Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Sex, Drugs and Quantum Existentialism: The Acidemic STAR TREK Short Guide

She-Hulk Prototypes, top: Susan Olvier - Unaired pilot / Bottom: Yvonne Craig - season 3

Regardless of the nerdy stigma associated with being a "Trekkie," the first (three year) run of the original Star Trek have endured as eternally, awesomely relevant. Airing originally between 1967-9, it wasn't until later, when the show ran in near-perpetual syndication, that most of us discovered it. We saw palatable examples of Platonic ideals, Greek and Roman history, the pros and cons of psychedelics and free love, and all told in marvelously mythic form so that it became more graspably educational than a full day of elementary school. Unabashed intellectual dialogue and giddy overacting became laser-welded to Mad Men-style sexual mores, groovy uniforms, 3-D wall sculpture art, wondrous psychedelic aesthetics, mini-skirts, space diseases, mind melds, and the terrifying prospect of having all our earthly desires met, thus killing ambition and forcing Kirk to make speeches about how we... need.... challenges.... to evolve (which translated as kids to mean we need.... school... if only to have something to hate, and so recess would seem sweeter than it would be after a few months of just recess. As we grew up it meant something else entirely, but it was still the same and still rewatchable. Doing drugs ourselves as teenagers, we saw Kirk say that again and wonder if our pot and psilocybin needed to be illegal, lest society collapse into slacker apathy (and we cool kids would no longer have a way to feel hipper than our square parents; they'd be unemployed burnouts like ourselves). 

Myths are open to interpretation. Even with this covert squareness in its fabric, there are few things better than spending whole weekends taping WPIX Star Trek rerun (and when I say that in this essay I mean just this first three season run, I've never gotten into later incarnations) marathons while coming down off Friday night's shrooms. Now that these three seasons are available on Netflix in gorgeous HD transfers, it would reflect a substandard intelligence not to grab a summer internship on the Starship Enterprise and continue the tradition (and if you need a way to come down off something while alone for a long period of empty claustrophobic time, you know the importance of having the assurance only a great TV series marathon or very long but absorbing book, can provide). The future is written, as it must be, by a show from the past remastered with 21st century technology and flowing to your screen in astounding bitrates.

Sure there are issues to take umbrage with if you want to be 'realistic', like hw everyone in the galaxy speaks English and all planets have breathable atmosphere, how aliens are open to philosophical debates, class warfare,  Shakespeare, Roman history, chess, and are often the proud owners of pointy beards. Each planet can be traversed within a few matte paintings and some purple-lighted rock walls. But why is this bad? Space helmets are hard to mike, endless translations, subtitles, and interpreters between alien races would get tedious, and I'll take the deep red skies and purple-lit rock formations of studio-bound sets for my alien planet landscapes over elaborate CGI spectacularism or mundane Bronson Canyon backdrops any day.

If you're ready to come along with me on this incredible journey here's a few highly Acidemic episodes I'd recommend:

"Miri" displays an alternate earth that froze way back in the 1960's, leaving the planet a ghost town (the architecture is referred to as 'ghastly' by the ever-cranky Bones), populated only by a handful of dirt-faced scamps chanting "Bop Bop!" as they pound the table, referencing the Freaks chant "one of us, one of us!" The lead kid (far left) skeeved me out so much that I hated the Bowery Boys--in constant afternoon TV circulation through--forever.

"Miri" was and is the benchmark for all American Lord Fly Amok movies, such as Children of the Corn. If you were a kid in the 70's you know this kid and he still scares you. Bop! Bop! (Postscript: for more amok tribes of kids see CinemArchetype 23) There was, to our delight, NEVER a 'cute' kid on the show - they were always evil, or in the thrall of evil, or somehow or other devolved... Roddenbery was very good about that.

"The Cage," was the original pilot, with Jeffrey Hunter as Capt. Pike, running the Enterprise with a whole different crew / cast (Leonard Nimoy's Spock aside) and costume color scheme. Their velour chalk blue uniforms with khaki green collars (above) are a perfect antidote to anyone who winces at the sight of the primary color-coordinated outfits to come and there's a sexy plot wherein Pike is abducted by crazy baldheads and urged to mate with a hottie (Susan Oliver) who appears in many seductive scenarios (including the green sexpot atop). Shades of Kilgore Trout!

 Of course the era's sexism is a recurring problem: the retro future seems to have ignored what was soon to be known as 'women's lib.' The ladies wear mini-dresses and are all either young and gorgeous or appearing young and gorgeous through space age trickery. That said, the casual sexuality that floods the show carries none of the draconian nu-PC moral crusader thug age stigma it does today, and many a growing lad such as myself had his first dose of hormones carbonized by Susan Oliver and/or Yvonne Craig as green dancing girls, or Mariette Hartley (left) as a woman stranded out of time and compelled to dress in very revealing furs, in season 3's "All our Yesterdays," which also features a library consisting solely of metal discs that are wayyy too much like our modern DVDs too not be eerily prophetic.

And in addition to being hip about sexy, the show is hip about drugs: "The Naked Time" finds the gang wrestling with an inhibition-lowering, mania-inducing disease that acts like meth or coke: Spock gets it on with the nurse and Sulu and shows off his Bruce Lee chest and fencing moves. Soon the whole ship is going to the blazes!


"This Side of Paradise" finds Kirk the only member of the crew not bewitched by space poppies. Everyone who beams down on this certain Edenic planet becomes too happy and content to do anything but loll around in the sun and love one another. Kirk tries to convince them they need goals and challenges to evolve as people, but they're too busy digging the flowers; it's not until he stirs their more violent emotions that they snap out of it. And though you can argue both sides, which is to the script's credit, it's one of the earliest examples of Kirk seeming a killjoy, especially when Spock gets the closing line: "For the first time in my life, I was happy."

Incidentally, the idea of interstellar space plant that makes you trip out and tap into the joy of the universe is very reminiscent of Terence McKenna's theories on the psilocibe cubensis mushroom spores: 
What the mushroom says about itself is this: that it is an extraterrestrial organism, that spores can survive the conditions of interstellar space. They are deep, deep purple – the color that they would have to be to absorb the deep ultraviolet end of the spectrum. The casing of a spore is one of the hardest organic substances known. The electron density approaches that of a metal. Is it possible that these mushrooms never evolved on earth? That is what the Stropharia cubensis itself suggests...

 I couldn’t figure out whether the mushroom is the alien or the mushroom is some kind of technological artifact allowing me to hear the alien when the alien is actually light-years aways, using some kind of Bell nonlocality principle to communicate. The mushroom states its own position very clearly. It says, “I require the nervous system of a mammal. Do you have one handy?”(More)
Dude, here's a genius physicist talking trans-galaxial travel with a sentient mushroom! That is so Trek, and if you've shroomed maybe you've heard the Bell nonlocality alien sentience, but alas, Kirk, ever paranoid, responds to the ''threat' by getting rid of the pods instead of bringing them to hospitals where they can surely cure any type of life threatening disease and prepare the terminally ill to face death with dilated eyes wide to the mystery. Drug War! All you have to do is imagine the countless chemo-therapy sufferers slowly dying miserable nausea-related deaths because their home state wont let them have medical marijuana, and there you go... when will the old power lizards let us evolve into spore-lifted butterflies already?

If you dig the show Ancient Aliens, Gnosticism, or the mad writings of Phillip K. Dick or David Icke you'll want to be sure and study episode 62, "Way of the Dove," an examination of an Archon-like malignant alien force feeding off the hate and violence it provokes in others. More ancient astronaut theory is indirectly explored in #31:" Who Mourns for Adonais?" wherein Apollo, an advanced laurel leaf-sporting alien from Earth's distant past, abducts the Enterprise crew so they can worship him. The complex idea of 'fourth dimensional' existence as occurring at a higher frequency, or speed, than our eyes can see is masterfully concretized in "Wink of an Eye," (#66, co-starring Herb "Brain that Wouldn't Die" Ankers, dressed like a masochist houseboy) and of course there's the eerie similarity the Gorn ("Arena" - left) has with the daemonic reptilians of my best and truest hallucinations.

Herb Evers, Kathie Browne - "Wink of an Eye"

An episode that would be great to watch as a come-down after a double feature of Woodstock and Gimme Shelter would be #75, "The Way to Eden," wherein a group of space hippies work various angles to convince the Enterprise crew to take them through forbidden space to an allegedly pristine planet named Eden. The hippies include Charles Napier on space guitar inviting Spock to sit in and jam with the flower people!
As Wiki notes: The group is impressed by First Officer Spock, who understands their philosophy. Spock makes an oval "symbol of peace" hand gesture and simply says: "One." The group responds with the same gesture: "We are one." They ask Spock: "Are you One, Herbert?" Spock replies that he is not Herbert, and Adam declares: "He's not Herbert. We reach!"
We reach, man! We reach man! Dig, take the comma away and man is reached, and then man reaches woman. It's all about connection, and that's something Star Trek is keenly aware of, which is why perhaps it's so cult-ready. We science fiction fans tend to relate to feeling isolated, and it's lonesome out in space or home alone on a Saturday night with our TV on (and all the house lights left up bright). In the first season especially, loneliness seems to be the over-arching symptom of the galaxy, but its never sad or lonesome on the Enterprise. When the Enterprise drops in on old friends it's like coming back to a ghost town, the one or two beings they encounter invariably want to force the Enterprise to stay. Anyone who's ever had a real bad trip can relate to dying of loneliness in a matter of minutes, "with not even a tormentor for company." Weird aliens, lonesome in their blues, try to abduct the Enterprise, possess its crew, or challenge them to duels, and it's all very much like a cult. Cults were a big part of the 60s-70s, Trekkism is a cult, and it's also a good metaphor for the healing hand of television reaching into our suburban isolation but--especially in the days before VHS--impossible to capture. We could only watch shows when they were on the air. The Enterprise never overstayed its slender time slot. If we missed it, we missed it, until its rerun orbit completed one full revolution.  There was no way to recapture the magic, let alone all three seasons in one click on an 'add to instant cue' button... truly the future is better than Roddenberry could have imagined.

Though each season was filled with gems, some of the weaker entries could seem a bit campy and laden with Wild Wild West-style anachronism: cowboys, Native Americans, Chicago mobsters, centurions, Nazis, striking miners, dandy fops, Abe Lincoln, Romans, neanderthals, Vikings --all had their day, exhumed from the mothballs of the Paramount costume dept. and shuffled in amidst the styrofoam rock formations. Even as a kid who didn't understand the adult dialogue without parental explanation (luckily as kid watching in the 70s, my dad was on hand), I appreciated that Star Trek never coddled or talked down to us; Is there any show that even comes close today, as far as allowing its characters to be uniformly brilliant and analytical?. In its even-sided examinations of the problems humanity struggles with, these three seasons are still as timely as retro-futurism has ever been. Some episodes are fairly comical, which I appreciated more as a kid (the comic tribble fawning and corny "I'm just a country physician, Jim" McCoy grousing now seem painfully cutesy), some just seem to use the alien threats and puzzles just to stage some familiar TV trope on minimal sets (i.e. a court-martial or murder trial where local customs must be obeyed due to prime directive). Sone are just sagas of guilt and blame that would fit into any other drama on TV, like they ran out of ideas so just added new names and sci-fi trappings into old Perry Mason scripts.

Most of the time, however, Trek showed us a future worth endeavoring to survive to see. Most sci-fi was either dire, apocalyptic, or otherwise uncertain. This was a new kind of future, explored not in outer space but in the simulacrum of our collective screen. Its escapism helped us examine truths about our own desire for escapism, but in a constructive way, not in a feel-bad harangue. As with great sci-fi like The Thing (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956) we were invited out of our head-space isolation and into a collective. Part of a noble, able-bodied crew, under a fine captain, we could re-enter society and escape, through the screen, out of our escapist solitude.

One day digital media will progress past the point of screens altogether and we'll all be able to go go back to "The Menagerie" just like the burned-out Jeffrey Hunter; first, by watching that unaired pilot from the safety of our paralysis (above) and then 'for real' in that special way only big-headed aliens and/or digital coders can provide. Back when the syndicated show first filled our screens in the 70s, we dreamt only of being one-day able to see them all back-to-back, commercial-free. Then there was a long stretch when we could finally see them on tape, but only if we taped them from syndication or bought the old VHS tapes, which had two episodes per tape, and were expensive. Can it be any doubt that the next step with be chip implants directly to our brain, bypassing the acoustic biological sensory inputs (sight/sound) altogether and making our brain totally digital? Then that menagerie will be all around us, a perfect little 3-D cube in which to spend the rest of our life, feeling totally that we're out in the infinite even as we never leave the couch, or a small set with alien worlds being a dark maroon sky and a few tumbleweeds. 


  1. As interesting as you make these sound, I can't bring myself to watch them. I was (and still am) a "Star Wars" fan. "Star Trek" always seemed pointlessly pompous and boring. Even the movies (what ones I watched) had me yawning.

  2. Ah Doug, you are only cheating yourself. Star Trek the series has been burdened by almost fifty years of add-ons and re-dos, imitators and fanatics, yes, But the original series episodes, they are almost transcendent in their simple but universal story lines and messages of community, leading by example, moral courage, thirst for adventure and deep love of design. It doesn't require a coke/pepsi challenge of St vs SW, they are two entirely different entities. If anything, Star Trek is an American Doctor Who, with a diverse crew instead of a monarch. It is worth your time.

  3. Thanks Johnny, you're right. The original gets a bad rap because of all the movies and cartoons and spinoffs that came long after the show was canceled. The first three seasons are their own thing. Doug, give them a chance with that in mind... your comment "even the movies had me yawning" are an indication you think the movies somehow represent the most exciting and heralded element of the series, but they came decades afterwards and lack the original's sexy sci fi novel cover art aesthetic and fleet-footed writing (by such luminaries as Harlan Ellison and Robert Bloch among others).


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