True confessions of a warped youth

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It Was hardly The Mousetrap. The original Star Treks were all made in a three-year period (1966-69), and only 79 of them were transmitted. Yet as a cultural reference point - a "common conversation" - Star Trek is perhaps the most influential TV series ever shot. "Beam me up Scotty" and "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it" have joined "Elementary, my dear Watson" and "It's dead, that's what's wrong with it" as universally recognised anglophonic phrases. Why?

When I was 20 and a student, I lived for a year in a Sixties slum tower in Manchester. To the background of wailing sirens and the occasional noisy murder in the streets below, I sat every week watching the first series of Blake's Seven on a black-and-white set with no horizontal hold. It held my attention for a year or so, and then palled. There is practically nothing now that I remember about it, save the fights set in disused warehouses, quarries and gas-works. Yet it too was set on a spaceship, with a close collection of disparate characters (was the ambivalent baddie called Avon?), bowling around the galaxy, encountering improbable latex aliens and resolving sticky moral dilemmas. So why was one so much more durable than the other?

Last Monday's Star Trek Night on BBC2 gave us the answer to that question. Essentially, anyone could watch the picaresque star-trotting of the Enterprise's crew, and locate a hero or heroine of their own, or a message that appealed to them, or a vision of alternative societies and futures that they found intriguing. And all this was done without that self-knowing irony which establishes such distance between British heroes - like Dr Who and Roj Blake - and their circumstances. Star Trek is beyond irony.

The evening itself kicked off with a one-off game-show, To Boldly Go Where No Quiz Has Gone Before, in which Trek fanatics showed a creepy knowledge of their favourite programme. The runner-up was a cheerful, chunky student from Halifax who was studying for a "BA in media performance", whatever that is. Ominously the winner was a bespectacled young woman called "B", who proved that the ladies, having already stormed academe, are now occupying the citadels of anorakdom. For non-experts it was all rather dull, leaving simply that feeling of bemused superiority one feels whenever one is confronted by people who are incredibly good at something that one doesn't give a toss about.

Star Trek Story was much more interesting: a genuine sociological look at a piece of television, observing its relationship to questions of gender, race, politics, destiny and Utopia. But before dealing with those biggies, it also let us into the initial reason for the show's success over other space series. This was producer Gene Roddenberry's decision to create a "ship", with a recognisable hierarchy (admirals, captains, first officers, etc), in a navy, equipped with a semi-plausible (if widely parametered) mission.

Immediately people saw in the programme what they wanted to see. Kirk was the lost Kennedy, Space was the lost American frontier now being explored by the successors of those who blazed the Oregon trail, Lieutenant Uhura was a symbol of hope to the civil rights movement, Chekhov to early supporters of detente. Women variously were perceived to be increasingly equal (Uhura again), or dressed up engagingly in mini-skirts and bizarrely revealing strips of fur and tin-foil - all under the personal supervision of Mr Roddenberry. The early Klingons were Brezhnevites with dented heads, the later (assimilated) Klingons were Gorbachevites, with the birthmark painted over. The mission itself was either a galactic UN peace-keeping force, or a reflection of American imperial attitudes in the era of Vietnam.

One unitarian minister (whose middle-aged female congregation actually sings the words to the Star Trek theme, which apparently does not go "Whoo- ooooo, oooey ooo ooo", as I'd always believed), spoke about the "cosmic monasticism" of Star Trek - a sentiment which sat awkwardly with the large number of times Kirk found himself engulfed in fur and tin-foil clinches. "All that power, surging and throbbing," said a blonde in one episode, fingering the warp-drive. "Are you like that, Captain?" Cosmic? Oh yes. Monasticism? Not as we know it.

Two points were not made, so I feel obliged to add them. The dropping of Star Trek in 1969 coincided with the first Moon landing, and may well suggest that the reality of space travel and the sight of men walking on alien surfaces, temporarily made actors in jumpsuits romping around cardboard deserts seem a bit tame. The second point concerns Mr Spock. The "Spock" was, in my opinion, no accident. At the time the series was made the foremost American authority on raising children was the liberal Dr Benjamin Spock. Thus the Sixties generation was the Spock generation, and here you have this wise, logical, detached Vulcan - a universe away from the viewers' own frantic, prejudiced and emotive parents - charting a course for new worlds. Wouldn't you have wanted your own copy of Baby and Childcare, by Mr Spock (chapter seven: Care of the Ears)?

The major and minor effects of social change on television series were illustrated by the opening episode of the new series, Star Trek: Voyager, later in the evening. In the major category is the casting of a Katharine Hepburn lookalike as the woman captain of the eponymous ship. But the change in the ship's shape is just as significant. Enterprise was a mostly cylindrical affair, made up of two equal parts, and a longer shape between, and in front of them. There was a certain thrusting externality about this arrangement. But the Voyager is rounder, more internalised, with no dependent parts and a large aperture. This is a social history of the late 20th century in two plastic models. It is just a shame that they could never be in the same star-fleet.

The educational value of science-fiction as a TV genre was demonstrated in Science: The Final Frontier, which used the Star Trek conceits as a starting point to examine the feasibility of time travel, being beamed to places rather than having to take a bus, photon torpedoes and warp travel. Almost everything turned out to be either impossible, ruinously wasteful or hugely undesirable. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, for instance, means that you are very unlikely to be beamed somewhere entirely intact. Some atom or other will have changed - and it could be an important one.

But I particularly enjoyed the revelation that the Seti research centre in America scans 28 million radio frequencies a minute for signs of life in other galaxies - and hasn't heard a peep - while you can be sure that many of the participants on Carol "Spooky" Vorderman's Out Of This World (BBC1, Tuesday), utterly unencumbered by all this scientific equipment, speak to them all the time.

And they have an audience. For, gradually replacing the outward-looking and essentially optimistic twaddle of science-fiction, is the narrow, crabbed, self-regarding and superstitious twaddle of the occult, of Voodoovision. There was a key moment in this well-made and compulsive show, when a researcher on premonitions told an impressed Spooky that the results of his research were "almost approaching statistical significance". In other words, they were not statistically significant. She, however, reacted as though he had just said the exact opposite.

But even that scandalous laxity with the facts seemed like a model of scientific probing compared with the hilarious story in Strange But True (ITV, Friday), LWT's own contribution to Voodoovision. This was the dramatically "reconstructed" tale of how Joan Collins and pals were sent packing from a Venetian palace at dead of night, by a ghost whose one widely witnessed manifestation was to draw an S on the carpet in after- dinner chocolates. Oh, and a black moth flew into the kitchen. At two in the morning Joan raised the spirits of her frightened chums by standing on the steps of the Palazzo Albrizzi and bursting into a rendition of "What a Wonderful World".

What local Venetians thought about this impromptu late-night concert was not examined, and nor were the preposterous circumstances of this silly tale. (Sighs.) At least no one ever tried to tell us that Star Trek was true.