Star Trek: A Production Note

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008 Horrorthon Posts

In the ‘Sixties, television production companies had a much simpler and more primitive relationship with the networks and their viewers than they do today. Remember that there was no “fourth network” like FOX, no cable TV at all, and no “first-run syndication” networks. There were no VCRs, either (let alone seasonal DVD boxed sets). Every single television viewer was using “rabbit ear” antennae to pick up broadcasts (and struggling to adjust the “vertical hold” and clear out the static by turning knobs and bending their antennae all over the place). It goes without saying that there was no internet; no downloadable episodes; no fan sites; no viral marketing; nothing except you, your TV, and maybe a big rooftop antenna if you were lucky. (Early Trek fans actually traded cassette tapes of the episodes’ soundtracks…by mail.)

So, with the exception of soap operas, nobody was really trying to get a continuous story going. The networks tended to make up their own minds about what order to broadcast shows in, and viewers who missed individual episodes had absolutely no way to make up for it and see what they missed or even find out what happened on the show except to wait for reruns or hope that some newspaper or magazine would print a summary. (No primetime hourlong drama really used the “soap opera” continuous story technique until Dallas and Hill Sreet Blues.)

The effect of this on Star Trek was twofold: first, they weren’t thinking in terms of big, sequential story events, except in the vaguest sense. There was no “Series Premiere,” no “Season Finales,” no “cliffhangers” (except for a single two-part episode) and no “previously on Star Trek.” The Trek fictional universe is rigidly planned and consistent; the order of events is just a little vague. (And forget about the “stardates:” they’re deliberately scrambled, and remain that way until The Next Generation.) When the show was cancelled halfway through its third season, no attempt was made to “wrap up the story” in a J. J. Abrams sense; the whole thing just…stops…with no closure at all. Of course, certain chronological developments are established: Ensign Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) joins the Enterprise crew in the second season, and Yeoman Janice Rand (Grace Lee Whitney) leaves because of “personal reasons” (DRUGS), and the characters occasionally refer to events from previous episodes.

But the whole thing is very piecemeal, and the episodes weren’t even broadcast in the order that they were filmed. For example, once NBC had greenlighted the show, Roddenberry decided to begin series production with a script called “The Corbomite Maneuver” (since it was a simple, shipboard story that would let the cast and crew get into the groove of the show), and to carefully write the script so as to introduce certain elements explicitly. NBC ignored all that and broadcast “The Man Trap” first, which is a perfectly fine “action-adventure” story but not the greatest episode all around (and it got some bad reviews).

Which brings me to my point: Paramount Home Video, in their infinite wisdom, decided to release the Star Trek DVD sets based on the show’s broadcast order rather than the production order. It doesn’t make that much difference, since, as I’ve explained, the shows were designed to be viewable in any order as was the custom of the day. (I sound like Abe Simpson.) But Star Trek purists like myself prefer to watch the shows in production order, for all kinds of reasons. (I’m such a pathetic Trekkie that I’m even aware of when they made certain changes to the sets.) Paramount’s arbitrary, bone-headed decision to arrange the DVDs the way they did is the kind of thing that makes me ridiculously, murderously angry; the fact that “it doesn’t matter” and “it’s so trivial” just makes me angrier about it, if you can dig it. If I actually owned the commercial DVD sets I would be cursing Paramount Home Video every time I played the discs. (I have similar murderous feelings about the people who are making the “remastered” Trek episodes, since they’re getting so many things right and spending so much money, and it will never happen again, and it’s a wonderful, unprecedented development except for the fact that they’ve completely, irrevocably, hopelessly fucked it up.) Anyway, here’s a Wikipedia list that gets the episodes into the proper order.

Now I’m going to “go get a life, for crying out loud” as Mr. Shatner has famously suggested.