Only the true believers will get excited about 'Trek' retrospective

November 30, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

'Star Trek' . . . is an astonishing tale unsurpassed in the history of entertainment," William Shatner says tonight at the end of "Star Trek: A Captain's Log."

If you accept the statement without question, then this is definitely the retrospective for you.

If, however, you're the kind of person who says, "Hmmm, what about, say, Shakespeare?" you are probably going to have lots of trouble with the overstatement and some of the claims of cultural significance made during the hour.

"Star Trek: A Captain's Log," which airs at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11), is a celebration of the original "Star Trek" series that aired on NBC from 1966 to '69. The reason it was canceled after just three seasons is low ratings. The highest it ever finished in the Nielsen ratings of prime-time series was 52nd out of 85 shows.

Tonight's show is yet another inexpensive CBS retrospective consisting of a host and lots of films and videotape from a series that aired when baby boomers were much younger than today. CBS has been flooding the airwaves with them during "sweeps" months in recent years -- ranging from Ed Sullivan to Dick Van Dyke. They are cheap to make and can often clean up in the ratings with a self-absorbed fortysomething generation.

Shatner is the host of "A Captain's Log," and the clips are from both the series and from sound-bite interviews with the rest of the cast -- Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, DeForest Kelley and Walter Koenig.

The interviews mainly restate every pop culture theory you ever heard 20 years ago about "Star Trek." And then, when available, there's a clip from the series shown to try to support the claim.

"In 1964, Gene Roddenberry had a simple idea: a wagon train to the stars, new pioneers exploring a new frontier," Shatner says at the top of the show. That is the new frontier thesis.

"In many respects, the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth. And when you saw the bridge of the Enterprise, you saw the makeup of all the various kinds of people who populate Starship Earth," Takei says.

That's the cultural diversity thesis. And, while it is valid in some ways, it is another incidence of overstatement in "A Captain's Log." While there was a refreshingly diverse crew by the standards of '60s television, there were no Native Americans, no Hispanics and no gay people, for example, on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. So, let's not say all the people were represented.

But the biggest problem is not so much the overstatement of cultural significance as it is the way the claims are unrelentingly made. The overzealousness simply leaves no time to have any fun with the show.

Come on, some of the mini-mini-outfits on the women, the stilted speeches by the men, the cheesy sets that were supposed to be other planets are just plain funny when revisited 30 years later. We can celebrate a series and still chuckle at it, too. This was relatively low-budget, sci-fi TV in 1966; some of it is comical in retrospect.

But not, apparently, to the producers of "A Captain's Log." The show's over-the-top earnestness ultimately includes using actual news footage of the space program, civil rights marches and protests of the Vietnam War to further its claims of social relevance.

Yes, Lieutenant Uhura (Nichols) and Kirk (Shatner) did kiss in an episode titled "Plato's Stepchildren." And, yes, it was certainly progressive if not the very first interracial kiss on TV, as the show claims. But, instead of just laying that out for viewers to appreciate, the producers go in for the overkill with Nichols making unsupported claims about how much "Star Trek" meant to Dr. Martin Luther King. It's like that all the way through "A Captain's Log."

I respect "Star Trek." I do think it is culturally one of network television's more important series. But I'm getting real tired of people on TV, whether it's Ken Burns or William Shatner, pumping hot air into their products through the guise of explaining what the metaphor means.

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