The technology of Star Trek

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On this, the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of the first Star Trek episode, here is a fascinating look at the fictional technology of the series.

I remember that Thursday evening fifty years ago very well. As a teenager I had been suffering for years watching very bad and stupid television science fiction, like Lost in Space, written as if its audiences were five year old children and thus insulting them. Still, as an avid reader of science fiction that knew the genre was sophisticated and intelligent, I held onto the hope that some new science fiction show might finally do something akin to this.

Star Trek did this and more. That first episode had all the best elements of good drama and great science fiction: a mystery, an alien, a tragic figure, and an ancient lost civilization. From that moment until the series was cancelled, I would be glued to my television set when it aired.

You can watch that first episode if you wish, though with commercials. Click on the first link above to do so. In watching it recently when Diane and I decided to rent the original series from Netflix and watch them again, I was surprised how well this episode, as well as the entire first series, has stood up over time. It is not dated. Its drama remains as good. And you know, the writing is sometimes quite stellar, to coin a phrase.


  • Matt in AZ

    FYI, there’s a nonprofit group of volunteers who’ve been making a “continuation” of the original series’ 5-year mission. Star Trek Continues now has 7 episodes available on Youtube, and is well worth watching. Their “Mirror, Mirror” followup episode of “The Fairest of Them All” is just outstanding. Filming, editing, lighting, music, even writing – it’s quite dead-on in the style of the original show.

  • wayne

    Wow… it really has been 50 years, hasn’t it!
    (I could babble for hours on Star Trek, all-iterations, but I’ll restrain myself….)

    Completely echo 100% of your post Mr. Z.!

    Fortunately, my Dad was a big S-F fan so I was able to watch it, in-the-moment (on our B&W TV no less), and then it was stripped for syndication & shown 5 days a week in our market. (by which time we had upgraded to color.)

    Anecdotal story– one of my best friend’s younger-brother, became a total Trekkie in the late 70’s & went on to MIT & Rensselaer Polytechnic, [Material’s Engineering & Computer Science] and was part of a Team that worked on the Space Shuttle landing-gear.

    (Interestingly, I’ve never attended a S.T. Convention, although I did the Comic-Con circuit for almost a decade & accumulated quite the elaborate collection of E.C. & Marvel comics, which funded my grad-school degree.)

  • wayne

    Matt in AZ:

    Thanks for mentioning the fan-produced ST stuff. It really is high-quality material and rivals anything you would see on network TV.

  • Greg the Geologist

    As a long-time Trek fan (and my late father was a special effects illustrator on Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979)), I’ll offer a Vulcan salute to the amazing half-century of creative and inspiring work done by the franchise.

    Many have considered the question of Kirk vs. Picard. All other considerations aside, Kirk did something that I don’t think Picard ever managed, and he did it 4 times: he talked a computer to death. Specifically, Nomad, M5, Landru and the android society of “I, Mudd”.

    Like to try that next time I’m on the phone with an automated ‘voice-recognizing’ menu. Just please let me speak with a human!

  • Patrick Kelley

    It was the best. I would sit on the floor right in front of the TV. During the opening credits I would dodge to the left and to the right to avoid being struck by the speeding Enterprise.

  • Max

    That’s funny Patrick, I used to put my finger on the screen to predict where the Enterprise would appear next. My sisters would watch Gilligans Island and Brady Bunch but when Star Trek came on (five days a week) the TV was all mine! When other kids were playing John Wayne cowboys and Indians, I had my phaser, communicator and tricorder looking for treasure and aliens.

  • Phil Berardelli

    Bob, I wonder if you’ve noticed that the Netflix (and Amazon Prime) episodes of the original “Star Trek” contain new digital material in place of the original special effects, which could easily withstand the scrutiny of analog TV. That first episode, “Man Trap,” for example, shows the starship Enterprise in vivid detail orbiting the barren planet. It’s all skillfully and lovingly done, and it makes watching the series that much more enjoyable. Here’s an example of the updated effects from the Season 1 episode “Tomorrow Is Yesterday.”

  • Phil: I noticed this change when Diane and I were watching the entire original series several years ago. I disagree with you. It made watching the series annoying and less effective. It took away the authenticity of the original shows. Some of the effects were better, but most were weaker and I thought actually distracting. (I was especially bothered by the effects they introduced for “The Corbomite Maneuver”, though that was hardly the worst.)

    CBS (which owns the rights to the original series now) did this several years ago and is very proud of it, so proud that they don’t provide you the option to watch the series as originally created, something they could have easily done.

    One more thing: With the technology available to them, the original Star Trek creators did an amazing job with their effects. Modern viewers should be allowed to see it, as it was. All we have now is the rewriting of history.

  • Phil Berardelli

    Yes, it’s the same argument that rabid Star Wars fans — myself included — have used against George Lucas and his insistence on digitally upgrading the original three movies but then withholding the non-digital versions from further release. But I admit I’m ambivalent about the practice, though I’m dead-set against colorizing old black & white movies. Here’s one way to judge the difference: direct comparison of original vs. digital scenes in the episodes “The Enterprise Incident” and “The Elaan of Troyius.” and

    Relinquo vobis judicabit.

  • wayne

    Phil/Mr. Z.;

    I have (one version) of the dvd box-set of the original-series, & it does allow me to toggle back-n-forth between the original & the new digital special-effects. (They also re-scored the intro music, season-2 is especially sloppily mixed, so you can barely hear Kirk doing his voice-over.)
    On the upside– they went through every frame & generally cleaned up any imperfections from the 35mm print-transfers. And, they did a good job editing together the original b&w and color versions of “The Cage,” with Jeffrey Hunter. (For which they did not have a complete print in either color or b&w to work with.)

    I’m a total purist on all this— I don’t like CBS essentially re-creating something that no one ever actually saw at broadcast. It’s disingenuous of them. (don’t like colorized movies either, or WW2 films with fake sound-effects, and my special hatred goes out to “old time radio” a lot of which was re-created , re-edited, and re-assembled 20 years after the fact.)

    Yes, completely agree– they did an amazing job on the budget they had at the time, which was roughly $100K per episode.

    –I would put forth the proposition– “Lost in Space,” the 1st episode is not all bad, the rest of it however– pure trash. (I as well watched a lot of bad TV SF in my youth and ST was indeed a breath of fresh air.)

  • Wayne: Gee, the DVDs that Netflix sent us did not give us the option to toggle between old and new effects. What a shame. Want to ship me your set so I can watch the series again, as it was meant to be seen? :)

    I also agree with your analysis of Lost in Space. The first handful of episodes told an interesting story that quickly devolved to a lot of stupid and repetitive episodes centered entirely on one phrase: “Danger! Danger! Will Robinson!”

  • wayne

    Mr. Z:
    There’s 3 different versions of the re-mastered original series, issued 2007, 2014, and 2016. Toggle feature can be found in the initial “set-up” mode, but I do not know if all the versions have that feature. (I believe for the Blue-Ray versions, they blatantly brag about toggling-ability, but I can’t vouch for that as a fact.)
    In one of the ‘extra’ features, they show how the Theme was re-scored & how they cleaned up the film-transfers and added sfx’s.

    Phil– yeah, there’s a lot of youtube “direct-comparison” clips available for ST.
    I’m not a big Star Wars guy myself, but I do recall hearing about Lucas messing with his original versions. (saw the original SW at a drive-in) (and I can’t stand R2D2 or the robot-guy!)

    Does anyone remember?— Dr. Smith was a soviet-spy in the first episode of LIS, in contrast to his bumbling, stupid (and blatantly gay) persona the rest of the run.

    Personally– I did and do enjoy “Outer Limits,” the Control Voice completely hooked me, although they as well, have a lot of “dumb” episodes.

    Outer Limits intro (1963)

    Roddenberry was under constant pressure to deliver a “monster-of-the-week,” type show, but fortunately he fought back as much as he could. It’s no coincidence the “Man Trap” features the “salt-monster.”
    One of my obscure satellite channels, regularly shows Roddenberry’s prior show,”The Lieutenant,” which is pretty good & gives you a flavor of how he did television. (and features a lot of actors who would later appear on ST.)

  • Phil Berardelli

    Wayne, thanks for the reminder about “The Lieutenant.” Roddenberry used Gary Lockwood, who had played the title role in that series, as a guest star in the ST season 1 episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” along with a young Sally Kellerman.

  • Edward

    Matt in AZ and wayne, Thank you for pointing us to “Star Trek Continues.” I didn’t realize this existed, but I am impressed with how much effort these volunteers put into their continuing project. These episodes couldn’t have been cheap or easy to do.

    I am not a fan of revising old movies. It is acceptable to have a “director’s cut,” so long as the original version is still available. Without the original, the improvement of the revised version(s)* are hard to appreciate.

    “Lost In Space” always seemed like a monster of the week show, and I did not like that. It was too much like “The Outer Limits.” “Star Trek” relied on the story rather than the monster, which is why I also liked “The Twilight Zone.” Thank goodness and Gene Roddenberry for resisting the network’s poor judgment.

    My first introduction to “Star Trek” was by a baby sitter, and the episode turned out to be “The Man Trap” with the salt vampire, which frightened me so much that I was put off of “Star Trek” for a couple of years. She had assured me that this was not a monster TV show, like “Lost in Space.” What a terrible coincidence that the one show that would put me off was the one airing that evening.

    * There are three versions of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” that I bought on a DVD set. I like the first version that was in theaters best, and I thought that by losing the scene that showed the extent of our hero’s obsession — indistinguishable from insanity — in order to get a (disappointing) look inside the spacecraft was a poor trade. My imagination of the interior was so much better than shown in the revised movie, and now it is gone from my memory.

  • wayne

    Phil B–
    Thanks for reminding me, of that particular ST episode!

    Interesting brief clip of an original intro to ST that wasn’t used– check it out! (Notice the “act-one” tag, you’d almost think it was a “Quinn-Martin Production.”)

    ‘”Where No Man Has Gone Before”
    (1:39 total)
    “until now…our Mission has been one of space-law regulation…”

    For anyone who would like to sample Star Trek ( iterations up to DS-9), without going whole-hog trekkie, I’d highly recommend the dvd “Fan Collective” sets.
    They feature a sort of “best-of” selection (voted by fans) across all the series, focusing on a single theme, such as “time-travel.”
    Gives you a nice sampling of the progression of ST.

    In honor of the 50th anniversary….I shall binge watch the first 3 seasons this weekend.
    (“No commercials & a fast-forward button… priceless!”)

  • wayne

    Edward– (hey)
    –the Star Trek fan-produced stuff; WSJ just had a lengthy article about the guy behind it all. (He plays Kirk, and also does Elvis impersonations, hence the hair.)
    The Sets are meticulously perfect. Its all a non-profit operation and CBS does not object, as long as it remains non-profit. I believe they are based in New Jersey, where he has built a sound-stage with every set from the original series. They have a huge crew & everyone is basically a volunteer.

    I know exactly what you mean about Outer Limits & the monster-of-the-week concept, and they have more than their fair-share of “dumb” episodes, but at-the-time I was totally sucked in & it was an hour show. I’d rate Outer Limits as below ST but definitely above LIS.
    (The LIS movie remake– starts out pretty good then totally jumps the shark.)
    Definitely enjoyed Twilight Zone, although I’ve seen them all, so many times, I can spot the twist immediately. But I will catch it if they do a holiday-marathon.

    Not a big fan of Irwin-Allen Productions, although I watched them all.
    (But then again, I watch the background-cells in animated cartoons & read all the credits for old b&w movies.)
    (and I often wonder about the extras in crowd scenes..)

    Anyone remember “H.R. Puff-n-Stuff?” Holy cow! Talk about acid-inspired Saturday morning TV programming! That’s some crazy material!

    I’m currently watching Tony and Doug, get lost in time, on the Time Tunnel. The dvd has an un-aired remake, which is pretty good, although they turned Tony into “Toni” a girl.)
    (don’t get me started on how “they” ruined Fantastic Four or Spiderman….I waited practically my whole-life to see those characters on-screen, and they wasted it, big-time.)

    (I would insert here, totally tangentially– “X-Men” was Marvel’s worst selling Title in the 60’s, but it translated into big-money on screen decades later. Teen-angst gone mad.)

    Does anyone here, like DR WHO? I actually like the older material (up to John Pertwee) but I can’t stand the newer stuff from the BBC, …anything from say, 1975 up, I consider junk.

  • pzatchok

    Dr. Who Fan here.

    Sadly the BBC did exactly what they did to Johnny Carson,
    They cleaned out the closet so to speak and threw out a LOT of the old episodes.

    A few have been recovered. Some literally found by fans in the dump. Some found in BBC offices around the world.
    But almost none have been remastered to clean them up so they look ans sound like a 100 year old record on an old phonograph.

    I have watched most of them.

  • wayne

    pzatchok– Hey. You’re exactly right about the BBC dumping & otherwise erasing and just losing older material. Something like 1/3 of the first 10 years just doesn’t exist anymore
    I as well have watched most of what has been issued, including the episodes they attempted to recreate & reassemble.
    Don’t like the newer stuff at all. I’ll take Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, and William Hartnell, (basically 1963-1974) over anything coming out of the BBC today. (My wife was a Tom Baker fan.)
    I do have to be in a certain mode/mood, to actually enjoy them however. The BBC made no pretense they considered it a children’s show & treated it as such, despite have access to some wonderful writer’s.

    Side tangent– Familiar with “Blake’s-7” at all? The brainchild of Terry Nation, who I do enjoy as a writer.
    Storyline was very good despite being exceedingly low-budget.

    None of these however, hold a candle to Star Trek. (despite their adventures into progressive-collectivism with Next-Gen, etc.)

  • pzatchok

    About half way through Blake 7. Not a bad show with a good premise. Sort of like a Farscape story line.

    Ever watch the Canadian show The Starlost? Now thats an odd one.

  • wayne

    Good deal with Blake’s-7! Took me years to track down the VHS tapes. I’d be interested in your take on the last episode, when you get to it.
    “Starlost,” that does sound vaguely familiar. I’ll look it up. (thanks)

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