Monday, August 28, 2006

Slingshot Effect

[I]t becomes increasingly easy, as you get older, to drown in nostalgia. ~Ted Koppel

Like most people, I wax nostalgic every now and then, even in this space. For the most part, though, I tend to leave the past in the past, because it's easy to fall into an idealized view of how it was. It is, for instance, wonderful to remember buying a week's worth of groceries for $25 (in 1971, honest). It's not so much fun to realize that, with a salary of $7500 a year, that $25 was a significant chunk of change each week. My dad's $49 a month mortgage payment looks swell, until I recall his $75 a week paycheck.

So, I try to keep things in perspective.

Certain pieces of the past, though, seem to be hugely magnified, not just to me, but to entire generations. In the case of my generation, one of those pieces came to life 40 years ago come September: Star Trek. It was Smithsonian Magazine's September issue that rudely reminded me of how long ago Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the rest of that merry band boldly went “where no man has gone before.”

Good lord, 1966. I graduated from high school that year and entered my freshman year of college, majoring in the making of flint tools. Well, no, it was physics, but it seems like it should have been something from the Neolithic (and I probably would have done better if it had been). What was it like in 1966?
  • We hadn't got to the Moon yet, but were sho 'nuff workin' on it.
  • VietNam was beginning to look like a lousy idea, but the majority of Americans were still on board.
  • Gasoline cost about 35 cents a gallon for high test (just thought I'd throw that in to depress you), and the first so-called fuel shortage was still about 5 years away.
  • Rock, folk, blues, and jazz were about to create a fusion that would last into the early seventies, generating the best music of the twentieth century.
  • The Civil Rights movement was gaining ground, but we were a couple of years away from finding out that the North needed it as much (or more) than the South.
  • And it seemed that just about everyone was protesting about something.
Into this Ball of Confusion (from the song of the same name) plopped “Star Trek”.

Now, roughly a bazillion words have been spoken and written about the significance of “Star Trek”, including, most recently a PhD thesis. Much of the rest of words have come from William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and other Trek cast members whose acting careers outside of Trek shows and films have been less than stellar. Well, that's not entirely fair. William Shatner actually has had some successes (including an Emmy for one of those lawyer shows), but the rest of the ensemble haven't exactly set the Hollywood firmament ablaze. At any rate, scholars, critics, Trekkers, and lord knows who else have waxed eloquent about how the show had a magnificent message of a future with hope and equality – and constant near warfare with Klingons and Romulans.

Well, maybe. Let's recall that Star Trek nearly warped into cancellation after its first season, being rescued at the last moment by a massive letter-writing campaign (the way people did it before the Internet). Despite all this fan mail, the show never really got very high ratings and was subsequently canceled after its third season. But, the show would get a new life after network, in syndicated reruns. There were bunches of sci-fi shows coming and going during those years, most of which have faded into oblivion, yet Trek, nearly a half-century later is still being shown. Trekkers are loyal.

By the way, with all due respect to the Smithsonian Magazine, they got it wrong, calling the show's fans Trekkies. The true fans are Trekkers, who take umbrage at being addressed by the cutsie form “Trekkies”. Trekkers are the people who go to the conventions dressed as green Orion slave girls, can speak Klingon, and can make the Vulcan salute without having to look down at their fingers first.

So how come Trek rolls on? I don't think it's much of a mystery, despite all the philosophizing that people have done about the program all these years. It all boils down to a few simple characteristics:
  • Good scripts: They had sci-fi writers generate their stories, and they gave them a very detailed outline for consistency (although they did cheat a little when the plot needed it). Yes, there were meaningful themes, but they seldom beat us to death with them, as most dramatic programs did. And there was an excellent blend of action and dialog that kept the shows from dissolving into philosophical ramblings (like Star Trek:The Next Generation).

  • Perfect casting: Maybe there weren't any great actors on the show, but they were perfect for the parts they had. Leonard Nimoy's limited range of emotion (if you ever saw him in Mission:Impossible, you know what I mean) was put to perfect use in Mr. Spock. William Shatner's overacting was just the ticket for a Horatio Hornblower sort of captain. And there was a remarkable chemistry that developed along the way. For whatever reason, you always felt that these people had been together as a crew for years.
  • Amazing special effects: Yeah, yeah, everybody goes on and on about how pitiful the effects were compared to today. Well, bunky, it wasn't today: it was 40 years ago, and believe me, those were good-looking effects, better than anything anyone else was doing on TV(except maybe, occasionally, The Outer Limits). The fact that they managed to do them on the cheap is all the more wonderful.
If you think about it, it's really the first two that have made the show last. The effects served to get everyone's attention early on. Once you got past the innovative look of the star ship Enterprise, the transporter, and phasers, it was the stories and the chemistry of the actors that kept bringing you back. Ultimately, that's what works in any series. Consider the other show that goes on and on: The Andy Griffith Show. No special effects, but the stories and the cast's chemistry just keep the reruns rolling.

The Trek franchise tried to match the original, but I think the later programs benefited more from special effects than anything else. TNG must have had something to last 7 or 9 years (or somewhere thereabouts), but, frankly, whatever it was eludes me. Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and, heaven help us, Enterprise were just soap operas that never would have seen the light of day without the Roddenberry name and spiffy CGI to keep them afloat.

So, to Kirk, Spock, Bones, Barney Fife, and all the great characters, I say, “Live long and prosper!” I suspect that if I last another 40 years, I'll still be able to watch your reruns.

Which will quite likely still be the best thing on the tube.

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