Star Trek has been born again lately with the new J.J. Abrams’ movie, and people are now excited by Trek again. Thanks, George Lucas, for making such shitty prequel films that it’s now cooler to want to be a Trekkie than a Jedi. Ironically, Abrams and company were able to reboot the franchise by following in Lucas’s footprints, and largely ditch a lot of what made the show and subsequent (original series) shows great.
In some ways the new film should come with a disclaimer (like a lot of 80’s television) that if you liked the movie you saw, you should go a library and watch the originals, and where the TV show might offer a breezy take on history, you are settling in to the old series, it’s a much denser and less fun text. But to help celebrate the relaunch, Paramount has reissued the first six movies and the first season of the TV show (Seasons Two and Three are supposed to come later this year).
The premise is this, as Gene Roddenberry put it: Wagon Train in Space. Since most modern audiences don’t know what Wagon Train is (I’ve never seen an episode), I’m led to believe what that show was about was a Wagon Train on the Oregon trail that every week would come across some adventure. But with America at the height of its Right Stuff/space exploration period, Trek also had the advantage of something fresh.
Side note: Is it fair to say that Trek created the modern nerd as we know it? Sure, there were cowboy books and pulp fiction, some of which was science-y (I mean Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were not exactly fresh at that point), but perhaps it was the audio-visual component. Or perhaps I’m just trying to find a tail for this beast.
The show follows Captain James Kirk (eventually James T. Kirk) as played by William Shatner. Though some have called him hammy, and he has moments of pure cheese, he’s much more contained here than parody would suggest. He’s complimented by his Science officer Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy, in a role that he has come to accept as his mark on the universe. At the time, he was the pointed eared alien on television. Such a strange concept now (what do you think Chewbacca? “raawwhhhrwhr!”) The show would eventually build a dynamic with Kirk in the middle of Spock and Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, as played by Deforest Kelley (doesn’t Deforest Kelley sound like a porn title? If not, than maybe an instructional video on Brazilians). Also in the first season is Communications specialist Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), and Sulu as the helmsman (George Takei). As fans will know, Walter Koenig’s Chekov did not join the cast until Season two, and so instead there’s more of Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), who left the show under some controversy. If you follow Devin’s Star Trekkin (well worth reading) over on Chud.com he found that after some affairs, she became a prostitute for a spell (fascinating).
With Season One there are a number of problems. The show was finding its way, and Roddenberry, besides creating the show, often pushed for some bad ideas. The shows would also have morals often, reflecting the times, and the idea of science fiction as a commentary on current culture. Sometimes those metaphors are laid on a bit thick. And the 51 minute format on these things can get a bit creaky. They’re 60’s television, which means that it can look a bit flat (though often the color design is interesting), and there’s not great camera work.
That said, it’s easy to see why people are responding to the movie even if they didn’t like Trek before: The characters are awesome. Again, say what you will about Shatner’s occasionally heightened deliver and odd cadence, he’s fucking intergalactic pimp. Modeled on Kennedy, Kirk is simply a great leader, thoughtful but active. While his compliments and the supporting cast are somewhat sketchy, Nimoy was on point, and Kelley definitely brings his own to it. Again, with this first season they were finding their voices, but they did, and there are episodes that still work like gangbusters today. I could walk you through them (things like “The Corbonite Manuever”), or the bad ones (I’m not that crazy about “Mudd’s Women”), but in this world either you haven’t really bothered, or you know them all by heart. For the newcomers, let me warn that there’s a lot of backlots in outer space. But one of the things that saves the show is the lighting which – in these new transfers – gives the show the look of a Mario Bava film.
I came late to Trek. After having had it on at 5pm every day while growing up, at the time I found it boring. I liked the movies okay, but I never bothered with the TV show, and even into my twenties a friend tried to turn me on to the show I couldn’t get into it (even with “Space Seed”). But I had the occasion to get paid to watch Season Three, and after watching a couple of episodes I got into it, and got it. As hokey and stupid as the show could be, there was always that core of space exploration, the idea of man’s ability to triumph over its lesser instincts, and this desire to explore. All things I found missing from the new film, but just the same. One of the core principles of the show, and the thing it explores repeatedly is free will, and the innate desire to free one’s self from subjugation. Those themes are enough to carry you through the weaker episodes and moments.
You also get to see performers like Gary Lockwood, Khan, Michael J. Pollard and Sally Kellerman doing some TV work, and every episode seems to have at least one actress who looks like a Playboy bunny. And yes, there’s a killer carpet.
The Blu-ray release presents every episode in the original release version, and the CGI enhanced updates that were done because nerds are nerds. I have watched a couple minutes of the enhanced versions, and I don’t truck with it. The shitty models are shitty, so who cares, the CGI is distracting and just as dated, but you have the option to watch it either way, so there’s that. The 1080 transfers, however, are revelations, and the clarity of image is breathtaking. On a TV monitor in period, there’s no way you could see the scrims and stunt doubles like you can here, but holy shit, you can, and it’s great. The show is presented in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and each episode comes in 7.1 Dolby Digital TrueHD, and in the show’s original mono, and every disc has previews for each episode. The first disc has a PIP commentary track for “Where No Man Has Gone Before” with factoids and commentary by people like the Okudas, and “Spacelift: Transporting Trek into the 21st Century” (20 min.) which talks to the effects work done for the remastered show, and a trailer for new Trek.
Disc Three offers PIP for both parts of “The Menagerie,” and “Reflections on Spock” (12 min.) from the original SD release. Disc Four has a PIP for “Balance of Terror,” and “Life Beyond Trek: William Shatner” (10 min.) from the SD release, and focuses on Shatner’s love of the equestrian. Disc five has “To Boldly Go… Season One” (19 min.) from the SD release, with interviews with Nimoy, producer Robert Justman, Shatner, George Takei, Ricardo Montalban, D.C. Fontana, John D.F. Black, William Campbell, and others, while “The Birth of a Timeless Classic” (24 min.), which offers interviews with most of the aforementioned, and a period interview with Rodenberry, and Nichelle Nichols. Disc six offers a PIP for “Space Seed,” “Sci-fi Visionaries” (17 min.) from the SD release on how the show used tropes, and an interactive ship inspection. Disc seven has a PIP for “Errands of Mercy,” “Billy Blackburn’s Treasure Chest: Rare Home movies and Memories” (13 min.) offers a bit-part player’s (he played The Gorn!) look at the show, “Kiss ‘N’ Tell: Romance in the 23rd Century” (8 min.) from the SD release, and there’s a couple of Easter Eggs.