Shiny Shelf

Star Trek: Seasons One and Two DVD

By Jim Smith on 09 December 2004

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Star TrekGene Roddenberry was no visionary. What he was a first rate screenwriter of serial television who came up with a cracking idea for a television series; one which has been both hysterically over-appreciated and subject to much unfair mockery. And now it’s on DVD.

It’s a bizarre thought that ‘Star Trek’ itself, these days often called ‘Star Trek: The Original Series’, ‘Classic Trek’ or even ‘Proper Star Trek’, is a tiny portion of the megalith that is the property. There are 80 episodes of ‘Proper Star Trek’ spread over three television seasons and four calendar years. ‘The Next Generation’, ‘Deep Space Nine’ and ‘Voyager’ each ran for seven seasons and each has double the number of episodes as their parent series. Even ‘Enterprise’, for many the runt of the litter, has now surpassed the Sixties series in terms of screen hours.

Yet, and this is important, it’s ‘Star Trek: The Original Series’ which is the icon and the gold standard. It’s what its successors aspire, and often fail, to be. Watched with an open mind and an appreciation of the age of the material it is both exactly the same as, and completely different from, what you expect it to be. It’s also exceptionally good serial television.

Paramount have done a decent job of these releases. The packaging is lovely and the extras are not inconsiderable in both quality and quantity. Most of the cast are interviewed anew, as are writers such as John DF Black and DC Fontana and producer Herb Solow, all of whom have been able to move out of Roddenberry’s shadow in the decade since the creator/producer’s sadly premature death. Of the actors Nimoy is as interesting, and Shatner as entertaining, as they always are. The others contribute little but soundbites. Roddenberry himself contributes a great deal via a video-taped 1988 interview and comes across as eloquent and wryly self-mocking.

The picture re-mastering across these discs is inconsistent. The colours are bright and the definition crisp and yet the film is sometimes covered in black crackles and dirt, particuarly at the beginnings and ends of Acts. Some of the special effects sequences are also noticeably damaged through overuse. It would have been nice for the studio, which makes so much money out of the property, to put more money back in and allow the episode to be put together again from the best available elements. (Some shots that are in more than one episode are of better quality in one than the other).

Anyway, that’s the extras and the pictures, what about the episodes? Well, the first season is thought by most fans to be the best. While I’d argue for the second myself, the very first run of ‘Star Trek’ episodes is certainly the equal of any selection attempted since. The ‘first’ episode (shot second, screened third, but clearly intended as a premiere) even boasts a title which resonates through pop culture – it’s ‘Where No Man Has Gone Before’. Photographed by the Oscar winning Ernest Haller (‘Gone With The Wind’, ‘Rebel Without A Cause’) it looks gorgeous, boasts a pair of terrific guest performances from Gary Lockwood (‘2001′) and the very sexy Elizabeth Denner (‘MASH’) and has a compelling central concept as Kirk struggles with the possibility that he may have to kill his friend Gary Mitchell before he becomes a monster who will destroy Enterprise for fun.

There are other episodes among these first twenty six that are very nearly as good. ‘The Return of the Archons’ is one of Roddenberry’s atheist parables and balances that with a creepy atmosphere and visually appealing anachronisms. ‘The Menagerie’ is a masterful bit of ‘bait and switch’ as Roddenberry, Black and directors Marc Daniels and Robert Butler recycle bits of the abandoned pilot episode ‘The Cage’ by building a story around its events and using the material as evidence in a trial. Spock’s actions in this one, the desperate lengths he is prepared to go to in order to help an old friend, and the character traits – loyalty, compassion, daring, imagination – that are revealed in the process set up much of what good ‘Star Trek’ is all about. The best part of forty years on it’s still 100 of the property’s very best minutes.

‘Shore Leave’ is Theodore Sturgeon’s wilfully peculiar tale of a pleasure planet and features probably the worst rabbit costume in TV history. ‘Balance of Terror’ is a nerve-shredding battle of wills demonstrated through a pseudo-naval battle drama. ‘The Squire of Gothos’ features a career changing turn from former heavy William Campbell as the super camp titular immortal child. ‘Space Seed’ is good, but not as special as its extraordinary sequel ‘The Wrath of Khan’ might make you think it would be. Ricardo Montalban though is magnetic. So magnetic that his easy seduction and domination of a female crewmember seems almost dramatically acceptable despite its frankly shocking sexual politics.

‘The City on the Edge of Forever’ has been endlessly praised, and rightly so. In it Kirk and Spock travel into the past in order to prevent a drug-addled McCoy from changing history. Joan Collins’ performance is pretty bad and at one point the set shakes chronically, but apart from that it’s damn near perfect. ‘The Enemy Within’ gives you two Shatners for the price of one, a good one and an evil one, and that’s pretty boss. ‘Arena’ is legendary for its somehow thrilling depiction of a battle between Kirk and a lumbering lump of green foam. There are some duds. ‘Tomorrow is Yesterday’ is weak nonsense, with a script that clearly hasn’t been thought through. ‘The Conscience of the King’ tries to blend being backstage at a performance of ‘Hamlet’ with an examination of the mind of a dictator, but just doesn’t work. It also begins the show’s habit of taking a line from Shakespeare, capitalising certain words and making a title out of it. Actually, it doesn’t. The earlier episode, taut psychodrama ‘Dagger of the Mind’ does. There’s so many of them it’s hard to tell sometimes.

Much of the fun of the first season, especially if watched in production order, is in seeing the show evolve. The Klingons and Romulans appear for one initial time each. The ‘Prime Directive’ of non-interference is mentioned for the first time. Starfleet is named, as is the United Federation of Planets. But much of what you expect isn’t there either. It’s the Romulans, not the Klingons, who can make their ships invisible (and it’s not done with a ‘cloaking device’ either, but with a ‘cloak’ or an ‘invisibility screen’). Romulans are not necessarily related to Vulcans (Spock speculates that they are, but nothing is confirmed). The Romulan ship isn’t called a Bird of Prey either. It’s just that one of the crew describes it as ‘painted like a big bird of prey’. Which it is, an attractive design of spread wings spreading across its, er, wings.

There are other changes too. Uniforms change colour and shape, characters come in (Uhura, Bones) drop out (Nurse Chapel, Janice Rand) and change jobs (Sulu). Watching the show in (the frankly erratic) transmission order makes these shifts back and forth even more noticeable than watching them in the approved viewing order. (This set conveniently, informs you of both). Nothing is ever in its final form the first time out.

Most crucially it’s not until the second season that the ‘Trek’ cast that the general public mentally reaches for is finally established with the addition of Walter Koenig’s endearing Davy Jones-a-like Ensign Pavel Chekov.

Second season highlight is ‘Mirror, Mirror’ which managed to create a whole new kind of TV episode. In it Kirk and co. travel to a parallel universe where ‘evil’ versions of themselves thrive. The creation, fully formed, of a functioning set of icons, clich?s and plot points which could – and consistently have – been recycled by other similar shows had previously really been the preserve of sitcoms of the undeniable quality of ‘Bilko’.

Also first rate are ‘The Doomsday Machine’ (‘Moby Dick’ like conflict with vast, unexplained juggernaut weapon) and ‘The Ultimate Computer’ (the best argument against technobabble in ‘Trek’ ever written, and featuring ‘Blacula’ himself). ‘The Trouble with Tribbles’ is arguably Trek’s first out-and-out comedy and features another very fine turn from William Campbell this time as the Klingon Koloth. Season premiere ‘Amok Time’ is another from the pen of Theodore Sturgeon. In this we visit Vulcan for the first time and much of what the audience knows is revealed (or ‘made up’ depending on how you want to see it). This was, nay is, fertile ground for the Trek universe and ‘Enterprise’ is currently using it to produce some of the best ‘Star Trek’ episodes in more than a decade.

Season Two is also the year that ‘Trek’ really gets into the swing of its use of borrowed icons and anachronisms for thematic and plot purposes. ‘Bread and Circuses’ is on-the-planet-of-the-Romans. ‘Patterns of Force’ is on-the-planet-of-the-Nazis. ‘A Piece of the Action’ is ‘on-the-planet-of-Jimmy-Cagney-films’. All exist to show, in their own ways, that secular liberalism is better than any alternative yet offered by humanity. They’re all also bags of fun. Colourful, funny, exciting and full of a kind of dayglo pop-exuberance. Roddenberry’s own ‘The Omega Glory’ has been much underrated. Really it belongs with the stories mentioned above, but instead of transporting our heroes into another kind of archetpyal fiction it finds Enterprise arriving at what the world might be like centuries after a nuclear holocaust. The ‘Yangs’ (Yanks) and ‘Kohms’ (Communists) element of the plot has taken some stick over the years, but it’s actually a neat device for driving into the audience at home that this cinder of a world is the result of the kind of mistakes contemporary politicians were then trying to not make.

Speaking of the mistakes of the sixties, ‘A Private Little War’ (another Roddenberry script) is a Vietnam story which doesn’t patronize its audience by suggesting that there’s an obvious solution. Indeed, Kirk’s actions at the end are questionable and ambiguous, suggesting that there really is no good way out of this mess. Other good episodes include ‘The Deadly Years’ (a terrific bottle show in which the crew stars ageing while Kirk engages in inter-command power struggles) and ‘Wolf in the Fold’ (‘Psycho’ writer Robert Bloch does ‘Jack the Ripper in Space’ and it somehow works.).

The years only real failures include ‘The Apple’ and confused Halloween potboiler ‘Catspaw’ (don’t blame me for that missing apostrophe, by the way). See, I told you this was the best season; and it ends with the underrated, hip, groovy and thoroughly tip top ‘Assignment: Earth’. People can’t forget that this is a failed pilot for another Roddenberry series recycled as a ‘Trek’ episode. That’s a shame. ‘Star Trek’ is so very sixties that the times when it actually visits the sixties are amongst its special joys. (The aformentioned ‘Tomorrow is Yesterday’ works better than it should do for purely visual reasons).

‘Assignment: Earth’ is a bit cheaper than it needs to be. It’s also idealistic, camp, funny, far too ambitious, quite sexy, humane, groovy, uses borrowed iconography and is, let’s face it, a little bit confused at the end of the day. And that’s what makes it ‘Star Trek’.

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