The argument hardly needs to be made that Star Trek should appear on the Mount Rushmore of not only science fiction, but world popular culture. Since arriving 50 years ago this year, it has become an indisputable cornerstone of the landscape, with fans in every country and of every profession, from me to the President of the United States. Fans are marking the 50th anniversary of the franchise in many different ways, and here on Sequart, we’re going to do “The Great Star Trek Re-Watch”.
Over the next few months, we’ll be going through each episode of the original series (or “TOS” to the fan community), and although I’ve seen every one of these episodes more times than I should admit in over 30 years of watching, I’ll do my best to see each one with fresh eyes. The main purpose of the series is to understand Star Trek TOS in purely analytical terms. We’ll be placing each episode in its historical context (that is, when it was produced and aired), the context of the science fiction genre and in terms of its contribution to popular culture and TV. On another level, we’ll also look at how each episode fits into the growing Star Trek canon, which is now such an established universe, but in those days it was growing from a tiny bud, hunting around sometimes uncertainly for a theme and a direction. (One of the remarkable things about Star Trek was that it found its footing so quickly, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t some stumbles along the way.)
When it comes to binge-watching TOS, all Trek fans are familiar with a certain debate regarding the order. Star Trek was a complex and difficult series to produce, and episodes were aired after they were completed, not necessarily after they were written and shot. Therefore, there are two distinct ways of experiencing the episodes: the order in which they were produced or the order in which they were aired. For example, “The Man Trap” was the first episode to actually hit the airwaves (on September 8, 1966), but it was actually the sixth episode shot, and was never really intended to carry the flag of the series forward. Allan Asherman’s The Star Trek Compendium was, for many of us fans in the 1980s, the definitive guide to TOS, and it listed the episodes in production order. I’m biased towards this order probably for that reason alone, but there’s also the argument that the production order is a better way to experience how the series evolved from week to week and year to year. Also, the series ostensibly takes place in chronological order, although there’s little to no continuity between episodes. Star Trek did not tell a serialized story such as most of today’s TV series, but essentially told self-contained stories that re-set between episodes. (The later films added a serialized component that allowed the character relationships to deepen in interesting ways.) Still, since the purpose of this re-watch is to consider TOS in an analytical fashion as we would any modern show, the production order is probably the best one.
Another potential point of debate is whether or not to include “The Cage”, the first Star Trek pilot, rejected by the network, which nevertheless commissioned a second pilot and later greenlit the reconfigured series. “The Cage” has many fascinating elements and is an intriguing glimpse into the Trek that never was, and it does have its place in the chronological canon, taking place fifteen years before Captain Kirk takes command of the Enterprise, but it wasn’t aired as part of TOS. (With the important caveat about the series’ only two-parter, “The Menagerie”, which incorporated most of the pilot footage in a new story.) In deference to the authority of the original series episodes, we’ll set “The Cage” aside in this re-watch and perhaps pick it up right at the end.
If all goes well, we should be finishing our look at Star Trek right about the time the 50th anniversary rolls around in September. Feel free to join us in having a fresh look at the series that started it all. Next time, we’ll have a look at the official series pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.