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One of the things that has been keeping me sane in (solitary) lockdown is movie nights with my friends. With two close guy friends from high school, in particular, I have a weekly date for a movie at 8 p.m. EST (1 a.m. GMT) and this week it was my turn to pick the film. I had given the selection a fair bit of thought ahead of time, and presented them with a few options that I thought would be fun to watch; we settled on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
One of my friends had never seen any Star Trek property, and the other had only seen the new films, although his dad had been pressuring him to try the older ones. At the end of the film, they were so taken by what we had watched that it was decided we are going to Zoom again to watch an episode of The Original Series (any of my selection) and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock on Friday.* Such an enthusiastic response left me wondering, what exactly is the magic of the original films and show?
I am not much of a sci-fi fan and tend to be picky about TV because I don’t watch particularly much, so it surprised even me how much I enjoyed TOS the first time I watched it in high school. Although I’ve dabbled in the other properties, none of them ever provoked the lasting affection or interest that the ‘66 series and its movies did for me. Likewise, the friend that had seen the new J.J. Abrams films had never bothered with the originals because, though he thought the new movies were good, he didn’t think they were special.
At its core, I think that the most outstanding part of the films and show is their fundamentally conservative message and embrace of the moral imagination. By a conservative message I don’t mean that TOS subscribed to the economic principles of Milton Friedman or celebrated the thought of Russell Kirk, but that, within the framework of a quite progressive society, it had surprising fidelity to some very Burkean ideals and ideas about man and his nature.
Part of what brings this message to the forefront is the setting of the show. A lack of physical money and the presence of the United Federation of Planets, among other things, suggests to viewers that the crew of the Enterprise hails from a post-scarcity system, something some fans describe as a “utopia.” They, though, have escaped the utopia and traded the sure and steady for danger and adventure. As much as anything, Captain James T. Kirk is a cowboy, setting off for brave new worlds armed with a phaser and a set of quite traditional principles (duty, honor, honesty, etc.) that he intends for both himself and those under his leadership to live by. Such an openly paternal, though not condescending, figure might find little affection among critics today.
And the crew of the ship is as much bound by personal fealty and love as shared ideals. Indeed, it is the true diversity of viewpoints resident on the vessel, especially among the three main characters (headstrong Kirk, logical Spock, and compassionate McCoy), that allows it to operate as smoothly and successfully as it does. I’ve always thought the conception of the triumvirate as the divided parts of a whole both beautiful and valid, and the idea of the divvied up heart, mind, and soul speaks to a view of man as a creature that needs more than reason to thrive, and at the same time benefits from control and strong moorings.
Those relationships form the most obvious manifestation of that conservative message, showing that even hundreds of years in the future, in space, and among aliens, the fundamental need of man for love and companionship has not perished (very Burkean, indeed). Each man judges the other for his actions and ideals, not his position on the ship or status as a part of a particular race (much as McCoy antagonizes Spock for his duel heritage, he extends the same fierce protectiveness and exasperated affection to the alien, albeit with a different flavor, as he does to Kirk), and they are improved by their tripartite bond. Purely as a viewer, this evolving, complex relationship is the most compelling part of the series, a high wire act of mutual love, annoyance, fear, and hope that becomes its narrative and emotional core.
I think it’s instructive to explore one episode for an example of the holistic reality of this message. Take “The Empath,” from Season 3. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy encounter and are imprisoned by a race of science-oriented, emotionless humanoids on a dying planet, and, after a series of failed escape attempts and injury at the hands of their captors, the captain must choose which of his two officers will undergo an “experiment” that has a high chance of rendering him either dead or insane. The morality play that ensues, both between McCoy and his superiors and Kirk and the Vians, would be, at its fundamental level, as at home in Shakespeare as in outer space. In other words, “human” nature, across species and time, never fails to assert itself, and the moral quandaries which plagued Elizabethan noblemen do likewise to 23rd-century space officers, their answers coming from a similarly ancient source.
Certainly, there is much to make fun of in the original Star Trek series. William Shatner’s sometimes hammy acting, and seemingly pathological need to be shirtless at least once an episode, aliens that look curiously like small dogs donning party store horns, Leonard Nimoy’s heavy eyeshadow, and Kirk-fu all strike a less-than-serious chord and render some parts of the series basically unwatchable, but its fundamental message, skillfully conveyed in so many aspects, makes it a special cultural product despite these shortcomings. The magic of Star Trek is in the world that it builds, full of fresh possibilities and diverse, full characters who encounter the inevitable challenges of every human life with all of their flaws and triumph and fail.
*Update: We watched The Search for Spock and, after some negotiation, an episode of TOS, “The Enemy Within,” last night/this morning (there’s a time difference between us and it was 5:30 a.m. by the time I got off the call), and I am happy to report that all enjoyed the movie and the show, and we learned the valuable life lesson that you can tell the evil product of a transporter accident by the (frankly unsightly) amount of eyeliner he is wearing.Published in