Thursday, September 08, 2016

September 8, 1966

Those of us watching an NBC channel on Thursday, September 8, 1966 at 8: 30 p.m. first saw a slowly rotating alien globe, and a gleaming white spaceship of a unique design flash across it from the screen’s left corner. For the 10% or so with color sets, the planet was dark orange with swirls of white. The first words we heard were “Captain’s Log...”    

In early September 1966 I was about to head back to college for my junior year.  It had been a strange summer.  In June my college girlfriend had visited for a weekend.  We were out at the movies on Saturday night when she got a chilling premonition.  When we got back she asked my mother if anyone had called her--she was sure someone in her family had died.  No one had called.

 Sunday morning I awoke with a raging headache, so bad that I walked out the back door to get away from it and wasn't aware of where I was going until I realized I was walking on the side of the highway that led to my grandparents house.  I turned back.  Several hours later the call came that my grandfather had died during his afternoon nap of a cerebral hemorrhage.  It was the first death I'd experienced among close family or friends.

At college the previous winter and spring, and among my remaining high school friends in the summer, we talked a lot about the Vietnam War.  The bombing in the North had begun, and that spring for the first time, more American soldiers than South Vietnamese soldiers were killed in a single week. Selective Service put us on notice that if our grades dropped we could be drafted. The teach-ins of the previous year had turned into large scale protests against what many of us felt was an illegal and immoral war.

 Earlier that summer there were riots in a Chicago ghetto. Earlier that year, an architecture student climbed a tower at the University of Texas and began shooting people below, killing 14 and wounding 33. The Navy salvaged a 20 megaton hydrogen bomb that had fallen into the sea off Spain in an aircraft accident and had been missing for 80 days.  A Russian unmanned spacecraft became the first to orbit the Moon.  Richard Speck murdered 9 student nurses in their Chicago dorm.

The Beatles got in trouble for a John Lennon quote that they were more popular than Jesus, and at the end of the summer played their last live tour date ever, in San Francisco.  Bob Dylan went into seclusion after a motorcycle accident.  California and Nevada became the first states to outlaw a drug called LSD.

That summer the Gemini 9 space capsule with two Americans aboard accomplished a two-hour spacewalk, and Gemini 10 completed three days of  Earth orbits. Gemini 8 had launched in March, completed the first docking in space but made an emergency landing.  Gemini 11 would launch on September 12. Early in the summer, an unmanned American spacecraft made a soft landing on the moon, and was sending back the first pictures from its surface.

On Thursday September 8 there was a new show starting on television.  It was about the crew of a spaceship, which interested me since I'd grown up with Captain Video, Space Patrol, Johnny Jupiter, Science Fiction Theater and the Disney Tomorrowland episodes on space travel.  On my childhood trips to our local movie palace on Saturdays, I saw War of the Worlds, When Worlds Collide, Forbidden Planet, The Day the Earth Stood Still and many more, featuring spaceships and aliens.  I'd been watching manned space launches live on TV since Alan Shepard in 1961.

I'd read science fiction as well, so I knew there was potential for dealing with ideas and meaning. I watched The Twilight Zone, so maybe television wasn't all embarrassing now.  So likely with a little hope and not much expectation, right after Daniel Boone on NBC (I remember Fess Parker from playing Disney's Davy Crockett but wasn't interested in that show), I tuned into something called Star Trek.

Star Trek wasn't the first television series purporting to be science fiction.  Space Patrol had run in prime time for awhile in the 50s, and the earliest such series, Captain Video, started at 7 p.m.  Lost in Space had begun the year before Star Trek.  The Time Tunnel would started one evening later, on September 9, 1966.

In some ways, there wasn't much special about the first episode, "Man Trap." At first glance it was an outer space vampire tale, about an alien monster that sucked the salt out of human victims.

 Leonard Nimoy said more than once that since it was the first aired episode and featured a murderous monster, critics and people in the industry immediately dismissed the series as just another silly space show for kids.

But on closer inspection, there was much more to it than that.  There were moral problems--didn't this creature have the right to survive? It was an intelligent changling capable of astounding feats of transformation, and the last of its species.  Wasn't this genocide?  Yet humans have a right to survive as well, and the Captain must protect his crew.

Kirk invokes the imprecise analogy of the buffalo, but it implies the tragedies, perhaps even the crimes, that result from human progress and expansion.  The series is already on the road to the Prime Directive.

There's also, let's face it, a little sexual subtext or irony in the changeling first taking on the form of women to entice men in a story with a title that referred to a common expression of the time for a woman out to get a husband.

It had a kind of amazing climax.  The creature again appears to McCoy as the woman he used to know, as it attacks a paralyzed Captain Kirk.  The healer with a phaser in his hand must decide to kill the last of an intelligent species who is facing him in the form of a woman he once loved.  It clearly wasn't My Three Sons (on CBS at the same time) or The Tammy Grimes Show (ABC.)

But it wasn’t completely different from other television shows. Paced with a few light moments, it was a drama that set up mysteries and dilemmas that came to a crisis just before commercial breaks, with a particularly crucial and intriguing moment halfway through, so that viewers weren’t tempted to switch to the CBS Thursday Night Movie at 9. It was still a one-hour episode of a network television series.

The episode is notable for giving Dr. McCoy more of a back story than he would ever get again.  Uhura's flirtatious dialogue with Mr. Spock playfully emphasized Spock's alien difference ("Vulcan has no moon."  "I'm not surprised") as well as perhaps suggesting a Uhura-Spock romance to the devisers of the J.J. Abrams 2009 reboot movie. (They reportedly wanted to adapt the salt vampire, too.)

I remember being impressed by the idea of the creature needing salt, and the absence of salt being fatal for the human body. So there was some science in this science fiction.  At first each person sees the creature differently--this was skillfully and economically accomplished (though the vamping blonde doesn't wear well), which sets up an initial mystery.   I also remember being favorably impressed by the visual effects. I'd worried that it would have the cheap effects of bad movies and TV, the kind that made the whole enterprise ridiculous.  They didn't try to do what they couldn't do.

But it was just one episode, and I probably didn't see another one for awhile.  I lived off-campus but didn't have a TV that year.  I might happen on an occasional episode on the big color set in the student union, but I mostly caught up with the show in summer re-runs.  I wasn't a devoted regular viewer--there was just too much else going on in my life in 1966 and 1967.  Like many people then, I truly discovered the series in the 70s when it was on every day in syndication.

 Still, I'd absorbed enough by the following fall (of 1967) when I went back on campus sporting a couple of buttons (buttons were big then.)  One said: Totally Illogical.  And the other said: Beam Me Up.  There is no intelligent life down here.  


Anonymous said...

Note: I titled the following "Soul of Trek" and then realized there was a website with a similar name. Enjoy...

Soul of Trek part 1
Christians are familiar with the Trinity of the Godhead: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is written that mankind was made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). Therefore each person consists of a trinity of body, soul, and spirit. For example if one were to experiment with illegal drugs, then the consequence could be tragic and negatively affect the body in the form of health problems, the soul in the form of addictions and hallucinations, and the spirit in the form of sin that separates from God. This trinity relates to the salvation experience: Your spirit was saved (justification), your soul is being saved (sanctification), and your body will be saved (glorification). The initial justification of the spirit is summarized by the following verse: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). After that the soul of a Christian, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, is daily sanctified. This is a constant maturing and perfecting process as one walks a pathway that gets closer to God. The soul can be divided into another trinity of mind, will, and emotions. A good example of this is in the literary and movie classic “The Wizard of Oz”. Dorothy met with the Scarecrow who represented the mind (he needed a brain), the Tin Man represented emotions (heart), and the Cowardly Lion represented will (courage).

Anonymous said...

Soul of Trek part 2

The Trek franchise deals with humankind as a whole rather than the individual. Perhaps that is why Star Wars is more popular. However the recent Trek movies have taken inspiration from Star Wars as well as other popular fantasy and sci-fi stories. It is now the Best of Both Worlds (to borrow a title) where Trek has focused on the journey of select persons as well as the hope of humanity in general. Since this is the 50th Anniversary of Trek, it may be useful to compare it to other story themes. Some sci-fi stories show a dystopian future where mankind has almost destroyed themselves, and often other beings have taken over the planet. For example: “Planet of the Apes”, “The Terminator”, and “The Hunger Games”. Or sci-fi can be about a scary future when aliens invade Earth. Examples of this include “War of the Worlds” and “Independence Day”. To be fair, Trek has had its share of stories of aliens who threaten Earth, but for the most part it displays a utopian future. There is world peace with no more hunger or poverty. The paradise isn’t perfect (because that would be boring); there are still personal fights and tragic disasters. Starfleet, representing the Federation, volunteers to leave the paradise in order to explore. It is evangelistic in a way. Officers hope to find other intelligent species, learn from them, form a relationship, and possibly add them to the Federation. One of the mottos of Trek is summarized by the initials IDIC which stand for “infinite diversity in infinite combinations”. Trek tolerates and even respects those who do things differently. But it should be noted that there are certain standards to follow if a race wants to join the Federation, and even stricter rules if individuals decide to join Starfleet. For example Starfleet has the Prime Directive that prevents officers from interfering with a race. This usually applies to a primitive planet that is unaware of extraterrestrial life, but is also for beings that want to be left alone. There are other regulations within the organization, however some officers have had to violate the rules as they saw fit. Within the framework of a hopeful future is a study in contrasts of extremes. In “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, Spock said the now famous line “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, and Kirk added “or the one”. Then in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock”, Kirk said “the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many”. I once listened to a movie critic point out that the Borg, one of the worst Trek enemies, was an extreme example of “the needs of the many”. This brings us back to the trinity of man. I’m not sure if the creators of the franchise intended this, but it seems that Kirk represents the will, Spock the mind, and Bones the emotion. Of course different shows may focus on different characters and show different aspects. Spock can be emotional; Bones, as a doctor, is trained in science; and Kirk is often more emotional than Bones depending upon the needs of the story. But as captain, Kirk is the one who has to decide between extremes. He evaluates the input from Spock (mind) and Bones (spirit), and then uses his sheer will to survive a situation. He violates regulations (law/legalism) in favor of the spirit, however he never joined Section 31 (a covert organization that operates outside regulations), because he doesn’t want to be part of that extreme. In summary he turns death into a fighting chance to survive and wins the no-win scenario because he is able to balance the extremes with the aid of mind, will, and emotions.