What If: Why I Love Classic Star Trek

Yes, I love classic Star Trek.  That ridiculous show.  Maybe it’s a genetic thing.  I remember laying on my dad’s chest as he watched Star Trek when I was a small child.  Of course, I wasn’t much interested in it then.  In fact, I thought it was pretty silly up until a few years ago, when I actually started watching it.

I didn’t think science fiction was silly.  I love science fiction, I have loved science fiction for a long time.  Having that geeky dad (and geeky mom) meant there were enough books in the house by  Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert and H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to produce a healthy affection for the genre.

One of my particular favorites (it still sits on my shelf) was an anthology of short stories.  Isaac Asimov presents: The Golden Years of Science Fiction.   I read and re-read this book of stories written in the mid-twentieth century, and I fell in love with the medium of the short story.  I also fell in love with science fiction expressed in the short story format.  It allowed just enough time to ask  the big “What If?” question and play the answer out to a thrilling, unexpected, and often macabre possibility.

(As a side note, this anthology included the original “I, Robot” which was written by Eando Binder in 1939 and you should definitely read it.)

That “What If” was the driving force behind early and classic science fiction.  What if…robots had consciences?  What if…all labor became mechanized?  What if…we are Soylent Green?  Classic sci-fi asks all kinds of what if questions, not only about scientific possibilities but about psychology, ethics, morality, economics, and usually whatever big questions or issues are currently haunting society.

When we read or watch classic science fiction, we can – quite appropriately for the genre – look back into time to see what curiosity, fears, and possibilities captivated the minds of its writers at the time.

I’m going to attach two addenda to that statement.

1) It is true for all arts – literature, visual art, music – that they allow a window into the artist’s thoughts and into the time period in which they were produced.  The reason I believe science fiction is an especially effective medium for this is because science fiction is all about possibilities.  So, we can take our fear of nuclear war and play it out to every possible horrifying conclusion.  Fear of artificial intelligence – same thing.  Wonderment at increasing technology?  Let’s put cities hanging in the skies of Mars.  Science fiction doesn’t just reflect the mind of the times – it magnifies it.

2) I am of the opinion that the bulk of modern sci-fi is intended to be shock-value sensationalized blockbuster fodder.  Blow your mind instead of provoking it.  I’m a purist or a geezer or whatever but that’s what I think.  Also, can we kill the zombies already?  We’re really beating a dead horse.

And so.  Classic Trek.  Lizard men. Women in skimpy outfits.  Kirk Fu.   Puppy dog aliens.  William Shatner’s mysteriously ripping shirt.  All of these delightful idiosyncrasies that pepper the show some people love and some people think is the worst thing to ever grace the small screen.

It’s such a shame the Federation cannot afford sturdier shirts.

To me, these idiosyncrasies are just icing on the delicious cake that is Star Trek.  The show is a clear example of writers asking “what if?” every week.  That’s not to say that every week is an award-worthy accomplishment.  Sometimes it falls a little flat.  Sometimes it’s really irritatingly sexist.  But then, it was the 1960s.

You don’t watch it for the shiny special effects.  You don’t watch it for William Shatner’s acting (or then again, maybe you do).  You watch it because it’s incessantly (and maybe sometimes annoyingly) philosophical.  You watch it because it’s part of the legacy of 20th century science fiction.  You watch it because it’s heinously campy and you’re desperate to learn the secret of Spock’s debilitating shoulder-pinch.

The short format of a regular TV show echoes those short stories that built modern sci-fi.  Here’s an idea: run with it!  Next week: another one!  Like The Twilight Zone, it’s the perfect soil for exploring “what if”, again and again.

And there you have it.  I have learned to love Star Trek.  I love it for its own corny, philosophical sake, but I also love it for the science fiction tradition it both came from and carried on.  And I really wouldn’t mind if modern TV was a little less SFX and a little more corny and philosophical.

 

P.S. I’ve left out Star Trek: The Next Generation because I haven’t seen enough of it in my adulthood to give it any kind of analysis.  While there was probably more TNG in our house growing up than CST, I’m working my way through CST before I move on to TNG.  Because, I just love being chronological.  And thank goodness for Netflix.

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