Saturday, September 8, 2012

Weird Tales and Star Trek

Today is the anniversary of the first broadcast of the first episode of the classic television series Star Trek. That first episode was called "The Man Trap" and it aired forty-six years ago, on September 8, 1966. (1) Seventy-eight more episodes followed, the last--"Turnabout Intruder"--on June 3, 1969. Interestingly, a woman was the bad guy in both the first and the last episodes. William Shatner got to pull out the stops in both episodes as well, playing his role in "The Man Trap" as what some people have called "the male Fay Wray." Two more items of trivia before I move on:

Item No. 1: The last episode of Star Trek to be broadcast in its original run was a repeat of "Requiem for Methuselah." (The date was September 2, 1969.) The last word uttered in that last episode? Spock tells Captain Kirk, "Forget." Could that have been a message to fans of the show at the end of its run? After all, they were in as much pain as Captain Kirk at the loss of the woman he loved. Anyway, in a parallel scene from The Wrath of Khan (1982), Spock tells McCoy, "Remember," thereby setting up the next two movies.

Item No. 2: Six days after the broadcast of "Requiem for Methuselah," Star Trek made its debut in syndication. The date? Forty-three years ago today, on September 8, 1969. So today is actually a double anniversary.

I have called this posting "Weird Tales and Star Trek," but the connection between the two is actually pretty tenuous. Although it wasn't the first pulp magazine, Weird Tales was the first American magazine devoted exclusively to fantasy fiction. Subtitled "The Unique Magazine," Weird Tales made its debut in March 1923. The first science fiction magazine--Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories--didn't come along until April 1926, by which time "The Unique Magazine" had already printed its first science fiction story, before the term had even been invented. I can't say what that story would have been, but "Ooze," the cover story for the first issue, is a good candidate. In any case, in April 1925, Weird Tales published a story in which the crew of a spacecraft, using sensors to detect a potential problem on a nearby planet, flies to that planet and rescues its helpless natives by destroying a race of monstrous invaders. (The weapons used by the crew of that spacecraft are some sort ray gun. In the story, they are called "blastors.") That sounds an awful lot like the plot for an episode of Star Trek. Instead, it describes the main action in Nictzin Dyalhis' story "When the Green Star Waned."

Despite its originality (especially for TV science fiction), Star Trek relied on developments in science fiction going back decades for its basic setup: interstellar travel, empires, warfare, and organizations of planets; tractor beams, transporters, phasers, and computers; robots, androids, aliens, and monsters--the list could go on and on. Even tribbles had previously appeared in science fiction, though under a different name. (2) To its credit, the show also relied on the work of well known science fiction authors, including Harlan Ellison, Jerome Bixby, and Norman Spinrad. (3) Three writers for Star Trek are worth noting here because they also contributed to Weird Tales: Theodore Sturgeon ("Shore Leave" and "Amok Time"), Fredric Brown ("Arena"), and Robert Bloch ("What Are Little Girls Made Of?", "Catspaw," and "Wolf in the Fold"). Finally, Star Trek derived a great deal from The Outer Limits, an anthology series, which--like The Twilight Zone--owed something in turn to pulp magazines such as Weird Tales. (You can read more about the connection between Star Trek and The Outer Limits in an article called "Star Trek Myths, Part 2: The Outer Limits Connection" by Don Harden, here.)

One last very tenuous connection between Star Trek and Weird Tales: "The City on the Edge of Forever," written by (or credited to) Harlan Ellison is one of Star Trek's best episodes. It's also the only episode set on Earth during the pulp fiction era. (4) We can imagine an extra in that episode, somewhere in the background, reading a copy of Weird Tales. (5)

(1) Nineteen sixty-six was a peak year for pop culture in America. In addition to Star Trek, Batman, Dark Shadows, The Newlywed Game, The Green Hornet, The Monkees, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible, and The Hollywood Squares also made their debut. The Beatles released what is arguably their best album, Revolver, while Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and other groups also released key albums. That was also the year of a UFO flap and of the first sightings of Mothman. By the way, one of the songs on The Byrds' Fifth Dimension (1966) is called "Mr. Spaceman," about space aliens.
(2) They were probably based on a very earthly animal, the guinea pig.
(3) Jerome Bixby wrote "Requiem for Methuselah" as well as three other episodes of Star Trek.
(4) "A Piece of the Action"--the gangster episode--is actually set on another planet.
(5) "The City on the Edge of Forever" is a kind of bridge between the science fiction of the past and of the future in that the Guardian of Forever is a forerunner to Stargate. I have mentioned guinea pigs and Stargate. The person who pointed out that today is an anniversary will be happy.

Weird Tales, April 1925, with a cover story, "When the Green Star Waned" by Nictzin Dyalhis. It was one of the first tales of interplanetary travel or of science-fantasy to appear in "The Unique Magazine."
Star Trek followed in the tradition of science fiction, science-fantasy, and weird fiction pioneered in pulp magazines.

It's ironic that "forget" was the last word spoken in the original run of the television series Star Trek.
Text copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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