Thought of the Day: “Star Trek” in the 70s

Star Trek is returning to TV. And I don’t care.

Mind you, I’m a sucker. So I’ll definitely end up watching it. But Star Trek has sort of well…sucked as of recent.

Yesterday’s post has caused me to become paranoid about sounding “entitled”. But I’m not angry that Star Trek has been terrible since the 2000s….unlike most fans. I just feel that Star Trek and I have been drifting apart. It has nothing to do with the quality of the product, it’s just philosophically speaking….the show just doesn’t speak to me anymore. The relationship has just been compounded by the fact Star Trek just isn’t Star Trek anymore.

What do I mean by “philosophically speaking”?

Well, frankly, I wrote a couple of minor posts last year that attacked our common notions of artificial intelligence and intelligent life…which are both things Star Trek explores. Those ideas were a long time coming, and even if my arguments didn’t convince anyone else…they certainly convinced me. So now it’s just difficult for me to watch the franchise without thinking “this is total fucking bullshit”.

Plus, the older I get, the more cynical I become. And Star Trek is positive. It promotes a brighter future. That’s what it was meant to be. Anybody that tries to make it something else (JJ Abrams) should go fuck up some other franchise. But optimism, for the most part, just makes shitty storytelling.

But I get where Gene Roddenberry was coming from. If we want to create a better future, we must SHOW IT. Hence we get Star Trek, a franchise that promotes these so-called ‘ideals’.

The Original Series might not have been perfect at this promotion, but it still showed a future where all of humanity is equal and strives to get better. Or at least it tried to. Remember, this was the 60s….you know, Mad Men and all that shit….so it was very much a product of its time.

When the series was prematurely cancelled, its fans stuck around. And we all know how that story goes.

When the 1970’s rolled around, the Animated Series was produced. After the popularity of Star WarsStar Trek was resurrected and another series was ordered. This series was infamously titled Phase II, but when that project fell through, it was later turned into Star Trek: The Motion Picture, directed by Robert Wise.

Now the Motion Picture is not a perfect film. No one claims that it is. It’s not even a good Star Trek movie. But it is a decent science fiction film. It’s like watching a big-budget, 1970’s sci-fi book cover. And that alone has its charms.

Unfortunately, The Motion Picture might have set a bad template for future Star Trek. It was sterile. It wasn’t funny. It was slow. It was just…too…damn…boring. It might have been the vision Roddenberry had, but neither the audience nor the studio were pleased with the final product despite its box office success.

This explains the violent tonal shift with its sequel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Even though Star Trek II was a brutal change that proved popular with the audience (and might have single-handedly ensured Star Trek’s continuation), it still maintained a sense of Roddenberry’s touch…even though director Nicholas Meyer clearly favored a much more violent and cynical approach to Star Trek.

It’s worth mentioning that Meyer is the closest thing to an auteur that Star Trek has ever had. If, in some alternate reality, had he of been more involved with Star Trek after  1982 (by accepting to direct Star Trek III), there’s no telling how the franchise might’ve progressed. In my view, Meyer was far more suited to handle Star Trek in the 1980s than anyone. (That being said, he would go on to direct Star Trek VI)

I like to think that the Motion Picture and the first season of The Next Generation were the closest representations of Roddenberry’s true vision for Star Trek (boring, sterile, not fun, etc). Or so he would have liked you to believe. While I don’t doubt that he believed in those ideals, I imagine his vision for Star Trek was probably far more malleable early on. Particularly in the 1970s, when auteurs ruled Hollywood.

While we think of Star Trek as being this family-friendly space adventure today, things could have been quite different.

Prior to the planning of Phase II, another project was developed. It wasn’t a television series, but a film. Infamous auteur Philip Kauffman was tasked to direct, with James Bond’s Ken Adams to design production. Naturally this project fell through, which lead to Phase II (which lead to the Motion Picture).

It was to be titled Star Trek: Planet of the Titans.

The plot of this proposed film was standard Star Trek fare (and much of it was later used in the Motion Picture). After its original writers left, Kauffman offered his own story…which was to be more “adult” oriented by partially exploring sexuality. This too was to be rejected. Even had the original story been green-lit, it was clear that Kauffman’s vision for Star Trek was to be far more adult-friendly. And being the 70s, it’s not hard to imagine that chances would have been taken. Indeed, had Kauffman’s movie been produced, we probably wouldn’t think of Star Trek being this largely sex-adverse, sterile, family-friend adventure it is today.

Kauffman would later drop out and was replaced by the studio-friendly (yet legendary) Robert Wise.

Yet even the Motion Picture had a chance to be SOMEWHAT daring. At one point in the script, the character played by Persis Khambatta was supposed to appear nude. Due to her objections, the scene was filmed nudity-free. This might not sound like a big deal, but this being the first filmed production of Star Trek post 1960s (when censorship was greatly loosened about a show that went knee-deep in its exploration of sex, but clearly wanted to go deeper), Khambatta’s seemingly innocent decision turned The Motion Picture into a standard G-rated affair and halted any “full-frontal” exploration of sex that the Original Series was inching towards.

Thereafter, Star Trek became a brand for the family.

By the way, I don’t want anybody to misread me here. I’m not bitching about Khambatta’s decision, I understand where she was coming from. So I’m not DISAPPOINTED that she didn’t appear nude (even though she was hot), I’m just stating my interpretation of history (or of history not realized). Introducing such adult content early on to Star Trek would have opened it to doors that we would find unimaginable today.

In fact, I’d argue that because Star Trek didn’t realize its full potential in the 1970s, it is a lesser franchise today. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. BUT, had Star Trek been subjected to the auteurs that were so prevalent in the 70s, it likely wouldn’t be limited by its own lukewarm capabilities.


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