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Set Phasers to Stun

by Marcus Berkmann

(London Times)

On paper, the success of Star Trek seems a complete mystery. The original television series, chronicling the adventures of the Starship Enterprise during the 23rd century, ran for just three years from 1966 and attracted consistently poor audiences. The storylines were repetitive, the performances often laughably wooden and the special effects frankly risible. As science-fiction franchises go, the show had none of the epic grandeur of Star Wars and none of the wit and imagination of Doctor Who.

By the second series, observes Marcus Berkmann in his good-humoured 50th-birthday tribute to Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and their assorted crewmates, the producers were mercilessly reusing incidental music and effects shots in order to save money, while the plots were so predictable that almost every new adventure felt like 'a variation on a previous Star Trek episode'. Indeed, even when Berkmann is trying to persuade us how good the series was, he cannot help admitting how bad it was - or, to use his own words, 'witless...truly unwatchable...lazy... wilfully incompetent...a turgid slab of drivel'. As for the films, they were even worse. The opening hour of the first film, released in 1979, isn't bad, he admits. 'It's just the last seven hours that drag a bit.'

None of this, however, dents Berkmann's enthusiasm. He is a Trekkie, and proud of it. He has seen all 13 films, all 79 episodes of the original series and almost all of the 622 spin-off episodes. He knows much of it is rubbish, but he loves it anyway, like the science-fiction equivalent of a man who adores West Bromwich Albion. As a grown-up, he once spent a sum 'considerably north of 15 quid' on a compact disc entitled Star Trek Sound Effects, containing such tantalising tracks as Transporter Energize, Phasers Striking Hull and Buttons on Bridge. 'Although it would be an exaggeration to say that I play it often, I know it is there,' he explains. 'If my house were burning down and I had saved my family and the cat, this would be the next thing I went back to retrieve.'

Why, though? There is more to it than escapism. Indeed, for escapist thrills Star Wars would be a much better bet. The answer, Berkmann explains, is that Trekkies are drawn to the show's 'palpable seriousness' and preachy liberalism, which reflect its origins in the optimistic mid-1960s.

Star Trek's creator, the former Los Angeles cop Gene Roddenberry, originally planned a series set on a dirigible at the end of the 19th century, the crew made up of 'all these people of mixed races [who] go from place to place each week'.

The dirigible turned into the Starship Enterprise; the mixed-race crew and moralising mission, however, remained intact. Roddenberry himself was far from a saint: as Berkmann notes, one of the main themes of his work on Star Trek was that 'the women, whether human or alien, would never be wearing quite enough clothes'. But the show's basic outlook has never really changed. For Berkmann, the essence of Star Trek is 'a knotty moral dilemma solved by an enormous amount of talking'. Think of it as a French existentialist play, only with slightly worse special effects.

For two men in particular, Star Trek was both life-changing and career-defining. Born just four days apart in 1931, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were both the sons of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and both were jobbing actors when Roddenberry picked them as Captain Kirk and Mr Spock. They were not, however, natural bedfellows. Shatner was the kind of star who obsessively counted his lines, demanded that other characters' witticisms be given to Captain Kirk, and was never happier than when taking his top off. But Nimoy, who borrowed his famous Vulcan salute from a Jewish blessing, saw himself as a serious, politically committed actor. 'We're doing real stories,' he told one reporter. 'We're doing stories about overpopulation. We're doing stories about racial issues. We're doing stories about ecology, about loyalty and brotherhood.' Well, that and aliens.

After years of chain smoking, Nimoy succumbed to lung disease in February 2015, and Shatner has now produced a gushing biographical tribute to his former co-star. The opening page alone reads like something translated from the original Klingon. I am dedicating this book, Shatner writes, 'to a human being who lived his life for over 83 years, whose journey was filled with joy and anger, cynicism and idealism, the endless array of emotions that constantly change and evolve. We humans go through life barnacled with the detritus of life...Thus, I am that, you are that, and he was that.'

As connoisseurs of Shatner's music will know, this is the authentic voice of the man. But the rest of the book is not nearly so interesting; in fact, it is one of the least interesting books I have ever read. Even as a biography, it is not remotely in the same league as Nimoy's Wikipedia entry. "I'm quite sure that...I have no doubt at all that...He must have...", writes Shatner (or rather, his ghost writer, David Fisher) when discussing Nimoy's early life. Why not do some research and find out?

Above all, though, the book is astonishingly disingenuous. Shatner claims that Nimoy was one of 'my dearest friends, my dearest'. Later in the book, however, he admits that for long stretches they never spoke at all, and in its last years their relationship broke down completely. The cause was risibly banal: after Nimoy refused to appear in a documentary Shatner was making about - you guessed it! - Star Trek, the latter sent a cameraman to secretly film him speaking at a convention. Nimoy promptly severed all ties, though they did meet one last time to film a Volkswagen advert for German TV. Months later, when Nimoy died, Shatner did not bother to attend his funeral, sending his daughters to represent him instead. It's friendship, Jim, but not as we know it.

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