When Star Trek Was New

When Star Trek Was New

You know, I think I’m getting old.

I’ve had this feeling increasingly, particularly when talking with newer fen – the ones who find the original Star Trek (no bloody A, B, C, D, E, or NX-01) quaint at best and ridiculous at worst. I admit that it bothers me to hear the TV show that I’ve been following for my entire life dissed by kids who can barely remember the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

The particularly surreal part of it is that it puts me in mind of when Star Trek – and Star Trek fandom – was new. It wasn’t always fashionable or socially acceptable to be a Star Trek fan – a “Trekkie,” as we called ourselves in those days.

(No, not “Trekker” – that particular fannish argument didn’t come along until the mid- to late-1970s. In the beginning, we called ourselves “Trekkies,” and it’s still the term I prefer.)

Only with the advent of the Star Trek movies in the 1980s did it become acceptable to be a fan of an in-production movie series as opposed to a dead TV series.

Now we have to face social derision again – only this time not from our peers who don’t understand what we see in a silly “sci-fi” show about a guy with pointy years. Now we face it from our own “offspring,” the fans of the later series of the Star Trek Franchise, who don’t understand what we see in a hokey-looking old show.

I think these youngsters lack something of a sense of perspective – not surprising or unusual, considering perspective requires age and experience in order to obtain it.

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, let’s step through the Guardian of Forever and take a peek at the world 1972. I choose this year because I, myself, am a member of Star Trek‘s “Second Fandom.”

(By way of brief explanation, Star Trek‘s First Fandom is are those old enough to have watched the original show during its original broadcast on NBC from 1966-1969. Second Fandom are those Trekkies too young to have watched Star Trek‘s original run, but discovered it in the 1970s during syndication.)

In 1972, there are only three TV channels. Well, four if your count PBS – but almost no one does. PBS is considered children’s fare for before or after school or highbrow stuff like Masterpiece Theater that almost no one watches.

The three TV channels hit your TV set after being broadcast through the air, and the picture quality is dependant on:

  • The distance between the TV station’s transmitter and your TV.

  • Your antenna – specifically its orientation. If you have a good roof antenna, the three stations probably come in fairly well (except during periods of high wind when the screen will vibrate with the antenna). If you have rabbit ears (a portable TV antenna that sits on top of the TV), then you probably find yourself adjusting its position for clearer reception every time you change channels.

  • Local electromagnetic conditions, such as your mom running the vacuum cleaner. Broadcast TV is highly succeptible to electromagnetic interference, so during storms, high sunspot activity, or use of the vacuum cleaner, the screen turns into a mass of jumbled images and static.

There is no Internet.

There are no computers – at least, none outside the local college data center. As soon as I discovered them, I cultivated a couple of computer science majors as friends specifically so that I had access to computers.

Even if you’re lucky enough to have a couple of older CS friends who get a kick out of the gradeschool kid who follows them around begging to be allowed to play with the computer on their user account, you don’t have a screen, mouse, and keyboard. You have a teletype machine as a terminal – essentially an electric typewriter plugged into the mainframe.

This is state-of-the-art equipment. In 1972, you thank your lucky stars that you’re not working with punch cards. If you thought hanging chads was interesting in the 2000 American Federal election, try dropping a box full of punch cards that must be inserted in the correct order for your program to run.

Any output the computer generates is printed, line by line, on extra-wide green-and-white computer paper. In the world of 2002, imagine being at a DOS prompt or Bash shell – only everything is typed out on paper rather than viewed onscreen.

(Also in 2002, somewhere in a landfill near Lincoln, Nebraska will be ream after ream of paper with “Super Star Trek” battles on them.)

A few years later in 1979 (shortly before the release of Star Trek-The Motion Picture), my father will purchase his first business computer. He’ll let me use the word processor to write reports for high school and college.

His computer will represent the state of the art, inasmuch as the display will be a CRT – an actual screen and keyboard! Of course, the screen will be a portable black-and-white TV plugged into the computer via an RF modulator, but it will be far more advanced than a teletype machine.

The fact that it will have an actual display will open up a wealth of new games. I’ll spend hours playing the ASCII version of “Tank.”

And it will have two – count them, two – nine-inch floppy drives! No more having to keep print-outs of everything: I’ll save files on my very own, portable, 180K floppy disks! There will be no hard drive (or DASD, as it’s called in the early 1970s) because even the largest IBM mainframes can only be equipped with – at best – a 200MB drive. A pair of nine-inch 180K floppies will be wonderful, because you’ll boot the OS from a floppy, remove it to put in the word processor floppy, and save your files to the other disk.

High school teachers and college instructors will be impressed when I turn in actual typed reports from a state-of-the-art dot-matrix printer. My classmates will be stuck with typewriters until the early- to mid-1980s, meaning that they’ll have to manually type multiple drafts of the same document, correct mistakes with liquid paper, and generally engage in far more effort than I will in order to do the same work.

The word processor itself will be somewhat more primitive than UNIX’s “vi” editor. Its name will be WP6502, used so often that the name will be burned into my memory at least until 2002. This demonstrates the superiority of using a word processor as opposed to a typewriter – even though the word-processor will be non-GUI and will require formatting codes that make HTML look simple.

My first formal computer training will be in the mid-1970s: a junior high (middle school) summer school class in BASIC. We’ll all bus to one of the high schools, which will have a bunch of teletype machines in the computer lab, each of which will dial up at 300BPS to the public schools’ mainframe downtown.

Of course, in 1972, all of this is in my future. Right now, I’m just a young Trekkie with a lot of life ahead of him.

There are no MP3s or CDs, and not even much in the way of cassette tapes.

Music is on vinyl. In the mid- to late-1970s, there will be a brief (and rather dubious) flirtation with 8-track tape before cassettes become economically viable.

There are no cell phones. Hell, there are no cordless phones. And no satellite dishes.

There are no malls. You heard me right, children of the new millennium: there are no malls in the world of 1972.

There are some places where a few stores have congealed more or less in the same place, and one day these may become malls. The largest such conglomerations will be found “downtown,” where the taller buildings of your city or town are located. Later in life, I’ll ask my father if I can go downtown with my friends. He’ll ask why, and lacking any more constructive purpose other than “to hang out with my friends,” he’ll wisely forbid me from doing so. Just as “hanging out at the mall” won’t an advisable activity for a teenager of 2002, “hanging out downtown” is no more advisable in 1972.

The concept of “anchor stores,” food courts, and totally-enclosed walkways between stores is a concept for the 1980s. There is a McDonald’s downtown, but it’s next to the main bus stop and a haven for all kinds of disreputable individuals. If you want to get from one store to another, you use the sidewalk outside.

There are no convenience stores. There are no self-service gas pumps. There are “service stations” that employ a mechanic or two that pump gas in between performing tune-ups, rebuilding engines, and replacing trannies. You might be able to buy a map, cigarettes, soda pop, or candy bar at a service station, but that’s all. Service stations exist to service cars – if you want groceries, you go to the local IGA, Safeway, or Piggly Wiggly.

There are no theater complexes. Movies are shown in huge theaters that were themselves converted from live theater. In Lincoln, Nebraska in 1972, the Grand Old Lady of such theaters is the Stuart Theater (by 2002, it will have become the Rococo Theatre), a beautiful, ballroom-style, three-balcony affair. In 1977, I’ll watch Star Wars (what post-millennial fen will call “Episode IV” in 2002) from the first row of the Stuart with a packed crowd, and leave remarking that this movie was much better than Logan’s Run.

On December 7, 1979, I’ll stand in a line three blocks away at the Stuart’s main competitor, the State Theater. I’ll stand there from 2:30pm when school lets out until 6:30pm when the doors open for the primiere of Star Trek -The Motion Picture. By the time the doors open, the line wil extend all the way around the block – I’ll be fifth in line and will be able to talk to the people at the line’s end.

I’ll also be in the first phases of contracting Chicken Pox. In the world of 1972 and 1979, there is no Chicken Pox vaccine, and it’s a routine childhood illness. That I will escape it until almost 1980 will be something of an oddity.

In 1979, I will have a fever of approximately 101 degrees – a fact that I’ll neglect to tell my parents. Over the course of the next two days, I’ll susequently expose 1200 people to the virus by virtue of watching the movie four times to packed houses of 300 people each. I’ll ultimately have to leave the fourth screening halfway through, by virtue of being too feverish and dizzy to stay. I’ll spend the next week home in bed, with my mother remarking that I’m getting what I deserve.

In 1998, during a visit to my parents’ house, I’ll take my daughters to watch Episode I from the same seat in the Stuart that I saw Episode IV. I’ll be astonished at the theater’s dilapidated condition and sadly remark that the days of real theaters are clearly gone.

There are no VCRs, not even in TV studios. TV stations send out camera crews that shoot actual celluloid film that takes time to transport and develop. Hence, it’s not uncommon for the local news anchor to tease a story during a station break by ending with the phrase “film at eleven.” If they shoot a story in the afternoon, the film won’t be transported back to the station

and developed in time for the 6:00 evening news, but will have to wait for the 11:00 broadcast.

If you want to watch Star Trek, you watch it the moment that it aired, or you don’t watch it.

A few years later, when portable cassette recorders become viable, some of us will hang the recorder’s portable condenser microphone down from the channel knobs to the TV’s speaker, and thereby get an audio tape of the episode for later review. God help any family member who will make the mistake of speaking during an episode, because we’ll have to wait the entire 78-episode cycle to get another crack at a good recording.

In 1972, all isn’t lost, however. Since Star Trek was cancelled in 1969, the demands of advertisers have required local TV stations that show Star Trek in syndication to cut minutes out of the show. Since the stations use 35mm film to show the episodes, that means that they are literally cutting out pieces of 35mm film and throwing it away.

Enterprising fans discovered this, and by 1972 had approached local stations to help them dispose of the film. They snip the footage into single-frame sections called “film clips,” bind it in a slide board, and then show the frames as part of a slide-show at the local Star Trek fan club meeting.

The local fan club in Lincoln is Star Base Andromeda, which I joined in 1972. I will remain a member for many years and will still be on speaking terms with some of the members until at least 2002. In 2002, the club will still be holding meetings. In 1972 and for years to come, there will be weekly slide-shows of episode film clips.

There is no SF on television. Well, there was some, actually, but it’s Lost In Space, Land of the Giants, and similar fare that no self-respecting SF fan wanted to watch.

Between Star Trek ending in 1969 and Star Wars (Episode IV) in 1977, the only weekly TV SF of note will be Space: 1999. Gene Roddenberry will try to recapture some of his glory with Genesis II, Planet Earth, The Questor Tapes, and Spectre. One of these in particular (The Questor Tapes) will be excellent and provide the genesis for the character of Data in The Next Generation. None of them will every be anything other than a movie of the week, however.

The only SF movies of note will be the Planet of the Apes movies and Logan’s Run.

Consider also the political climate of 1972, of which I’m largely ignorant (though I’ll later ask my parents what President Nixon did wrong):

The Cold War is in full swing. The Cuban Missile Crisis isn’t long in the past, and most people lived with the expectation that they would ultimately die by nuclear fire. The Kennedy assination is still very fresh in everyone’s mind, and the news is filled with images of young American men being brought home in body bags from Viet Nam.

Such is 1972, when Star Trek is new.

For its time, it is an astounding TV show. By the standards and production values available in 2002, it will appear dated and occasionally childish, but in 1972, it’s certainly no worse than any of the cop shows, westerns, and sit-coms on the air.

As far as SF goes, it is light-years beyond anything anyone ever cooked up for TV. Hard as it will be for the youngsters of 2002 to believe, its visual effects and set design are considered state-of-the-art. They won’t be surpassed by TV SF until the advent of Space: 1999.

In 2002, some of the alien planetscapes look a bit hokey – like they were shot on a soundstage with a scrim behind it that was lit with an odd color.

In 1972, I can catch a rerun of Bonanza and watch Hoss and Litte Joe climb off their horses onto a soundstage that’s just as obvious by 2002 standards.

In 1972, however, it’s just not possible to have the kind of location photography you saw in Lawrence of Arabia. Viewers don’t expect that from a TV show. What Star Trek gives them is at least as good – and often better – than what other shows do.

My first memory of Star Trek is of the Mugatu from “A Private Little War.” In 1972, I watch the episode from the family room of my father’s Lincoln, Nebraska house. I remember it from his 1967 Vermillion, South Dakota house when I saw it in it original run: the used color TV had black wooden case, wooden legs, and white channel knobs with glossy black lettering.

The Mugatu scared the crap out of me in 1967. But now, in 1972, I’m fascinated by the notion of a group of space explorers, far from human civilization, whose mission is to “boldly go where no man has gone before.”

This in and of itself is a departure from a lot of TV and movie SF of the time. Consider Star Trek‘s major contemporary, Lost in Space: a story about a group of people who didn’t want to be where they were at all. Even the later Space: 1999 – unquestionably a superior show on a production level (though hideously stupid scriptually) – will be a show about how stupid humans had caused the moon to be blown out of orbit, causing its inhabitants to wander the universe rather aimlessly.

For a high-quality SF show to go on the air and specifically say, “We made it past all that and got to the stars,” is not only a breath of fresh air, it is a brief, hourly ray of hope in an otherwise dismal world.

How could you not be a fan, in a world like that?