Star Trek 50th Anniversary – Memories

8 Sep

Today, September 8, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of “Star Trek” on NBC-TV. 25 years ago, in 1991, all the original cast members were still alive to celebrate the 25th anniversary, as was the show’s creator and executive producer, Gene Roddenberry, who died in October 1991, the month following the anniversary. At the time I wondered how many cast members would make it to the 50th. Well, the 50th is here and we’ve got William Shatner (Captain James T. Kirk), Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura), George Takei (Sulu) and Walter Koenig (Chekov) still with us. Shatner and Koenig were at a Star Trek convention in New York this past weekend and Takei remains quite active, having recently appeared in “Allegiance,” a Broadway musical based on his childhood experiences in World War II internment camps for Japanese-Americans. Nichols has been quite busy acting in TV and films, according to her IMDB filmography. Plus, many guest stars from the show are still around, including Teri Garr, Kim Darby, Sally Kellerman, Gary Lockwood, Skip Homeier, Barbara Luna, Joan Collins, Robert Walker Jr., and many more. From the original cast, DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy) died in 1999; James Doohan (Scotty) died in 2005; Majel Barrett (Nurse Christine Chapel) died in 2008; and Grace Lee Whitney (Yeoman Janice Rand) and Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock) both died in 2015.


Still with us: Shatner, Nichols, Koenig, Takei:

I went to a Star Trek convention in February 1992 and the guests were Nichelle Nichols and LeVar Burton (Geordi from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”). They showed footage of Roddenberry from a 25th Anniversary celebration in Los Angeles the previous fall. During her presentation, Nichols recalled how she wanted to leave the show after the first season in order to go to Europe and pick up her singing career. She was at a party and mentioned this to Martin Luther King Jr., who was adamant in insisting that she remain on the show because of all the good it did for audiences to see a black member of a spaceship crew in the future. Well, in 1967 when the Doctor Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. told you to stay on the show you did! 

I didn’t see much of “Star Trek” during its original run (1966-69) because we didn’t have a TV set in my household in those years. In its first season, it ran on Thursday nights, the same night as our Boy Scout meetings, so I would sometimes get to see it at my friend Tommy Chin’s apartment, if the meeting ended early and my father (the Scoutmaster) allowed me to go. One of the episodes I remember seeing there was “A Piece of the Action,” the one in which Kirk and Spock visit a planet in which its occupants have modeled their society on 1930s gangland Chicago.

I didn’t get to see episodes regularly until I bought a TV myself at the start of my college freshman year and began watching the regular syndicated repeats on Channel 11 (WPIX-TV). I didn’t get to see any Star Trek episodes in color until I started attending science fiction and Star Trek conventions in the 1970s during my college years. These were great places to meet other science fiction fans in the decades before internet fan groups emerged. The conventions would show 16mm film prints of Star Trek episodes. I remember seeing “Balance of Terror,” “Mirror, Mirror,” and “The Trouble with Tribbles,” among others, this way. They would also show the Star Trek Blooper Reel, which featured outtakes and gag shots where props malfunctioned and actors flubbed lines or did comic bits. I remember one bit where Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) are in the infirmary when the ship is hit by a blast causing everything to shake and the actors have to sway back and forth to simulate the effect of the motion of the ship and Kelley grabs Barrett, as the scene dictated, but placed his hands firmly on her breasts, generating a shocked laugh from the actress, who would marry producer Roddenberry not long after the series was canceled. It’s doubtful that an actor would try a gag like that today, especially with his boss’s girlfriend.

I went to more than one Star Trek convention in New York back in the 1970s, long after the series was canceled, including one that managed to corral the entire cast. In addition, there would also be major science fiction writers and editors appearing as guests also. I remember one panel that featured science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison, who often appeared together at these events, and sci-fi magazine editor Ben Bova. There was quite an air of contention at these conventions because Paramount Pictures was mulling over a proposed feature film version of Star Trek to include the entire cast and was opposing all the possible scripts that Roddenberry and his writers were submitting. Ellison described a script he’d submitted that posited Jesus Christ as an alien who turns out to be the Devil! Barry Diller, the head of Paramount at the time, was a newly-converted Catholic and blew up when he read it. At the convention, Ellison predicted that a Star Trek film would never get made. (Well, not if you keep submitting scripts like that!) Ellison mentioned at one point that he was giving a free reading at a club in Greenwich Village that night, because he felt he needed to do something to compensate for the huge fee he was getting for appearing at the convention.

Flash forward a few decades. I’m at an anime convention in New York at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in 2003 and I walk past a line of volunteer staffers, all teenagers, fresh-faced, neatly scrubbed, with happy expressions on their faces. It triggered a memory: I had once been a volunteer at a Star Trek convention, ca. 1975, 28 years earlier! And this was the first time I’d thought of it in all that time. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember what I’d done as a volunteer. The experience must have been so bad that I’d blocked it out. What could have happened? It was at the old Commodore Hotel on East 42nd Street, where the Grand Hyatt is now, and all I remembered from my stint there was rushing to the Saturday night event at a large ballroom, where I would presumably be a door monitor, past the long line that was already forming and snaking down the stairs. I ran up the stairs past the people on line and a girl shouted at me, in her best Queens accent, “There’s a liiiine heeaah!” To which I responded, while running, “But I’m a volunteer!” And that’s it. I don’t member meeting anybody at the event, although I must have. I can tell you that those conventions were pretty angry affairs, chiefly because of fan frustration with Paramount.

Little did I know at the time how much Shatner was hated by the other cast members for his prima donna behavior on the set, including the way he would demand that lines written for other characters be given to him, and his general preening. Everyone seemed to get along at these events, at least in public.

There was some friction between rival fan groups. There were the diehard purist fans, led by Joanie Winston, who arranged conventions for the love of the show. And then there was the for-profit faction, led by Al Schuster, who managed to stage the bigger conventions by paying huge sums to get the entire cast on board for his shows. He presumably made a lot of money, something the purist fans never managed to do. I remember a newspaper article in which Winston lamented the way Schuster “came in and raped and pillaged,” leaving her efforts in the dust. Following one convention, Schuster appeared on an episode of Tom Snyder’s late-night talk show, “Tomorrow,” with convention guests including Harlan Ellison and cast member James Doohan (Scotty) and maybe one other cast member. Ellison and Schuster started attacking Star Trek at one point, complaining about the show’s violence and Doohan was quite taken aback.

Eventually, of course, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was made and became a huge hit for Paramount in the 1979-80 moviegoing season, when movies stayed in theaters much longer than they do today. It was directed by an old Hollywood hand, Robert Wise (THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, WEST SIDE STORY) and written by Harold Livingston from a story by Alan Dean Foster, who’d made his name writing novelizations of episodes from the Star Trek animated series. It was an epic production, running 132 minutes, and drew on inspiration from a couple of different episodes from the original series, including one of my favorites, “The Doomsday Machine.” I liked it a great deal because of the way it drew on the camaraderie of the main characters and allowed them to interact a great deal and the way it played like an expanded version of the TV series. For me, there was a comfortable air to the proceedings. Star Trek purists were upset, however, although I don’t recall why. I’m apparently alone in liking this first movie the most of all the Star Trek movies. The second Star Trek movie, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, would come out three years later (1982) and was a direct sequel to the original ST episode, “Space Seed” (Season 1 / #22), starring Ricardo Montalban as world conqueror Khan, a role the actor reprised in the film. It was tighter, more action-packed and, in my estimation, much sillier and more contrived than the first movie. However, it became a huge hit among Star Trek fans and to this day, I think I’m the only one who prefers the first movie to the second. (Granted, though, I never saw either movie a second time.)

Interestingly, on the same day I saw STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, I also attended a Japanese film festival at Manhattan’s Public Theater and saw a Japanese animated science fiction feature called PHOENIX 2772 (1980), which had a very similar theme to WRATH OF KHAN in its story of an attempt by a maverick space pilot in the future to capture the Phoenix of the title in order to regenerate a dying Planet Earth, echoing the Star Trek movie’s plot involving the Genesis Device, designed to add life to barren planets. I was so intrigued by the Japanese anime feature that I would write about it in the first issue of my fanzine that year, Lowbrow Cinema, and I would continue exploring Japanese animation wherever I could until finally finding steady sources of it on home video in the early 1990s and making it my dominant area of cinematic interest.

More Star Trek movies came out, as well as a new Star Trek TV series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” in 1987. I enjoyed the two-hour premiere episode chiefly because it had a cameo appearance by DeForest Kelley as a 185-year-old Doctor McCoy. I watched some episodes, but did not follow it regularly. It had a muted color scheme in contrast with the bright primary colors on display throughout the original series and it seemed to play safe in so many areas. What had been so bold and innovative in the original series had become commonplace in pop culture in the 1980s. Of the subsequent movies featuring the original cast after WRATH OF KHAN, I only saw one in a theater, STAR TREK VI: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY (1991, the 25th anniversary year). This was followed by movies based on “Star Trek The Next Generation” and I only saw one of those in a theater, STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996). Other TV series followed, including “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” (1993) and “Star Trek: Voyager” (1995), and I only sampled those intermittently. Cast members from the original series popped up every so often in these newer series. I remember an episode of Deep Space Nine that incorporated footage from “The Trouble with Tribbles” and featured the new cast going back in time to peer on the old cast. (I don’t remember what plot device they used to justify this.)

I went to two Star Trek conventions in the 1990s. Both of them were much happier places to be than the 1970s conventions. I took my daughter to one and she had a great time and got a signed photo from Marina Sirtis, who played Counselor Deanna Troi on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The other guest that year was George Takei, Helmsman Sulu on the original series. He talked about his experiences in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II, the first time I’d ever heard him mention this.

A whole new series of movies began in 2009 with STAR TREK, featuring new actors playing the original cast of characters, including Chris Pine as James T. Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Simon Pegg as Scotty, Karl Urban as McCoy, John Cho as Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Chekov. Leonard Nimoy even appeared as the future version of Spock, presumably to give his blessing to the new series of movies. My big problem with this movie was the way it accelerated the young characters’ promotions to their jobs on the Starship Enterprise. They seem to go right out of the academy into the positions they would occupy on the original series, completely skipping the years of training, working through the ranks and accumulating promotions that all the characters originally had to undergo. In the original series, the characters were not in their 20s; they were in their 30s and 40s. It’s a typical career dream of millennials brimming with self-esteem—get out of college and start running the organization. There was no respect for command structure in this movie. The original series creator, Gene Roddenberry, was a veteran of World War II, serving as an Army Air Corps pilot who flew B-17 bombers, and was a sergeant in the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1950s, so he knew something about command structure. In addition, most of the writers and directors of the original series were either war veterans or had served in the military. The same can’t be said of the creators and crew members of the new Star Trek movies. I likened STAR TREK 2009 to a Muppet Babies or Tiny Toons version of Star Trek. I haven’t seen the sequels, including the one that was released this summer.

Earlier this year, I found a box set containing the entire 79-episode run of the original series in my local FYE for $50, so I bought it with the intention of going through the series gradually as preparation for this 50th anniversary blog piece. I was horrified when I looked the series up on-line when I got home and learned that it was the “remastered” version, meaning that all the special effects shots were redone with newer CGI versions. This was not what I wanted. I wanted the original episodes as they were shown in 1966-69. It turns out that there’s Blu-ray set that contains both versions of each episode. If FYE had that set, I could just return what I’d bought unopened and exchange it, but they didn’t. Did I want to return the bargain set and spend more money on the Blu-ray? I decided to watch some of the episodes first and I soon realized I didn’t love the series enough to spend more money on it. These will have to do.

I wound up watching 13 episodes of Star Trek this summer, including a couple I once considered favorites (“The Doomsday Machine,” “The Trouble with Tribbles”). At that point, I just stopped. Among the ones I watched there were more bad episodes than good ones. It started to wear on me. Shatner’s preening was especially troublesome. Did he have it in his contract that he had to make out with a hot guest star in every other episode? When it wasn’t dramatically appropriate there’d be a dream sequence or flashback in which he made out with the character.

Also, all those sci-fi plot devices that seemed so fresh back in 1966-69 have been done to death in the years since and surprise endings showing that the unseen leader or god worshipped by everyone on a planet is actually a computer just don’t surprise anymore. (As I recall, “Twilight Zone” did it first.) I mentioned this to friends who insisted I had to look at the series in the mindset of the 1960s. I’m sorry, but no I don’t! If it doesn’t hold up in 2016, it doesn’t hold up. I watched two other former favorites from the 1960s this summer, DR. STRANGELOVE and OUR MAN FLINT, and they didn’t hold up either. Both were quite dated. Yet I watched INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) again this summer and was excited and gripped as much as I’ve ever been during the umpteen times I’ve seen it. Good filmmaking with strong, human stories and fantastic premises presented in a thoughtful, logical way that makes them believable don’t date. (I’m planning a blog entry on the 60th anniversary of films from 1956 and how great so many of them still are.)

I will continue to watch Star Trek episodes from the box set to celebrate the 50th anniversary, but I will do it at a leisurely pace. I know one participant on DVD Talk who plans to watch each episode on the 50th anniversary of its premiere airing, which is not a bad idea and will not lead to overload, although I don’t think I’ll go that far. But there are still plenty of episodes I’ve never seen and I really should give them a chance.

In any event, here are some mementos from my earliest phase of Star Trek fandom:

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