For Trek’s 45th Birthday: 10 Underappreciated Aspects of Classic Star Trek

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On September 8th, 1966 audiences were given their first glimpse of the now-famous starship Enterprise. Not actually the pilot episode, the first aired installment of Star Trek was “The Man Trap” an episode penned by George Clayton Johnson (co-author of the novel Logan’s Run.) The story featured a shape-shifting vampire that craved salt and a long-lost love of Dr. McCoy’s. Why was this chosen as the first Star Trek episode ever? Maybe it was because it depicted the crew killing an “evil” alien. Maybe it was because Dr. McCoy was in the spotlight; an everyman mainstream audiences might relate to better. Maybe it was random. In any case, it worked, because even though Star Trek was canceled in 1969, we’re still yammering on about it to this day. And it’s not just because of all the films, spin-off shows, or remakes. The classic show itself was fantastic and original. And in honor of its birthday, here are 10 things we think don’t get mentioned enough about the most famous little TV show that could.

Everyone who has more than a passing interest in Star Trek is aware of its triumphs in terms of social and political importance. First bi-racial kiss, racially diverse crew, commentary on current events, attacks on racism, ignorance, and oppression, and the presentation of a positive and hopeful future for humankind. All of this is awesome, but we’ve also heard it before. And if you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ve already seen the Top 10 lists with the greatest episodes listed over and over again. We know “City on the Edge of Forever” is amazing, and “The Doomsday Machine” is iconic. What else is there? Here’s what gets lost in the shuffle.

 

10.) The pacing and editing is fantastic and ahead of its time.

If you watch an episode of 1960s Star Trek back-to-back with almost any other science fiction show of the same era (Lost in Space and Twilight Zone included!) you’ll be shocked at how much Trek kicks their ass in terms of pacing and editing. Even the worst classic episodes are extremely exciting; something active is happening in every single scene. The quick cuts and close-ups on the characters are also extremely effective and while a little over-the-top now, this camera work is a lot more interesting than any of the subsequent Trek-shows to follow. No time is ever wasted in Star Trek. Even if you don’t like science fiction, and even if you don’t like Star Trek, you will never, ever be bored watching the 60s show.

 

9.) The music.

We’re not really talking about the iconic Alexander Courage theme song, but rather the incidental music composed by Fred Steiner, Sol Kaplan, Jerry Fielding, Gerald Fried and others. Though there were a number of composers who worked on Trek, Steiner provided most of it, while Fried (though sometimes this is attributed to Kaplan) was responsible for some of the best-remembered themes, such as the fight music from “Amok Time” or the bass guitar-driven “Mr. Spock” theme from the same episode. Bombastic, melodramatic and completely perfect, the music of the classic Star Trek didn’t sound like anything else. Was it ridiculous? You bet. But have you seen their outfits? If those outfits were put to music, they would sound like this.

 

8.) Bones slaps a pregnant (cat)woman in “Friday’s Child

Did you know that Julie Newmar (aka Catwoman) was in a Star Trek episode? She played the wife of a tribal leader, sentenced to death when her husband was killed in battle because she was carrying his child. So, understandably, she wasn’t so into being a mom. When the trio rescued her, Dr. McCoy did his doctor bit and tried to take care of her, but she wasn’t having it. When he tried to touch her to check on the unborn infant, she slapped him. When he tried again, she slapped him again. And McCoy, in the interest of fairness, slapped her back. We know, this is grossly un-PC, but Bones is really the only character who can do things like that and not come off as a complete bastard: because in that gruff, irascible way of his, he was trying to teach someone to appreciate help from others. Classic McCoy, that.

 

7.) Kirk’s “I won’t kill…today” speech from “A Taste of Armageddon” (Runner up: “No blah blah blah!” from “Miri“)

Though the “risk is our business” speech from “Return to Tomorrow” is arguably more famous, we think when Kirk exposes the virtues of being a barbarian, he’s really at his best. For him, the idea that human beings are civilized comes down to a daily choice: will I kill today or won’t I? Kirk feels like it’s basically our divine right to have that choice. Star Trek is so much smarter than many other pop sci-fi narratives insofar as that it never truly defines “good” and “bad” and, in fact, goes out of it’s way to confuse the viewer about those definitions all the time. We couldn’t find a decent clip of Kirk giving this speech (you’ll have to just watch “A Taste of Armageddon” in its entirety) but we do really like this outburst from “Miri” too, which is shockingly underrated.

 

6.) William Campbell

Though “The Trouble with Tribbles” is for some bizarre reason often voted as the most popular Trek episode ever, few point out how great actor William Campbell is in this episode as the Klingon Koloth. There was a time when the Klingons weren’t the snarling, grunting forehead-people of latter-day Trek. At one point, they were just a bunch of space assholes who were experts at the nasty retort. Campbell is fantastic opposite Shatner in this one, but luckily that’s not the only classic Trek episode he’s in.

“The Squire of Gothos” gave us the character Trelane, an omnipotent being who uses Kirk and company as his playthings. Shatner and Campbell are practically slapping each other in the faces with gloves throughout the entire episode. The other significant contribution Campbell’s Trenale provided was the genesis for the TNG character of Q. There is no way Q would exist without this classic Trek episode. Though DS9 brought back Campbell as Koloth, he never returned as Trelane. Why he didn’t appear on TNG as a member of the Q Continuum who formerly called himself the Squire of Gothos, we’ll never know. Tragically, we lost William Campbell this year. We already miss him.

 

5.) Improv comedy in “I, Mudd

“The Trouble With Tribbles” and “A Piece of the Action” get all the credit in Star Trek for humor, and with good reason. But this episode is an absolute gem that is frequently forgotten, and also contains the only guest character return on the entire show (unless you’re counting Captain Pike, which gets complicated). In “I, Mudd” the crew gets captured by Harry Mudd, a con man who caused problems in Season 1. He happens to be trapped on a planet full of androids who want to “assist” humanity (meaning “rule-in-a-nice-unobtrusive-way”), and they won’t let the crew leave. Kirk and co. discover that the only way to get free is to behave so illogically that the androids short circuit.

This leads to perhaps the greatest team effort on behalf of the Enterprise crew in the show’s history (with Harry Mudd in tow), and it unfolds in the form of an improv comedy routine. From invisible musical intruments and explosives to Scotty’s death and revival to Uhura backhanding Chekov “because she likes him” to killer one-liners like “logic is a wreath of pretty flowers which smell bad” and “let’s hear it for our poor dead friend,” this stands out in classic Trek as one of the best times they ever went for the funny bone and struck hard.

 

4.) Diana Muldaur

For Trek's 45th Birthday: 10 Underappreciated Aspects of Classic Star Trek

Though she was a semi-regular in the 2nd season of The Next Generation, Diana Muldaur was a guest star in two episodes of the classic Trek and steals the show both times. Other than Campbell, she’s one of the few actors to have this distinction (Mark Lenard!), but we sort of feel like this makes her the Maude Adams of Trek. In “Return to Tomorrow” she plays Ann Muhall, an Enterprise crewmember who has her body possessed by a being of pure thought energy named Thallassa. These beings then start to construct robot bodies for themselves using Kirk, Spock and Ann as temporary hosts until they can transfer in there. Muldaur gets to play opposite Shatner as both Thallassa and Ann, and she’s great in both situations. In the episode “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” she plays Miranda Jones, a blind telepathic psychologist who uses a nifty sensor-dress to “see” the world around her. This comes in handy because she hangs out with an alien who will make you crazy if you look at it. She’s also a gorgeous lady!

 

3.) Everything about “Space Seed

We’ve mentioned before that The Wrath of Khan is a little bit of a bully and looms maybe too large in the minds of Trek mythology as being THE GREATEST THING OF ALL TIME. It may very well be that greatest thing, and we certainly love us some Nicholas Meyer. However, it all wouldn’t have been possible without the original episode, “Space Seed.” As an introductory story to what old school Star Trek was all about, “Space Seed” is perfect. It presents an original science fiction concept, grapples with notions of human technology and ingenuity creating a monster, and features Captain Kirk beating the crap out of someone with a piece of Styrofoam. What more could you want?

Oh? Ricardo Montalban looking handsome and dangerous? Done.

 

2.) McCoy’s Guilt in “Operation: Annihilate!

The bickering between Bones and Spock in the original series is probably just as iconic as Scotty complaining about his engines or Kirk doing a flying kick at some random jerk. And the reason why the Bones/Spock arguments are so great is because we know these guys really love and respect each other, even though they might not admit this to themselves. When Bones thinks he’s accidentally blinded Spock in this one, it’s frankly heartbreaking. DeForest Kelly was perhaps one of the best actors of all time in the science fiction world, owing mostly to the fact that he had to play it straight as Bones. No awesome alien powers or captainly charm, McCoy was ever, as he like to put it, “Just an old country doctor.” Here is one of his quietest, best moments.

This episode also gets a special mention because Kirk plays his own dead brother in this one. How do we know it’s Kirk’s brother? Because it’s Shatner with a mustache.

 

1.) It was fun

For Trek's 45th Birthday: 10 Underappreciated Aspects of Classic Star Trek

This might sound a bit glib or falsely nostalgic, but the fun adventure show tone of the original series was almost totally lost in every subsequent version of Star Trek. How many episodes of 60’s Trek end with the crew laughing on the bridge? Nearly all of them. Star Trek was an upbeat show to a near-psychotic extent, which means when it went dark, you really felt it. And though a lot of those final moments of crew-wide laughter come across a little corny, we don’t love Star Trek in spite of it. We love it because of it. If you’re going to embrace the music, the outfits, and some of the over-acting, then you can’t hate on a show in which the main characters can always laugh it off in the end.

 

How are you celebrating Star Trek‘s 45th birthday? We recommend you just watch it. Or even better yet, make someone watch it who has never seen it! Also, chime in with your classic Trek love below.

(P.S. Don’t you just love these 1960s ads for the show?)

 

For even more Star Trek check out the following:


Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com.

Emily-Asher Perrin is the editorial assistant at Tor.com.

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