A touring exhibition of genuine Star Trek gimcracks reminds Mark Simpson of the virile greatness of the original Shatner/Nimoy series/love story – and the p.c. limpness of all the spin-offs
(Originally appeared on Salon.com Feb. 26, 2003)
The first thing that greets me is Capt. Kirk’s package. Jim’s intergalactic manhood is clearly, alarmingly outlined against the fabric of his tight 1960s-cut black trousers, dressing very much to the left. I assure you I wasn’t looking for it — it just loomed up like a de-cloaked Romulan Bird of Prey.
It shouldn’t be surprising that James Tiberius Kirk, the famously gung-ho Starfleet commander, went commando, boldly swinging where no man had swung before. Maybe that, as much as his twinkly mascara’d eyes and his captaincy of the fastest, flashiest vehicle in the galaxy, the USS Enterprise, was the secret of caddish Jim’s phenomenal success with lady humanoids and aliens alike.
Indubitably, as his first officer Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy) might have said, raising one angled eyebrow, this was the crucial difference between the sweaty, highly Freudian original Star Trek series and the sexless, sweatless, p.c. Star Trek: The Next Generation. Can you imagine Jean-Luc Picard not wearing spotless knickers with a built-in containment field, changed twice a day and incinerated after use?
Alas, I’m not actually in the humbling presence of the godlike genius of William Shatner himself. Rather, I’m gazing up at a monitor playing a clip from “The Trouble With Tribbles” in a medley of “classic Star Trek moments,” at an exhibition dedicated to a genre and a universe that have, so to speak, sprung from his loins. “Star Trek: The Adventure,” held in a “climate-controlled” “hi-tech” 7,000-square-foot tent in London’s Hyde Park, showcases the “Trek” universe, from the original series more than 35 years ago to the newest feature film, Star Trek: Nemesis.
Sets, costumes, props and models from Star Trek, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and the current Trek series, the low-tech Enterprise prequel, are all here. Billed as the biggest Star Trek exhibition ever, the London show has been a great success. This is only the first stop on a world tour, taking in Europe, Australia and the U.S., on a “five-year mission to boldly go where Star Trek has never been before” — although where that would be is something of a mystery.
In addition to six successful TV series, each of them being rerun somewhere in the world right now, there have been 10 movies, grossing well over $1 billion. Amazon lists 1,238 Trek books, 1,832 Trek auctions, 515 videos, 73 music items, 61 PC and video games. I simply refuse to enter “Star Trek” into a Web search engine, as I fear it will cause some kind of terrible e-feedback loop and global net overheating of the kind that happened whenever Kirk asked some upstart out-of-control alien computer to compute “love.”
The whole phenomenon is, to use another Spockism, fascinating. The Trek series is not only the most frighteningly successful and profitable TV series of our “timeline” but also one that has helped to make television what it is — and us what we are. Star Trek really did turn out to be the future – not of faster-than-light space travel, but of couch-potato entertainment. We have been, to use yet another Trekkian phrase, assimilated. Resistance was futile.
If the original Star Trek series was an exercise in the power of human imagination — and frustrated aspiration — the massive Trek exhibition can only be called an exercise in hubris. Perhaps that is why the monitor on which I glimpsed Kirk’s package is swaying a little, as is everything else suspended from the ceiling — the vast hi-tech tent is moving in the wind, making slightly distracting and very nonfuturistic clanking noises.
Close up, imprisoned behind glass cases, the props and costumes look rather disappointing and forlorn, like deeply discounted items in a theatrical supply store. The disrupters and phasers are bits of badly painted wood; the scale models of the various Enterprises are the discarded toys of rich kids. The recreated bar from Deep Space Nine looks like the sort of place you wouldn’t hang out in unless you wanted to pick up a low-rent transvestite (mind you, if that had been true of the series itself it might have been worth watching).
The armoury from the Enterprise series, complete with photon torpedo launchers, is more impressive but something of an elaborate tease. Like the other control-panel-based exhibits here, much of the instrumentation is covered with glass screens and large signs warning “DO NOT TOUCH.” What other reason would you have to come to a Star Trek exhibition except to press, in Stimpy-esque tongue-lolling abandon, all those buttons you’ve seen winking at you on TV over the years?
The Scimitar brig restraint cage from the Nemesis” film, in which Picard is all too briefly imprisoned, is here, but has, like the film itself, the rather tired, S/M catalogue feel that dominated the later, Borg-rich episodes of Next Generation – the nearest that series ever got to sex. The Borg were, after all, everyone’s nightmare fetish-party people — sadomasochists who tried to accessorize themselves a personality and considered themselves irresistible.
My pulse begins to quicken near the exit, however, when I spot, like a beacon, Capt. Kirk’s cocky chartreuse green velour shirt with gold braided cuffs and also his … black trousers. They are, in a display of costumes from the original series, wrapped around a headless dummy instead of around Kirk’s corseted, bewigged torso. No doubt I’m a terminal nostalgic — as a boy I watched the ’60s Star Trek on ’70s UK TV in a state of arousal bordering on psychosis which, obviously, has yet to subside – but the original Trek uniforms, like the series itself, seem much more exciting than anything that followed.
These are not clothes so much as archetypes. Like Trek technology, they embody an idea of function rather than a practical elaboration of it. Here is the cool, intellectual blue of Spock’s tunic, with his trusty tricorder handbag slung over the shoulder; here the feisty red of Lt. Uhura’s (Nichelle Nichol’s) costume, breasts surging forward like rockets, with streamlined waist, miniskirt tail fins spouting a plume of long, long tights, and knee-length pointy black boots.
Ahem. Anyway, Star Trek was, like 1960s American cars, very … pointy. In addition to the boots, and Kirk’s package, there were pointy sideburns, pointy breasts, pointy ears, pointy Federation logos, pointy lettering in the credits, and also the pointedly pointy mission statement: “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” which of course was bluntly de-sexed by Next Generation to “…where no one has been before.” Perhaps this is why the Next Generation crew were dressed like flight attendants on a particularly dull 1980s airline – one that went bust because the synthetic fibers and padding produced so much static electricity that insurers refused to cover them.
Voyager became much pointier, and more watchable, when in later years declining ratings beamed aboard the streamlined and coolly logical Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan), promptly massaging up the Nielsen points. (Perhaps that is why Enterprise features the similarly spaceworthy female Vulcan first officer T’Pol, her uniform snugly inhabited by Jolene Blalock.)
Star Trek uniforms remain timeless classics, ones that seem to have directly inspired ’70s glam rock — Ziggy Stardust, for instance, looked as though he would have fit in on the Enterprise. Certainly Kirk would have shagged him.
It seems ironic, given the kind of people who are Trekkies — bed-wetting idealists for the most part — that the post-’60s incarnation of the series has become perhaps the symbol of corporate culture, globalization and “American imperialism” — though generally dressed in the drabbest kind of political correctness. The spinoffs have produced an empire of nerdiness. Give me a stripped-to-the-waist Republican Kirk in full-body makeup, trying to remember to suck in his waist while battling a rubber lizard-head alien with half-learned karate and pro-wrestling moves, any stardate of the week.
And then I spy it, like a mirage: the bridge of the original USS Enterprise! It’s roped off so I can’t ride the turbo lift, fire Sulu’s (George Takei’s) phasers, mess with Spock’s science station, or put my butt where Kirk’s has gone before and take “the conn.” I suspect that in this instance I wouldn’t even if I could. You can get too close to something that has been so important to you for so long. In fact, there is something so venerable about this silly wooden set that I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. This is, after all, the holiest shrine of TV culture, of much more importance to the contemporary world than, say, the Church of the Nativity, Shakespeare’s Globe or even Lucille Ball’s living room.
They really knew about the future in the ’60s. They really cared about it. It was, of course, a time when people still believed in it, a time when “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” was not necessarily a self-consciously retro slogan. Perhaps that is why the original series, with its female crew members (albeit in submissive jobs) and racial harmony (ditto – except for Spock, the Jewish Vulcan), was rather more adventurous and progressive for its time than its spayed spinoffs.
More important, in the ’60s they also knew how to make buttons and dials that, 35 years on, are much more “futuristic” than anything seen since. Not only that, they made them for next to nothing. (Star Trek cost about $100,000 an episode; Enterprise costs $6 million.) From where I’m standing, those buttons and dials look like the most precious and promising jewels in the universe. By comparison, the Next Generation bridge displayed next door looks like the foyer of an expense-account motel.
Naturally, true Trekkies prefer the more recent series, precisely because they have much bigger budgets, more special effects – and no William Shatner. Apparently Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry (and much of the original cast) despised Shatner and the way he played Kirk. He was too aggressive, too violent, too sexist, too vain. The anal-retentive goody-goody Jean-Luc Picard, played fastidiously by Patrick Stewart, was much closer to what Roddenberry had in mind.
It was Shatner’s Kirk, with all his magnificent flaws and vanities, however, who made Star Trek more than just another canceled ’60s sci-fi series. He saved the show from its own appalling virtuousness – or, to put it more pretentiously, he was the Dionysian bass line to Roddenberry’s Apollonian synth music. (By the same token, Cmdr. Data’s quest to become human on Next Generation is comic, since his colleagues seem to aspire to be androids.)
Shatner was rock ‘n’ roll — his post-Trek album-cum-aural breakdown, The Transformed Man, notwithstanding. It was his perversity, his Napoleonic ego, that made Star Trek an epic for our times. Not for nothing was his pre- Trek project a canceled series called Alexander the Great, starring Shatner as the lovable Macedonian psychopath himself. Shatner has earned his place in the pantheon of postwar virile degeneracy: What Brando did for the cinema and Elvis did for music, Shatner did for the small screen.
In fact – and I think I can say this with no fear of insulting Jim Carrey, himself a helpless Shatner fanatic, who does him doing Kirk even better than Shatner – Bill is simply the greatest actor that Canada has ever produced. Although he was (and is) an outrageous ham, applying the “skills” he developed performing in Canada’s Shakespearean theatre (“I combine English technique with American virility”) as indiscriminately to Star Trek scripts as LBJ did Agent Orange to the jungles of Southeast Asia, bafflingly stressing words and syllables that mere mortals might think had no importance, pausing painfully in the middle of sentences while rushing headlong over their conclusions, there is something oddly powerful about many of his performances. Something believable and human, especially in the slightly camp context of a series like Star Trek. Even Shatner’s vanity is sympathetic. The tasteful, restrained, mannered – and, let’s face it, bourgeois – seriousness of Picard and Voyager’s Capt. Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) seems faintly ridiculous by comparison.
Jim Kirk, as I say, was clearly a Republican, while the Federation itself was clearly Democratic. The arrangement appeared to reflect that of a Republican White House and a Democratic Congress, the favoured mechanism of Cold War consensus. Fortunately for the story lines, this meant that Kirk was constantly breaking the Federation’s Prime Directive, which forbade interference in alien cultures. Currently, we see Adm. George W. Bush, with his apparent disdain for the Prime Directive and also the Federation (United Nations) itself, in orbit around planet Iraq, preparing to beam down a heavily armed away team. Bush probably thinks himself more Kirk than Picard, but he’s mistaken: He simply doesn’t have the same pathos. Or the twinkly eyes.
Spock, half alien and half human, was another example of the inherent drama of Star Trek. He was supposed to be coldly logical but was clearly a borderline hysteric, as evidenced by those occasions when he was called on to show emotion, such as the proto-environmentalist episode “Devil in the Dark,” when he mind-melds with the Horta, a silicone-based life form whose eggs are being destroyed by Federation miners. ‘Pain! PAIN!’ he shrieks, his usually impassive face distorting horrifically. “Oh! PA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-IN!!”
Moreover, Spock was obviously passionately in love with his rug-wearing bisexual WASP jock captain, something not lost on the bitchy, swishy and rather jealous ship’s doctor, ‘Bones’ McCoy (DeForest Kelley), who wasted no opportunity to tease his green-blooded colleague. (For some reason all the male “Trek” medical staffers have been queeny, even the holograms).
Interestingly, the stellar love affair between Spock and Kirk, which has its roots in Greek mythology and American literature (e.g., Alexander and Hephaestion, Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg) seems to have grown out of the clash of Shatner’s and Nimoy’s planet-size thespian egos: Roddenberry, driven frantic by their on-set competitiveness, was advised by Isaac Asimov, no less, to channel it by strengthening their on-screen relationship. In addition, a “favored nation” clause was introduced into their contracts, stipulating that any benefits accorded to one must apply to the other. In other words, gay campaigners still calling for gay characters in the next “Trek” series are kind of missing the point. Star Trek featured the world’s first on-screen same-sex marriage back in the ’60s. (Little wonder then that a whole genre of female-authored “slash” fan fictions built around the Spock/Kirk love affair has flourished, making explicit what was always implicit.)
There was a kind of innocent intensity to many of those shows that is impossible to replicate today, an intensity that somehow manages to coexist with a campy tone, even down to the marvellous episode titles: “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” “City on the Edge of Forever,” or “Is There No Truth in Beauty?” – the one where the Enterprise gives a lift to the Medusan ambassador and his earthling assistant, a female in a glittery dress played by Diana Muldaur).
Apparently the Medusans have miraculous navigational abilities in which the Federation is interested. Like a gimp magician, the Medusan is kept in a shiny box – Medusans are so ugly that no human may gaze upon one without going mad (in this respect, they resemble David Copperfield). It transpires that his glamorous female assistant is actually blind and “sees” through “a sensor array hidden in her dress.” The Enterprise gets lost and Spock has to mind-meld (wearing natty pink goggles) with the Medusan so that the ambassador can use his body to navigate the ship back to familiar space.
All goes well. Unfortunately, however, while restoring the Medusan to his box, Spock forgets to put his pink goggles back on and goes mad (cue truly frightening hysterical overacting by Nimoy, in wide-angle extreme distorting close-up). Diana has to mind-meld with Spock to draw him back to sanity. Then, having been made insanely jealous by Spock’s melding with the Medusan, she mind-melds with her boss, permanently.
If I had used more cocaine I could have founded an entirely new school of psychoanalysis on that one episode. “Oedipus Rex,” eat your eyes out. That was the greatness of Star Trek – at its best it was like an updated Greek drama for the TV generation. At its worst, well, it was still entertaining. Take “Spock’s Brain,” in which the science officer’s gray matter is stolen by some intergalactic sex kittens and a triumphant Bones uses an implant and a TV remote control to pilot a zombie Spock around.
The true measure of the original series’ brilliance is that it’s so immense and timeless that it almost makes up for the Trek-dreck that followed. Mercifully however, it seems that the Trek universe, which has been rapidly cooling since 1969, may finally be imploding. The new series, Enterprise, desperately escapes the p.c. present-future by returning to a low-tech, pre-Kirk past-future (with, appropriately enough, Scott Quantum Leap Bakula at the conn) in which men are men and are still permitted to captain spaceships by the seat of their pants. It’s something of a Home Improvements in space, though rather less popular.
Diminishing ratings for the first season of the new series, and protests by devout Trekkies at the cynical rewriting of Trek history to include opportunistic enemies such as the ‘Suliban’ may finally mean the end of that five-year mission that has lasted 35 years.
And I doubt that even cutting the jib of Bakula’s baggy trousers and persuading him to go commando will work. Let’s hope they don’t try.