Saturday, January 19, 2013

Star Trek: The Original Series, Third Season

I was working at my pc today and I realized that I really wanted to hear Miles Davis. I picked up my iPhone, hit the button twice and said "play Miles Davis."  Kinda Blue started playing on the tiny speakers.  I hit another button, it started playing on my stereo speakers and Miles filled the room. Whenever I do something like this I cannot help but think of the computer on Star Trek. It was always one of the more fascinating technologies on the show along with warp drive and the transporters ... the Star Trek computer has arrived and I am holding it in my hand.

Every Star Trek series has had the high points (classic episodes) and their low points (episodes so bad that you wish to purge them from your memory). I have seen all the Star Trek series, many times over. I often have difficulty sleeping. Now that all the series are available on Netflix streaming, the show is perfect for night time viewing. When I do get tired, I can just close my eyes and listen. Kirk, Picard, et al, just lull me to sleep. I had never viewed all the original series episode in order until now. Until you view them in order you don't realize how bad the third season is. Every episode that I have always thought of as being awful came in the third season. Most of the great, classic episodes were in the first two seasons. They peaked early. 

Lists of Top 10 best episodes are all over the net. Few of the third season episodes are on these lists, so I know it is not just me. It is seems widely accepted that "City On the Edge of Forever" (the Joan Collins episode) is the best.  It came in at the end of season one and was written by sci-fi great Harlan Ellison. The only great episode (probably my personal favorite) in season three is "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield," guest starring Frank Gorshin, is a biting portrayal of the absurdity of racism (see image). These two characters were from the same planet and their races had been fighting for centuries until they end up destroying each other.   

The famous line from the Star Trek intro "a five year mission" always seems ironic in that the show only lasted three seasons. It was supposed to be cancelled in 1968 after two seasons, but a letter writing campaign by the fans resurrected it. Instead of cancelling the show, NBC decided to move it from the prime Monday night slot to Friday night at 10pm. Considering how young their audience was (long before DVRs and home video recorders), this was clearly NBC showing how little interest they had in the show. It was competing with Laugh-In on Monday nights so they moved it and slashed the show's budget. A lot of their viewers were too young to stay up that late and the older viewers (teens and twenty-somethings) went out on Friday nights. This was the show's death knell. In protest, Gene Roddenberry resigned as producer.  He is credited with "executive producer" and did do a little writing in the last season.  This lack of network buy-in may explains the mess of the third season.

The canceling of Star Trek might be one of television's biggest blunders, but the big fail came when NBC decided to sell the syndication rights. Usually, shows need at least four seasons to go into syndication, but an exception was made for Star Trek due to the amount of dedicated fans.  When the show was played at an earlier hour, when its younger viewers could see it, the ratings went off the charts.  It went into syndication immediately and by 1972 was playing in over 100 cities and 60 countries.

Before I mention why the Third Season was so bad, I must point out why this show was so great for its time.  The first obvious reason is that most of the shows on television (even now) were awful.  In 1960's most shows were still very conservative, not tackling any of the issues of the times. Star Trek tackled racism, over-population and cold war paranoia among other issues of the time. They had a multi-racial cast and Lt. Uhura was the first black woman on American television that wasn't a maid or a nanny. At times it was anti-religious and anti-establishment and yet, at times it was pro-religion and patriotic. Occasionally, they even quoted Shakespeare or philosophers. In one of the better third season episodes, "Plato's Stepchildren," they made television history by showing an inter-racial kiss, one of the first (if not the first) when Kirk and Uhura kiss. This is a perfect example how subversive sci-fi can be. The characters were being forced to kiss by telekinesis. The scene was almost cut from the episode. What I find most interesting about it is how little hate mail they received. This particular episode was removed from airing by the BBC in the UK unrelated to the racial aspects. Telekinesis was the problem. The forcing of people to do things that they didn't want to do was considered sadistic. It didn't air in the UK until 1994.

Even when Star Trek is at its worst, it is still better than most network television. With so many great shows on HBO, Showtime and AMC, I have almost given up on network television. It has always been awful with few exceptions. Since 2005, our airwaves are Star Trek-free which is very sad.  Season Three of the original series is sandwiched between what may be the two worst episodes. It begins with "Spock's Brain," which is probably the most stupid episode, and the series ends on a very low note with "Turnabout Intruder" which is outright offensive. Star Trek may have been cutting edge in regards to racial issues, but in regards to the sexes, it was not. It was somewhat sexist. This episode is the worst in that regard.  One of Kirk's ex-gril friends, Dr. Janice Lester, forces him into a machine that does a "complete life energy transfer" which means that her mind is transferred to Kirk's body vice versa. The crew notices that Kirk isn't right due to his irrational behavior. Kirk's emotions fluctuate erratically which gives William Shatner much opportunity for over-acting. On this last episode, #79, we are told that women aren't allowed to be Captains in Star Fleet. I'm not sure why they hadn't figured that out by the 23rd century; it probably had something to do with 1960's network politics. Dr. Lester feels "tortured" because of this restriction.  She tells Kirk, "now you'll know the indignity of being a woman," and later, she says "I'd rather be dead than to live alone in the body of a woman." What makes this even worse, is that this is one of the episodes the Gene Roddenberry wrote. 

When Star Trek was created, the pilot episode "The Cage" had a female First Officer portrayed by Majel Barrett, also called Number #1. The nickname was used later during the Next Generation years. A lot changed when the show was approved as a series. This role was rejected by the network because they believed that Americans didn't want to see woman in command. She ended up marrying Gene Roddenberry and also, playing Lwaxana Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation as well as the on-board computer's voice.    The role of the captain changed as well. The captain on the pilot was not Shatner's Kirk, but Christopher Pike portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter. Hunter turned down the role for the series so that he could concentrate on his film career. He died in 1969 due an explosion on the set. His death would have ended the show definitively. The only character on the pilot that ended up on the series was Leonard Nimoy as Spock.  I guess I should be grateful about the great show they did  create and stop complaining, but imagine how great this show would have been if executives didn't get in the way of the creative types.  Imagine how long it would have gone on and how many more great episodes we'd have to stream.

No comments: