Lessons from Great TV #3: Star Trek
I came to Star Trek in a rather roundabout way. I’d watched it casually for years—although until recently, I’d seen more episodes of The Animated Series than of the original show—but it wasn’t until after college, when I saw Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan for the first time, that I fell in love with the franchise. My sense of the show is thus oddly reversed, almost like a mirror universe, shall we say: for me, Star Trek consists of one great movie with several television series hovering unaccountably around it, and it owes as much to Nicholas Meyer as to Gene Roddenberry. Even now, when I’ve started to go back and fill in the gaps in my education, I’ve still only seen maybe a tenth of the material available. And after making an effort recently to watch the most famous episodes of the original series, many of them for the first time, I found most of them sadly dated, with even such justly revered landmarks as “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Balance of Terror” hard to watch with a straight face.
The one great thing that the series has going for it, and where Roddenberry’s genius—along with his original conception—is most strongly felt, is its cast of characters. Television excels at allowing a large cast to grow together until their collective history becomes almost another presence in itself, and even Wrath of Khan wouldn’t be nearly as effective without that sense of shared experience. You can see it clearly in “Mirror, Mirror,” my favorite episode of the original series, in which Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Uhura find themselves switching places with their counterparts in a much darker universe. Much of the comedy that ensues comes from seeing evil doppelgängers of the characters we know—Sulu is especially priceless—and from the fact that Kirk, far from being confused by the situation, slips into his new role a little too easily. Most deliciously and subtly of all, aside from the goatee, Spock remains more or less the same in both worlds: cool, logical, and willing to listen to reason. And none of this would work if we didn’t know these people so well. That, in any universe, is the secret of television that lasts.
Tomorrow: The pitfalls of the comedy pilot.