Private Viewing: Is it time for Star Trek to embark on a new enterprise?
- Credit: AP
Star Trek is one of TV’s great survivors but, as a new series looms, arts editor Andrew Clarke wonders if it is time for it to embrace change
Famously, Captain Kirk informed generations of sci-fi fans that space was the final frontier and the continuing voyages of the Starship Enterprise would take us to strange new worlds and allow us to boldly go where no-one had gone before.
Star Trek is the series that the TV executives and the taste-makers could not kill. Originally commissioned in 1966 in the US it ran for three years before it was cancelled in 1969 because of falling audiences following a move to a Friday night graveyard broadcast slot.
But, the series refused to die and its optimistic view of the future found a huge cult following around the world. The BBC bought the series in the 1970s to fill the void when its own immortal sci-fi giant Doctor Who was off the air during the summer months.
In the US, Star Trek’s fanbase grew to huge proportions as repeats became a mainstay of the early days of syndicated television. The attraction of Star Trek was that it was a morality tale in space. It was played as if it was a western but the shipboard life gave it a nautical feel rather like Horatio Hornblower.
While Doctor Who also pitted good against evil, The Doctor and his allies were always flawed heroes – which was what made them interesting. Captain Kirk and co were infallible square-jawed heroes, representing the ideal. In fact creator Gene Roddenberry created a galaxy where ideals could be explored and against which aspirations could be measured.
The United Federation of Planets was a thinly disguised metaphor for the United Nations and Roddenberry made sure the high-profile bridge crew on the USS Enterprise was an eclectic mix of nationalities and species. At the height of the Cold War it was a bold move to make the navigator, Pavel Chekov, a Russian while the communications chief, Lt Uhura, was played by black actress Nichelle Nichols at a time when both women in the workplace and civil rights were hot topics.
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This was bold stuff for the notoriously conservative US TV networks in the mid-60s and Roddenberry continued to push boundaries with the inclusion of Mr Spock, the Vulcan science officer, with pointed ears and raised eyebrows. He was nearly dropped because TV executives considered that he looked too much like the devil.
While Roddenberry successfully weathered that storm, Star Trek found itself banned in some southern states when Kirk and Uhura shared the very first inter-racial kiss. Some say that scene may have hastened the series end and the move to a less desirable time-slot.
But, as we know, Star Trek refused to die. Ten years after its initial cancellation it was reborn, with original cast intact, on the big screen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
While that first film creaked a bit, the following trilogy of films, The Wrath of Khan, The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home, proved that the ideas and the storytelling behind Star Trek remained as exciting, idealistic and as vital as ever. The success of these films triggered a new TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation, starring Patrick Stewart, which proved even more popular than the original series. Next Gen, as it became affectionately known, ran for ten years before handing the baton onto Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, who in turn handed it onto Star Trek: Voyager and then Enterprise.
Star Trek has been amazingly resilient. It has even survived the ridiculous series of recent films which tried to explore the early careers of Kirk and the original Enterprise crew and has contemporary actors doing somewhat suspect imitations of the original actors in order to give the movies a nostalgic feel. It didn’t work for me but the success at the box office tells a different tale.
So, it will come as no surprise then that US TV giant CBS has commissioned a new Star Trek series which will premiere in January 2017. Although details are few and far between we do know the series will be helmed by Star Trek film writer Alex Kurtzman but the question remains what sort of show will it be?
Is there a place in modern television for Star Trek’s liberal goodness and unshakeable faith in the upright hero? The series will be up against the sex and morally ambiguous storytelling of Game of Thrones and Walking Dead. They will be compared to series like Breaking Bad and Penny Dreadful – and yes, the revitalised Doctor Who.
Not only is it time to leave Captain Kirk behind, but, the big question is: ‘Is it time for Star Trek to get grimy?’