Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

(2,500 words)
The familiar iconic TV theme echoed up the stairs, and Lee and I looked at each other in Pavlovian excitement.

"Star Trek!" we both chanted!

Well, that was that. We rushed down the stairs and were in front of that television set for the duration.

That's my first memory of Star Trek.

How old were we? Pfft. Single figures.

I mean we weren't even that into the series, but everyone at school in the UK, heck everyone in the whole wide world, knew who Dr. Spock was. And his Space Ship Enterprize. Not to mention Captain Slog's famous catchphrase that he said every single week: "Beam me up Scottie!" "Ye cannae change the laws o'physics!" Oh no, that's right, that came later with that song. Och, everything was so straightforward back then. We were like mini Trekkies.

(which sounds like a chocolate bar)

However it wasn't until roughly 18:40 on Tuesday 26th June 1984 - when I was 13 - that I would really get into the series properly, albeit in black and white.

BBC1 began to run what Radio Times was trumpeting would be "the entire series again". I was quite into Doctor Who at the time, and while that was off the air between seasons, it seemed like I really ought to be absorbing other science-fiction shows too.

This screening also looked to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In London in 1984, we had just the four TV channels. Star Trek was a 20-year-old import, which was not available to ever be watched again by any means other than BBC1 deigning to repeat it. It was not available on VHS, apart from anything else because every sell-through VHS tape cost in the region of £30.00 each, so releasing all 80 episodes was plainly impractical. Frankly, if the BBC were about to rerun all three series again, and in the 'right' (NBC) order, then this would probably be my last chance to follow the entire run for the rest of my life.

Because we had no video recorder (in fact only a black and white telly at that point), the coming years would see me saving my pocket money to buy quite a few blank audio tapes to record almost all the show's soundtracks on. Bizarrely, two WH Smith 60-minute tapes worked out much cheaper then one TDK 120. However to avoid missing the middle of each show while turning the cassette over, right from the start I would record the programme onto one side of the C120, and then during the week dub it via a DIN lead onto both sides of its own C60, making sure that the end of side one and the start of side two overlapped each other. (upon later getting a VCR, because videotapes were several times more expensive, I sometimes used the E180 instead of the C120) It took me ages to realise that I could save time by having two tape recorders running for the first half hour. Today I still have a big tin containing all those audio cassettes, and on occasion, BBC continuity announcements, including a few over the final scene!

Copying out the castlists from Radio Times onto the inlay cards, I quickly found that new words were entering my lexicon, as I had to figure out who people like "Uhura", "Shatner", and "De Forrest Kelley" (sic) were.

Attempting to begin watching Star Trek through the lens of my Doctor Who experience, the series struck me as inherently weaker, for several reasons:

1. Until I could get up to the movies, there could be no continuity to Star Trek. The 78 self-contained episodes were even aired in a different order to how they had been made, which exacerbated this. Try as I might to get involved, I knew that no event could affect the universe, or even the characters' memories, for any longer than 45 minutes.

2. Unlike in Doctor Who where the characters' feelings were usually implied, here they sometimes got verbalised. This was always done badly. Sometimes they would even kiss, reducing the show from a science fiction, to just a very ordinary one. I would just have to sit these scenes out until when the imagination came back on again.

3. The music was only orchestral, and therefore sounded historical, rather than electronic and futuristic.

4. The characters couldn't travel outside of their own time, much.

Nonetheless, I quickly came up to speed, as like so many viewers before me, the exciting world of Star Trek took a firm hold of my imagination.

I bought the third TV novelisation by James Blish, but quickly decided that these 15-20 page abridgements of each episode couldn't really compare with the one book to one story methodology of Target's Doctor Who range. I started buying the all-original Star Trek DC Comic series, despite UK distributor Comag regularly pasting a "35p" sticker over the preprinted "30p" label as though they thought we collectors wouldn't peel them off and notice. On occasion I would even make up my own Star Trek stories, and record them onto the blank spaces at the end of my audio tapes, with full music and sound effects of course.

I had dreams about living on the USS Enterprise. That transporter was a thing of fascination for me. On the show the characters would freeze as they dematerialised, so did that mean that they were temporarily paralysed, or no longer conscious? Were their bodies reformed using the same molecules, or were they locally-sourced copies, and what implications did this have for their souls? What the heck did that warning notice on the transporter's wall in the movies say, let alone mean that they were in danger of?

In fact, the disparity in technology between the TV episodes and the concurrent movies had my muse working overtime.

That same year I went to London to see the new movie Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (or, according to the reliably-informed BBC continuity announcer, Star Trek III: In Search Of Spock). I discovered that the Enterprise's many different warp options had by now been reduced to just the one "Warp speed", which sounded inferior. This now left a colourful rainbow-like trail behind the ship too, which on 70mm film sounded ear-splitting, like Concorde was going overhead. At another point I could swear that there was a tannoy announcement being made outside the back of the cinema, but only during the one scene. Hm. I don't know, with all the 'advances' in technology, movies just never seem to work that unforgettable magic on me today.

Back on BBC1 though, I was about to learn a harsh lesson about how well the BBC's word could be trusted, or maybe just the personal opinions of its controller in those days. Today it's hard to believe that BBC1 used to broadcast any science-fiction at all from America at prime time, as after only nine episodes the BBC rescheduled the show - for the first time ever - to within children's programming at 17:10 on Tuesday afternoon.


There was an enormous outcry of course - how were those adults who had been following the series now supposed to keep up with it while on their way home from work? The BBC's solution was that they should simply miss it, but presumably continue to pay their licence fee.

A few months later the BBC1 channel controller would cancel Doctor Who and a while after that the promised third series of the SF book-trilogy The Tripods. Thanks Michael Grade, who years later in 2002 would admit "I actually hate sci-fi." (he was appearing on Room 101, to argue again for the banishment of Doctor Who, three years after the end of its final episode)

It was the worst time to be a young science fiction fan in Britain, but at least these reruns of Star Trek continued to offer a refuge when they were on, despite their slightly haphazard presentation.

In the US, and indeed in Britain today, Star Trek always begins with a prologue scene, followed by the opening credits, followed by the first act, over which the episode title, names of guest stars and other sub-credits are superimposed. However for many years in Britain the opening credits were chopped out and spliced onto the very start instead. Why, I can only guess. Week after week this resulted in two things:

1. Upon the final fade-out of the opening credits, the sense that I was now on the brink of three quarters-of-an-hour of pure unadulterated Star Trek. The Americans never got that feeling, and it's missing from all British reruns today, including the DVD versions. To experience that moment, you had to be there each week.

2. The story's interruption by a second series of credits several minutes adrift from first lot.

For some reason this was standard practice in the UK for all US programmes.

Today most TV companies transmit shows from a computer file, but in the mid-1980s, the BBC was still airing Star Trek off of high-definition film. What I mean is that while I was watching it at home, someone in BBC Television Centre would be simultaneously running an actual reel of film of the episode past a white light in a machine to broadcast it. Of course they were - that's how they'd been transmitting the show since the 1960s.

However with repeated transmissions over the years, the film prints had also suffered damage. Bits and pieces would have to get cut out, sometimes resulting in a significantly depleted running-time. When this particular airing got up to the episode The Return Of The Archons, the splice holding the end of the prologue to the start of the first act memorably broke live on air:

(these days the digital picture just freezes and pixelates as standard)

By now the series had been restored back to a later 6:55pm slot again (barring the above episode at 7pm), which held for five whole episodes until Who Mourns For Adonais?, when it was taken off the air completely for several months. Responding to complaints from cheated viewers, Radio Times slimily clarified that "… although the re-run of Star Trek was announced as being 'complete', it was never planned to be continuous…"

Okay. So that's how you want to run your station. The viewers who fund you have to watch what you want to show, not the other way around. Okay. Welcome to the BBC's definition of 'public service broadcasting'.

But you know what? Star Trek did indeed periodically return.

We got our first colour telly, and BBC2 took over the series' airing, on occasion tarting up the black background of their big knobbly orange logo with the show's opening starfield, and then very slowly dissolving out while the theme started.

(as it happened, such programme-specific idents were the shape of things to come) Eventually, after a brief detour for the Leonard Nimoy: Star Trek Memories clips show on 29th August 1985 at 18:40 (bumped back 25 minutes from 18:15 by the cricket), the BBC even make it all the way through to reshowing the final episode Turnabout Intruder. Well, most of the way. For as it turned out, this re-run would be neither 'complete' nor 'continuous'. Because the BBC missed out four episodes altogether.

Miri had been banned due to unsuitable content after its first transmission back in 1970, following which Plato's Stepchildren, The Empath and Whom Gods Destroy had been preemptively removed from the BBC's schedules. Seriously, we never got those episodes at all until the next complete run-through, which began on BBC2 in the 6-7pm slot in August 1992, interrupting the Beeb's first run of The Next Generation, straight after part two of The Best Of Both Worlds. Yep, they took the new episodes off the air for 18 months to rerun the originals yet again!

This time the BBC had also acquired brand new copies of the whole series on videotape. On the one hand, these were full-length versions with the opening credits in the right place after the prologue etc. On the other hand, they were 625-line UK videotape transfers from inferior 525-line US videotapes. Garish colours, awkward movements, muffled sound, but what are you gonna do? Well, if you're like me, now with a job and an income, you carefully record them all over again on VHS in production order, and hang onto those old audio cassettes just in case the BBC have again tinkered with them anyway…

But no, I didn't watch them all a second time, even despite the opportunity to resee the early ones in colour. I did however watch the very first episode.

Rather beautifully, BBC2 kicked off this latest repeat series with yet another hitherto missing episode - the first ever full-length UK screening of Star Trek's original hour-long pilot The Cage. The full colour version of this had only just been rediscovered, and was a delight to see, even despite its non-synoptic status with regards to the rest of the run. Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike… wow, I could watch a whole series with that cast…

As I say, further down the line all four banned episodes did get shown this time, maybe due to changed attitudes, but it seemed to me more likely because no-one at the BBC now knew that they had been banned. They were, after all, no longer in the same film cans, being on tape.

When each of the last three of those 'new' shows went out though, somehow I was doing other things. I caught bits of each of them, but was secretly pleased that within my VHS archives I now had what to me were three fresh instalments of such a great show to look forward to one day watching fresh.

Time passed, along with the rest of The Next Generation, further movies, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. I even managed to rediscover the old cartoon series.

This year - 2013 - I finally dug out those old tapes of the three episodes that I had never seen, and we watched them, in production order, and with the few intervening episodes between each of them, at a rate of one a week (mostly).

Enthralling, and so worth the wait.

In this article, I haven't spoken much about Star Trek's merits as a series, because it seems to me that enough commentators before me have already got that more than covered. However returning to view these later episodes in my forties, I am honestly bowled over by just how good the old show was (usually). It really is very serious indeed, there's a lot of subtlety to the writing and performances, fantastic ideas (Wink Of An Eye!) and enough time and exploration to really get your teeth into a story. I've also found it to be surprisingly musical. Somehow, no other incarnation of Star Trek has ever quite managed to reproduce these things. Well, maybe apart from Deep Space Nine, but in a different way.

So, this lunchtime, aged 42, I watched my final 'new' episode of Star Trek entitled Whom Gods Destroy, which turned out to be reminiscent of Plato's Stepchildren.

After four seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise, it's sparkling to see other alien races like the Andorians through such a deeper, broader context. It's refreshing how Kirk and Spock manage to take a back seat to events and become passive enough to let the Rigellian Marta perform her whole dance, secure in the knowledge that their viewers are as much interested in the place where they've landed as they are. Today lead actor William Shatner would be expected by all to sing a song himself, or at least narrate it.

Yes, here in 2013 William Shatner is now a TV icon for sending himself up, and in this episode he plays a dual role! As Fleet Captain Garth pretending to be Kirk, he screams, runs, waves his arms in the air, sinks to his knees and pummels the ground in his defeat! Is he just trying to make his other role look good?

Well, after almost thirty years, I guess that's what we now refer to as Star Trek: The Original Series complete for me. I always thought it was a mistake to stop making movies with this cast - get as much new Trek out of them while we could I reckoned - but it's encouraging to look back at my 13-year-old self and see that I made a good decision there that Tuesday night in 1984.

A five-year mission? Well, I admit I might not have started if Radio Times had told me that it would be a 29-year one!

(available, without the above sketch, here)

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