Monday, October 14, 2013

What Makes Star Trek So Special?

iThis weekend we watched "Star Trek Into Darkness" after borrowing the unopened DVD from my daughter.

A couple of points to notice. First, we watched a movie on DVD; not in a theater. The first is rare not because we don't have DVDs, but because since the arrival of "The Hopper" we've almost always got something recorded (and during football season even those aren't watched as we're watching live TV on weekends). The second option -- going to a movie -- is rarer still and may happen twice a year or so. Then the DVD was unopened, which means my daughter suffers from the same time constraints I do.

Anyway, back to Star Trek.

After the movie was finished I pointed out to my husband that I found it interesting that a arguably poorly acted television series from our childhood days with no real special effects could still be inspiring remakes and movies nearly 50 years later. I mean, stop and think about it.

In 1966 a television series debuted and ran for three seasons. There were no outstanding special effects and the acting of some of the stars has long been criticized. And yet in the years since the "original" series disappeared there have been nearly constant attempts to recreate and recapture whatever it was that made that show, which wasn't especially long running so apparently not a huge commercial success, so magical.

Even today, odds are good that people recognize James T. Kirk and Spock, the quirky heroes of those early voyages through the stars. Though they may have seen only much newer versions of the series, which most people will say are not as good, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, who played the very first version of the duo are well known and terribly typecast into those roles. Seriously, they worked that series for three years and can you think of any other roles (other than remakes) that they have played other than commercials?

There are jokes about the overacting; the fact that seatbelts were apparently a lost technology (oh, come on, in 1966 did we even care what seatbelts were for?); and Kirk's womanizing. None of those jokes are limited to those of us who watched the original series in our formative years. Instead they're spilling across Facebook and spreading to new generations.
I'm a "fan" of a Facebook page that was created by friends of George Takei (called Oh Myyy), who played Sulu, the helmsman on the original series. The page is a humor page, and occasionally that is directed at Star Trek or "trekkie" references.

Beyond the original series, of which there were only 80 episodes and the cancellation of which has been ranked in the top 5 of television bad decisions, Star Trek has lived on. There was a one year animated series and, beginning about 20 years after the original series disappeared from prime time viewing and went into syndication, there have been four more attempts at a TV series based on the original idea. Some were supposed prequels and some further voyages of starships whose staffing and mission was much like the original. There have also been 12 feature films, half of which were cast with the original crew, four from another series' cast, and more recently with actors portraying the same characters (Kirk, Spock and the gang) at an earlier point in their lives.

But enough history. Beyond it all I'm still fascinated by the fact that a TV series from my youth, which I probably actually watched in syndication since I was about E1's age when it started its run, is still such a part of our entertainment lingo. Sure, there are other shows that live on and many of them may be easier to find airing somewhere at any given time. But I think it would be difficult if not impossible to find another that still inspires the imaginations of writers, directors and viewers the way Star Trek does.

Perhaps it was the vision of its creator, Gene Roddenberry, who simply turned the then popular idea of westerns and wagon trains into its futuristic application of a journey into the unknown of the stars. That idea somehow still captures our imagination and appears to be at the heart of all of the attempts at a recreation of the original series. Perhaps, however, there was more to the series than a random scifi adventure.

After watching the latest installment with all its special effects and its much improved acting, I think what really lies at the heart of the series isn't the space journey at all -- although that gives it a twist that makes it ever changing and different. It's actually about a group of people who are racially diverse (and in some versions species diverse) who work together for the success and survival of them all and a pair of best friends who within their visions of what is right will do virtually anything for one another.

That, in essence is what really attracts us, that commitment within a small group of people and that friendship that we'd all like to have, whatever our character flaws may be. And whether or not we ever dream of going where no man has gone before.

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