(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Series: Star Trek
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix, Amazon, and CBS All Access
The Pitch: Captain James T. Kirk and the crew of the starship Enterprise boldly go where no one has gone before, traveling the galaxy on a five-year mission to seek out new life, forge alliances, defend against nefarious villains, and get into fist fights that generally involve uniforms being torn just enough to show off William Shatner’s physique. Star Trek is the kind of show that is rightfully iconic and known to millions of people who have never seen a frame of it. And when you actually watch it (either for the first time or the hundredth), it’s astonishing how fresh, weird, sexy, funny, and thrilling the whole thing really is.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: You know how sometimes you put off watching something famous and widely-praised and influential because you think it’s going to be work? I know that feeling well. And I see that feeling often applied to Star Trek, perhaps the vital cornerstone of modern popular culture and the creator of modern fandom (for better and worse). However, here’s the thing about the original Star Trek series, which ran from 1966 through 1969: if you’re willing to meet it halfway and recognize that it was made for a ’60s audience that doesn’t always share our modern values, it’s amazing how much of it holds up, transcending its time and delivering often astonishing television.
Look, a small ongoing column about what we’re watching during quarantine is not the place to dissect the legacy of the greatest science fiction franchise of all time. It speaks for itself, with eight-plus spin-offs, 13 movies, and countless comics and novels. However, I do think the original series often gets overlooked, even by fans, who often prefer the later iterations like The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine (and that’s okay, because they are great shows). I sometimes see the original three seasons dismissed as quaint, the necessary building blocks to get the foundation started. And that’s fair. At first glance, Star Trek does look dated. And in terms of gender and racial politics…it famously meant well, but it was still a show produced by white men in the ’60s.
But then you actually watch Star Trek and realize that this shit is wild. Like really wild.
You never know what you’re going to get with an episode of Star Trek. Is it going to be a thoughtful, emotional chronicle of tough moral choices like “The City on the Edge of Forever?” Is it going to be a wild, fantastical slice of horny pulp adventure like “Amok Time”? Is it going to be an edge-of-your-seat Cold War thriller like “Balance of Terror”? Is it going to be a B-movie action romp that is also a scathing condemnation of war like “Arena”? Or hell, how about “The Changeling,” which is just a pulse-poundng and smart tale of A.I. gone mad, predating 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL 9000? Star Trek is never content to be one thing – it wants to be all things and it manages to pull that off with aplomb.
There are also crap episodes. Stuff that stinks to high heavens. I wouldn’t wish “The Alternative Factor” or “And the Children Shall Lead” on just about anyone. But the highs cancel out the lows and then some. And honestly, having bad Trek to complain about is often as much fun as praising the good stuff.
But perhaps the most satisfying thing about the original Star Trek is that the characters, who might as well be carved out of marble for how singularly iconic they have become in the pop culture pantheon, hold up to scrutiny. Captain James T. Kirk is passionate, righteous, and proud, a two-fisted leader who is never afraid to ask for help when the going gets tough. Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy is a southern curmudgeon, always ready with an injection of sass but also ready to stand up for all living beings. And Spock, the greatest science fiction creation of the 20th century, looms over them all. Played with grace and astonishing commitment by the late, great Leonard Nimoy, the Vulcan science officer is hilarious and tragic, a terrific action hero and a man who values thought before violence, a character who works because his creators invested in him a total sincerity. Spock doesn’t wink. The show doesn’t wink at him. We take him seriously and love him for it.
So understand that Star Trek wasn’t made for modern sensibilities. Understand that you will occasionally cringe. Understand that yes, season 3 is largely bad thanks to behind-the-scenes struggles. But also understand that this show shattered the mold for a reason. And those reasons remain as clear as the stars in the sky.