When watching Trek in chronological order, we start with a show which ran in the early 2000s, move to a bunch of pre-pandemic Short Treks with a one-episode jog to 1965 for “The Cage”, followed by Discovery, then Strange New Worlds, the latest Star Trek series.
Funny thing Strange New Worlds. It’s based on an almost 60-year-old pilot and, by necessity, had to update the sets and the Enterprise herself to work in today’s 4K environment. But chronologically, you go from the Season 2 finale, “Hegemony,” to “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” the second pilot. Then you have to watch the writers try to figure out the whole universe of Star Trek from scratch. It takes half a season to establish that our heroes work for “Starfleet,” which is a quasi-military arm of something called the “Federation.” The Klingons are just humans in grease paint, created because making pointed ears for more actors than Leonard Nimoy gets expensive. The show also solves a short-coming of the pilots: They now had enough plywood to build a shuttlecraft and attendant sets.
But the first thing you notice about the show is it’s three guys mainly. Oh, Sulu, Uhura, and later on Chekov are quite present. But it seems Yeoman Rand (Grace Lee Whitney), the blonde bombshell assistant to Captain Kirk, gets more screentime than Sulu in her brief time on the show. This is because Star Trek, created at a time when ensemble shows were not really the norm, focused on its star, William Shatner, the OG Captain James T. Kirk.
So Star Trek was initially about Kirk and Spock (Leonard Nimoy.) “Where No Man Has Gone Before” doesn’t even feature Leonard “Bones” McCoy. While John Hoyt showed some of what was to come playing Dr. Boyce in “The Cage,” Paul Fix as Chief Medical Officer Piper was kind of bland. Only when DeForest Kelley debuted as McCoy did the main dynamic of the show click into place. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy formed a neat triangle, with Spock and McCoy representing two halves of Kirk: One logical and capable of hard decisions, the other passionate and empathetic. Though, as the series progressed, Spock and McCoy would prove to be fully formed characters in their own right.
But fans of the show already noticed Trek should be an ensemble. Shatner, being the star, pretty much hogged the limelight. Some of it’s ego. Even he says it was. But Walter Koenig pointed out the actor was contracted to have to most lines and most screentime. Such was the sixties. Nonetheless, the ensemble concept grew in spite of it being a show “about Kirk.” That started with Scotty in “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Canadian actor James Doohan adopted a passable Scottish accent and made him a standout supporting character. From there, Scotty took on a life of his own, as did Sulu. Sulu was an oddity: An Asian man of Japanese descent (though the name Sulu is actually Fillipino, which actor George Takei worked into his backstory), he’s the guy flying the ship and occasionally tag-teams with Scotty as second officer.
But if network executives objected to Majel Barrett as Number One (later dubbed Una Chinn-Riley when Rebecca Romijn took on the role), Roddenberry threw them a curveball by making Nyota Uhura the communications officer. She gets sarcastic with Kirk, even snaps at him. At one point, she covers the skant uniform with a jumpsuit because someone’s gotta take the communications console apart. How did this pass in the sixties, when we must all appease the south, still not quite over losing the Civil War? NBC warned him not to put her in command at any point. Roddenberry would later poke them in the eye with The Animated Series, when the men of the ship are disabled, and Uhura is the highest ranking female aboard the Enterprise.
Then we come to Chekov. Making this young stand-in for Sulu (as George Takei’s movie project went over time) a Russian was a no-brainer. If the Enterprise is, at least, an Earth vessel, with a number of African crew members (Dr. M’Benga, anyone?), it stands to reason some of the crew would be Russian. But was that the reason Chekov was added? Actually, producers liked the idea of an officer who looked like Davey Jones of the Monkees. So they gave Walter Koenig a Beatles wig initially and had him play the character ten years younger. (Koenig was 31 when he took on the role.) But Chekov really doesn’t factor into the show until season 3. He really gets less screentime than perennial red shit Leslie (played by Eddie Paskey) or even Chapel, really created to let Roddenberry put his girlfriend back on the show.
Some of the episodes don’t age well. The men are more paternalistic toward women than in later Treks, including The Animated Series. And Janice Rand spends her half-season on the show alternately berating her boss into following medical orders and getting him to look at her legs. It was most definitely an improvement making Rand the transporter chief in the movies, and later, Sulu’s first officer.
But there are reasons this initially cult series has become so beloved and spawned such a sprawling mythos. The episodes could be a gut punch, and the majority had a Twilight Zone feel to them. We see starship captains lose it (Matt Decker, Garth, Ron Tracey) because the job carries such enormous responsibility. Indeed, Decker, despite being an ass to the Enterprise crew – or maybe because of what drove him to be like that – ends up a tragic hero grieving for accidentally killing his crew. (Of the three mad captains, Tracey is the lone unrepentant asshole. Garth, at least, had a doctor’s note. Decker was, as we’ve seen Kirk from time to time, stressed out having to prevent the apocalypse.)
At the time, Star Trek was its own thing. Occasionally, over the years, fans would attempt their own crews to play in the sandbox, but Star Trek did not even possess the moniker “TOS,” or “The Original Series,” created to differentiate it from The Next Generation. It was a show about Captain Kirk and, eventually, his crew. But it created some standout cultural touchstones: “Beam me up, Scotty” (which Kirk actually never says, but comes close in The Animated Series.), tribbles, Klingons, the Vulcan nerve pinch. However, in the ratings interpretation of the day, Star Trek was doomed. It was an expensive science fiction show with a specific audience. However, had the ratings methods of the 90s been implemented just two years earlier, Star Trek might have finished the Enterprise‘s five-year mission. We also would not have been subjected to Fred Freiberger’s ham-fisted, cost-cutting turn as line producer. (“Spock’s Brain” and “The Way to Eden,” anyone?) Why? The exact same demographics that killed Trek actually kept Quantum Leap on the air in the 1990s. Had Nielsen segmented its demographics in the 1960s the way they did in the 1990s, network execs would have found the same audiences watching both, usually young marrieds with no kids. Ironically, I and a former spousal unit were young marrieds with no kids who watched Quantum Leap regularly. (But not the reboot currently on Peacock. Get off my lawn!)
Syndication saved Star Trek from a scrap heap that included Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I did not see Trek in its original run, but when I turned 5, my parents moved and subscribed to this new thing called “cable,” which let us get all the Cleveland and Akron TV channels. (It also let us bypass NFL blackouts on Browns games because, apparently, we were all clamoring to see the same shows on CBS and NBC from Channels 11 and 13, but no one really cared about Toledo’s ABC affiliate.) But I saw Star Trek on the old Channel 61 out of Cleveland, a TV station that went off the air for 16 years in 1973. It took five minutes for local independent powerhouse WUAB to pick it up. So every Saturday night at 6, I watched Star Trek. I watched it most weeknights when my dad was on the road. The Animated Series was a godsend to my pre-teen self. By the time The Motion Picture hit theaters. I knew everything there was to know at the time about the Enterprise crew.
But now, in 2023, how does it fit into the wider Trek mythos? For the most part, it works rather well. Part of that stems from the pains taken during The Next Generation‘s run to stay consistent with the original storylines, no mean feat considering it took half a season to ditch UESPA for Starfleet and replace Earth with the Federation. Strange New Worlds has done well picking actors to take on legacy characters, including Paul Wesley’s recurring role as a younger James T. Kirk. The Spock we see isn’t struggling so much for his identity, and we now see where Uhura came from. The one character who clashes with later retrofitting is Chapel. The complicated relationship with Spock aside, Jess Bush’s performance as a sassy, confident Chapel as an MD in all but name clashes a bit with Majel Barrett’s more subdued, submissive nurse. Some of this is the sixties, and in later seasons and The Animated Series, she gets more to do and develops a spine. The new early depiction is more interesting than the sixties depiction, but it takes a bit going from “I’m gonna mess with your genome” to “Mr. Spock, I love you.” Wesley’s Kirk dovetails better with Shatner’s than Chris Pine’s, but by necessity, Pine’s Kirk is almost a completely different character. Timelines gotta timeline. Yet it’s not a stretch that Shatner’s James T. Kirk probably stood on the bridge and asked himself what Jonathan Archer would do. Never mind the latter character would not be created for almost thirty years after the last episode.