"We've got no business being out here," rants a crewman infected with an inhibition-lowering virus in the early Star Trek episode "Naked Time." "If a man was supposed to fly, he would have wings. If he were supposed to be out in space, he wouldn't need air to breathe... We don't belong here." Though written by TV veteran John D.F. Black, those lines could work as a negative manifesto for the philosophy at the core of Gene Roddenberry's classic '60s series. Born of space-age optimism and the golden age of idea-driven science fiction, the original Star Trek looked to the stars as a locale for the continuing story of humanity's constant progress from barbarism to civilization to enlightenment.
Sometimes, Roddenberry's lofty goal involved putting small dogs into unconvincing fur-and-horn-covered costumes. Though now a far-reaching (though currently ailing) franchise, Star Trek began on the cheap in 1966. Given little network support and still recovering from the rejection of his first, more generously budgeted pilot, Roddenberry and the rest of the Star Trek crew had to construct a universe out of thin-looking sets, creative lighting, and creature effects that suggested outer space might be inhabited with monsters left over from '50s B-movies. Fortunately, the series also had a murderer's row of writing talent that included Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, and Theodore Sturgeon, as well as characters that might not have been conceived as icons, but easily became them.
As has been acknowledged many times before, the libidinous Captain Kirk (William Shatner), the logic-driven half-Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), and the nurturing, emotional Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) all embody different aspects of the human personality. Though it's schematic by definition, Star Trek made the approach work by hiring the right actors to balance each other out. Shatner's oversized performances have been parodied to death, but would Nimoy's arched eyebrows have meant as much without his castmate's histrionics?
The ongoing, three-way debate among the characters also allows the series to be as much about ideas as phasers and giant lizard-men, which naturally haven't as aged as well as the ideas animating them. Fortunately, Star Trek works as camp when it doesn't work as drama. Sometimes, it works as both at once, as in any of the several episodes in which Shatner must act opposite himself. Such shows tend to inspire the most fervent devotees, and they'll undoubtedly be first in line to pick up the eight-disc Star Trek: The Original SeriesThe Complete First Season box set, and the first to hit the Internet with observations about its cool packaging and crappy extras. With nearly 40 years of well-documented Star Trek history, surely Paramount could have ponied up for more than three text commentaries and a handful of unenlightening documentary featurettes. Oh, and there's something called Life Beyond Star Trek: William Shatner, which documents the actor's lifelong love of horses. "Of late," Shatner says, "there have been times when I have become one with a horse when I'm on their back." We certainly don't belong there.