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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 July, 2005, 03:42 GMT 04:42 UK
The Final Frontier revisited
By William Gallagher

James Doohan and William Shatner in Star Trek
James Doohan (left) starred with William Shatner in Star Trek
The death of James Doohan - Scotty the engineer - has aroused fresh outpourings of affection for Star Trek.

Unmistakeably a child of the 1960s, the show was a flop which rose again to become the most famous space series.

The original show tried to look into the future - and eventually changed television on both sides of the camera.

At its quiet start on NBC in September 1966, it seemed that the only thing that would change was the channel - as viewers and critics found Bewitched much more interesting.

Then as now, science fiction had a bad press and, then as now, it generally deserved it as audiences yawned through adventures about unbelievable monsters defeated by ridiculous luck and poor dialogue. Star Trek offered all of that in brightly-coloured tunics and with the odd pointed ear.

But the majority of fantasy and science fiction shows were then anthologies with not only a different monster every week but a different hero, a different setting.

Crude

Star Trek had the USS Enterprise which was always commanded by William Shatner (Captain Kirk), was always held together by James Doohan as Scotty, and which presented generally consistent characters that you would come to know and follow.

It was crude: Mr Spock's cold logic and Doctor McCoy's warm humanity were the two sides of Kirk's personality brought out and given voices.

But they were funny and they were smart where most space characters were not. The stories were optimistic about exploration instead of fatalistic about invasion. The Enterprise crew became a family and that humanised space opera.

Then, while creator Gene Roddenberry kept insisting the starship was not a military vessel but a ship of exploration, he gave everyone recognisable Navy ranks and so made his futuristic universe understandable.

The stories were optimistic about exploration instead of fatalistic about invasion

Even today, there are very few space opera shows that do not follow this exact structure, from the military ranks to the physical layout of the ships with a bridge and a big viewscreen.

The stories were simple and often full of themselves for hiding contemporary issues within a space fantasy, but they had pace and tension and ridiculously short skirts: the 23rd Century looked a lot like the 1960s.

When the show was cancelled, these elements found a new and much more appreciative audience: repeats were screened every weeknight opposite the evening news and young people and especially students became addicted.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Warp speed to the great beyond, Scotty
Brian Adams, Milton, USA

Trek didn't invent what's called syndication, but it was so successful at it that many shows tried to emulate it - including Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987).

Hit

That went straight into this syndication market, partly because none of the networks thought it would recapture the success of the original show. But with exactly the same optimism, much of the same dialogue and only slightly better roles for women this spin-off became the greatest hit in the Star Trek canon.

Even today, few space opera shows do not follow this exact structure, from the military ranks to the physical layout of the ships

Its follow-up, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993) was the strongest series by far yet oddly also the least popular - until Enterprise (2001).

By the time that final Trek began, there had been over 600 episodes or films and Star Trek perhaps became self-defeating. We knew to hail frequencies, we knew to raise shields.

The last days of Enterprise overtly harked back to the 1960s original, bringing back designs, costumes and ideas, but only the most avid fans stayed watching.




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