Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Strange New World Just Ahead, or: How to Make a Vulcan Feel at Home (Part 1 of 15)


...the final frontier.

These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.

Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds...

...to seek out new life and new civilizations...


(cue ethereal female harmonizing)

Star Trek, I thought, was a very inconsistent show, which at times sparkled with true ingenuity and pure science fiction approaches, and other times was more carnival-like, and very much more the creature of television than the creature of a legitimate literary form.

--Rod Serling

KIRK: We're on a thousand planets and spreading out. We cross fantastic distances and everything's alive, Cochrane. Life everywhere. We estimate there are millions of planets with intelligent life. We haven't begun to map them. Interesting? 
COCHRANE: How would you like to sleep for a hundred and fifty years and wake up in a new world? 
KIRK: It's all out there waiting for you...


SPOCK: It is my sincere wish that you do not give up your search for Eden. I have no doubt but that you will find it, or make it yourselves.

--"The Way to Eden"

Leonard Nimoy 1931-2015
"I went through a definite identity crises. The question was whether to embrace Mr. Spock or to fight the onslaught of public interest. I realize now that I really had no choice in the matter. Spock and Star Trek were very much alive and there wasn't anything I could do to change that." 

Nimoy grew up in Mattapan, at the time a Jewish neighborhood on Boston's West Side.

Nimoy had a bit part in the classic 1950s science fiction thriller THEM! It must have been an itty-bitty bit part, because I've seen this film several times, and for the life of me don't remember him being in it. He WAS uncredited, so I wouldn't have known to look.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, Nimoy made many one-shot appearances on various TV shows, such as The Virginian and The Man from U.N.C.L.E, as did some future costars of his (look carefully.)

In 1964, Nimoy appeared on an episode of The Lieutenant (imagine that women as a nurse in a miniskirt), a series produced by a man by the name of...

...Gene Roddenberry, who had written for such 1950s-early '60s series as Highway Patrol and Wagon Train. The Lieutenant lasted just one season, and he now had an idea for a new show, one that would take place in the future, and in outer space.

No, not that show. These days it seems almost sacrilege to mention these two science fiction series in the same breath, but in their initial 1960s runs, Lost in Space was the more popular.

1. Future Plans

According to the many interviews he gave during his lifetime, Gene Roddenberry wanted to use science fiction (a genre he had been a fan of since childhood) to explore social issues such as racism, sexism, militarism, and more basic philosophical concerns as what does it mean to be happy. All this thematic exploration would take place in a starship (a common sci-fi trope) that itself was exploring a small section of the Milky Way galaxy. I guess that, then, was the ultimate theme of the show: the Unknown, and what exactly should be done about it. We are the Enterprise, and outer space is simply what the rest of the day has in store for us.

The problem for this series, dubbed Star Trek, and, really, any TV show, movie, novel, or comic book with a space ship--excuse me, starship--that has the improbable knack for traveling at speeds faster than that of light, is that any civilization that could create such a thing would be pretty goddamn strange itself. I mean, think about it, that far in the future, who cares about other planets? The Earth should be fucking awesome enough, right? Or if it's not fucking awesome enough that far in the future, then it would still be awesome for defying expectations. Except at that point it becomes harder for the viewer to identify with the citizens of such a strange world as they go out seeking places even stranger. That  problem could be solved simply by having the show take place in 1966, except that the Americans and the Russians were having a hard enough time reaching the moon, much less Omega IV or Minara II.

To get around all this, Roddenberry downplayed Earth's own futuristic technology whenever he could. Sure, the USS. Enterprise had a machine that could disassemble a person's molecules and then put them all back together on a planet far below, but on the starship itself, everybody still used elevators! Earth, at least on the original series, was never visited, and only mentioned in terms 1966 audiences could relate to. Like, a central character who grew up in Iowa once had a treehouse as a kid  (whether that treehouse was built with wood and nails or some undiscovered element mined from a Beta Quadrant mining colony and held together with synthetic tachyons is unknown.) And no matter how many planets, races, and civilizations that are discovered between the present day and hundreds of years henceforth, Russian and Scottish accents still survive. Comforting.

Roddenberry didn't stop there. To emphasize that humans that far in the future would still be undeniably, recognizably, human, he decided to contrast Earth's native species with a crew member from another planet. Originally half-Martian--that the red planet had sentient beings still seemed possible in the 1960s as the popularity of a certain sitcom starring Ray Walston would indicate--he then had the foresight to hedge his bet by having this crew member come from a fictional world outside our solar system called Vulcan. With a name like that, you'd think this alien was made out of rubber. No, he just had pointy ears. Roddenberry felt the actor who would play him, Leonard Nimoy, was alien-looking enough. Really, he once was quoted a saying that. Nimoy took the job anyway. Actors go where the work is.

 Next up, the alien needed a name.

Roddenberry claimed never to have heard of the guy, 18,000,000 copies notwithstanding.

The first pilot film for Star Trek was titled "The Cage". Almost-but-not-quite-a-movie star Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers, King of Kings) plays Christopher Pike, captain of the aforementioned Enterprise. A distress signal leads the starship to a planet in a relatively unexplored part of the galaxy. A landing party led by Pike himself beams down and finds human survivors of an expedition  that went missing 18 years later. Among the survivors a hot chick (Susan Oliver) who lures a wary but understandably intrigued Pike into a cave where he's captured by a bunch of bulbous, varicose vein-headed aliens. From there Pike finds himself in several different scenarios, all taken from various events from his life, except this time he's reliving them with the hot chick. Pike eventually figures out that these are illusions created by the aliens--called Talosians--themselves, who want him to breed with the hot chick so they'll have a race that will help them restore their dying civilization. The Talosians then access the Enterprise computers and find that the human race has a record of fleeing oppressive conditions--maybe they saw footage of the Rio Grande--and therefore unsuitable as slave labor. The landing party is allowed to return to their ship, but the hot chick, who is quite real but once we see what she actually looks like is no longer hot having been pulverized by the earlier crash landing and then put back together the wrong way by the Talosians who had no idea what she looked like (though you'd think they could have simply used their telepathic powers to find out.)

As for Nimoy's Mr. Spock, he's not seen too much in the pilot, and when he is, he seems like some dude you might run into at a sports bar, pointed ears notwithstanding (which you might not even notice if you've had too many jello shots). He's also quite emotional, grinning like an idiot at one point. Maybe he's had too many jello shots. The cool demeanor we've come to associate with the character is instead embodied in Number One, the Enterprise's second-in-command, played here by Majel Barrett (Roddenberry's soon-to-be-wife) who, though apparently human, seems much more alien than Spock. A readjustment would be in order.

A readjustment brought about by NBC executives, who turned down the pilot, finding it "too cerebral" and "too intellectual" . Too cerebral and too intellectual for network execs used to watching I Dream of Jeannie or Flipper maybe. "The Cage", later shown in truncated form as the two-parter "The Menagerie", was a beautifully shot, sensitively told tale about the seductiveness of memory that, sure, had some intelligence behind it, but also scattered violence and a hint of sex that '60s audiences would have dug. And besides, it's all precipitated by an alien abduction. Since when is that plot device too intellectual? Rather than reject this series out of hand (especially if it made them look too dim-witted in doing so), the NBC bigwigs asked Roddenberry for a second pilot, a first for the network.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey Hunter's contract didn't obligate him to a second pilot, and so he opted out. The youthful-looking actor would spend the rest of the 1960s bouncing back and forth between TV and movies until he died from lingering injuries brought on by a freak explosion on a set in Italy. He was

In Hunter's place Roddenberry obtained the services of an up-and-coming Shakespearean-trained (!) actor by the name of William Shatner, who had a small part in Stanley Kramer's 1960 film Judgement at Nuremberg (no, he wasn't a Nazi), and had played the central character in the classic (in hindsight) Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet", the one where the guy on an airplane sees a gremlin. Roddenberry also decided to change the name of the character to James T. Kirk, an allusion to Captain James Cook, the real-life 18th century explorer who had discovered the Hawaiian Islands. Kirk's TV discoveries would be decidedly less idyllic. Roddenberry's later decision to show the "The Cage" in flashback form allowed both Pike and Kirk to be included in the Star Trek mythos, but they really did start out as the same guy.

A perhaps more significant change, at least for our purposes if not Mr. Shatner's, had to do with the Number One character played by Majel Barrett. The network bigwigs wanted her dropped. To his dying day, Roddenberry would claim this was sexism on NBC's part, that they didn't think a woman should have that large a part in an action-adventure series. However, Herbert Solow, an executive at Desilu (formerly RKO) studios, which produced Star Trek, has suggested the execs simply didn't cotton to Roddenberry's mistress (he was married to someone else at the time) in such a prominent role. More about Star Trek and women in a future installment. Hoping to salvage his show, Roddenberry let Barrett go (only to quickly bring her back as Nurse Chapel as well as the voice of the Enterprise's computer.) They don't really tell you in "The Cage" but Number One would seem to be a member of our species, you know, the human race. Yet she was logical and showed little emotion. Well, some homo sapiens are like that. In Earth vernacular it's known as "having something stuck up your ass."  Roddenberry thought maybe such traits would be more palatable in an alien. So the gregarious Spock of "The Cage" became the hard-nosed Spock of the second pilot "Where No Man Has Gone Before."  It made sense that if a guy's gonna come from a different planet, he may be different in other ways as well. It was now explicitly stated that on Spock's home planet Vulcan, people were logical and had no emotions, either because they were born without them or had done away with then through custom (over the years, various versions of Star Trek have proffered both explanations.) But what exactly does it mean to have no emotions? A venetian blind has no discernible emotions yet you don't expect it to act logically, especially when you're trying to open and close the damn thing. Well, in that second pilot, Spock does seem to have at least one discernible emotion, that of a sourpuss.

As with "The Cage" the second pilot concerns a missing spacecraft, the S.S. Valiant, not seen in 200 years. Belatedly deciding that it's time to find out what went wrong, the USS. Enterprise heads out to the (fictional) Galactic Barrier, a ring of energy surrounding the Milky Way. Captain Kirk may have wished that it was fictional in his own make-believe universe as well, as the Barrier ends up killing 9 crew men, damages the Enterprise's systems, and knocks helmsman Gary Mitchell (played by Gary Lockwood, star of Rodenberry's short-lived The Lieutenant and soon to be seen in another sci-fi classic 2001:A Space Odyssey) and ship psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner (a young Sally Kellerman) unconscious. Once they both come to, Dehner seems normal, but Mitchell, eyes all aglow, finds he has ESP and other psychic skills, which grow stronger which each passing minute. Spock (whose own ESP-like talents go unmentioned) immediately decides Mitchell is a danger to himself  and others and demands Kirk keep him confined to his quarters or some place for his own good. As Mitchell's an old friend from academy days, Kirk is reluctant to do anything but reminisce with him about classroom hijinks. Mitchell soon soon develops psychokinesis, the ability to manipulate matter, and declares himself a god, at which Kirk, as his superior officer, takes umbrage. Unfortunately it's now long past time to confine him to his quarters, or anywhere else on the Enterprise. Spock thinks a more lethal solution may be in order. Compounding matters, Dr. Dehner's eyes are now beaming like a pair of Day-Glo cuff links, too. Not wanting to kill a friend, Kirk decides to maroon Mitchell (after he's been tranquilized) on an uninhabited planet. At this point you may think the next best step would be to just shove Mitchell into a transporter, beam him down, and then get the hell out. Except there's an unmanned lithium-processing station down there, which they need access to in order to repair the Enterprise's damaged engines. Mitchell, meanwhile, breaks through his force field holding cell, kills a crew man, and gets ready to kill Kirk as well, even creating a headstone for him. A now all-powerful Dehner, meanwhile, has fallen for Mitchell, or has at least decided birds of an omnipotent feather should stick together. Kirk somehow appeals to her sense of humanity. She tries to talk sense into Mitchel, and is fatally injured for her trouble. A mortal Kirk and the Godlike Mitchell then engage in battle, which Kirk, or course, wins, as he'll win all his battles through 79 episodes and 6 movies. 7 if you don't mind how that last one ends. NBC execs were happy enough that he won the battle in the second pilot (by causing a landslide) and picked up the series.

Now about Spock's debut as an emotionless Vulcan. I think it's more accurate to say he lacks positive  emotions. Fact is, he's just boiling over with anger and resentment in the second pilot, stomping around the Enterprise, barking orders at subordinates, practically barking orders at Kirk, his superior, and generally acting like he's just escaped from the Asylum for the Pathologically Spiteful. What a dick!

What's odd, though, is how this all ends. After Kirk finishes describing the whole chain of sorry events into his Captain's Log, adding that the now-deceased Mitchell was under a kind of sickness and shouldn't be held accountable for his actions, Spock, who didn't seem to have much use for the helmsman throughout the entire pilot, states that he "felt for him, too." A pleased Kirk tells Spock that "there's hope for you yet." Given that Spock read the entire situation correctly whereas the Enterprise captain almost let the whole thing spiral out of control, I think it's the latter who's badly in need of hope. So what exactly is the moral of this story other than people with Godlike powers shouldn't be allowed to act Godlike? Shortly after 9/11 I recall seeing New York Times Columnist Thomas Friedman on some talking head news show claiming that it was a good thing then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was on our side, because he was a little bit psycho and we needed someone like that in the War on Terror. I think the subsequent debacle in Iraq may have proved we could have done without Rumsefeld's psychosis. Still, the idea is an old one. In a world, and maybe a galaxy, full of evil, we need to be as ruthless as the bad guys in order to survive. In this episode, then, Spock is a kind of Dirty Harry of outer space, and logic is his .44 Magnum. "I know what you're thinking, punk: 'did he ask six Socratic questions or only five? Well, punk, in all the confusion I forgot myself, but you have to ask yourself, 'since I dropped out of the 7th grade and have no idea who Socrates is, is it my lucky day?' Well, punk, luck is illogical!"

Whether because Nimoy declined to play him that way, or Roddenberry thought it might be too off-putting, Spock was never depicted in a such a heavy-handed manner again. In the next show filmed (though it wouldn't be aired until about halfway through the first season) "The Cobermite Maneuver", one of the best episodes of the entire series, Spock is more the even-tempered Vulcan that we know him best. Not that it does him any good. The Enterprise encounters a giant spaceship that looks kind of like the ball that's lowered on Times Square every New Year's Eve. Faced with imminent destruction, Spock compares the situation to chess, and suggests that they're on the verge of being checkmated. Kirk, though, comes up with a better comparison: poker. He bluff's their unseen foe into backing off, and when he eventually does see him, discovers that it's a friendly little boy with an adult voice. As for the chastened Spock, he can only remark, "I'll have to learn more about this 'poker'"--a philistine card game having proved superior to a more intellectual diversion. And so it goes for most of the first half of the first season. When Spock is at his most easygoing, he's wrong. When he's right, he's unbearable.

Spock is seemingly wrong, wrong, and more wrong in "The Galileo Seven", which originally appeared about midway in the first season. The Enterprise has to make the usual emergency medical supplies to the usual plague-ridden colony, when they notice unusual quasar-like phenomenon from a group of stars they're passing by. Since part of the Enterprise's mission is to investigate anything unusual, Kirk decides to send a party of seven commanded by Spock in the Galileo shuttlecraft to check out the phenomenon, while the Enterprise proceeds on course with the intended delivery, the idea being that they'll come back and join up with them in a few days. Well, the phenomenon causes the Galileo to get blown off course and they crash land on the wrong planet. Having lost much of its fuel, the only way for the shuttlecraft to blast off back into space is if just four people return in it. Rather than pick straws to sees who stays behind, Spock decides to pick the unlucky trio himself, a solution the rest of crew sees as not so much logical as arrogant. A bunch of towering, even-more-hirsute-than-normal cave men show up and kill one of the crew members with a spear, sparing Spock 1/3 of his difficult decision. More squabbling follows about who should officiate at the dead man's funeral. Or rather, who shouldn't officiate, as Spock wants no part of it. He's reminded that it's in fact his duty as commander. He reluctantly agrees, but only after the shuttlecraft is repaired. He also finds the murder weapon of anthropological interest, a thought he really should have kept to himself. More Spock logic follows, leading to disaster or hard feelings or both. Somewhere along the way the restless natives kill another crew member. The surviving team could just scare the cave men off (or kill them) with their phasers, but they need the ammunition, i.e. energy packs, to generate enough propulsion to get the Galileo off the ground. With five now locked in the shuttlecraft (the plan to leave any more behind forgotten), and with the cave men hitting the vehicle with spears and pounding it with rocks, Spock muses out loud (and to unexpected comic effect) about how his over-reliance on logic has endangered him and everyone else:

SPOCK: Strange. Step by step, I have made the correct and logical decisions. And yet two men have died.
CREW MEMBER: And you brought your furry friends down on us.
SPOCK: I do seem to have miscalculated regarding them, and inculcated resentment on your parts. The sum of the parts cannot be greater than the whole.
CREW MEMBER: A little less analysis and more action. That's what we need, Mister Spock. 

Finally spaceborne, but thinking they're by now light-years away from the Enterprise with no hope of ever catching up, Spock jettisons the little fuel that is left and sets it aflame, in the desperate hope that this will get someone's attention. Turns out the starship was in the neighborhood after all, and they're all rescued. When Kirk remarks to Spock that his gambit seemed a bit illogical, Spock replies that in a situation like that, illogic was the only logical course. At which point the good captain and everybody else on deck has a good laugh.

Spock starts out the heavy, but definitely becomes more sympathetic as this story proceeds. Who among us hasn't tried to save face even as evidence of our incompetence accumulates? Who hasn't been laughed at without meaning to be funny? If you don't count "Amok Time" (where a Vulcan femme-fatale actually causes all the trouble) Spock is never this wrong again. More importantly, he's never this ruthless again. And he's not as ruthless as you might think in this episode, either. Although he seems somewhat callous at times, he alone rejects the idea of killing the hairy beasts, whose planet this is, after all. A nobler, much more heroic, ultimately iconic Spock emerges from the ashes of "The Galileo Seven". To explain how this happens, we'll have to go look at the two writer-producers who had the greatest impact on Star Trek.

Next: The Evolution of Gene Roddenberry