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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Star Trek Reviews: Early Trek

Before I start my journey into the Star Wars, I should probably do some reviews of some other things I’ve binged recently, beginning with Star Trek. I’ll split this across a couple posts, one for each “stage” of Trek:

  1. Early Trek (TOS, TAS)
  2. TOS Trek Movies (ST MP through ST VI)
  3. ’90s Trek TV (TNG, DS9, Voyager)
  4. TNG Trek Movies (Generations through Nemesis)
  5. Enterprise
  6. Trek Reboot Movies
  7. Streaming Trek (Discovery, Picard, Trek shorts)

But first, a brief look at my ranking system.

  • A or B: Above Average, Worth more than one watch. Anything with an A rating is of exceptional quality, but B is pretty good, too.
  • C: Average. It’s OK. Wouldn’t call it an essential re-watch.
  • D: Below Average. Might be bearable at least an object of mockery, but otherwise, not something worth watching.
  • F: Bottom of the Barrel. So badly made it can’t possibly be recommended except as an example of bad craft.

First time I rated Trek stuff on social media, I ranked each film and series (not individual seasons or episodes) relative to each other, then figured out which tier was “average” for me. I’ve tinkered with my ratings since then. Films start with a base letter grade and then get a + or - if it has a couple moments that really stand out as better/worse than the movie as whole. I rate a series as a whole, then give it a + or - if there’s a substantial number of episodes that are better/worse than the typical episode.

Spoiler Alert: I didn’t rank any Trek show or movie D or F, although judging by the rage I got on Facebook/Twitter, you’d think I had. I could give individual episodes a D grade, but no Fs. It’s actually pretty rare for me to give something an F. Even Ed Wood or Coleman Francis movies get at least a D.

Star Trek: The Original Series

Rating: A-

This is what I grew up with. I think I actually saw bits and pieces of TOS when it originally aired, but I was so young that all that stuck in my mind was the face of Balok at the end. But when it went into syndication, I was definitely watching, and I was a devoted fan.

I don’t watch it as much any more, and I’ll admit it sometimes feels a little creaky in places nowadays, which is why I’ve lowered it from my original A rating. But many of the episodes are solid TV and good storytelling that moves at a good pace. When we criticize TOS, it’s the hammy speechifying and some of the outdated attitudes that stand out, not the quality of the stories themselves.

I’ve said more than once that the first ten or so episodes stand out for me. They hadn’t established The Federation in their world-building, and not many alien races had been added yet. This is a human-dominated “United Earth Space Agency” that has traveled to the edge of the galaxy, but perhaps hasn’t explored 90-95% of the territory within their range. Most of the galaxy is a big mystery, and to a certain extent, the crew is out there alone. As later episodes filled out the background, adding the Federation, adding several alien races, adding trade routes and alliances, the galaxy seemed less empty. People famously refer to TOS as “Wagon Train to the stars”, but the earliest TOS episodes are more like Lewis and Clark than Oregon Trail.

There are a few inferior episodes: “Turnabout Intruder” is a D episode, worse even than the quintessential “bad” episode “Spock’s Brain”. People sometimes claim all of third season is bad, but there’s a couple A and B episodes in that season, like “All Our Yesterdays” and “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”

Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Rating: C

I remember being very excited when I heard the news: there was going to be a new Star Trek show! A Saturday morning cartoon! With the original cast!

And I enjoyed it as a kid, but looking back at it, it’s not so great. Certainly higher quality than most other Saturday-morning fare. But it’s the usual cheap animation. The character are also “off”: Kirk is more violent and Spock is more of a stubborn jerk, and the interaction between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy seems fueled more by anger than friendship.

The feel and tone of early Trek gets completely lost in TAS. They zoom from one end of the galaxy to the other regularly, even outside the galaxy, and there’s no real sense of scale. Fortunately, none of the later Trek offerings take the same approach.

The stories are mostly so-so, with a few good episodes like “Yesteryear”. The most amazing thing is that they accomplish more in half an hour than any of the hour format shows do. The quality actually doesn’t vary that much; it’s a fairly consistent series, with not many episodes outside the C+ to C- range. “The Practical Joker” is probably the worst episode, worth a D rating, but it does have the distinction of introducing the holodeck.

Next Post: We’re going to the movies.

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