When I was five years old, there were two shows that scared the hell out of me. And I would pitch a tantrum whenever my mom would change the channel. One was Dark Shadows. Years later, I would watch this campy, badly shot soap and wonder what the hell was so scary. The other was Star Trek. What scared me was the episode with the mugato, which was sort of a cross between a gorilla and a unicorn. Captain Kirk shot it. It was the first time I’d ever seen someone or something vaporized in a science fictiony sort of way. They followed this up with the “cheesebread” episode, with those flying things that stung people on the back and drove them insane. Both eps were pretty intense for a five-year-old to watch.
But I was hooked.
And I stayed hooked right up until season 2 of Enterprise. By that point, I was in my late thirties and burned out on the franchise. Hey, you watch about 700 episodes of anything and see if your interest still holds. I watched it all, at least until halfway through the final series. I’ve seen all 11 movies, 8 in theaters, the first two on cable since my parents didn’t take me to see them, and one on DVD because I was in the midst of Trek burnout.
And yet it’s had a profound impact on my life. It’s why I wanted to become a writer. I watched Captains Kirk and Picard and wanted to write my own adventures. By the time I took the plunge, I was writing crime fiction. But I also saw the good and the bad in storytelling. I even read some of the novels, many of which I’m embarrassed to say that I liked. (A few were fun, but there were quite a few that would probably have never been published as part of other series.) I even indulged in cosplay for a couple of years, though that hobby got expensive and time consuming. I found other attractions, like making steady income and not getting sick every time I put on the full Klingon gear. (If JJ Abrams said, “How’d you like to be an extra and play a Klingon in the next movie,” I’d say “No, thanks. How about I have a beer with Simon Pegg or be Zoe Saldana’s cabin boy for a day?”)
But I couldn’t stay away for long. Eventually, I relented and rented Nemesis on DVD. (Thankfully, I only rented it.) I took a day off to see Chris Pine’s debut as Captain Kirk in 2009. (No cosplay folk, but I really didn’t appreciate the idiot pseudo-film students yammering through the noon showing at the Newport AMC theater.) So how do the series rank?
I’ll skip the current movie series because, for starters, only one has been released at this point, and two, I’m looking at the TV shows.
This show had the most potential of all the Treks, even the original series, and yet it had the most miscues. So what did it have going for it? Kate Mulgrew portrayed Kathryn Janeway, Trek’s first regular female captain. It had a spectacular premise for any science fiction series, ship flung instantly across the galaxy or the universe and facing nearly a century-long trip home. The cast was interesting. Tim Russ, a fan of the series since the Shatner days, played a Vulcan who lacked Spock’s empathy. Robert Beltran as a former rebel forced to become first officer to weld together two crews originally in battle against each other. Best of all was Robert Picardo as a holographic doctor whose lack of personality evolved into sarcastic, lonely, and surprisingly thoughtful being. So why am I listing this last?
To begin with, Voyager should have been looking pretty decrepit midway through Season 1. Also, after one of the best Trek pilots ever filmed, I was left wondering which Kathryn Janeway would show up from week to week. And really, Voyager should have left the 2003 Battlestar Galactica looking like a sitcom. Instead, I got the impression I was watching a somewhat better written version of Buck Rogers. Mind you, I don’t think anyone, especially after the dark, heavy Deep Space Nine, would want to see week after week of the Starship Meridian (from an episode of where the crew meets a starship that met the same fate as Voyager two years earlier.) But think of your average HBO series, like Rome or Deadwood. You can do dark with healthy doses of humor and humanity woven in.
This is the series I bailed on, and probably unfairly. As I said before, I stopped watching after seeing nearly 700 episodes and 9 movies of Star Trek. There was a lot to like about this show. Scott Bakula, like Kate Mulgrew before him, played a more down-to-Earth (no pun intended) starship captain than the swaggering James T. Kirk, the charismatic Jean-Luc Picard, and the intensely brooding Benjamin Sisko. The engineer was the sarcastic, almost McCoy-like Trip Tucker, who uttered one of the funniest lines in Trek history. “A poop question?” Then there was the alien and philosophical Dr. Phlox, usually unflappable and often the voice of reason.
This Enterprise wasn’t like Kirk’s ships or Picard’s. It was new, untested, bleeding edge technology. In what was the first use of the transporter in a combat situation, an officer was beamed aboard with debris embedded in his skin. So what put me off?
It was the bunny suit. T’Pol was an interesting Vulcan character, not as friendly or comforting as Spock, but not as aloof and cold as Tuvok. And they put this highly intelligent, extremely competent representative of the Vulcan Science Fleet in a bunny suit. I was in my early twenties when they did that to Counselor Troi and already put off by Voyager when it happened to Seven of Nine. By the time producer Brannon Braga decided that actress Joleen Blalock needed to demonstrate how she got on the cover of Maxim, I was already sick of Braga’s last minute resolutions and the annoyingly bland background music that had been with Trek since the Next Generation days. The bunny suit, while lovely to look at, really annoyed the hell out of me. And let’s be honest. Trek was ready to let it’s field lay fallow. By then, executive producer Rick Berman was wasting everyone’s time with, “OK, so we need to come up with a new premise. How about the crew of an interstellar ice cream truck cruising the Klingon Empire?” It’s seven people in a spaceship, stupid. Take two years off, change the cast, and find some fresh writing talent.
3. DEEP SPACE NINE
The politics of the Federation suck. The farther you get from Earth, the more messy the universe gets. Not all the good guys wear Starfleet uniforms, and not all the bad guys are with the enemy. Deep Space Nine has more in common with the original Star Trek than the later Treks, yet it builds on The Next Generation, even reintroducing Worf in later seasons.
Benjamin Sisko is a survivor of the epic Wolf 359 battle from Next Generation and takes what he hopes is a quiet posting at a joint Federation-Bajoran station at the edge of Federation space. Right off the bat, he finds himself thrust into the role of The Emissary, the mortal contact for the godlike wormhole aliens that the Bajorans worship as “The Prophets.” His first officer is Major Kira Nerys of Bajor. At first, she resents the presence of Starfleet, then grows to respect Sisko as a colleague, trying to suppress her religious tendencies to see him as The Emissary.
Deep Space Nine amped up the political intrigue and took Star Trek in a darker direction, climaxing in a nearly apocalyptic war with the shape-shifting Dominion. But the show had a rocky start: murky plots in the first two seasons, undefined direction, and unflattering comparisons to the similarly premised Babylon 5. And then producer Ira Steven Behr decided to go the opposite direction. Technology is not necessarily mankind’s friends. Friends and enemies are not so clearly defined. Behr then plunged the Federation into World War II in space, which contrasted it nicely to B5‘s Lovecraftian civil war. Still, the dark vibe was not for everyone. A few people said, “I feel like opening a vein watching that show.” Perhaps they missed the more personal and optimistic…
2. THE NEXT GENERATION
Gene Roddenberry had to be convinced to do this show. He wasn’t happy with the direction the movies were taking, but he was happy with the paychecks. Paramount smelled a cash cow and tried to get Roddenberry to sign off a cheesy series set at Starfleet Academy. Sensing his “child” was in trouble, he made a counter-proposal: A new Enterprise set a century later with a different crew and different set of values, a Trek for the 1980’s.
Instead of the horny, swaggering James T. Kirk, we got the staid, formal Jean-Luc Picard with first officer Will Riker filling the Kirk role. There was an android, Mr. Data, who mirrors Spock’s quest for self-identity, but in a more childlike manner. A blind navigator? A kid at the helm? What’s that Klingon doing on the bridge?
The Next Generation spent its first two seasons trying hard not to be the original series. The conflict between characters was taken down a few notches. And yet, through its long run, it had some of the most classic Trek moments. Who can forget the almost cinematic Best of Both Worlds, the two-part season cliffhanger/premier that is a science fiction classic in its own right. As time went by, TNG began to embrace its predecessor with cameos by Leonard Nimoy as Spock and James Doohan as Scotty, revived and bewildered after suspended 80 years in a transporter beam to survive a ship crash. Some of the original series’ birds have come home to roost. The predicted alliance with the Klingons is now a fact when the show begins, and some episodes of the original series and its movies have ramifications throughout the show’s run.
1. STAR TREK
Oh, myyyyy. Shatner redefines a genre for television as the swaggering, cocky James T. Kirk, balanced by the logical, alien Spock, played by Leonard Nimoy. The two have become elder statesmen for science fiction and for television. The cantankerous McCoy serves as the conscience of the crew. Scotty is the voice of the audience. And wait. There’s a woman – a black woman – serving as senior officer? And she’s one of the ship’s resident techies? In 1966? And an Asian and a Russian driving the ship? What is this?
It’s Wagon Train to the stars. It’s everything hinted at in Forbidden Planet. It’s everything Lost in Space wanted to be and couldn’t. It’s one of those things George Lucas watched as a film student and poured into the witch’s brew that evenutally became Star Wars. And it was part action, part morality play, and part Saturday morning serial.
Like TNG, which followed it, Star Trek was a more personal show. For all their larger-than-life personalities, the crew of the original Starship Enterprise was very real. They were family, a line that has since been uttered by Chris Pine in the trailer for the upcoming Star Trek Into Darkness. The cast has had its conflicts, like any good rock band or theater troupe, a vibe the TNG cast picked up on very well. Yet for all their sniping, witness how George Takei and William Shatner playfully dig at each other in social media. (Takei was the source for me of a hilarious photo of Shatner having a rematch with the Gorn commander, this time on Xbox.) Shatner and Nimoy are lifelong friends, predating the show, and while there has been tension between Shatner and the rest of the cast, that has resulted in a chemistry matched only by TNG‘s cast. It is why both these shows top this list. Each was creating something original and personal that has proven difficult to duplicate. Perhaps JJ Abrams found the best way to carry on the story: Don’t try to duplicate it. Do something different.
That’s when Star Trek works best.
All photos Paramount Pictures