Wednesday, September 14, 2005

From Captain Video to Captain Kirk

Science fiction had been part of television from the beginning: one of the very first successful series' was Captain Video, the 15-minute a day adventures of the intrepid Captain, his young Video Ranger and his spaceship.

When Saturday morning TV began programming for baby boomer kids, there was a parade of science fiction shows in the mid 1950s. But all the live-action s/f adventures with continuing characters were made principally for young viewers, like the early western shows.

Adults got anthology shows---early ones like Science Fiction Theater, and in the early 60s, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Neither of these was pure s/f, and though many of the stories (especially the better ones) commented on contemporary issues, most were like O Henry short stories, exploring a single premise with a twist at the end. When Star Trek started, no one had yet done for s/f what the adult westerns did for that genre---presented continuing characters and a continuing premise, with the more complex stories and more believable characters intended to attract the adult audience.

There's a lot more to be said about Star Trek as science fiction TV, but there's one feature that science fiction and television drama share in common that became important to Star Trek's storytelling.

Both science fiction and television drama were relatively new kinds of storytelling, but they both grew out of a rich tradition and earlier forms. Science fiction emerged as a genre of the novel in the mid to late nineteenth century-the newest of the fiction genres for popular audiences. Television as well was the new kid in drama. Partly because they were both the newest form, but also because of their natures, they were able to absorb, adapt, and reconstitute many of the kinds of stories that came before---in fact, many of the actual stories.

Star Trek obviously could absorb a lot from prior science fiction in every medium. Just as certain of its props were reconstituted leftovers from the movie "Forbidden Planet," so warp drive was much like that movie's "hyperdrive" (though like everything else in this list, there are multiple possible sources.)

Something like the transporter had appeared in Buck Rogers. There was a police arm of an otherwise peaceful federation of interstellar governments, United Planets, on the 1950s Saturday morning serial, Space Patrol, which was one of the first TV shows to originate in GR's LA.

GR drew ideas from Arthur C. Clarke's nonfiction and fiction. Besides raking through his magazine collection, Gene borrowed books from Sam Peebles by Isaac Asimov and the English science fiction author, Olaf Stapledon, who was the first to explore the story form of future history.

Peeples recalled that Roddenberry was particular taken with Heinlein's novel for young readers, Space Cadet. Late in his life, Roddenberry would recall it as a story of bonding among explorers, and he remembered its core ethic. "It deals with not only the problems of science---about space travel and technology and so on---but of the need we have to act in a conscious responsible manner with all this technology... It made a great impression on me."

Even the 1950s Saturday morning TV version appears to have been influential. "Tom Corbett, Space Cadet," had the distinction of appearing on all four broadcast TV networks (including the defunct Dumont) at one time or another, and for awhile appeared simultaneously on two. It also tried to create a self-consistent universe, with the help of a science advisor, the eminent rocket expert Willy Ley. The series pioneered special effects techniques, despite the fact that like most of these early sci fi shows, it was done live.

There were some similar results: Tom Corbett was a graduate of the "best school in the universe-Space Academy," who took an oath to "safeguard the freedom of space, protect the liberties of the planets and defend the cause of peace throughout the universe." It sounds a lot like Star Trek's Starfleet Academy.

Corbett served aboard the spaceship Polaris with a crew that---like the first crew of the Enterprise to hit the screen-- included a woman and an alien (the Venusian cadet, Astro). It was the 24th century, when all nations formed the Commonwealth of Earth, which had eliminated warfare and banned deadly weapons.

Then at the end of the last episode aired, the Polaris was ready to head off into space. "Where are we going?" a crewman asked. "Out," Tom Corbett replied. "Further than we've ever gone before!"

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