Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Star Trek: Science Fiction's Mediocre Masterpiece, Star Trek Seasons 1 - 3 On DVD!

The Good: Some moments of great acting, plot, characters, Good DVD bonuses, Themes
The Bad: Some moments of terrible acting, plot, characters, No commentaries, Some themes seem dated
The Basics: With all 79 episodes of Star Trek bundled into a single pack, Star Trek The Complete Series gives fans of the original series something to write home about!

I grew up on Star Trek, it was a catalyst in my life. One day while visiting my mother, my brother went for a walk and started smoking, I stayed at home, flipped on the television and caught an episode of Star Trek. It changed my life, definitively. I became interested in Star Trek, an interest my mother fostered by buying me Star Trek books literally by the dozen, which led to a broader interest in fantasy and science fiction novels, which led to my love of literature and my trying my hand at it and uncovering the only thing I've ever been truly talented at: writing. If I had not seen that episode of Star Trek, today I'd likely be a marine biologist instead of a starving novelist. My mother's never going to forgive herself for going to work that night!

Star Trek was a short-running television program that used a science fiction setting to explore social issues of the day in a way that would get the themes by the censors. It ran from 1966 - 1969 and was virtually always on the edge of cancellation. It was saved by the fans who had writing campaigns and it ended up becoming even more popular in syndication, which prompted movies, books, and a merchandising empire. The three seasons of Star Trek were released on DVD separately and have now been bundled into a bulk package. This is just a bundle pack; there are no DVD extras or bonuses of any kind that are included in this set that were not a part of the earlier DVD releases. Indeed, the packages is a collection of the three bulky cases connected by a cardboard tray and shrink-wrap.

The U.S.S. Enterprise is a starship (a space ship with gravity that moves faster than light and has a crew of over 430 people) that is part of the United Federation of Planets' exploratory/military division known as StarFleet. It is on a five year mission designed to explore space and alien worlds with the hope of making benevolent contact with new races. The ship is commanded by the intrepid Captain James T. Kirk, an explorer and soldier who is resourceful, strong and courageous. Kirk commands an ethnically diverse crew that includes humans of almost every ethnic background as well as non-humans, like the half-human, half-Vulcan first officer, Mr. Spock.

Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise crew travel to the edge of the galaxy and back encountering androids with plans to dominate organic life forms, overbearing computers, aliens that look like lizards and rocks, and cultures where machines have enslaved the organic population. They end up in fights, work to avert wars, reluctantly arm a population to keep it from being exterminated when another race arms one side of a planet, end up enslaved and fighting against gods. They explore alternate universes, stellar phenomenon and find themselves preyed upon by multiple entities.

Star Trek is one of those ultimate mixed bags. It is truly great science fiction and it has some of the most ridiculous television episodes ever put onto t.v. It has great highs and great lows. But because it is episodic - there is no overwhelming story arc, the episodes stand independent of one another - the series as a whole is collected as a work that has a troubling inconsistency to it. There are thematic arcs that are repeated with troubling frequency, for example in the first season the crew encounters godlike creatures who have incredible powers and are only saved from being destroyed when something more powerful comes to rescue them. In the second season, there is a row of episodes that all have the same premise: the Enterprise journeys to a planet where the Prime Directive (not to interfere in primitive cultures) has been violated and a specific Earth culture has been replicated and needs to be "decontaminated." That they all seem to come right around the same time is troubling, like the writing staff assigned all the writers to the same episode and when they all came back with similar scripts, they just decided to go with it.

On the balance, though, Star Trek is an engaging drama/science fiction show that promotes a positive message of the importance of getting along with other people, the value of peace and the importance of science over superstition. Over the seventy-nine episodes, Captain Kirk and his crew do not seek to dominate anyone, they do their best to avoid fights and they express intellectual curiosity in the galaxy around them. They treat new experiences and people as an opportunity to learn and with the fairness of objectivity.

Conversely, Star Trek also finds itself preoccupied with some of the most ridiculous premises or poorest executions of ideas to ever grace a television. The Enterprise is thwarted for a time by space hippies who are searching for Eden, children, and a lone, ridiculous android sent by a space pirate. They find themselves plagued by lights, body-swapping women, and children who have godlike powers. Episodes like "Spock's Brain," fall back on tried and true Star Trek themes like fearing the overbearance of technology when women in go-go boots steal Spock's brain.

Star Trek has many timeless storylines, like when it explores the futility of warfare through a balance of power or the importance of freedom over slavery or the importance of respecting other people, regardless of the color of their skin. The show also has some dated references, like an episode that explores the overwhelming fear of nuclear proliferation and episodes that have Vietnam analogies couched in them. So, while much of the series is timeless, some of it is remarkably dated.

The style of the 1960s is very much reflected in the look of the show, especially the costumes. This is, in some ways, very refreshing as it gives Star Trek a unique look and feel in the realm of science fiction. It does not look like anything else and while the make-up may be rather limited on a lot of alien races, the costumes are usually distinctive and interesting. The lighting, though, also reflects the feel of the time relying on colored gels to give much of the Enterprise funky mood lighting. It's intriguing to watch it now for that reason.

And as much as we might like to note that television series that are classic are often considered classics because of the characters, Star Trek had a memorable cast, but only three primary characters. Despite what followed in the franchise, Star Trek was very much a show about the adventures of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock . . . with Dr. McCoy! The supplemental characters were essentially recurring guest stars and as a result, the series feels somewhat limited on the character front. This is also because the characters in the television series do not evolve so much as find themselves in new situations. So, Captain Kirk in the last season is very similar to Captain Kirk in the first season. So, too, with Spock and Dr. McCoy.

But in order to understand the appeal of Star Trek, it helps to understand who the primary characters and most significant supplemental characters were. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise includes:

Captain James T. Kirk - The leader of the Enterprise, he is the embodiment of the heroic explorer who is tied to his ship and his sense of duty. A reluctant fighter, he is responsible for the lives of the crew who serve under him and he is more than able to hold his own in a fight. When faced with overwhelming odds, he will use guile to attempt to survive and he relies on his senior officers to make decisions, though when the time comes to be decisive, he is able to make snap decisions and live with the consequences,

Mr. Spock - The half-human, half-Vulcan Science Officer and First Officer, he is Kirk's closest advisor and over the course of the series, he develops into his truest friend. Logical and in control of his emotions, Spock uses reason to guide him. He also has limited telepathic abilities and incapacitates adversaries by using a nerve pinch to render them unconscious as he deplores violence,

Dr. Leonard McCoy - The Chief Medical Officer of the Enterprise, he is a passionate, emotive man who delights in arguing with Spock. A good friend to Kirk, he is often called upon to identify what the nature of an illness or alien truly is. Laid back and pacifistic, McCoy is the heart of the Enterprise command staff,

Chief Engineer Montgomery "Scotty" Scott - The ship's engineer who keeps the Enterprise intact and going faster than it was ever designed to,

Lt. Uhura - The ship's communication's officer, she opens the hailing frequencies and loves to sing for the crew in her off time,

Lt. Sulu - The ship's helmsman, he is an avid explorer and has many different hobbies in his off hours, like botany, fencing, and learning about ancient firearms,

Ensign Chekov - The green navigator aboard the Enterprise, his characterization is essentially that he is young and Russian,

and the U.S.S. Enterprise - The starship that houses everyone, the ship's computer allows Spock to solve virtually any problem and Kirk is bound to it with a devotion that is greater than any romantic love he ever illustrates.

Star Trek is often more concerned with the plot-of-the-week than developing the characters, which is why characters like Chekov show up week after week, but there is little in the series that actually characterizes him. And while series creator Gene Roddenberry ought to be given credit for utilizing a multiethnic cast, he did very little with it in terms of developing viable characters with the diverse actors he cast. The result is the cast often feels like window-dressing and the significance of Roddenberry's efforts are lessened as time goes on.

The performances in Star Trek are hinged mostly on the acting talents of Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner and to a far lesser extent, DeForest Kelley. Kelley plays Dr. McCoy and he is consistently established as a man of passion and emotion and Kelley is quite good at portraying that. Kelley plays McCoy as the Id to Nimoy's super ego Spock and Shatner's ego Kirk. Kelley does a wonderful job of bringing humanity to a character who usually has to explain some bizarre science fiction or medical phenomenon and he does it quite well.

Leonard Nimoy is tremendous as Mr. Spock. He establishes the character using an economy of body language, wonderfully creating a minimalist, logical and unemotional character by simply sitting stiff and still and emoting through nothing more than a movement of his eyebrow. Nimoy has the ability to deliver science fiction jargon convincingly and he was able to - quite frequently - stretch his acting wings by infusing emotion into the Spock character through extreme circumstances or alien possessions.

But much of the burden on the acting front falls on William Shatner. Shatner is a truly wonderful actor, but his performances in Star Trek are erratic. As a result, he will frequently deliver monologues with a dramatic presentation that steps far over the line into melodrama. As well, by the end of the series, even Shatner seems bored with kissing a new female guest star each week and so his willingness to play passionate is dulled. There are many great performances Shatner gives in Star Trek where Kirk is efficient, convincing and articulate, but there are at least as many where the performance might best be described as "hammy."

On DVD, Star Trek's 79 episodes are presented with minimal DVD extras in bulky plastic cases that take up more room than they ought. There are no commentary tracks on any of the episodes, though there are excellent behind-the-scenes featurettes for each season and every episode has the original preview included on the disc! As well, there are Easter Eggs wherein cast members provide snippets of what they are doing with their lives now as well as their thoughts on the series almost forty years after the episodes originally aired.

Star Trek is good.  It is good television on the balance and it remains culturally relevant. But it is not the best science fiction show ever and while it began the Star Trek franchise, it is not even the best series in the franchise. It is, however, enough to recommend to anyone who loves science fiction! This bundle pack brings the entire series home, preserved as it originally was. And that makes it worthwhile.

For more information on the specific sets bundled into this pack, please check out my reviews on the component sets at:
Star Trek - Season 1
Star Trek - Season 2
Star Trek - Season 3


For other television series reviews, please check out my index page!

2007, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. Hi !

    I think I must have seen some Star Trek Original episodes when I was a child but I was too young to remember them precisely. My introduction to the Star Trek universe came with the airing of the Next Generation’s 3rd season : and then I got hooked by the Borg storyline (when they captured Captain Picard), then I discovered DS9, Voyager, to finally go back to The Original Series just before I knew Enterprise.

    So even though I’ve discovered it as a whole, very late in my life, I’m still fascinated by the trio’s extraordinary chemistry (Kirk-Spock-McCoy), some amazing phylosophical issues and great stories. I know that here you can find some very good episodes (like The city on the edge of Forever) and some very bad ones (Spock’s brain obviously comes to mind) but I can’t help but think that even though the special effects could use some polishing (and I’m glad they just did that recently), some stories and magical moments really stood the test of time. And I can only be thankful for the original series because without it, there certainly would have been no TNG, no DS9, no VOYAGER and no ENTERPRISE and none of the 12 or 13 movies, I’ve lost count but how many hours of bliss would we have lost if that monument of television wouldn’t have existed in the first place !

    Actually you can call me crazy, because, as a fan, I really am but I’ve bought these 3 seasons twice in my life. The first time with these odd yellow, red and blue plastic boxes sets and the 2nd time with the new dvd releases which supports the brand new special effects and I must admit that even though when I want to watch these episodes again, I tend to prefer the new special effects versions, but this edition is the best packaging of the two because it includes a little booklet with notes about all the episodes and relevant informations where the 2nd edition you just get the dvds and nothing more.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      Actually, if you have both versions, you might be able to answer a question I've had for a while! On the new, remastered versions, do they include the full episode or the edited-for-television remastered version? A good episode to compare would be "The Paradise Syndrome." In that one, in editing it down for time, they eliminate the whole Miramanee pregnancy (you'd see it in the red case, original, version for sure. I don't know if it's in the newer version). If you have a chance some time, please let me know!

      Thanks for reading!