Thoughts on the Five-Year Mission

I am approaching Star Trek completism, as I have only four episodes left of the original series (TOS). (I will never truly reach that lofty goal, as I refuse to finish Star Trek V, and so it seems fair to write this post before I have “officially” watched all the episodes.) My various Twitter discussions on TOS have already spawned one popular guest post, and I can’t pretend this will be as rigorous or interesting — think of it as more of a lengthy open thread prompt than a proper post.

I like the theory that counts the two seasons of The Animated Series (TAS) toward the “five year mission” of Kirk’s voiceover. Though TAS is deprecated as far as the “canon” goes, I think the two series belong together — and in fact, TAS is probably of higher quality on a per capita basis. Part of it is surely the half-hour format, which requires greater focus if the episode is to make any sense at all, but I think the freedom of animation let them expand their horizons. They seem to be having fun, not just with the new kinds of monsters they can show, but with things that would have been almost totally impossible on the original, such as the three-armed comm officer Alix or the gradual shrinking process on “The Terratin Incident.” They do a lot of sequels to classic episodes, and many of them surpass the original — a stark contrast to the slavishness of Enterprise‘s various prequels and sequels. The two also go together in that TOS cannot possibly constitute a coherent canon. For every problem TAS raises, you could point out a similar objection to a TOS storyline.

One thing that grates in the later seasons of TOS especially is that they seem to pad out every script with a superfluous love plot between Kirk and some alien. They mostly involve love at first sight, and then the woman either devotes herself wholly to Kirk (often sacrificing herself) or turns out to be part of an alien plot to seduce and distract him. Sometimes they lurch from the latter to the former, as in “Elaan of Troius,” so that the woman character simply makes no sense at all.

In general, they lean far too much on Kirk — I know that he’s technically one of the best-loved television characters of all time, but he kind of sucks as a person and is in any case not sufficient to carry a whole show. They gesture toward an ensemble cast, but it’s basically an ensemble of three: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. For his part, McCoy is mostly limited to objecting to Spock’s emotional coldness, so that he’s more of a prop to get viewers up to speed on Spock’s character than a genuine character in his own right. Scotty or Chekov sometimes joins in the fray, but more often they are comfortably in the background along with Sulu and Uhura — less characters than broad ethnic stereotypes (though thankfully Uhura and Sulu at least don’t have accents!).

Hence we’re left with the simplistic dialectic between Kirk’s impulsive gut reactions and Spock’s cold logic, and most of the time we learn that cold logic is insufficient if not paired with a genuinely human level of intuition, etc., etc. It’s a testament to Leonard Nimoy’s charisma as an actor that he’s able to turn the cardboard cutout the writers initially gave him into a compelling character. To their credit, they do increasingly complicate this dynamic, particularly when Kirk is in danger and Spock’s cold logic turns out to be just the thing, much to McCoy’s chagrin.

The fascination of Spock also leads them into their only actual construction of an alien culture, as when they invent the “pon farr” mating ritual. By contrast, the Klingons and Romulans remain one-dimensional (without any compelling reason why both of them even need to exist in the world of the show), and the Andorrians and Tellarites are little more than cool costumes. This incuriosity about alien cultures is most striking when we realize that a huge proportion of the episodes find them on a planet that was unexpectedly settled by humans, is reprising some earlier phase in earth’s development, houses figures who turn out to be ancient gods who visited earth, etc. (In the end, a truly compelling thorough exploration of Vulcan culture and history was a major contribution of Enterprise, along with its development of the Andorrians and, to a lesser extent, the Tellarites.)

A consistently frustrating feature of TOS, which they seem to have gotten past by the time of TNG, is that they won’t settle on a single concept for an episode. There’s always some wholly different idea that they randomly shoehorn into the episode. On “Requiem for Methusela,” for example, the villain quite unexpectedly turns out to be capable of shrinking the Enterprise down to the size of a toy and teleporting it into his underground lair. Where the fuck did that come from? Even more striking is Evil Kirk’s ridiculous “murder machine” on “Mirror, Mirror” — surely the parallel universe was a compelling enough concept for one episode!

Even as a kid, this was a big part of the reason I preferred TNG over TOS. It felt like TOS just wasn’t playing fair, that they weren’t trying hard enough to make it make sense, even on the level of an individual episode. I can forgive them for the more or less purely episodic nature of the series, because the idea of a continuous television narrative would be unknown outside of soap operas for at least a decade. But can’t they at least try to make the individual episodes internally coherent? Can’t they manage to pull together a script that doesn’t need a totally implausible deus ex machina to resolve itself?

In the best episodes, of course, they do. And sometimes, as in “The Trouble with Tribbles,” their less serious approach leads to an episode that is genuinely more fun than any later series can pull off — or else the random final twist is so ridiculous that you have to think they’re consciouly screwing with you, as with the alien from “The Corbomite Maneuver” that looks like a baby (if not for that crazy image, that episode would be up there with “Balance of Terror” in my view).

Despite all my complaints, I will likely keep returning to TOS and TAS, particularly on lonely “bachelor nights” when The Girlfriend leaves me alone in the house — somehow it always feels like just the thing. Yet I can’t help but think that the unaired pilot “The Cage” (later remixed into the two-part episode “The Menagerie”) remains the very best episode of TOS, an image of a more cerebral and interesting TOS that only became fully realized in Next Generation. When I contrast that episode with the worst of TOS, I can’t help but think that in the last analyasis, Captain Kirk ruined the show.

2 Responses to “Thoughts on the Five-Year Mission”

  1. seanchristophercapener Says:

    I don’t know if I agree that Kirk ruins TOS (although I agree that the show to which “The Cage” would be a pilot is far closer to the Star Trek that my childhood mind composited into a sort of ‘spirit’ of Star Trek that I was always on the hunt for), but I will say that the *Kirkification* of the show ruins TOS–in fact, the *Kirkification* of the show ruins *Kirk*!

    What the triumvirate is good for (and for better or worse, you’re right that TOS was never an ensemble show) is making it possible for any of the three characters to be fundamentally wrong about how to respond to the situation from episode to episode. Normally it’s assumed that the only real debate is between Spock and McCoy, and Kirk functions as a kind of synthesis, but what makes The Motion Picture my favorite of the movies (as flawed as it is) is in part that in that film it’s Kirk that’s wrong and Spock and McCoy collectively that tend to read the situation correctly; McCoy has a better handle on the ship’s internal politics and Spock has a better handle on the VGer situation.

    I think that for me, the relation between TOS and TNG is such that while TNG is a much better realized show, there’s a kind of spirit to TOS that keeps me loyal to it (and I’m sure childhood proclivities still play a part). A fully realized TOS with the triumvirate relationship firing on all cylinders never happens, but the fact that I can make out the outlines of it even as it never materializes keeps me tantalized.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Kirk is actually much more plausible as a captain in TAS, where the animated version looks strangely almost nothing like William Shatner!

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