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  • Ric Crossman

1.1 "The Cradle Of The Best And Of The Worst"

The Original Series Season 1 Retrospective

Well, this is a bit of a thing. Six years past, back when I first had the ludicrous idea to write this ludicrous series, one thing that I hadn't taken into account was how it would mean ending the series by trying to write something original on The Original Series.


It's all been said before, right? It's clear the show was something new in the US, to the point Alina Marsfelder had to dig out an obscure German TV show to find something contemporary to compare it with. Other than Raumpatrouille, the closest predecessor to Trek we can find is Lost In Space, (which Marsfelder also considered) but was a show Trek itself took care to distance itself from.


The history following the show is even more well-considered than the history preceding it. Moreover, Trek's success very much speaks for itself. Assuming one counts both The Animated Series and the "Kelvinverse" films - and as always, I'm baffled by any suggestion that we shouldn't - the longest time between releases of new screen Trek was five years and two months [1]. The franchise has had its ups and downs, but it never approached anything like the wilderness years suffered by the only other TV sci-fi franchise that could claim to have achieved anything like Trek's success.


There's always the temptation to sift through TOS's first year in the hope we'll find the gold dust that surely has to be there. To sniff out the yellowing bones cast somewhere in California almost sixty years ago which predicted this complete domination of what television space opera would forever be. There's broadly two competing schools of thought about what secured Trek's fortune - iconography, optimism and talent vs the rotten myth of benevolent Americans on international peace-keeping duties designed to boost Cold War jingoism- though of course the option exists to declare both of them as necessary ingredients.


An attempted synthesis is probably the best of these approaches, in fact, because it at least recognises the obvious truth that this year of television isn't close to being a single coherent entity. Even then, the combination badly underserves just how tonally, narratively, and aesthetically scattered this is. The stress of running so many consecutive shoots on so tight a schedule, combined with so extensive a stable of contributing writers and a showrunner generously described as "mercurial", produced approximately twenty-four hours of TV [2] hammered by repeated ruptures, explosions, and assorted chaos of all forms. Infinite calamity in infinite combinations.


That's not entirely a bad thing. Sometimes messy can be beautiful, and sometimes you drop the ball to find it bounces exactly where it needed to go [3]. Frustratingly for me, though, it does make it hard to make sweeping statements about the season, though. We're not dealing with anything approaching a single coherent statement. It's more like a comic book filled with ink splodges, flicked through at speed. What you think of as the dominant themes almost certainly says more about you than about the show itself. The only true take is that there can be no one true take.


The Outer Zones


Not that it would be fair to imply this wasn't partially by design. Let's go back to the TV sci-fi landscape of the time. Actual space opera shows were a rare beast globally, and all but unheard of in the US. The form itself wasn't completely unknown, however, with both The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits offering episodes which imagined humanity exploring the galaxy. Interstellar adventures occasionally found their way onto the small screen, then, but only as part of anthology shows.


One question this raises, especially in the context of 21st century television, is just how far this season of The Original Series is from being an anthology show itself. Yes, sure, the show always has the same leads playing the same characters (though only two of them for now), and every episode centres around the same fictional ship. Beyond that, though, and a rotating pool of supporting characters (Scotty, Sulu and Uhura all appear on-screen together in just 12 episodes), things start to get a little more interesting. The Enterprise doesn't visit any location more than once [4], and references to previous episodes are (I think) entirely absent. The show's tone pinballs from near-comedy to Shakespearean pastiche to straight-up war drama to cod-Gothic horror. You can arguably make a stronger case that this season of Trek is even closer to an anthology series than Doctor Who, if only because Who started off with a narrative throughline (Barbera and Ian trying to get back to Earth) that has no equivalent here.

Then there's the scripts. To return to our comparison with Who, Hartnell's first season had eight stories under six credited writers. CE Weber helped work on "An Unearthly Child", though, which is best considered to be a story unto itself, though, so let's say there were seven writing teams (all but one solo efforts) over nine tales. That's 77.8% as many writing teams as stories, which is a fairly high number by today's standards.


For season one of TOS, that number is 92.9%. Or maybe 89.3% is fairer, if we judge Coon to be the sole writer of "Arena", having adapted it single-handedly from a very different story. A total of 23 people (again, excluding Frederic Brown) are credited as writers for the year. For the first year of Lost In Space, which also had 29 episodes, that total is 10. Trek has a higher percentage than either of the actual anthology shows we're comparing it with - though in part that's because Rod Serling was prolific to the degree that just reading his list of writing credits pushes me toward panic.


Trek was built from the ground up to feature as many different writers (or - that word again - combinations of writers) as possible, writing with as much creative freedom as possible. Kirk's log entries fulfil more or less precisely the same role as Serling's opening narratives; to give a little framing to the otherwise essentially context-free action that's about to follow.


And part of this bid for variation involved the Trek team reached out to writers whose sci-fi prose either established them as masters of the form (Matheson, Sturgeon) or heavily tipped them as reaching that level in the near future (Ellison). What's notable about this decision is that this trio of authors weren't just killing it on the printed page. All three of them had written multiple scripts for sci-fi anthology shows. We've intersected with Ellison's stint on The Outer Limits already. Matheson, meanwhile, wrote 14 episodes of The Twilight Zone, and Sturgeon wrote two episodes of Tales Of Tomorrow and one of Out There, both sci-fi anthology shows that aired in the 1950s.


Doubtless the idea worked on paper. Trek was crafted in such a way that it could be picked up and played with by basically any writer with the absolute bare minimum of prior knowledge. The setting is so broadly sketched that a single six-episode stretch puts the Enterprise operating in either the 22nd, the 23rd, or the 27th Century. As uniformly engaging as the main and supporting cast are, Kirk and McCoy have essentially no character notes beyond "hero" and "crotchety", respectively. Scott, Sulu and Uhura don't even get that, possessing merely a role and a nationality. Of them all, only Spock stands out as a character you'd need to have some handle on going in, and if this season of TOS demonstrates anything, it's that very few of its writers were required to grasp the difference between "ruthlessly logical" and "completely agreeing with your personal politics".


This is something commonly missed in all the complaints about TNG and Voyager's use of "the reset switch". Putting all the toys back in the box at the end of each episode isn't just a way to ensure your show can be viewed out of order without confusing anybody. It's a way to ensure you can attract the largest possible number of writers, because you can just pass people a one-page synopsis of what they have to work with and let them start hammering the keys. That isn't to say there are no downsides to the model (though I think those downsides are commonly overstated by those viewers who confuse knowing more about a show with being a better fan). If you want to persuade as many heavy-hitters as possible to submit pitches to your show, though, it has an awful lot to recommend it.


So yes. Cool. Create a show focussed on interstellar sci-fi, which fixes the two leads and the ship they command, and leave everything else up in the air. With that done, tempt established masters and serious up-and-coming prospects to contribute. That way, you benefit from the best of the business. Indeed, you benefit twice, because you're not only (hopefully) getting great stories, but the fact those authors are contributing in the first place gives additional cachet to your brand new show.

As I said, I'm sure it all looked great on paper. The problem with paper, though, is that you can scribble red pen all over it.


The Great Bird Gets The Bird


I don't like talking about Roddenberry all that much. The franchise desperately needs to decouple itself from the legacy of its creator. Even focussing on the ways in which he didn't live up to his own supposed ideas feels like a failure to recognise how far Trek has moved beyond him. Half the reason my "The City On The Edge Of Forever" essay has the title it does is that I want us to get past endlessly picking over one guy's life (the other half being that Harlan Ellison was a prick).


We're both at the start and the end here, so perhaps one more dive into this is forgivable. Certainly, it's hard to do otherwise. It's clear that one of the things - perhaps the thing - Roddenberry wanted most desperately was for Trek to be taken seriously. No kids, no silly robots, no zany alien sidekicks. With the kind of money movie sci-fi could play with completely out of reach, Roddenberry turned instead to the big ideas of contemporary genre literature.


None of which is particularly unreasonable. The problem came with Roddenberry seemingly not being able to distinguish between the show not being taken seriously and him not being taken seriously himself. This led first to an absurd dislike of the idea the show could be playful and lightweight on occasion (hence the blow-up with Theodore Sturgeon) and with the refusal to accept the show could succeed on any level without that success being primarily down to him (which brings us back to Ellison). Roddenberry designed a playground which was cheap to enter and filled with cool rides and shiny equipment, only to insist nobody could have any fun there unless he'd signed off on the games they wanted to play in advance, and that anyone who won one of those games agreed they owed their victory to him.


We've seen already how good a way this is to wind people up - not just the writers, but everyone who's forced into crunch-mode by last minute changes, and everyone who suffers the fall out of the people above them being stressed out by being in crunch mode. While I don't want to undersell the importance of not making workplaces unpleasant, though, what Roddenberry's neuroses and micromanaging spiked bothers me less than what they were happy to let through. We've already touched on what presumably seemed like Roddenberry's three best gets for writers (history, of course, had other ideas). We've covered how Sturgeon and Ellison struggled to get their ideas past TGBOTG, but there's no sense that Matheson had anything like the same problem. Or rather, the problem surfaced, but the interference seems to have been limited to adding the B-plot about Sulu freezing to death on the planet's surface. This, let's remember, is an episode which features both an attempted rape and the suggestion the survivor of said attempted rape might have secretly enjoyed it.


It's the worst episode of the entire first season, and I can't think of any more damning criticism of this show's quality control than the fact Sturgeon's script for "Shore Leave" was all but binned for not being serious enough, while Matheson's reactionism and rape apologia in "The Enemy Within" was apparently just fine.


This is an admittedly extreme example of the larger problem. Roddenberry's vision was broadly laudable - in the sense he did fairly well by the standards of 60s sci-fi, for all that straight white men had conspired to make those standards miserable - but his focus was always on the wrong things. The near-total non-canonising of The Animated Series is proof enough of that. To make only the smallest of tweaks to El Sandifer's position on Who canon as it relates to "The Celestial Toymaker", it's absolutely disgusting that Roddenberry thought cartoon silliness was a red line, but rape apologia wasn't. There is no conceivable valid metric that places "Mudd's Women" closer to what it means to be Trek than it does "The Magicks Of Megas-Tu". [5]


The Only Constant...


Here's the thing, though. Sure, there's a wealth of evidence that Roddenberry didn't just lean on a single stroke of brilliance for the rest of his career, he did it while actively undermining that one good idea every time he showed up to his office. But the flip side to that is Roddenberry actively undermined his one good idea every time he showed up to his office, and it was still good enough to spawn eleven TV shows and thirteen films. He dined off his only genuine bullseye for twenty-five years because he could. According to my total ordering of the Season One episodes - and yes of course I have one - this season is second only to TAS in terms of variation in quality. Yes, there's "The Enemy Within", and "Mudd's Women", and "Charlie X". But there's also "Balance Of Terror" and "The Conscience Of The King" and "The Naked Time". Hell, there's Roddenberry's very own, wholly underrated "The Menagerie (Part One)", so I can't even pretend he stuffed it up every time he sat at his desk.


And ultimately, part of why Roddenberry gets grief for interfering too much in other people's scripts is simply that there were so many scripts from other people for him to interfere with. To go back to an earlier comparison, Serling wrote twenty-eight scripts for the first year of his show. The equivalent number for Roddenberry is one (though that came in two parts, and he's credited with the story for three more). If Roddenberry disappointed people with how he limited them, it’s in large part because he got so close to a set-up where so many standard limitations didn’t need to apply. The man's failures to live up to what he was promising should always be considered in the context of just how much was promised.


That's as good a final word as I think I can manage on this, our first and last first season. Yoda was full of shit – there is a try, and it's important that we try to do the right things. It's not all that matters, obviously. But it matters.

Star Trek has arrived, glorious and ruined and inspiring and wrong. Everything that follows needs to do better, and does do better, and can't do better. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, over 816 episodes and counting; over thirteen films and counting.

I guess I should make a start.



[1] The time period between "The Counter-Clock Incident" and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture".


[2] An utterly ludicrous number of episodes that allowed Trek to pass through its growing pains, figure out what it was best at, and jump the shark through sheer exhaustion all in the same year.


[3] This may not be true for any actual sport. I'm not an expert. Not that I'm dissing sport, of course. Do geeks still just call every physical activity "sportball"? Or have we learned to entirely get over ourselves?


[4] Unless you want to quibble over "The Menagerie", but if I'm telling you it's not worth getting pedantic about, that should tell you something. Plus, neither clip shows nor two-parters are unknown in the history of sci-fi anthology shows.


[5] Or "Magic To Make The Sanest Man Go Mad", for that matter, though that's a very different fight with a very different bunch of terrible people.


Episode Rankings


9. Arena

26. Miri





Rewatch List


(Underlined episode are particularly good, the others are rather less indispensable. Episodes in italics are important to the ongoing story, but not recommended on their own terms.)


Where No Man Has Gone Before The Naked Time

Dagger Of The Mind The Corbomite Maneuver The Menagerie (Part 1)

The Menagerie (Part 2) The Conscience Of The King Balance Of Terror Shore Leave The Galileo Seven

The Squire Of Gothos Arena Tomorrow Is Yesterday Court Martial Return Of The Archons A Taste Of Armageddon The Devil In The Dark The City On The Edge Of Forever

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