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Star Trek enjoyed a strong reception during its first season. It was an unusual show that caught the attention of nearly every demographic and performed well against ABC's top-rated family comedy, Bewitched, and often topped ratings mainstays like CBS's My Three Sons.

 

The strongest following came from teens and college students, and praise poured in from science fiction writers and even the science community. The show's reality-based approach to space exploration, science and technology resonated with these groups and quickly earned Star Trek a reputation as "intelligent" television. Letters poured in to NBC offices, with fans using words like "logical," "believable," and "fascinating" to describe their favorite characters and episodes.

 

Regardless of the response, rumors began to circulate that NBC might not renew Star Trek for a second season. It seemed that a history of frustration with Roddenberry and doubts that the series would survive long enough to reach syndication were behind the network's hesitation. Sensing trouble, Harlan Ellison (The City on the Edge of Forever), along with several other high-profile science fiction writers, issued an open letter to sci-fi clubs and conventions warning that Star Trek could be in danger. "The Committee," as they were called, helped increase the already high volume of fanmail the show received, which NBC acknowledged in a 1967 promotional pamphlet called "Star Trek Mail Call." Inside, the network proudly revealed that 29,000 letters were received from a wide cross-section of fans who were passionate about Star Trek.

 

However, Not all reaction from the science fiction community were positive, Legendary author Isaac Asimov wrote a November 1966 article for TV Guide criticizing television sci-fi. He cited Star Trek in the piece for having referenced a gas cloud that was said to be "one-half light year outside the galaxy." According to Asimov, this sort of talk was inaccurate and should be avoided.

 

Roddenberry disagreed with this assessment, of course, and responded in a letter to Asimov. He mentioned efforts to consult with the RAND Corporation and Kellum deForest Research -- two science think tanks -- which had cleared the dialogue in question. He then went on to explain the challenges in producing intelligent television like Star Trek. Roddenberry wrote:

Despite all of this we do make mistakes and will probably continue to make them. The reason—Thursday has an annoying way of coming up once a week, and five working days an episode is a crushing burden, an impossible one. The wonder of it is not that we make mistakes, but that we are able to turn out once a week science fiction which is (if we are to believe SF writers and fans who are writing us in increasing numbers) the first true SF series ever made on television. We like to think this is what we are trying to do, and trying with considerable pride. And I suppose with considerable touchiness when we believe we are criticized unfairly or as in the case of your article, damned with faint praise... getting Star Trek on the air was impossible, putting out a program like this on a TV budget is impossible, reaching the necessary mass audience without alienating the select SF audience is impossible, not succumbing to network pressure to "juvenilize" the show is impossible, keeping it on the air is impossible. We've done all of these things. Perhaps someone else could have done it better, but no one else did. 

Isaac Asimov, famed author of "Foundation" and "I, Robot"

Roddenberry would write Asimov again in June 1967, this time seeking advice on a problem facing his writing team -- how to balance the starring role of William Shatner as Kirk with the phenomenal popularity of the Spock character.

Bill is a fine actor, has been in leads on Broadway, has done excellent motion pictures, is generally rated as fine an actor as we have in this country. But we're not getting the use of him that we should and it is not his fault. It's easy to give good situations and good lines to Spock.

This time, Asimov responded, offering Roddenberry two pieces of advice that perhaps shaped the future of Star Trek.

Star Trek is successful... The chief practical reason for its success Mr. Spock. The excellence of the stories and the acting brings in the intelligent audience (who aren't enough in numbers, alas, to affect the ratings appreciably) but Mr. Spock brings in the "teenage vote" which does send the ratings over the top. Therefore, nothing can or should be done about that. (Besides, Mr. Spock is a wonderful character and I would be most reluctant to change him in any way.)

...an effort should be made to work up story plots in which Mr. Shatner has an opportunity to put on disguises or take over roles of unusual nature. A bravura display of his versatility would be impressive indeed and would probably make the whole deal a great deal more fun for Mr. Shatner.

In his next letter, Roddenberry thanked his new friend, saying he would pass his ideas on to Gene Coon and the writers. Whether it was Asimov's suggestion or not, we may never know. However, both changes would indeed be seen in Star Trek stories that followed. Using sci-fi concepts as rationale, William Shatner is given numerous opportunites to masquerade in unusual settings and altered personalities, and the partnership between Kirk, Spock, and also Dr. McCoy is deepened and highlighted to the delight of fans.

A History of Our Future

Star Trek's impact as "intelligent" television is not limited to an appreciation for science. By setting his story in our corner of the universe, Roddenberry created a history of our future through which he could play out the cultural challenges of his own era rather than the struggles of an unknown people in a galaxy far, far away. In a time when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union brought scientific break throughs but threatened global Armageddon, Star Trek offered a hopeful alternative to the grim news of the day, made all the more powerful because this version of the future seemed entirely possible. 

 

Roddenberry, Coon and other Trek writers were working in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, the 16th Century satirist who challenged the harsh realities of his time with epic tales like Gulliver's Travels and essays like A Modest Proposal. Swift's method of writing exaggerated scenarios that highlighted the absurdity of political and popular wisdom worked to spark dialogue and even change minds.

 

Similarly, Star Trek effectively transports our greatest challenges into an era of new possibilities and enlightened philosphies. Using the alien cultures and parallel worlds of the 24th Century as allegories for the concerns of contemporary Americans, the series was able to tackle topics that would otherwise have been too taboo for television. The method proved to be a source of frustration for network censors afraid to offend advertisers and station owners, but a magnet for curious minds and young viewers seeking a new lens through which they could examine the world. This sort of intellectual time-travel resulted in many stories that remain as effective today as they were in the 1960s.

The Enterprise crew encounters a world where Nazi doctrine has been adopted in Patterns of Force.

The Klingons and the Federation engage in an arms race on a peaceful planet in A Private Little War.

The United Federation of Planets is a community of worlds that promotes the ideals of peace and individual rights. It is implied that a planet must evolve beyond wars, violence and bigotry to be eleigbile for Federation membership. Later, we will learn that for Earth this included an apocalyptic World War that led humanity to rebuild a unified homeworld. The Federation transcends national and cultural boundaries of the 20th Century and engages peacefully with new worlds, employing a policy of non-interference that stands in contrast to the aggressive colonialism of Earth's history.

Starfleet is the exploration, research, and defense force of the Federation. The U.S.S. Enterprise is registered as a Constitution-class vessel in this service. Crafted to appear as a realistic offshoot of the United States Navy, Starfleet protocol includes ranks (Captain, Lieutenant, Ensign) and terms ("port," starboard," "bridge," "sickbay") that were familiar to the audience. This helped to place Star Trek in a historical context among the naval traditions of Earth's past and root the series in a sense of reality. The "Captain's Log" further ads to this perception, presenting the voyages of Starfleet officers as events that have already occurred.

The Eugenics Wars are a fictional event in Earth history. According to Star Trek: The Original Series, this violent period occurred in the late 1990s when experiments with the human genome produced violent super-humans that siezed control of vast areas of the planet. Khan Noonien Singh was one such villian who the Enterprise would later encounter. Scenarios like this, which are presented as historical fact, make a powerful statement by casting the near-future of the audience as a dystopian period. In doing so, the underlying message of Khan and similar stories takes on additional gravity.

Building a Universe: Future History

Star Trek stood out from other science fiction by creating a 23rd Century that was relatable to viewers. Here are a few elements ofthis historical future at work:

The following episodes will be screened in #TrekClass LIVE on Monday, Sept. 28, at approx. 7:15pm and 8:30pm EST.

Online students are invited to join us as we "live tweet" using the course hashtag, or to review the tweets afterward by searching #Trekclass on Twitter.

Journey to Babel

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

Journey to Babel expands the Star Trek universe significantly as the Enterprise transports ambassadors from Federation worlds to a diplomatic conference. Among the dignitaries are Andorians, Tellarites, and a Vulcan -- Spock's father, Sarek. This episode, written by D.C. Fontana, is a strong example of the thoughtful and intelligent storytelling the series has become known for. Behind the alien costumes and makeup is a multi-layered plot dealing with family, sacrifice and love.

The Trouble with Tribbles

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

The Trouble with Tribbles displays a comical side of Star Trek that had not been seen in its first season. When Gene L. Coon took the reigns as producer, he began to insert more humor into the scripts. Roddenberry was not a fan of Coon's comideic take on Trek, and disagreements between the two Genes would eventualy lead to Coon's departure as showrunner. As you watch, note the contrast between Tribbles and the diplomatic story of Babel.

 
 

The "Away Mission" section encourages deeper exploration. To use a modern term, this is the "binge watching" portion of the course. Here you will find a curated list of episodes taken from the season or era discussed in the Mission above. Each is accompanied by a brief introduction and/or suggested questions to consider. Remember, you may complete Away Mission viewing on your own schedule.

Amok Time

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

As you watch, remember to record your observations in your Personal Log. Then, share any interesting takeaways with the class in our online community.

As the opening episode of Season 2, Amok Time is a story that delivers exactly what fans had been asking for -- more Spock. This story brings the Enterprise to the Vulcan homeworld for the first time, introducing us to many aspects of Spock's heritage that are now quite famous. These include the first time the Vulcan salute is seen, and the first time we hear the traditional greeting, "Live long and prosper."

 

But it's another part of Spock's alien culture that takes center stage in this adventure. The Vulcan mating instinct, known as the Pon Farr, has taken hold of the Enterprise First Officer, driving him to return home and join with his wife-to-be. It is a highly secretive ritual, and one the half-Human Spock is not keen to share with his crewmates.

 

Likewise, television networks were not eager to share mating practices with their audiences at this time. Primetime programs simply didn't depict sex or sexual desire in this way, and to do so was considered scandalous. However, Amok Time slipped by the censors as the script makes it clear that Spock's behavior is not human, and should be compared with other examples in nature, such as the spawning salmon.

Mirror, Mirror

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

The Deadly Years

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

In this Away Mission you will explore two episodes in which the cast is abe to break out of their established character roles. This is the same technique that Isaac Asimov mentioned in his letter to Gene Roddenberry, suggesting that the alternate realities of science fiction might allow William Shatner unique opportunities to shine in the leading role ooposite the "fascinating" Mr. Spock. 

 

Mirror, Mirror is an outrageous concept that became an instant classic. After a transporter accident, Captain Kirk and his crew trade places with their counterparts from a parallel world in which the Terran Empire, not the Federation, rules with brutality. This reversal gives Sharner, Nimoy and the entire cast the opportunity to play evil versions of their now familiar characters. In The Deadly Years, we see a similarly strange scenario in which Kirk and crew rapidly age before our eyes.

Mirror, Mirror may have given the cast a chance to step out of their usual characters, but there is no lack of Star Trek's signature social commentary in the episode. Can you identify message behind the story of the Mirror Universe? How would this contrast have resonated with audiences in 1967? Which real-world powers might they have compared to the Terran Empire and the Federation?

As you watch The Deadly Years, consider how both episodes in this Away Mission provide new opportunities to the cast, especially William Shatner. This soon become a regular occurance in every Star Trek series. How do the unusual behaviors required in these scripts help the cast and characters evolve?

I, Mudd

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

A Piece of the Action

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

Here we have two of Star Trek's most comical episodes. They are largely the work of producer Gene L. Coon, who added humor with these and other episodes (see The Trouble with Tribbles) that expanded the range of the series beyond the straight-faced science fiction it had been known for in its first year. Gene Roddenberry did not care for Coon's comical scripts, and this became a source of tension between the two men who contributed more to Star Trek than any other.

 

I, Mudd is the the silliest episode of The Original Series. It prioritizes comedy, even above message. With the return of Harry Mudd, who gave us intergalactic prostitution in his first appearance, this episode pushes the boundaries even further by insinuating sexual encounters between human men and android women. A Piece of the Action is also outrageously funny, but is less of a contrast to the usual Star Trek format. Here we see an alien world that has been deeply influenced by the images and stories of gangsters.

In addition to the campy humor, what are these episodes trying to say? Are there relevant messages to be gleaned from the stories of robotic women and alien mobsters?

We know Gene Roddenberry didn't like Gene Coon's comedy, but fans sure did. These episodes are some of the most popular in the series. What do you think about Star Trek as a comedic program? Does it work? Why do you think Roddenberry opposed it? 

Metamorphosis

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

Metamorphosis is a moving story about true love. The fact that we meet Zefram Cochrane in this episode is almost secondary, but nonetheless important. Cochrane is the human who invented the "warp drive," giving humanity the power to reach the stars (more on that later). In our first glimpse of Cochrane, we find him romantically involved with an alien entity that is vastly different from the human race, but capable of a love that's every bit as powerful.

NBC reacted negatively to the idea of a romance and kiss between an interracial couple during the series' first season. Here, Gene Coon tries a different approach to the same concept. How does Metamorphosis differ from a traditional love story? Why was Coon able to get this script past the network? Does the "Jonathan Swift" approach make the moral of the story more or less powerful than if it had been presented at face value?

Patterns of Force

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

Bread and Circuses

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

While the Swiftian method of storytelling proved effective for Star Trek, it wasn't always subtle. In this Away Mission, we have two examples of "parallel worlds" that leave little about the underlying message to the imagination. In Patterns of Forcethe crew encounters a world where a Nazi government rules supreme. Then, in Bread and Circuses, a similar scenario invoking the Roman Empire and the crude values of a corrupted society.

The sort of social commentary in Patterns of Force may seem cliché today, but the sight of our heroes dressed as Nazis would have been more impactful when this episode first aired. Still, the story itself is quite heavy-handed as it explores the appeal of fascism and its power to corrupt. Do you think the message lands effectively in spite of the blunt delivery?

Bread and Circuses takes its name from a Roman-era poem. It refers to a society that does not value civic duty and virtue, but instead amuses itself with pleasure and entertainment. The true meaning of this episode is not at all hidden from the viewer, but that doesn't mean it's not worth discussing -- what are Roddenberry and Coon trying to say about the television and entertainment industries?

The Ultimate Computer

Star Trek: The Original Series, Season 2

In The Ultimate Computer, Kirk receives orders from Starfleet that the Enterprise will host a scientific experiment by Dr. Richard Daystrom, the Federation’s leading mind in the field of artificial intelligence. Daystrom has developed a supercomputer reportedly capable of assuming total control of a starship. Kirk and his crew are to assist with the M5’s installation, the Enterprise afterward participating in tactical simulations to test the computer’s ability to replace humans in making command decisions. If successful, the M5 may be installed throughout the fleet.

When viewed from a twenty-first-century perspective, this assignment seems routine in terms of our imaginings about future life. Yet Kirk and his crew are deeply troubled, expressing concerns, even fears, about the experiment. Only Spock reveals interest in the new technology, which he finds “fascinating” from a purely logical point of view. As the crew wrestles with surrendering control to the M5, Kirk confides in McCoy that the notion of being replaced by a computer has put him on “red alert.” McCoy agrees: “We’re all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job? That’s different! And it always will be different.”

 

McCoy’s words are unusual for a man of twenty-third-century science, though certainly familiar enough to us. Essentially, Kirk and McCoy exist in the future but speak from the past. Their dialogue was written at a time when many citizens had heard about the promise of computers but were unsure as to how artificial intelligence might impact their lives. Today, this discussion seems quaint. In our world, jobs ranging from the manufacture of goods to the exploration of Mars are accomplished with the help of intelligent systems. Indeed, life in our time is shaped by the steady progress of computerization; we look forward to new devices. Our modern perspective does not, however, spoil this story. To the contrary, our expanded understanding of intelligent technologies allows us to today see things more like Spock than Kirk and McCoy when viewing this episode. In this context, “The Ultimate Computer” becomes less a cautionary fable about the automation of human jobs and more an opportunity to weigh our existing dependence on technology, considering the value of human intelligence in a world increasingly run by machines.

After viewing The Ultimate Computer, analyze this episode from the perspective of a 21st Century human. How do 1960s ideas and concerns about technology differ today? If we were once supposed to see this as a story about automation and elimination of jobs, what can we take away from it now as we live in a world where computers are ubiquitous?

After completing Mission 02, don't forget to share your thoughts and research with the class in our online community.

 

You may choose to complete some or all of this unit, but we want to hear your insights on the questions above, or anything else you've noticed in the episodes assigned.

 

If you've viewed other episodes not included in the Mission, please feel free to discuss those as well.

 

Tip: Try sharing your question responses individually, rather than responding to the entire unit in one post. We've found this makes for easier discussion.