A History of Television Space Opera – Part 1: Star Trek – Birth of a Genre

I’ve recently been going over some old essays I wrote when studying my Open University course in film and televsion history and thought I’d post my (heavily revised to remove the boring academic bits) essay on the history of space opera. Updates to follow as and when.

Science fiction television began life in 1949 with the broadcast of Captain Video on the US DuMont Channel, soon followed by the likes of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, Space Patrol and Buck Rogers, cheaply made shows featuring fancifully designed rocket ships, mad scientists and killer robots, all owing a considerable debt to the Flash Gordon cinema serials of the 1930s. In time ‘space opera’ was overtaken by ‘horse opera’ as the dominant genre on US television with Gunsmoke the first show to earn the title ‘longest running series on television.’  By the late 1960s the only notable SF series on air were Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, both produced by Irwin Allen, whose output had become so risible that audiences booed when his name appeared on the credits of his latest show The Time Tunnel when it was previewed at the Cleveland Tricon of 1966. However, the fortunes of television sci-fi where about to change forever thanks to a former US Air Force and LAPD officer turned TV producer: Gene Roddenberry.

Star Trek was first broadcast on 8 September 1966 and ran for three seasons comprising 79 episodes. Roddenberry, whose writing credits included Dr Kildare and The Naked City, pitched the series as a ‘space western’ with the working title Wagon Train to the Stars, allegorising the exploration of space with the exploration of moral and existential problems. After commissioning network NBC rejected the pilot episode The Cage for being ‘too cerebral’, Roddenberry’s produced Where No Man Has Gone Before, using the same sets and special effects as the original pilot but with a new cast. William Shatner’s James Tiberius Kirk replaced Jeffrey Hunter’s Christopher Pike as Captain of the USS Enterprise and Leonard Nimoy’s ultra-logical alien Spock took over first officer duties from the disconcertingly female Majel Barrett. This less thoughtful and more action oriented tale of a Star Fleet officer obtaining dangerous god-like powers only to be defeated by his own hubris, and Kirk’s right hook, was enough to convince NBC to commission a full series.   The series proper brought the addition of DeForest Kelly as Dr McCoy and the establishment of the regular, deliberately cosmopolitan cast, which featured a Scot, a Russian, a Jamaican and a Japanese amongst others, however, Kirk and other senior officers remained reassuringly white, American and male.

Most episodes are ‘three-handers’ focusing on the interaction between Kirk, Spock and McCoy,  Roddenberry later explaining that the three leads were a means of taking “the perfect person and divid[ing] him into three parts, I could have the administrative, courageous part that would be the captain; the logical part who is the science officer (Spock) and the humanistic part with the doctor.”

Gender is a particular point of interest in the series. The many conquests of Captain Kirk reveal a less than progressive attitude to women. Female Star Fleet officers tend to be confined to secretarial duties. Although Lt. Uhura has plenty of dialogue, and has a place in history as the first regular female black character on television, her role as communications officer requires no authority.   In Who Mourns for Adonais? Kirk bemoans the fact the one of his female officers will “find the right man and off she’ll go, out of the service.” Clearly, women of the future are expected to put family ahead of career.

Roddenberry’s desire to make Star Trek break new ground led him to recruit a stable of established SF writers which brought a creative richness to the series, although each episode followed the standard three-act structure which had evolved since the 1950s to accommodate the demands of commercial television and continues into the present day. A pre-credit ‘teaser’ sequence introduces an initial mystery or problem requiring resolution followed by a post-credit first act which provides an explanation for the situation and invariably ends with a twist or surprise. The second act will contain the bulk of the story and most of the action, usually culminating in a cliff-hanger before the commercial break after which the third act will provide a resolution and a closing scene which is either poignant or humorous depending on the tone of the episode. In terms of thematic content Star Trek episodes tend to fall into three broad categories: the ‘parallel earth’ storyline, the ‘monster of the week’ episode and the ‘first contact’ situation, enabling a variation in formula which ensured the series rarely repeated itself and provided a wide-ranging basis for exploring disparate themes and issues.

In ‘parallel earth’ stories the crew encounter a planet basically identical to earth that has ventured along a different historical path, explained by the entirely fictional “Hodgkins Law of Parallel Planetary Development”. These stories offer the greatest scope for expanding upon Roddenberry’s utopian vision, charting the point at which human development can be said to have gone wrong somehow. In the case of Bread and Circuses the Roman Empire has continued into the 20th century by suppressing the “words of the Sun”, revealed in the closing scene as “the Son… the Son of God.” In The Omega Glory a tribe of blond-haired savages, the “Yangs”, fights a war of annihilation with an Asiatic race of villagers, the “Cones”, on a planet once almost destroyed by biological and chemical warfare. Eventually the “Yangs” are revealed as “Yanks” and the “Cones… Communists.” Spock concludes: “The parallel is almost too close, Captain. It would mean they fought the war your Earth avoided.”

‘Monster of the week’ episodes, typically the most action packed and often incorporating mechanical as well as biological threats, were generally ship-based and consequently display a considerable Hornblower influence, most notably in The Doomsday Machine which features the hero stranded on a damaged vessel and a deranged captain forcing his crew into mutiny, both staples of Forrester’s maritime adventures. ‘Monster’ stories also provided a basis for exploring fears of technology, particularly in The Ultimate Computer; a Frankenstein like tale of an unhinged scientist who has created a computer capable of commanding a starship. Naturally, Kirk’s suspicion of the machine proves well founded when it fails to distinguish between fiction and reality during a wargame and goes on a killing spree.

‘First contact’ stories tend to be the most allegorical as the Enterprise encounters a previously unknown alien race and is required, the Prime Directive commanding non-interference in alien cultures not withstanding, to correct some basic flaw or injustice in this new culture. In The Apple an entirely content, but socially stagnant, tribe of primitives are ‘freed’ from the yoke of an all-powerful computer they have come to worship as a god. “You’ll learn to care for yourselves,” Kirk assures them. “With our help. You’ll learn to build for yourselves, think for yourselves… You’ll like it, a lot.”

Although the concept of the false god is a recurring theme in Star Trek, Roddenberry’s future is still a Godly one. The practice of religion is invisible in Federation society but the Judeo-Christian ethic is clearly going strong, as Kirk tells the lonely god Apollo in the Von Daniken-esque Who Mourns For Adonias: “We have no need of gods. We find the one quite sufficient.” Kirk’s attitude is an expression of popular religion in 1960s America, when atheism was still a rarity and would have found little welcome in a nationally networked TV show, rather than a valid speculation on the future of spirituality.

This preoccupation with contemporary concerns led Star Trek to address issues prevailing during the cold war, the most interesting example being the season two episode A Private Little War where Kirk discovers the once peaceful social balance between villagers and hill people on an Eden-like planet has been disturbed by the Klingons who have provided the villagers with flint-lock muskets. The Klingons were introduced in the first season episode Errand of Mercy where a peace treaty had been forced on both the Federation and the Klingon Empire by the God-like Organians in order to prevent all-out war. Barred from direct military confrontation the Klingons have adopted a policy of interference in undeveloped cultures to expand their empire. Kirk faces an ethical dilemma of arming the hill people in order to preserve “the balance of power” despite their ingrained pacifism. This episode contains a direct reference to US military involvement in Vietnam “the twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent”, where the Tet offensive was raging at the time of broadcast. Although clearly reluctant, in the final scene Kirk orders Scotty to build a hundred flint-lock muskets for the hill people: “A hundred serpents… Serpents for the garden of Eden.”

An episode like A Private Little War can be read as at best neutral and at worst supportive of US intervention in Vietnam but other episodes show a more ambivalent attitude to the tenets of cold war philosophy. In The Doomsday Machine the Enterprise encounters a monstrous robotic vessel destroying entire star systems. Kirk deduces this was once “A weapon built primarily as a bluff. A weapon so strong it could destroy both sides in a war. Something like the old H-bomb was supposed to be.” In the end the Doomsday device is itself destroyed by a derelict starship which has itself been turned into the equivalent of an H-bomb, as Kirk says: “probably the first time a such a weapon has been used constructively.”

Roddennberry certainly deserves credit as the main creative force behind Star Trek and its basic premise of a united humanity engaged on a civilising mission to the galaxy. However, many of the series’ most enduring elements, such as the Klingons and the Prime Directive, were the work of Line Producer Gene L. Coon, credited for making the world of Star Trek more cohesive and consistent as well as injecting a much needed sense of humour.

Coon’s departure before the end of the second season is seen by many fans as the point at which the show’s quality began to deteriorate, the third season being widely considered the worst of the run, featuring series nadir The Way to Eden, a conservative allegory on the dangers of counter-culture gurus and hippydom. As quality diminished so did audiences and Star Trek’s third season was its last. Whilst the threat of cancellation halfway through the first season had provoked a large-scale letter writing campaign which convinced NBC the show was worth saving, there was no such effort this time.

Whilst Star Trek certainly presented an idealised society it was a futuristic version of 1960s America rather than a utopian vision of the future. Television historian Rick Worland has argued that the United Federation of Planets was a stand-in for the US-led free world during the cold war with Kirk and his multi-racial crew achieving on the final frontier what Johnson and McNamara failed to do in Vietnam. Star Trek’s cancellation came shortly after Johnson’s electoral defeat but its legacy is perhaps more enduring than Johnson’s social welfare programmes, eventually dismantled under Reagan, as syndication and international sales ensured a global audience of millions. Star Trek was undoubtedly conservative in many respects but it was an optimistic conservatism; the future was bright in Roddenberry’s vision, its brightness becoming more appealing as Nixon faced Watergate, America faced the energy crisis and Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Although the popularity of original series Star Trek has only grown in succeeding decades, for much of the 1970s it seemed Space Opera as a mass-entertainment genre had had its day, then a relatively low budget movie called Star Wars changed everything.

Check back for Part 2: Generations and Universes.


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