Monday, September 12, 2016

Is Star Trek best understood as midlife crisis?

This past Thursday marked the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek.  The episode NBC first aired was "The Man Trap," which actually focuses on "Bones" McCoy rather than Kirk or Spock.  McCoy was often pointed out as the oldest character in the original series, and his backstory frequently refers to what amounts to another lifetime, with his Starfleet career as a kind of second act.  You can find that right in "The Man Trap," too, the first time Star Trek features a character reconnecting with an old flame, from when he was already a young man of 25 or so.

This is significant because in the first pilot Gene Roddenberry submitted to NBC, "The Cage," the story was about Christopher Pike questioning whether he can still handle the burden of command.  We just saw that repeated in this summer's Star Trek Beyond, and it was a familiar element from previous movies, too.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan both featured Kirk ruminating on such things, not to mention his clearly advancing age.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Picard was presented as aging right from the start, an older captain whose last command had ended badly, and this whole series was his shot at redemption.  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's Sisko was after the same thing, if you'll remember, trying to pick up the wreckage of his shattered life.

Roddenberry was already working on a second or third life of his own when he created Star Trek.  He'd been a pilot in wartime, and then a street cop.  By the time he reached Hollywood, Roddenberry's enthusiasm for the future might have seemed quaint to anyone looking at his biography.  Yet there it was, a kind of optimistic projection of post-WWII zeal in American exceptionalism into the far future, where the melting pot had gone all the way to the final frontier.  It's no wonder that later writers found so much rich material from the Cold War.  I mean, what else could you expect.  Star Trek was all about the country from which it came, which made the '60s allegories it explored all the more relevant to its emerging legacy.

And yet, if you're watching Kirk in "The Man Trap," you see someone who is more cynical observer than playboy adventurer, the Kirk who became famous as the prototypical hero type of his day, young and mindless of all danger, idealistic yet adaptable.  Who's behind the Kirk in "The Man Trap," but Roddenberry?  This was early Trek, the sixth episode ever produced.  (It gets fascinating: "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the second pilot and production debut of Kirk, aired third; "The Corbomite Maneuver," the debut of classic Kirk, was the third production but aired tenth; "Mudd's Women," fourth production, aired sixth; "The Enemy Within," which split Kirk into good and bad versions, was produced fifth and aired fifth.  Strangely, "Charlie X," which was the eighth production, aired second, while "The Naked Time," the first acknowledged Star Trek classic, was the seventh production, and aired fourth.  Anyway.)

So what does it all mean?  That Roddenberry didn't originally envision the Kirk we know.  Clearly.  He originally thought about the conflicted Pike.  When NBC is criticized for considering Roddenberry's Star Trek as too cerebral, you can begin to see what the network meant.  What Star Trek became isn't necessarily how it began.  You can see how much thought Roddenberry put into it.  It took a lot of time to develop the easy feel of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic everyone remembers.  No, what Roddenberry originally envisioned was the end result of the Space Race, where the whole thing has become a burden.  (Wouldn't we know it, 2016?)  It's the vision of a man who had lived a lot already, and who wasn't as optimistic about it as he could seem later.  What drove him was success in television.  What else would it be?

You can see how often later writers reflect on the lessons taught by "The Man Trap," and "The Cage."  They became the two most basic story templates of the whole franchise.  Forget everything else you know about Star Trek, and just trace the number of times you saw a misunderstood monster ("The Man Trap," later made most famous by "Devil in the Dark") or, as I've already pointed out, a career in crisis (all those other captains, like Decker in "The Doomsday Machine," if you want to find examples well before the movies). 

Everyone has a definition of what Star Trek means, but what it really boils down to is something few have realized, which is that Gene Roddenberry didn't come up with utopia.  He came up with allegory, plain and simple.  And the allegory was mostly about himself.

3 comments:

Pat Dilloway said...

Weird they aired the episodes out of order like that. Something that was brought up in Harlan Ellison's foreword to his original script for City on the Edge of Forever was that Roddenberry really started to embrace that utopia idea after the original show ended.

Tony Laplume said...

Star Trek is like anything else: eventually people just kind of believe whatever they want to believe.

Birgit said...

It's funny how the episodes were all over the place at the beginning. Many of the first season episodes are my favourite like the one when they first encounter the Romulans...Balance of Terror. I can see Roddenbury in Kirk...I think he would have to be since he is the creator ( to evoke another episode)

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