Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Trek50: The Adventure Begins

Fifty years ago today, Star Trek viewers would be talking about last Thursday’s episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver.” According to Marc Cushman’s research (in These Are The Voyages), this episode was originally meant to be Star Trek’s first, so in many ways it was intended to tell the audience, this is what Star Trek is. In the following Trek50 post, I highlight it as an example of one way in which Star Trek revealed part of its character, as adventure. 

I t is August 1966, the rush to finish the first episodes of Star Trek and get them on the air is reaching a climax, and lost in the universe on Gene Roddenberry’s desk is a desperate memo from Bob Justman, one of Star Trek’s two associate producers. “It is important that you compose, without delay, our Standard Opening Narration for Bill Shatner to record.”

 But Roddenberry’s first attempt was cumbersome, sounding as stilted as the legal language of the Constitution. It even included the phrase “regulate commerce.” It did however contain the words, “explores strange new worlds and civilizations.” And it ended: “These are its voyages...and adventures.”

 He wrote a second but similar draft the same day and sent them around to Justman and his other associate producer, John D.F. Black.

 “Think the narration needs more drama,” Black wrote in his return memo that same day, and added “an example of what I mean.” His draft began: “Space…the final frontier…endless, silent, waiting.” He then incorporated elements of Gene’s draft, adding, “to seek out and contact all alien life.” And he included the title of Sam Peeple’s script for the second pilot story, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” “…to travel the vast galaxy where no man has gone before…a STAR TREK.”

 Also that day, Robert Justman tried a draft. His began, “This is the story of the Starship Enterprise” and went on to define its mission. He put together Roddenberry’s “to explore strange new worlds” with “where no man has gone before.” Then he sent all the drafts back to Roddenberry with a memo begging him to write the final script.

 Gene started scribbling on Justman’s draft, then did nothing more on it for a week. By that time Justman was frantic. The words to the standard opening would complete one of the last elements yet to be finished before the first show could air.

 After a phone call and another pleading memo from Justman on August 10, Roddenberry took the best phrases from copies of the previous memos, cut them to the essential words, added what would become the world’s most famous split infinitive (“to boldly go”) and gave the words a reading rhythm. It was the final draft because it had to be.

Justman ran with it to the dubbing stage across the street. William Shatner rushed over from the sound stage where he was filming Star Trek’s ninth episode, “Dagger of the Mind.”  He read through the narration a few times and recorded two takes. That’s all they could do—they couldn’t hold up the day’s shooting for any longer.

 And these would be the words first broadcast on September 8, 1966, and repeated by several actors to introduce hundreds of episodes, as well as included in a few feature films. 

These were the words that would become one of the best-known poems of the twentieth century:

“Space…the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five year mission: to explore strange new worlds…to seek out new life and new civilizations…to boldly go where no man has gone before!”

These words would also handily define the basic structure of Star Trek storytelling, placing it in an ancient tradition—perhaps the most ancient. Star Trek stories would be tales of adventure.

 “The oldest, most widespread stories in the world are adventure stories,” wrote literary scholar Paul Zweig, opening his 1974 book The Adventurer.

These stories are most often about “perilous journeys, encounters with inhuman monsters,” Zweig continues. Such journeys, often by ships in unknown seas (These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise) are made to unexplored regions (Space...the final frontier) where the adventurer encounters previously unknown beings (new life and new civilizations.)

Told in song, verse and prose, the adventure tale was a staple of world literature from Gilgamesh and Homer’s Odyssey to the time of Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn.

While the structure of the adventure tale survived in Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and H.G. Wells The Time Machine in the late 19th century, Zweig writes that it was already disappearing from modern novels, as they became more domestic and introspective, dealing more with thoughts and feelings than actions.

Adventure stories did find a second literary life in popular and genre fiction—notably science fiction—that prospered especially in the 1930s of Gene Roddenberry’s youth.

The adventure tale also found a new home in the medium of motion pictures, from the Adventures of Robin Hood to the Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. In adventure stories, character is revealed through action, which is perfect for the big screen.

But adventure tales were in some ways even more suited to television. Adventure stories are episodic, and TV programming provides opportunity for a new adventure every week, with continuing characters developing over many episodes.

 So beginning in the 1950s, television shows with “Adventures of” in the title included westerns (Kit Carson, Jim Bowie, Wild Bill Hickcock), historical or mythical figures (Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, Sir Francis Drake), a detective (Ellery Queen), animals (Rin Tin Tin, Champion the Wonder Horse) and a suburban family (Ozzie and Harriet) as well as The Adventures of Superman.

Even without the word in the title, a great many more TV shows were (and are) basically adventures, whether primarily drama or comedy. And that’s a feature of adventure shows—they can be either, and usually they include elements of both. Few TV shows come as close to the classic adventure tale as Star Trek.

For Gene Roddenberry and some of the other Star Trek creators, the prototype for what they wanted to do was Gulliver’s Travels. In the fictional and fantastical places he imagined, Jonathan Swift examined aspects of his contemporary society.

 But Swift himself had used an ancient prototype: the fantastic voyage as adventure in strange new lands among unknown beings and civilizations. The closest prototype for Swift’s saga was the Odyssey, Homer’s tale of Odysseus—also called Ulysses—and his encounters with strange beings like the Cyclops during his 10 year sea voyage.

Swift invented lands as strange as any that Odysseus visited, Zweig observes. With the tiny Lilliputians, the race of intelligent horses called Houyhnhnms, and the proto-human Yahoos, Swift succeeded in creating tales that have fascinated children and others for generations. The society Swift satirized is long gone, but as a tale of adventure, Gulliver’s Travels lives on.

 Similarly, while the metaphorical or allegorical qualities of Star Trek episodes may emerge for viewers at different times in their lives or perhaps after several viewings, it is the basic elements of adventure that provide structure and story interest that everyone follows.

 By sharing a series of adventures, Star Trek characters and their relationships with each other develop and acquire familiarity. Moments of drama and moments of comedy are accommodated by the structure of adventures, and the characters remain credible. The same is true of the aliens and their worlds. Because these are adventures into the unknown, almost any alien can be believable, from a giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead to an intelligent shape-shifter who craves salt.

 While Roddenberry and other Star Trek producers and writers would work with the double nature of adventure and social or moral commentary as exemplified by Gulliver’s Travels, the actors and others who realized the stories for the screen first and foremost had to play the adventure. More than anyone else, that responsibility belonged to William Shatner as Captain Kirk.

Roddenberry envisioned the captain of the Enterprise as like Horatio Hornblower in the C.S. Forester series of adventures published from GR's adolescence in 1937 to Star Trek's 1967. (Forester died a few months before Star Trek’s premiere.)

 Hornblower was brave, resourceful and intelligent, but introspective and self-doubting. This description especially fits Jeffrey Hunter’s portrayal of Captain Pike in the first Star Trek pilot.

 But William Shatner added other qualities and another idea. He played Captain Kirk also as Ulysses—brave, resourceful and intelligent, but also with a mixture of energy, openness, confidence and cunning. When confronting the unknown, the quality Shatner tried to project more than any other was wonder.

 The word “adventure” comes from two Latin words (ad venio) which can be translated as “whatever comes.” Heroes of an adventure must be ready to respond to whatever confronts them.

 Through the years, the notion of an adventure acquired the qualities of danger and risk. As Captain Kirk famously said, “Risk is our business.”

 The template of adventure, and especially of Captain Kirk as a Ulysses-like leader, was on full display in the first season episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver.” (Thanks to TrekCore for screencaps.)

 According to Marc Cushman’s research (in These Are The Voyages), its story and production got special attention because it was originally meant to introduce the series. Gene Roddenberry wanted it to establish the Star Trek universe and the characters, especially Captain Kirk.

 Eventually it was decided that this episode, which takes place almost entirely on the Enterprise, didn’t display enough aliens, strange new worlds and the more colorful aspects of science fiction adventure to attract viewers to the series.

 In any case there were problems with visual effects that caused it to be postponed until the 10th episode aired. So by that time, the Enterprise crew had faced unforeseeable threats on alien planets and aboard ship that endangered their lives and their sanity—as did adventures of Ulysses’ crew in the Odyssey.

By contrast, “The Corbomite Maneuver” was seemingly a straightforward situation: “whatever comes” in this case was an unforeseen confrontation with a vastly superior and antagonistic alien ship bent upon destroying the Enterprise. It turned out to be exactly the situation for Captain Kirk to display the Ulysses aspect of his personality in a classic adventure.

The Enterprise is mapping an unexplored region of space when an object approaches at light speed, a large glowing cube that shifts to block its way. While second officer Spock deals with the situation on the bridge,  Captain Kirk is in sick bay undergoing a physical.

 We first see Captain Kirk shirtless, pumping a device with his legs to work up a sweat--a 23rd century stress test.  Informed of the problem he heads towards the bridge, still shirtless, a suggestion (however unintentional) of ancient heroes like Ulysses (or at least Kirk Douglas playing him in the 1954 movie.)

 Under Kirk’s command the Enterprise tries to evade the cube by heading back the way it came, but the cube moves towards it. When harmful radiation from the onrushing cube becomes too dangerous, Kirk very calmly orders phaser weapons to destroy it.

 Now Kirk is confronted with the decision of whether to leave the area or proceed. He reminds the bridge crew of their mission—to seek out alien life. So his decision is to continue into the unknown.

 But as the Enterprise proceeds it is confronted by an alien vessel many times its size. Its commander, who identifies himself as Balock, refuses to accept Kirk’s peaceful greetings and warns in a deep voice that because the Enterprise destroyed its warning buoy, the ship and crew will be annihilated in ten minutes. Meanwhile the alien vessel has rendered the Enterprise engines and weapons inoperable.

Doctor McCoy arrives on the bridge, and tells Kirk that Balock’s warning was heard throughout the ship. Kirk immediately addresses the crew on the intercom, in what essentially is the attitude governing the series:

“Those of you who have served for long on this vessel have encountered alien life forms. You know the greatest danger facing us is ourselves, an irrational fear of the unknown. There is no such thing as the unknown—only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood. In most cases we have found that intelligence capable of a civilization is capable of understanding peaceful gestures. Surely a life form advanced enough for space travel is advanced enough to eventually understand our motives. All decks stand by. Captain out.” 

 Kirk proceeds with this approach in mind. He contacts the alien vessel and again tries to explain that they didn’t understand the nature of the cube, and that he destroyed it because it threatened life aboard his vessel. But the aliens won’t listen.

 Kirk tries to signal good will by going back the way they came, but his ship is held motionless. Eventually Spock is able to show what the alien looks like: a stern, forbidding and very alien appearance.

 A subplot that runs through this episode involves Bailey, the young navigation officer, who evidently has not experienced alien contact before. At first he is mesmerized, unable to act, and finally he panics. Kirk relieves him of duty.

With minutes until their destruction, Kirk seems to have run out of options. That’s Spock’s analysis: in a game of chess it would be checkmate. Then McCoy complains that Kirk promoted Bailey too early and worked him too hard. He’s going to say so in his report, he says, and he’s not bluffing.

 Kirk responds with annoyance but the words of Spock and McCoy have given him an idea. He tells the alien ship that for many years, “Earth ships” like the Enterprise have been coated with an element called corbomite, that will reflect back any attacking force and destroy the attacker.

The bridge crew watches fascinated, as they know none of it is true. Kirk is making it up as he goes along but tells it convincingly. He invites the aliens to attack and cuts off contact.

“Not chess, Mr. Spock,” he says. “Poker.”

The ruse, worthy of the wily Ulysses, forestalls the attack but out of the huge alien vessel emerges a smaller one, a pilot ship that will tow the Enterprise to a prison planet.

 Kirk and his bridge crew calculate that after awhile, the towing will put a strain on the small vessel. With power restored, Kirk pushes his ship to the breaking point but, maintaining resolve, succeeds in breaking free.

 Then as they assess the damage to the Enterprise, Uhura intercepts a weak distress call from the small alien ship to the large one: engines and life support are failing. She believes the signal wasn’t strong enough to reach the mother ship.

Kirk alerts the crew that the Enterprise will attempt a rescue: “There are lives at stake—by our standards, alien life, but lives nevertheless.” He once again reminds them of their mission. “To seek out and contact alien life,” asserting that this is “an opportunity to demonstrate what our high-sounding words mean.”

This statement, as well as others in the episode, express a key difference between Captain Kirk and an ancient adventurer like Ulysses.  According to Zweig, adventurers in early stories did not operate on principle or according to a mission--they were most often self-centered and amoral, more interested in glory, dominance. riches and thrills than a goal.

There were later adventurers more like Kirk, or versions of the mythic heroes that saved their societies by their deeds.  But being motivated by a mission of peaceful exploration and contact was a crucial characteristic in Star Trek.  One way it is expressed is in this difference between Captain Kirk and Kirk Douglas--Ulysses, that is.

But Captain Kirk is also prudent and wily enough to anticipate this distress call from the alien ship might be a trap, so he leaves his first officer Spock behind in command of the Enterprise.

Kirk, McCoy and Bailey beam aboard the small vessel. There they find that the scary alien they saw was a puppet, and Balock, though a powerful being, is the size of a human child.  (Large differences in size were of course common contrasts in the Odyssey,Gulliver's Travels and other adventure tales.)

 Balock offers them a taste of his favorite drink (tranya), but they wait until he has sipped his. He tell them he was testing them and their intent. He proposes an exchange of information and culture, and Bailey volunteers to remain with him for a time. Balock tells Kirk that as proud captains of their vessels, they are very much alike.

As a skilled captain and a leader with a deep sense of responsibility, Kirk is probably more Hornblower than the self-centered and capricious Ulysses. Yet Kirk’s audacious adoption of the poker-faced bluff is a Ulysses-like move, an act of cunning and also a lie. His adversary, it turns out, also used deception to test him. In this also Kirk and the alien are “very much alike.”

Shatner would expand Kirk’s Ulysses-like swagger, confident energy and unpredictability in other episodes. Throughout the series and films, Kirk stubbornly and even joyfully refuses to give in, always looking for a way to survive and succeed. He approaches every problem, every challenge as an adventure, even if it is only a challenge to his curiosity.

 For Kirk, adventure is partly an attitude. He approaches the unknown as a potential adventure, embracing the challenges presented, using instinct and intelligence to shape the risks he takes. Yet what the unknown presents him—its challenges and dangers as well as opportunities—forces response.

Boundless space, like the open sea, is both a metaphorical and actual environment that offers both the danger of death and the potential of unknown wonders to discover.  That profound similarity deepens Star Trek's lineage as an adventure tale.

In a sense Captain Kirk has no choice in confronting “whatever comes.” In fact he must seek it out—it’s his mission. But it is how he chooses to confront each unknown that creates the adventure.

 This episode shows Kirk is grounded in basic principles of what will come to be known as Starfleet and the Federation. As we’ll see, they are also basic elements of the soul of Star Trek.

 It also shows Kirk as a leader who coolly employs knowledge and logic but when these fail, is creative and ready to risk, especially when facing the ultimate danger of destruction. Adventure itself is also part of the soul of Star Trek.

 For even though the adventure tale delights us with its wonders and heroic action, it is not less serious than other forms, partly because the adventure often involves a dance with death, and a test of principles, integrity and what each most values. It is heightened and yet it is grounded in that confrontation with the basic human moment of mortality, and the basic human need for meaning that transcends death.

The adventure is not Kirk’s alone, of course. He needs the advice and the efficiency of his crew. His loyalty goes beyond himself. When confronted with this alien threat, Captain Kirk’s first impulse is to warn other ships of this danger. This is his responsibility to the whole, and to the future. That is essential to this adventure.

 Adventure is not always an isolated life and death confrontation. It can be a commitment to a series of challenges and explorations that require effort and skill.

 Not only leaders but scientists and practitioners of any vocation apply themselves to what can be adventures, repaid with wonder as well as large or small contributions to a larger purpose.  All those on the Enterprise, for example, have different talents and functions, and may each be on personal adventures. But they are all also part of the same adventures.

 The attitude of adventure does not obsess on any perceived unfairness of circumstance. It identifies challenges to assess and address. It expects effort and perhaps sacrifice will be needed. It sees the commitments of a life—and life itself—as action.

"Be kind, be useful, be fearless," President Obama recently told a group of young White House interns.  It's a reminder that we all can approach life as an adventure.

1 comment:

Sebastian said...

Wonderful post, Thank you. This is why I watch and re-watch trek. Oh, and there's Jerri Ryan in a body suit.