A few weeks ago, on March 22nd, William Shatner turned 80, followed closely by Leonard Nimoy, who had his 80th birthday on March 26th. A reminder to science fiction fans who remember the original Star Trek series, or watched it in syndication, of our own aging, and a reminder as well of how long science fiction has found fans on the tube. This also may be a marker of how little we’ve progressed with science fiction on TV.
Shatner, ubiquitous, often ironically egotistical, strangely charismatic, much parodied, is obviously now a TV icon. His career on the fantastic screen began with a role in an episode of the Twilight Zone in 1960 titled “The Nick of Time,” which was fantasy. In 1963 he starred in one of the classic science fiction TZs “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” as an aviophobe who spends a terrified flight watching a gremlin tear apart the wing engine of his plane. It’s a touchstone of TV horror, and it’s an excellent performance by Shatner. (And yes, the gremlin looks sort of like a tele-tubby on the Twilight Zone DVD - a result of the DVD makers brightening the image too much. Turn down your brightness and turn up the contrast when viewing.) Shatner also starred in The Outer Limits episode “Cold Hands, Warm Heart.” In this fairly limp entry of the usually excellent anthology series Shatner plays an astronaut who has been possessed by a Venusian, who resembles a giant Sea Monkey, and is saved by a sauna and the power of love.
Nimoy, equally iconic, played supporting roles in some of the same series - he appears in the 1961 Twilight Zone, the preachy (as were most episodes scripted by show creater Rod Serling) war parable “A Quality of Mercy” He also acted in two solid episodes of The Outer Limits, “I, Robot” (no relation to the Asimov stories) and “Production and Decay of Strange Particles.” After Star Trek Nimoy spent two seasons as Paris, one of the intelligence operatives on Mission Impossible, a show that had science fictional elements in the technology the spies used. The rubber masks that allowed the agents to pretty much appear as anyone they liked, and could then be simply peeled off, had to be some sort of futuristic gadgetry.
So much has been written about the original Star Trek series that I have to default to the purely subjective when discussing it. Some of my earliest memories of TV viewing are memories of Star Trek, which I first watched when it was in syndication in the 1970s. The future it presented was a strange one -a roomy brightly lit spaceship which was so different from the current spaceflights, cool technology, garishly dressed aliens, sudden death, and planetary terrain consisting of gravel and giant foam rocks. The far reaches of the universe were inhabited by green showgirls and intelligent boulders and there would be plenty of opportunity out there for fistfights. I thought that a phaser would be a handy thing to have, especially to deal with schoolyard bullies.
In the midst of this were, of course, Nimoy and Shatner. Captain James T. Kirk was a man who never smiled when he could smirk, and never happier than when he could shag or shove his way out of a crisis. Spock was a superhero of sorts, a genius who was also physically more powerful than humans. As a kid, I found Kirk to be the one to watch, the flashy catalyst of the show, but found the half-alien Spock to be the more interesting character. As an adult I now know that this wasn’t just the pointy ears, but the smart subtlety of Nimoy’s performances. Shatner was using his weird charisma to drive his acting, Nimoy was acting.
Both actors have found Star Trek both a blessing and a burden - check out the titles of Nimoy’s autobiography and its sequel, I Am Not Spock (1979) and I Am Spock (1996), for the most obvious example of this. Both have been defined by Star Trek, a series whose original run was nearly half a century ago, both have returned to the continuing franchise again and again. Shatner has, to all appearances, embraced this more than Nimoy, and most of his other roles have had a certain “Kirkness” about them.
Looking back at the early television careers of these actors puts current TV science fiction in a certain perspective. The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek all have classic status now - the strongest episodes are among the best works of the fantastic produced for television. (The best of the Twilight Zone can be included in the finest TV ever produced in any genre.) How far have we really come with SF in a half century? Special effects have improved exponentially. Some of the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation were quite fine, Babylon 5 was intelligent space opera, the most recent incarnation of Battlestar Galactica had an interesting, if murky, political subtext before devolving into “who is the Cylon now” as the sole plot device. But are any of these as imaginative or entertaining as those earlier series? Science fiction and fantasy shows are now fixtures on the tube, and yet it seems that the real imagining may have been happening in the first few decades of the medium.