The show is REALLY bad. Bad writing, bad acting, reeally bad (cheap) sets,
There is a wide range of quality in the show. Episodes like “Spock’s Brain” or “The Lights of Zetar” or “Catspaw” or “The Omega Glory” or “Way to Eden” are pretty terrible and function only as camp now. Episodes like “A Taste of Armageddon” or “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” or “The Enemy Within” are like old sci-fi short stories, dramatizing a single interesting concept. The writing really takes off in the upper-tier episodes, though. “Mirror Mirror” is brilliant in the way it inverts the crewmembers’ characters and keeps anti-Spock as the logical focal point, the fulcrom between the two worlds. “The Trouble with Tribbles” is a model of tight plot construction, combining farcical humor with a light thriller plot. “The Doomsday Machine” is another tightly constructed piece of suspense, improved by the wonderful character of Commodore Decker, traumatized by the loss of his ship, butting heads with the cool-and-collected Spock. The scene where Kirk first questions Decker about the fate of his crew is one of the most dramatically gripping scenes I’ve ever seen in television. “Amok Time” is, again, elegantly plotted, bringing Kirk by logical steps into the position of fighting to the death against his best friend. It also provides a great deal of “anthropological” material, filling in background on the Vulcans and coming up with the great paradox that this most logical and scientific of races still has a passionate and violent core encrusted with ancient ritual. Amok Time also features what is maybe my favorite dialogue passage in television, when Spock (thinking he has killed Kirk) confronts his erstwhile fiancee T’Pring (from memory, so paraphrased):
Spock: “T’Pring. Explain.”
Spock: “Why the challenge? And why choose my captain?”
T’Pring: “I wanted Stonn. He wanted me.”
Spock: “I see no logic in preferring Stonn to me.”
T’Pring: “Over the years you have become much known among our people. Almost a legend. And as time went on I came to know that I did not wish to be the consort of a legend. If the Captain defeated you, he would release me from my vow, and I would have Stonn. If you defeated him, you would release me for having dared to challenge you, and again I would have Stonn. But if you did not release me, it would be the same; for you would be gone, and I would have your name, and your property, and Stonn would still be there.”
Spock: “Logical. Flawlessly logical.”
T’Pring: “I am honored.”
Spock: “Stonn, she is yours. After a time you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all, as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”
“I am honored” – fantastic line. With her monologue T’Pring becomes a wonderful femme fatale.
The sets are cheap I suppose, but I have always liked the production design in Star Trek. I like the bold primary colors on the uniforms, the spaceship model designs, and I think some of the sets (the bridge, the transporter room) are nicely laid out despite an element of cheesiness.
The acting is generally good, if sometimes broad. Nimoy is fantastic as Spock; Shatner and Kelley work well as foils for him. Koenig and Doohan, I grant, turn in ethnic-cliche performances, but they bring a certain gusto to them. Takei is cool personified. There are some magnificent supporting performances – T’Pau in Amok Time, Decker in Doomsday Machine, Dr. Daystrom in The Ultimate Computer, Ricardo Montalban/Khan in Space Seed.
It’s amazing that we got from this to Star Wars in less than a decade.
Obviously Star Wars is far better in terms of special effects. However, 2001: A Space Odyssey had fantastic effects and that came out in 1968. The technology was there or was beginning to be there already. Star Trek was working on a TV budget and there was a certain amount of cheesiness. On the other hand, plenty of the effects shots (particularly shots of the Enterprise in orbit) hold up all right.
As far as writing, I think much of the writing in, say, “Amok Time” or “Space Seed” or “Mirror, Mirror” or “The Doomsday Machine” is as good as anything in Star Wars, allowing for the structural differences between a feature film and a 1 hour TV format. Even the biggest fans of Star Wars have conceded that its dialogue isn’t that good (there’s certainly nothing in it on the level of the T’Pring/Spock conversation from “Amok Time”). Star Wars is written well on a structural level, and it has the robustness of that “heroic journey” stuff under the hood, and Lucas constructed a compelling backstory/fantasy world. On the other hand I think a big chunk of the success of that movie must be attributed to its magnificent production design and its musical score. (Incidentally, Star Trek itself has a wonderful musical score, though it is more melodic and bombastic than we are used to in modern shows.)
I also consider Nimoy, Kelley, and Shatner to be at least as good actors as Mark Hamill (Nimoy is almost certainly much better). Carrie Fisher is no great shakes either, in my opinion; she’s cute and spunky and can’t decide what her accent is. Harrison Ford, James Earl Jones, Alec Guiness, and Peter Cushing are all wonderful, of course.
At its best, Star Trek is in the Serling tradition of being about ideas and moral questions. Shows don’t tend to be written that way anymore, but I don’t consider all writing in that mode to be “bad,” though it is sometimes obvious in its allegorical style. It’s a great twist in The Enemy Within to have the “evil” Kirk be an essential part of his personality. The Ultimate Computer examines Captain Kirk confronting his own obsolescence. Where No Man Has Gone Before shows a man losing his humanity as he gains superhuman power (a more sophisticated treatment of the subject than, say, Superman, IMO). “Galileo Seven” shows a talented officer confronted with his own weaknesses when command is suddenly thrust on his shoulders. A Taste of Armageddon comes up with a clever solution to the problem of mutually assured destruction and asks the question of whether war is inherent to human nature. (I still think Kirk’s solution – “We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today” is a pretty wise one.) And so on.
I will grant that perhaps 1/3 of the TOS episodes are crap, and another third are mediocre-to-fair. That still leaves 25-odd episodes that are good, very good, or (in the case of the very best – Doomsday, Amok, Mirror) downright brilliant.