Monday, July 18, 2011

Random Thought - Introducing Star Trek: The Original Series to My Son

My son is thirteen. I figure this is about the right age to introduce him to Star Trek, specifically the original series. He's never seen the show, and is only vaguely familiar with it. This shouldn't really be that surprising: after all, the original series first went on the air forty-five years ago. But this does raise an interesting question: What order should I show him the episodes, because just like most other science fiction shows, the original Star Trek was jerked around by network executives who really didn't understand science fiction at all. And as a result, there seems to be almost no easy to figure out way to present the episodes to a new viewer. This isn't a problem that crops up all that often any more. Most people are familiar with the show, either through one or more of the movies, or through the numerous spin off shows that have been made. But my son is somewhat unique: though he is aware of the existence of Star Trek he's never watched any of it.

As most fans know, Gene Roddenberry originally filmed The Cage as the pilot for Star Trek, but network executives rejected it as "too cerebral". Then Roddenberry went back, recast almost every part in the show and filmed a second proposed pilot titled Where No Man Has Gone Before, which contained enough action to satisfy the network executives. But when the time came to put the show on the air, they didn't air that episode first, but instead inexplicably put The Man Trap on to lead the show off. And quite bluntly, The Man Trap is an awful opening episode. Of course, it isn't really the episode's fault, it was filmed as the sixth episode, and is more or less season filler. But why someone decided to start a show that has the tag line "To boldly go where no man has gone before" with an episode where the crew goes where people have obviously been quite a few times is beyond me. And the order in which the subsequent episodes were aired doesn't make much sense either: the second show aired was Charlie X, the eighth show in production order, and the third put on the air was the pilot Where No Man Has Gone Before, and so on, with the episodes hopscotching around: fourth to air was The Naked Time (seventh in production order), fifth was The Enemy Within (sixth in production order), sixth was Mudd's Women (fourth in production order) and so on. And as a result the crew of the Enterprise shifts strangely from one episode to the next, and the personalities of the various characters seem almost schizophrenic. As I have found so often with televised science fiction, watching the shows in the order they originally aired is just a bad idea.

In most cases, watching the episodes in production order is the optimal choice. It is the order that the creators of the show usually intended the episodes be shown in before clueless network executives get their fingers on the show and decided that consistency and character doesn't matter: after all, the show is just science fiction so the only things that are important are the monsters and ray guns. But oddly, in the case of Star Trek, putting the shows in production order raises a few odd problems of its own. Because most of the episodes have a Captain's Log, and as a result most of the episodes are given a Stardate. And bizarrely, if you arrange the episodes in production order, the Stardates are all screwed up. Where No Man Has Gone Before is first in production order, and has a Stardate of 1312.4. The Corbomite Maneuver is next in production order with a Stardate of 1512.2. But Mudd's Women is third in production order and has a Stardate of 1329.8. And so on and so forth. The Squire of Gothos, eighteenth in production order, has a Stardate of 2124.5, but What Are Little Girls Made Of?, which is tenth in production order, has a Stardate of 2712.4. Some episodes from season two have Stardates that would place them in the middle of season one. Some episodes from season three have Stardates that would place them in the middle of season two.

And it is this sort of sloppiness that illustrates how poorly television producers and network decision makers understand science fiction fans. It seems likely that when they were putting the episodes together the various writers assigned to put together the screenplays in some cases just threw a string of numbers into their script and figured no one would ever care enough to wonder why the dates seemed to jump forwards and backwards several times. But science fiction fans do care, and this highlights just how badly most television executives underestimate them. The attitude most television executives seem to have is that science fiction fans are easily mollified and as a result don't worry too much about putting out anything that is coherent or well-written, instead just producing schlocky crap - witness the string of poorly made SyFy channel movies that have aired. But the truth is that science fiction fans are harder to please than "mundane" television viewers. Perhaps this is because when a science fiction show or movie airs it imagines a fictitious world, and science fiction fans expect that world and the characters who live in it to make sense, demanding a level of internal consistency that goes well beyond that expected for mainstream shows like Grey's Anatomy or Cheers. In short, more than any other type of show, a science fiction television series needs a consistency editor to go through episode scripts and clean up details like making sure elements like the Stardates are properly sequenced.

But this little bit of sloppiness opens up an interesting angle to approach the original Star Trek series. Since the Stardates for the various episodes can be extracted, and the episodes put in order, we can approach the series from the perspective that the characters themselves theoretically encountered the various incidents depicted in the show. We can, therefore, watch the shows in Stardate order. This is likely to result in some quirky inconsistencies, as pulling shows from one season to another will probably result in random oddities cropping up, but the effort seems to me to be worth it. The only real problem with watching the shows in Stardate order is trying to figure out what to do with the five episodes - Mirror, Mirror, The Omega Glory, Assignment: Earth, Day of the Dove, and That Which Survives - that do not have Stardates associated with them. Because we are reordering the episodes anyway, I decided to assign them Stardates that place them in the same position that they would have had in production order, although this does mean they are shuffled around with respect to the position of other episodes in the series.

So the end result is that I am planning on introducing Star Trek to my son by showing him the episodes in an order that the creators probably never intended that will intentionally put some of them completely out of order. I know this seems strange, but I think it is likely to be a fun way to present the show to a first time viewer. And because this is what I do, I'll be reviewing the episodes as we watch them, and reviewing them in Stardate order as well. For traditionalists, I'll also arrange them so that you can read the reviews in air date order and production order as well, but the reviews will be written and posted in Stardate order.

As a side note, I'm not starting with The Cage, even though that should technically be first. The primary reason is that I want my son to be able to fully enjoy the two part Menagerie story, and in my opinion watching The Cage first would ruin those two episodes for him. So we are starting with the second pilot Where No Man Has Gone Before, and then proceeding from there.

Go to First Star Trek Review: Where No Man Has Gone Before

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  1. My husband and I were just talking about this - yesterday morning. How there is no more iconic TV character than Mr. Spock! Captain Kirk is second to him. Amazing!
    I have never enjoyed any of the subsequent Star Treks like I loved the real one - crew included!
    Good for you and your son!

  2. @Julia: The first one is so rich. The last time I seriously watched it was when it was in reruns and I watched it with my Dad in the 1970s. Back then I didn't realize how steeped in John W. Campbell influenced science fiction the show really was, but almost every episode shows Campbell's fingerprints.