Star Trek has had a presence on television and the big screen for several decades. In its time it has been a part of different trends on television. In this series, let’s look at Star Trek as it has journeyed from an episodic format to a more serialized one, and everywhere in between.
In the 1960’s when Star Trek premiered, episodic television reigned supreme. In shows like Bewitched or Lost in Space, characters were confronted with weekly challenges that put to the test the values of the families involved.
Like a rubber band, no matter how much it was stretched, the status quo of the American family prevailed, and at the end of each episode the rubber band snapped back to its original shape and the mid-century family returned to blissful normalcy.
Swap in Gene Roddenberry’s crew of the Enterprise with his humanistic ideals of the future and you’re pretty much left with the same thing. The crew starts out as the same rubber band it always is, it’s confronted by a dangerous foe, perhaps a red shirt or two suffers a casualty, but never is the main crew or the Enterprise put in any jeopardy that snaps the rubber band.
Despite this formula, though, the drama comes from the danger posed each episode and just how far that rubber band will stretch. Perhaps in the back of our minds, we know that the Enterprise will survive, or that Spock will get his brain back, but it is in the how that we find the drama. Which alien will Kirk seduce, what point of logic will Spock exploit, how much liquor will Scotty drink to dispatch a Kelvan?
Let’s take a look at a couple of episodes from The Original Series to see how they abide or maybe shake up the episodic rubber band.
City on the Edge of Forever
The one with time travel. And McCoy going crazy from an accidental drug overdose. And going back in time through the Guardian of Forever and changing time. And Kirk and Spock chasing him. And Kirk falls in love with Edith, and McCoy kind of does, too. Edith has to die, though, or history will be irrevocably changed. So Kirk stops McCoy from saving her and the ending is tragic. Tears.
The strength of this episode is the drastic extent that the rubber band, so to speak, is stretched. Introducing such an idealistic character as Edith, one who embodies the spirit of the Federation long before its existence and who rants about perfect society while serving soup during the Great Depression, it’s no surprise Kirk falls for her. Then again he does like the ladies.
But this case seems different. It’s made even more different when he has to let her die, as the timeline requires. As a contained and complete narrative, this episode succeeds in putting the heroes into a scenario which challenges them fundamentally and personally. Not only is it his duty to preserve the timeline and save his crew as well as the rest of the galaxy, it’s also a cruel reality that sometimes duty is not simple or compassionate.
The events of an episode like this make me wonder, how are characters not deeply affected by something so traumatic as this? Maybe we are supposed to believe that this is all just another day in the life of a Starfleet officer, as long as everything goes back to normal. I bet the ship’s counselor was really busy for a while. Such is episodic television.
Let That Be Your Last Battlefield
The one with two aliens who have skin that in black on one side and white on the other. They hate each other because they are black and white on different sides than each other. So yeah, it’s an allegory to racism. Oh, and Kirk almost self destructs the Enterprise.
When Star Trek isn’t putting its characters through horrible trials, or actual court room trials, or expanding the setting by introducing new races, it is sometimes found being preachy. In this episode the allegory to racism is not at all subtle, but it is effective despite the somewhat implausible look the make up artists were going for to make the guest actors seem alien.
Very quickly, however, we are drawn into the conflict between these two, and we see that they are bitterly engaged in a vendetta that has lasted centuries. Just as their skin is black on one side and white on another, they are uncompromisingly committed to opposite sides of this conflict.
While the difference between their pigmentation is hard to notice at first, once the crew is made aware of it, they are incredulous. For such advanced beings to be consumed with something as superficial as differences in skin pigmentation is ridiculous to them.
And therein lies the strength of this episode. Before you know it, Star Trek has become a mirror and when you look into it you have to determine who is staring back at you: the diverse and accepting crew of the Enterprise, or the bigoted aliens.
Other than a brief standoff over the possible destruction of the Enterprise, the status quo is barely disrupted. That rubber band barely stretches. But rather than this inflexibility reducing the drama, it instead heightens the contrast between the crew and their fraught guests.
Perhaps in a more modern telling, we’d see one or two of the crew swayed by one of the aliens to increase the drama, but what I think is important here is the intent to show that the Enterprise crew is not the least bit tempted to engage in such behavior. They have evolved past racism. What’s the value in judging each other or aliens based on their superficial appearance because they don’t look a certain way?
Tragically, the two aliens are left on their home world which has fallen into ruin amid their ceaseless racial conflict, and the Enterprise’s five-year mission continues without a hitch.
What is the verdict on the episodic format?
In such strict episodic storytelling we rarely see any lasting development to the characters, however, we can always count on the characters to react in consistent ways. McCoy will always passionately react, Spock will be logical, Kirk will be charismatic, something will probably happen to a red shirt.
That becomes the strength of the format, though. No matter how dire the circumstances the characters may face, or how tempting it may be to disregard their values, or the degree of sacrifice, the characters always act just as we expect them.
In that way, the characters are more of an embodiment of ideas, abstract qualities and ideals personified. Perhaps we see ourselves in some of them, and when we see how they respond to the struggles in each episode, it reflects on how we would like to be.
What do you think of the episodic structure?