Monday, October 19, 2009

Where EVERYONE has Gone Before...

I really doubt that the world needs another Internet thread regarding the realm of Star Trek, but no recollection of my early TV-viewing years is complete without mentioning it.

Like several of my favorite shows, Star Trek had already had its three-year run and been cancelled before I was even old enough to watch it. The show took off in a big way through reruns and that’s how I discovered it.

The “hook” of the show was irresistible to me. A spaceship (starship, to use the show’s term) full of people representing Earth in most of its varied nationalities heads off on a five-year mission into the farthest reaches of space “where no man has gone before!” I’ve always been a nut for teams: teams of superheroes, teams of undercover agents, teams of detectives, etc… so this was a no-brainer.

What really struck me as a child was the use of color on the show. The vivid blues and reds of the crew uniforms and the far-out 60s hues which dotted the sets and costumes of the aliens really caught my attention. Then there were the stacked, intricate hairstyles of the ladies and the heavy eye makeup. Also, costumer William Ware Theiss frequently used chiffon in the off-duty female clothes and in the outfits of the guest stars.

Although I don’t consider myself a “Trekkie” (and it’s now been changed to “Trekker”), I still love those clean sets, sharp colors, hazy close-ups and moral-infused stories whenever I come across an episode on TV. The music is also wonderful as well.

There are some clunkers amid the original series episodes, but usually I find something to like about each of them. My all-time favorite was “Mirror, Mirror” in which Captain Kirk, Dr. McCoy, Mr. Scott and Lt. Uhura were transported to an alternate Enterprise where everyone was brutal, ruthlessly ambitious and mean, while their evil counterparts were deposited on their ship, where they were instantly recognized as imposters. This episode featured tweaks on the standard issue female uniform that captivated me.

My favorite character was Uhura. I don’t know if it was because I spent countless minutes trying to figure out her hair or if I just thought she was pretty or what! Her portrayer, Nichelle Nichols, was often dissatisfied with her role on the show because she was so infrequently given anything to do. However, she did figure into the very first interracial kiss on a series when she and Kirk were forced by aliens to lock lips and she was also beseeched by no less than Martin Luther King Jr. to stay on the show because of the image she presented as a black woman of rank when such a thing was practically unheard of on television.

Another woman on the show whose hair baffled my childhood mind was Yeoman Janice Rand. She sported a hilarious, blonde, basket weave ‘do that was fascinatingly ornate and unusual. Actress Grace Lee Whitney claims to have developed the look herself and it is a switch from the look she sported in early publicity shots. It’s also clear from the many shots taken in preproduction that she was intended to have a far more significant place on the show than she ultimately wound up with. Stories vary as to whether she was fired to make room for more and varied love interests for Kirk or due to her weight gain or perhaps even her (admitted) problems with alcohol (which also affected her weight and appearance.) Let go after 13 episodes, it’s nice, at least, that she was reincorporated in some way into all of the later feature films that starred the original cast.

Still a third prominent lady on the show was Nurse Chapel, played by the producer’s wife Majel Barrett. In the first pilot for the series, she was a brunette and was second in command to the Captain (then named Pike and not played by William Shatner), but test audiences would have none of it. So she was later made blonde and incorporated on a recurring basis into the show and Dr. McCoy’s sidekick. Her hair was another mystery to me as a kid. Not only did it change frequently, but also it was sometimes an unidentifiable shade of silvery blonde. It never occurred to me then that anyone could be wearing wigs or hairpieces of any kind, even Mr. Shatner!

Next to Uhura, I loved McCoy the most, probably because of his sometimes cynical smart mouth, which was tempered by great sensitivity. In these respects, he’s very much like me.

My life was made complete one Christmas when my father and grandparents teamed up and bought me the Mego Enterprise Playset and four of the action figures. At last I could create all my own adventures and I DID! Disaster nut that I was, the poor Enterprise was constantly under attack, rolling off the furniture, crashing to the ground, etc… I could never understand why my Uhura action figure looked nothing like the actress on the show and would try to redo her hair accordingly! How sad is that?

Whenever they would rerun the episode The Cage, a two-parter made up mostly from the original pilot episode, I would dislike it because it wasn’t the “real” Star Trek I knew and loved. However, once I grew up and discovered the wonders of Jeffrey Hunter (sure to be the subject of a tribute here in the future) as Captain Pike, I began enjoying that one more. He was a more stern, humorless and traditional persona than William Shatner as Kirk, and I do happen to love Kirk, warts and all, but he was a handsome and underrated actor.

Once the show was cancelled, then caught fire in reruns, an animated series was developed using the voices of all the original cast members except Walter Koenig (Chekov), who was left out due to budgetary constraints. Nice... Though some of the stories were ambitious and it was neat to hear the cast doing their thing, the animation left a lot to be desired.

Fans who’d been clamoring for a real return of the original Enterprise crew got their wish when Star Trek: The Motion Picture arrived in theaters. Originally conceived as a new TV series, the success of Star Wars led to it being reconfigured into a feature film instead, helmed by Robert Wise. The film was a major success, thanks mostly to repeat viewings by Trek-starved fans, but it is really a very downbeat, dull affair for the most part and strangely muted. Subsequent films, especially the very next one featuring Ricardo Montalban as Khan, returned to the more fanciful and colorful adventures that fans loved with varying degrees of success. Eventually, the cast became rather old to be trotting around the galaxy and the Next Generation folks took over the franchise, though I bet there were many Trekkers who would have watched the original cast ward off enemies with their canes and walkers.

An odd personal aside: When I took my first job as a dining room attendant at Wendy’s (!), I was forced to stand amongst the tables, waiting for people to get up so that I could clean everything up for the next guests. Believe it or not, when Wendy’s was a newer chain, patrons did NOT take their own trays and debris to the garbage cans. An employee (like myself!) would bus the table. Anyway, I used to get so bored sometimes if the place was slow or full and as a way to pass the time, I would look at the people sitting in the dining room and imagine what they would look like if they had a Star Trek uniform on! I’d assign them a color and picture them in the outfit I’d chosen. I never said I wasn’t insane! This got me through some really dull afternoons.

If you think that’s weird, consider the fans who have decided that Kirk and Spock are actually lovers and who have written “slash fiction” depicting such. There have been countless stories composed and shared over the decades and now, with the help of digital imagery, the imagined relationship can be depicted more vividly than ever before!

As I said earlier, I loved the moral tone of the original series. There was usually a point (creator Rodenberry liked for the show to examine issues such as race relations, intolerance, world peace and so on, but in the guise of science fiction) and the people of the Enterprise were often bent on preserving the well-being of the aliens they encountered and standing up for those who were oppressed. They struggled to do what was right, regardless of the sacrifice. These qualities were almost completely lacking from the souped-up, re-envisioned version that hit theaters in 2009, thus wasting the talents of several actors who were well cast, particularly Zach Quinto as Mr. Spock.


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