If you find the recently released Ultimate Star Trek Collection to be a little out of your price range (or your geek completist range) but you still want some series Trek in your collection, consider Season One of the Original. It suffers from a low budget and stylized acting, but it set the groundwork for most tv SF that followed, and it remains the most inspired season of any Star Trek.
William Shatner as James T. Kirk
Leonard Nimoy as Spock
DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy
James Doohan as Montgomery Scott
George Takei as Sulu
Nichelle Nichols as Uhura
Grace Lee Whitney as Janice Rand
Majel Barrett as Nurse Christine Chapel
The 29 episodes of the first season, commentary on “The Conscience of the King,” original network promotional spots, and roughly three hours of moderately interesting features, with emphasis on Shatner and Nimoy.
“The City on the Edge of Forever,” “The Squire of Gothos,” “The Devil in the Dark,” and others stand out among the first season, generally regarded as the Original Series’ best.
Watching Star Trek develop, and seeing all of the interesting other things it might have become, ranks as my high point.
By the end of the first season, Star Trek had evolved into the show most people remember. Along the way, the it loses the weight and grittiness that characterize the early episodes. The first two months, in particular, feel like 50s hard SF, captured on film.
The first season features remarkably few of those “Space Caucasian” episodes, where Kirk and the boys find a planet of alien white guys living in a society with one obvious flaw that needs to be corrected. Eight episodes pass before we see anything like that premise1, and only two other first season episodes use it (I’m not counting “Errand of Mercy,” which features a twist). Generally, human settlements encountered by the Enterprise are Terran colonies, often rough and isolated.
Despite the low budget, the creators tried to make most aliens seem, well, alien, even the humanoids. Skinny actresses with prosthetic heads and dubbed voices appear as Talosians of indeterminate sex in “The Menagerie.” Little Clint Howard, also dubbed, appears as a diminutive extra-terrestrial in “The Corbomite Maneuver.” Others, like the Horta and the Gorn, were something else entirely. Oddly, later movies and series which had the budget and technology to give us interesting aliens made considerably less effort, settling for rubber foreheads and incidental cultural differences.
The Enterprise has been sent by the United Earth Space Probe Agency, and for roughly half a season, no one mentions the Federation. They have an alien crewman—-Spock—- but we learn little about Earth’s relationship with Vulcan(ia). McCoy even makes a passing reference in “Conscience of the King” to Spock’s people having been conquered, though this receives no further comment (and it will be flatly contradicted a year later in “The Immunity Syndrome”). We’re left with the impression that Terrans have encountered few other space-going civilizations. The first reference to a Federation comes from Balok in “The Corbomite Maneuver,” but he refers here to an organization to which his people belong. Eight episodes later, we first hear of Earth’s membership in a United Federation of Planets, and this receives regular mention throughout the remainder of the season. The possibility exists that humans have just signed on; later Trek history will reject this notion, and establish the Earth-centric Federation which we’ve come to know.
We see other changes and developments over the course of the first season: the Kirk/Spock/McCoy relationship that will become central to the show, the “lithium” (!) crystals which later gain a prefix, Kirk’s middle initial which transforms from an “R” to a “T,” and the mutating history that eventually places Trek about two centuries into the future.
I enjoyed the text commentary on “Conscience of the King.” It seemed cheap not to provide it on a few more episodes. And I would far rather have text commentary than that stupid graphic that must be run every time one wants to see an episode.
Seriously, who thought these were a good idea? Why do they afflict every DVD release with one? It’s cool the first time we zoom into the Enterprise, zip around the bridge, and finally see our menu appear. It’s annoying after the third time. If studios feel they must impress us with their computer graphics, they should give us the option to skip over or fast forward through.
A few episodes feature disastrous plot logic, and “Space Seed” reveals for the first time that ships named “Enterprise” are disastrously easy to commandeer.
At least three times the Enterprise finds a planet which allegedly features plants but no animals, and no one finds this odd.
Why did they include the matte shot in “Devil in the Dark”? Other episodes feature fair to good matte work, and this particular background doesn’t even need to be there.
“The Alternative Factor” bites.
Berman-Braga Cheap Shot:
“Balance of Terror” reminds us how entirely Enterprise contradicts the established history of Human/Romulan contact.
Originality: 5/6. Trek had its predecessors in written SF and movies such as Forbidden Planet, but television had never seen anything like it. Previous televised SF had been kiddie fare—-stuff like Captain Video and Space Patrol— or anthology series, such as The Outer Limits. For all their hokiness, many of the episodes work surprisingly well.
Effects: 3/6. They generally did the best they could with the budget they had. Some hold up quite well. Others, such as phasar fire, look silly now. The mirror shot used in “Arena” physically shakes at one point.
Story: 4/6. Obviously, this varies. Some episodes contain stunning flaws in plot logic. Why, for example, does Kirk choose Spock to assist him in This Side of Paradise, when any of a few hundred less dangerous crew members could have been enlisted? We know the answer (Spock was a principal character), but as a command decision, it’s stupid. However, the best episodes create interesting television drama out of SF premises. Later incarnations of the show often fell too easily, too often, into “Space War” scenarios, with little SF apart from the setting.
Despite oft-mentioned, temporally-rooted flaws, it’s remarkable how advanced Trek could be, in its better moments. We can decry the limited role of women on the ship (or the unbelievably stupid, sexist running joke regarding a female-dominated planet in “Tomorrow is Yesterday”), but, despite the realities of 1964, the women are at least there, and they often hold important positions. “The Alternate Factor” features a female engineer. The housewifely “Mudd’s Women” ultimately prove more empowered, really, than Berman and Braga’s “topping from the bottom” Orion Slave Girls forty years later.
Acting: 4/6. The stylized acting was not uncommon in 1960s television. Generally, later Treks boast better acting, but their actors lack the chemistry of the original crew. And, in all fairness, some of the episodes—-especially from the start of the season—-feature some decent performances.
Emotional Response: 5/6. It’s difficult to rate this fairly, if you’re one of us who remembers a time when Trek really was the only SF available on the tube.
Production: 4/6. What amazes me is how much they accomplished on a limited budget. Roddenberry and company had to be clever. Props and set pieces get reused, often in interesting ways. They gathered a mish-mash of existing costumes and sets to create an alien society in “Return of the Archons2,” and borrowed the UCLA3 campus to stand in for a colony in “Operation—Annihilate!”
Some production problems rankle. “The Devil in the Dark” remains one of the season’s strongest scripts, but the alien costume could be better, and the episode features unnecessary use of the worst matte in Trek history.
Star Trek: the Original Series: Season 1 receives a score of 30/42
1.”Miri.” That episode also marks the start of the convention whereby landing parties to dangerous locations will consist of the senior staff.
2. über-geeky footnote: “Return of the Archons” features an interesting costume anomaly. Sulu and the other crewmember wear 18th century outfits, complete with tricorner hats in the opening scene. Everyone thereafter wears 19th century costuming, with the occasional hooded cloak thrown in. Was this mistake the episode’s, or the Enterprise’s? Or were those crewmembers trying to pass for people from another region, with different sartorial ways?
3. I’m pretty sure the campus is UCLA’s, but I cannot find the reference.