled with things that look like human beings that are actually monsters; or alternatively things that started out as human beings have turned into monsters, sometimes only moral monsters. There's a lot of betrayal and menace in those early episodes, and they're not really very good episodes otherwise.

But about halfway through that first season, what people have loved about this series begins to emerge. By that I mean the characters and the interactions between the characters on the ship and particularly on the bridge of the ship start making you really care about what goes on with them.

What really surprised me was that I liked the first season James T Kirk. I have always been someone who put James T Kirk down as a borderline maniac whose prominence in Starfleet reveals a weakness in their whole system, especially the recruiting efforts.. My image of Kirk is a rather smug character who relies on his physical charisma (which did not really speak to me) to get his way. But the first season Kirk is not really like that. He's trimmer, fitter, handsomer and – can't believe I'm saying this – more intelligent and more philosophical than he was later on in the series or in the movies. He says a lot of things are actually smart. He looks smarter than Spock!

Is there any historical point to be made from this material? Well, I do now have a more sympathetic view of the popular influence of the series. And if any of you are watching the old Star Trek, you might keep an eye out for the awe and discomfort that the characters have for anything to do with computerization.

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