So I recently embarked on the much-larger-than-I-then-realized task of watching all of the Star Treks. That’s right, all of them. The movies. The animated series. The spin-offs. And guess what? I’ve only just finished with the original 1966 TV series.
I’ve got a long way to go.
But, to be honest, I’m curious about it. Geek culture is something that has always drawn my attention, and I have a tendency to want to appreciate everything that makes it what it is. So far, it’s been relatively easy. I love comic books. I enjoy Star Wars. I’m not quite on board with the board games yet, but to be fair, I haven’t had too much of a chance to play them (in high school, I was always excluded from playing on the basis that I was a girl). But Star Trek is always one thing that eluded me, mostly because I’d never watched it before.
But I decided to change that. And not only to change it, but to dive right in, to really see what it is about this series that made it such an important icon in geek culture.
Starting with the original series.
Finally, I was going to see for myself what made William Shatner so memorable. Finally, I was going to laugh at the red-shirts myself. And finally, I was going to find out what a tribble was.
And, I know, Star Trek is something that has been talked about before, but the way I see it, I have a somewhat unique perspective on it, based on the fact that I am a young feminist watching in 2017 who has not grown up with the show. I am a little bit bias simply because I went in wanting to enjoy it, but overall, I feel like I’m a fairly decent test to find out how well the original series holds up.
And how does it hold up? Not great. Not great, my friends.
Not because it’s a bad show – far from it. I found myself enjoying a good amount of it, and despite the long breaks I needed to gather the mental strength it took to watch this show, I still found myself wanting to go back after a while. It was a fun, cheesy series, and I have a feeling that that’s all it ever intended to be.
But let’s be honest here – the show belongs firmly in the 1960’s. It very much reflects the post-WW2 American belief that all things American automatically mean good, and don’t think that I’m fooled by the fact that they kept saying that they were representing ‘earth,’ they meant America every damn time they said it.
The show follows a very basic, almost repetitive pattern. The Enterprise goes to some new planet, there’s an alien race of some sort that looks surprisingly human and speaks English fluently, one of the crew (usually Captain Kirk) falls in love with a beautiful woman there, but there’s something about the alien race that is decidedly primitive and the crew is forced to Show Them The Way, to correct their backwards way of thinking by imposing earth logic on them. Sometimes, they’ll mix it up a little bit and the alien race will actually be more advanced than earth, and when that happens the episode usually just ends with them laughing at how violent humans are.
The original Star Trek series (I can’t speak for the rest of the series as I haven’t seen it yet) is very much focused on impressing national pride in the American audience. But from what I can gather, that isn’t what fans of the show enjoyed. They enjoyed the space exploration, the idea of this great future where it’s possible to go to these far-off planets and discover what’s among the stars – and that is very much present in the show, and I have to admit, that is something I enjoyed. I liked the idea of discovery and advancement, and I’m not trying to belittle that from the show at all. I just found myself laughing at the very Americanized and narrow-minded way that they often went about it.
And since I mentioned the beautiful alien lover that pops up in nearly every episode (after a while, I simply started to generically refer to her as Woman of the Week), let’s talk for a bit about the role of women in this show.
It’s not great.
It’s actually rather poor.
But then again, what else can I expect from a show made in 1966?
Going into this series, one thing that I’d heard from people was that it was an incredibly progressive show. Women were shown to be in positions equal to men. Women were respected in their careers. And, not just women, but race was an important aspect of the show too – and I won’t deny this last one. In some ways, the original series is more racially progressive than some of the TV shows we have today, because I got the sense that they were very much focused on employing people of colour and putting them in positions of respect. It wasn’t perfect, but I definitely noticed it and appreciated it.
And as much as it is true that women were employed on the Enterprise, and the show did repeatedly have female characters who were scientists or something of that nature, the writing of these characters was still incredibly sexist. Like, incredibly 1960’s-American sexist.
The show made it very clear that, although women were employed on the Enterprise, they would stop working and start procreating the moment that they got married.
And they were going to get married – that wasn’t even a question. Every female character is above all interested in finding love. If they even think about having other priorities, then there always seems to be some man there to ask the question, “but don’t you miss being a woman?” (yes this is an actual thing that is said on the show).
And for the most part, the show focused on writing their female characters only in how they related to the male characters. They all fell easily into tropes, either that or they didn’t feel fleshed out enough. They were the Lover, or the Temptress, or the Un-womanly Villainess, or the Damsel in Distress. They existed only to further the plot line of the male characters, and if they didn’t do that, then they were just sort of there, not really explored deeply enough to be human. I found Uhura’s character especially disappointing for this, because going into the series, she was the one I wanted to like the most. She looked amazing, and I’d seen her everywhere representing the show, but for the most part, she just sort of sat at her desk, looking pretty and telling Captain Kirk that she was “getting a signal,” and if she ever was involved in the main plot, then she mostly played the role of telling Captain Kirk how heroic he is and how she knows that he’ll protect her.
But, again, in much the same way that I can’t blame the show for being pro-American propaganda, I can’t really blame it for being as sexist as it was. It was made in 1960’s America, when women’s rights weren’t really as developed as they are now. And for the most part, the sexist writing that they employ is so over-the-top, so extreme (I’m going back to that “but don’t you miss being a woman” line) that it’s hard to get mad at it. I mostly just found myself laughing, and after a while, it sort of just added to the dated charm of the show.
Because there is very much a dated charm to the show, and a lot of this goes back to the special effects. I think it’s fairly common knowledge at this point that the special effects of the original show are bad. Like, really bad. Like, I’m a fan of 80’s slasher movies, and I can’t even excuse these special effects. In one episode, the alien species was literally just a dog in a costume – and that was an inventive one. Most of the aliens are just people, and when the rare moment of inspiration does strike the make-up artists and they decide to do something crazy, you almost wish they wouldn’t because you can tell that they’re way out of their depth here. And for those of you who are curious about that question that I opened up earlier about what tribbles are, they’re bean bags with fur. Sometimes they purr.
But, to be honest, the bad special effects sort of work in the show’s favour. It’s hard to take all of their dated ideals seriously when the very same episode features as its villain a guy in a really bad Halloween costume. Maybe, if this show was more impressive in its special effects, I’d be singing a very different tune right now. Maybe I’d be saying that it’s a shame they put so much effort into a show that time made irrelevant. Who knows?
And one thing that I absolutely must say in the show’s favour is that it lucked out with an incredible cast. You have to try really hard to not like Leonard Nimoy, whose sass knows no bounds, even when he isn’t saying anything. While I had issues with the way that Captain Kirk was written (he more than anybody embodied the outdated ideals that I so disagreed with in the show, and the jokes about him being a whore are completely true. In nearly every episode, he is hunting for sex, to a point where I started to wonder if he even saw women as anything more than tools for his gratification), I have to admit that William Shatner is an incredibly charismatic man – which is something that an actor needs to fill this role properly. He really reminds me of later actors who would play similar roles, like Harrison Ford and Nathan Fillion, in that there’s just something about them you have to like. James Doohan is also very likeable, I will always love George Takei, and as much as I complained about how underused Uhura was, Nichelle Nichols is an incredibly graceful and beautiful woman who still drew my attention every time – and something needs to be said for the fact that she was the first black woman on television to not be in a simple serving role. Despite all my problems with the show, and despite the fact that the writing wasn’t always perfect, there was still just something about these people that always drew me back in.
So, overall, do I recommend modern audiences to turn back to the original 1960’s Star Trek show? Well, yes and no.
No, for all the reasons I listed above. It’s very dated, and you need to have a high tolerance for that if you’re going to watch it. Overall, I think Star Trek can best be described as that older uncle or grandfather who’s a great guy, really, but he can occasionally say some really sexist and/or offensive stuff, and it’s up to you to decide how seriously you take it.
But at the same time, it is sort of a marvel to see. Star Trek has become such an incredible cultural icon – not just in geek culture, but in pop culture as well, and this is where it all began. As dated as it is, as sexist, as pro-American back before the Vietnam war killed all that enthusiasm, it’s still important for that reason. So maybe don’t disregard it completely. Don’t take it too seriously, and if you’re going to watch it expect some major cheese, but maybe check out an episode or two just to see how far we’ve come.