An integral part of my pathetic attempt to reclaim my lost youth is re-watching a lot of the old TV shows and movies that I loved as a younger person. I do this to see if my memories of them are faulty, for good or for ill. What's interesting is that there's no clear trend: some things I liked way back when simply don't hold up over time, while others are in fact every bit as good as I remembered -- or better.
Star Trek clearly falls into the latter camp. I've been systematically working my way through the series from Season 1 on, thanks to the DVDs' finally being priced reasonably. I'm nearly done Season 2 now and my overwhelming feeling is that Star Trek truly was awesome. I could go on at great length about its virtues but I'll save that for some other time. What I wanted to talk about today was the format and content of the series, because I think it has some relevance for discussions we often have here.
What people forget, over forty years later, is that Star Trek was, for all intents and purposes, an anthology series. There were continuing characters certainly and there was an extremely vague persistent setting, but, by and large, each episode is self-contained and makes few, if any, references to what came before. Consequently, you can watch the series in pretty much any order and it still makes sense. There's no "canon" to internalize or setting details to understand beyond the most basic ones that you can pick up within five minutes of watching any given episode. This is the exact opposite of its brandified offspring series, all of which depend, to varying degrees, on your already being invested in "Star Trek," a vast mythology constructed by mining the original 79 episodes for names and ideas that others can then elaborately build upon.
Watching Star Trek, I am continually struck by the fact that it's never about itself. Each episode is simply a science fiction adventure story, with little or no connection to anything that comes before or after. These stories are not exercises in IP mining or brand building or any of the other practices we nowadays associate with popular entertainment. I find this frankly refreshing and indeed inspiring. Perhaps this is why so many episodes of Star Trek were written by or based upon the work of genuine science fiction writers rather than professional screenwriters -- Robert Bloch, Frederic Brown, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon, to name a few.
It's a really remarkable thing and it probably explains why, despite having been a Star Trek fan for most of my life, I can go back and find the original series far less dated than I'd expected it to be. I hesitate to use the word "timeless" to describe these episodes -- though a few of them merit it -- but the fact that the show isn't self-referential and self-absorbed does make it far more enjoyable to me than does re-watching The Next Generation, which I loved at the time of its first broadcast. There's a simplicity and directness to Star Trek that seems utterly missing from so much genre work these days, where dreams of establishing a profitable franchise overwhelm the primal desire to tell good stories. Re-watching Star Trek has reminded me that this wasn't always the case and I'm very glad of that.