Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A Few Comments on Old-School Trek

So a month ago we bought the Star Trek: TOS Boxed Set. I've always been a fan of TOS as opposed to the newer shows. You could chalk it up to the childhood nostalgia of watching the re-runs, but TNG came into being when I was still in Junior High, so that's not really much of an excuse. I did watch TOS even before then, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was one of the first movies I ever saw in the theatre (the ear-bugs freaked me out back then...).

Now that I'm older and I can look back on things with a little more perspective, I think what draws me to The Original Series is the same thing that draws me to older fantasy and sci-fi literature - it just suits me better. TOS had drinking, it had drugs, it had fistfights (practically every other episode), it had bizarre women and racy sexual content. Some of the "big names" of science fiction were writing for TOS even in the first season - Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, and Theodore Sturgeon. It dealt with a HUGE number of social and political issues facing the world in the late 1960's, and although it was a little heavy handed at times, it was carrying on a long-standing tradition in science fiction that dated back to the time of the Greeks and beyond - the use of narrative fiction to draw parallels and allegories to current events in a way that was juuuuust oblique enough to avoid getting crucified by the people in power, but still on-target enough to get the point across.

Was the show "cheesy"? When you look at it now, sure. When you combine 1960's special effects technology and a limited budget (apparently Desilu, the production company for TOS, gave Roddenberry a VERY limited budget to work with), things are going to look a little silly when seen through the eyes of TV viewers who've got an added 40 years of special effects technology to draw on for comparison.

But to be fair - what are you going to do? If you have to drop some rocks on people, until you have a computer to do it for you, there's really only one thing you can do - make fake rocks. Heck, they were doing it in Hercules and Xena thirty years after TOS, and even though those shows have their detractors, later seasons of both had budgets that were pretty damn impressive even by the standards of the time. The same goes for aliens, beam effects - even the ship moving through space. What the heck ARE you going to do to represent this stuff back in 1966? The stuff looks silly because there really was no other way to do it, certainly not on a limited TV budget and working within television shooting schedules.

Beyond this, I know people have issues with the "bad acting". Personally I find it a little over the top, but certainly enjoyable. Again, the show was covering ground that no one had really ever done before on television - what are you supposed to do? If your brain is taken over by an alien creature that's entwined itself through your nervous system, just how SHOULD you act? If you've accidently injected yourself with a psychotropic drug that makes you a paranoid loon, what do you do? Besides, when you come right down to it, a lot of what was on TOS at the time was "Sci-Fi Horror" - people are being possessed, horrifying aliens are slaughtering the crew left and's some pretty freaky stuff. When has over-acting ever NOT been the bread-and-butter of monster/slasher horror for the last 80 years or so?

When all is said and done, The Original Series was a ground-breaking event in the history of science fiction, and if it hadn't existed, not just the genre of sci-fi but the whole world would be a different place. Vast numbers of people who watched the series as teenagers or children went on to pursue fields in astronomy, space physics, computer science, and engineering. The cellphone is nothing more than a communicator made real, a bluetooth earpiece is no different than those worn by Uhura and Spock on the bridge, pneumatic hypos (like McCoy employed) are being used in place of needle injections in certain situations, as are non-invasive body-scanning technologies. Audio-visual conferencing, talking computers, the PDA (read: tricorder)...some of this stuff had made an appearance in sci-fi literature before Star Trek, but TOS made it a possible reality - it showed people what it might look like, how it could be used, and put it into the dreams and imaginings of those people who went on to develop those ideas into reality.

And, from a gaming point of view, the show simply ROCKS. If you ask me, forget reading Lord of the Rings - sit down and watch ST: TOS and you'll have your Ph.D. in GMing in no time. The show had a perfect blend of humor and horror, action and intrigue, character development and plot development. It kept each episode neat and tidy and although there were only a couple of multi-episode plots, it would take very little effort to string things together with a little inter-session exposition. And when it comes right down to it, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are a perfect PC adventuring party, with the rest of the major characters as semi-regular PCs or regular NPCs, depending on how you look at them.

That FASA made a ST RPG was a no-brainer, but sadly, the game itself is the weak link - character creation is incredibly clumsy, the rules are needlessly complicated, and the "tactical combat rules" just don't fit the feel of what is essentially "pulp science fiction adventure". There's too much bean-counting and number crunching for what should be fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style of game combat. A textbook example of mid-80's "simulationist" rules design employed in the last place they should be found. A pity, really - the game would be far better suited under a rules set like WEG's Star Wars RPG; something quick, simple, and abstract enough to give you the wiggle room you need for this kind of genre.

In the end I say to you this; go watch the show, drink some Sylean brandy, employ the flying drop-kick and the double-fisted slam, get seduced by some weird alien women filmed with a soft-filter lens, tune out the dated props and special effects, and enjoy it for the great adventure series that it is.

No comments: