“By treating the style of the original series as integral to the show — and not as a kind of regrettable defect — we can get a better grasp on the Star Trek phenomenon itself.”
The return to the Star Trek saga in the movies reminds us that, even if you think the enterprise is idiotic, you have to agree that Star Trek has been huge, and hugely important. But the basis of the evolving Star Trek phenomenon is the original show, which stumbled unsuccessfully from one season to another for a mere three years before being cancelled. Something in that unpromising origin propelled the enormous success that followed, even though it could hardly be more different, in important ways, from later shows. Ironically, it is this inadequately budgeted, original series that did the big thing for Star Trek.
There is an obvious difference between Star Trek, the original show, and the successor series and movies. And that is that they look so different. In terms of the look, there is a definite dividing line between the origin and what came after. The first series looks primitive, even quaint — not much more than “a lot of orange paint [and] plastic plants” (Fern 8) — by comparison with the successor series, with their sophisticated special effects and updated styling. The computers in the original series appear to be plywood painted grey (Figure 1).1 The revolution in special effects came after the first series, and affected both the movies and the TV series that succeeded it.
But the difference in style is much more than just special effects and, by the 1980s, changes in fashion and production values. The ’60s, the period of Star Trek, were long gone in a cultural sense, as well as in terms of visual fashions and production values. The original series has a definite look, a style. This look is not the mere consequence of what are today obsolete production techniques. By treating the style of the original series as integral to the show — and not as a kind of regrettable defect — we can get a better grasp on the Star Trek phenomenon itself. Typically, people talk about themes and characters, while the visual style is regarded with a patronizing sense of its quaintness. In fact, however, the look of Star Trek is deeply interesting in its own right.
It is difficult to talk about the “look” of something, because, while the visual impression is primary, especially in movies and TV, the look encompasses an array of related stylistic features, not just visual presentation. The look” of something includes its visual composition, but somehow more than that, sort of like an aura. Look, in this sense, is similar to the term “image,” as when we can talk about the image of Tiger Woods or of John Wayne or of Mercedes-Benz automobiles, and what we are referring to by the word image is not the visual object. It is the value, the cultural capital, that the object possesses. The term is curiously difficult to get hold of, but here I want to focus on the technical aspects that create the look. Hence look is primarily visual content, but also related sensory aspects, especially sound. Sound is a critical and fascinating part of the Star Trek look. In investigating this look, this sensory configuration, my main concern is with how it is projected visually, but also with sound and with contributions made by other production values. That is, there are subtle engagements of the style that are neither simply visual nor simply auditory.
There is a word for the Star Trek style, and that is “Minimalism” — which I mean as a technical term, the designation of a certain style. Minimalism brings with it a complex of values that are also notable in the original Star Trek. There is no doubt that budget constraints shaped the style, but ultimately the Minimalist look has nothing to do with budgeting. The look of Star Trek is Minimalist through and through, even including the somewhat elaborate bridge set (with the “con”), where Captain Kirk issues commands and supervises the starship. Successor shows and movies, by contrast, could hardly be less Minimalist in their art direction, style, and lighting. Advances in special effects after 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Star Wars movies were considerable by the time of The Next Generation,2 though not yet at the stage where “lighting a scene becomes a matter of painting pixels,” as Stephen Prince puts it (“True Lies” 32). Science fiction on television had to look good, had to be as perfect in terms of surface appearances as possible. By contrast, the predecessor series, Star Trek, was establishing conventions, not trying to catch up with them: important conventions of the genre start there. There was no “anxiety of influence” to overcome, and therefore a definite lack of inhibition, a kind of energy that cannot be duplicated under more regular circumstances. Improvisation is part of the original show, and with it the failings and advantages that improvisation yields. Many of the effects and settings were in fact improvised — improvised in the literal sense of that word, made up quickly under pressure with few resources. There is something about such circumstances that can stimulate creative work, as so many inexpensive but brilliant movies in film history also testify. In the case of Star Trek, later series are more polished but less energized.
The term Minimalism was coined in the 1960s for a type of visual art, but it had always been an evolving strand within the Modernism that dominated art in the twentieth century. It also has deeply American reference. As a concept, Minimalism is unusual in that it has a wide field of application, applying to very different art forms and even intellectual constructs, not just visual art (for example, Ludwig Wittgenstein has been termed a Minimalist philosopher3). Although it is associated primarily with visual art, it is also a term applied to a significant branch of music that was cutting-edge around the time of Star Trek — the musical style of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and to some extent John Adams, among others.4 Hence Minimalism is a term like Impressionism — it is relevant to the arts generally. Actually, Minimalism is relevant to more of the arts than Impressionism is — for example, as a term in clothing design. It also applies to architecture, whereas one does not associate Impressionism with an architectural style. But there is definitely something called Minimalist architecture, and it goes beyond the bare look of naked concrete that became a standby in the 1960s. Minimalist architecture is a style used in Star Trek itself, for example, the big cylinders that dominate the planetscape of the episodes “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.” (The cylinders were made of cardboard — they were actually forms used for pouring cement: improvisations.)
Nevertheless, Minimalism is associated primarily with visual art. In Star Trek, the visual effect that is noticeable is the use of lighting.5 More specifically, the color filtering of light. Star Trek would have been impossible in black and white. Color is fundamental to its success, fundamental to the way the show works. But it is not color as a display of colored objects, where the interest is in the objects rather than in the color, which is secondary. It is the sheer color experience itself. Hence the series features large blocks of color — large areas of color on large spaces, Minimalist-style. A lot of Minimalist painting — e.g., Barnett Newman — is precisely like this. Andy Warhol, another artist in the Minimalist tradition of the Star Trek period, is interested in color for the sake of color — his multiple faces being not just repeated pictures of a face but pictures of color, faces changed by changing the color.
In Star Trek, the effect is created by massing color and plunging the viewer into it, as it were. Perhaps the most in-your-face use of the color panel technique is the sky of the various planets the crew visit. Sky is a visually important feature of the series, and usually consists of a large mass of color, color sometimes shading with other hues but basically one vast color presence (Figure 2). It is true that the sky of earth, when cloudless, is blue, a vast dome of blue. But in the worlds of Star Trek, the color presence is more likely to be a striking shade of orange or red. The art direction certainly did not suffer from timidity! Minimal budgets and limitations on special effects might have demanded such skyscapes, but again, much more is involved than poverty-row production values. The skyscapes contribute to the effect — they perform, they work, visually — they are not mere stand-ins substituting for more expensive art direction and props. They work better, in fact, than the styrofoam-looking rocks that are also featured in the sets of Star Trek, though even these have a certain interest in their own right, not so much as realistic props but as curious works of Minimalist sculpture.
The use of colored skies is important visually in Star Trek, but even more important is the way interiors are colored in Star Trek. The interiors of the Enterprise are remarkably Minimalist in style — no decoration. Even the captain’s quarters are spare. As Deela in “Wink of an Eye” puts it, his quarters are “austere and efficient” — like Kirk himself, she says. Gadgets and gizmos are present on the bridge, but the walls of the spacecraft itself are typically blank, punctuated with plausible-looking technical mechanisms, which appear to be essential engineering infrastructure, but are really of the “Goes Nowhere Does Nothing” variety. What the austerity does allow, however, is creative lighting. Blank spaces are a perfect medium for colored light — not changing light, it should be noted, nor variegated light. Thus walls are typically filtered light in large panels, often startling reds and oranges, though green and blue are also favored, and there is considerable shading within these panels of color. At times one could confuse the color for paint, instead of from color light filters (though of course paint is used, too). (Figure 3)
This “color panel” technique is conspicuous in almost every episode — it is in no way played down. On the contrary, the “color panel” technique is boldly on display. The technique is deliberate and must be counted as the way it should be, rather than as a defect caused by inadequate financing. The successor series, with better funding, had far more elaborate effects. One of the most important visual differences is that the successor series dropped the color panels in favor of complicated interiors. The bright light and bright color of Star Trek are replaced by dim lighting, darker and subdued color, and greater emphasis on interiors, interiors being much easier to design than the planetscapes that appear in most Star Trek episodes. In addition, there is a panoply of stuff to look at. But the reduction of color intensity is especially dramatic. The dimming of interiors is a long-term tendency observable in movie-making since the ’60s — especially noticeable in SF movies. In many respects, movies and movie-making are a more appropriate context for Star Trek, despite being, obviously, a television show, with all the problems that that form imposes.
The “color panel” technique creates a visual field with big spaces of color, often one color per space (i.e., not spaces changing in color or shading off into other colors). This technique is Minimalist in more ways than mere appearance. With these “color panels,” the viewer is in a space that is both physical and mental at the same time, an exterior that is also an interior — a psychological interior (at its most obvious in an episode such as “Specter of the Gun”). The use of the “color panel” is subtle, not simple, even though it is, in another sense, simplicity itself. Sometimes these color panels change, one shade turning into another, but inconspicuously: the emphasis is on big color — big spaces, big hues. The color panel technique increases emphasis on the psychology of the action, and in so doing, it affects the drama itself.6
In close conjunction with the color panels is another technique of Star Trek, and that is the motif of winding ways. By “winding ways,” I mean places where there are turnings and no direct route: winding ways take the form, for instance, of rocky barren lands, foggy landscapes, caverns — places that are confusing or that lack markers. Complicated interiors serve the same function (Figure 4). The interiors visited in Star Trek are otherworldly by definition — the buildings on planets the crew visit (not interiors in the ship itself, though even there the corridors sometimes function as winding ways). On many planets, the crew literally do not know where they are: disorientation — not knowing where you are — has an objective correlative in the motif of winding ways, especially the figure of the maze. A show like Star Trek by its very nature needs winding ways, and a high proportion of episodes feature the motif.7 These interiors are complicated in the sense that there are corridors and doors and different directions to explore or traverse. Caves, underground passages, complicated buildings, all are commonplace on Star Trek. Strangely shaped doorways and entrances are frequent, and invariably these features are presented in conjunction with color panels (Figure 5). The color panels enhance the architecture of winding ways: the two features work together. Without the color panels, the winding ways would usually be shades of darkness, not a visually gripping set. By the same token, the winding ways give color a mystery and depth that enhance emotion and dramatic value.
Minimalism affected other arts besides painting and music. One of the most important of these other sources for the Star Trek look is drama. Minimalism in the theater was all the rage during the very period when Star Trek appeared. Experimental drama was profoundly Minimalist. Two of the most important playwrights, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, are completely Minimalist. Their settings, for example, are often unrecognizable as such. The settings may have few if any features, even props. The contrast with the realist tradition of Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw, O’Neill, and others is jarring. Minimalist drama is in fact a revolt against that realist tradition. It should be noted that television before Star Trek — and after — was obsessively “realist” in emphasis, preoccupied with elaborate displays of “real” objects. There are many reasons for this emphasis on object display, but perhaps the most important is that the function of television was as a marketing mechanism. “The primary purpose of television is to sell products,” as Gene Roddenberry himself acknowledged (Fern 194). In other words, the display of objects in television is inseparable from the sale of objects. Movies did not have this burden, certainly not to the same extent. But Star Trek de-emphasizes objects. It has a definite energy, a kind of uninhibited quality of play, even, which it shares with the dramatic experimentation of the time. The fact that Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner were both actors trained in the theater (as were other cast members) is significant. The boyish quality of the lead character, together with the recurring quality of make-believe and child play noticeable in the series, give it an energy rarely matched.8
Minimalism is central to “theater of the absurd,” with its subversion of realist conventions and attitudes — and also dramatic technique. In the most familiar Minimalist drama, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the setting consists of a dead small tree and a sort of rise — not a hill, just a mound. The drama is all in the dialogue and accompanying (Minimalist) actions, which aren’t much in the way of actions, really. Minimalist drama often reduces the number of characters; Waiting for Godot, for example, has four characters, one of them mostly mute (well, five, if you count the messenger boy). In other Beckett plays, such as Krapp’s Last Tape, there is only one character, and in the case of Happy Days, just a mouth. Beckett’s theater is almost an experiment in removing the characters altogether, or in stripping them down to less than a person, or to a part of a person. In rebelling against realism, Minimalist drama is self-conscious about being drama and not an attempt to copy real people in some recognizable “real” setting.
The creators of Star Trek were very aware of Minimalist drama. It was cutting-edge, something they aspired to. There is an emphasis on the consciously theatrical in the series. Hence performance is part of the actual plot in many episodes: a sort of play within the play. The theme of putting on a performance is frequent, with an audience observing, as in “The Conscience of the King,” “Plato’s Stepchildren,” and “I, Mudd,” to name but three examples. A related motif is the contest or duel, which is a variant form of the performance theme, and is also frequent (e.g., “The Squire of Gothos” or “The Gamesters of Triskelion”). Even the fight scenes obligatory in every episode are gymnastic and formalistic (though not balletic). The fascination with performance gives the show a self-consciousness that is expressed visually by means of formal visual structures. Star Trek is surprisingly formalistic and even symmetrical in its visual styling (Figures 6a and 6b).
Several episodes show the influence of Minimalist, even absurdist drama on the action, notably “The Empath.” In “The Empath,” the viewer sees a mute female figure, positioned against a mysterious backdrop consisting of pools of indeterminate darkness — a cave? starless, black night? a dreamlike mindscape? It is really a twilight zone: darkness that has psychological rather than geographical significance. This “empath” is shown reacting to the suffering of others; she is being observed by aliens who are sort of outside the action. They are literally judging her performance. The observing alien is a not uncommon motif in Star Trek: it is present in the pilot, called “The Cage.” Sometimes the action turns into a performance that aliens observe, as in “Arena.” In “Errand of Mercy,” the aliens take human form to put Captain Kirk and others at ease. Then they watch with dismay the conflict that quickly explodes, and, losing patience with it, they revert to their bodies of light, in a simple, Minimalist gesture, and vanish.
The plot of “The Empath,” if it can be called a plot, is essentially a sequence of tableaus that repeat the basic situation of a beautiful mute female reacting to others’ pain. The characters who suffer the pain she is to react to are crew members from the Enterprise, but pretty much anybody would do for the purpose: shades of Antonin Artaud and “theater of cruelty,” a branch of theater of the absurd — and not far off Peter Brooks’s 1966 movie Marat/Sade (or his revolutionary theatrical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). True, “The Empath” is one of the weakest episodes and probably the most pretentious, but that itself is revealing. The screenwriter and director were trying to achieve the sort of out-there theatrical style that was considered the latest thing at the time. But it was a bit too “arty” to be more than an irritating imitation.
Star Trek has a deeply interesting visual style, but it must be understood in the context of Minimalism. Sets typically look like sets. Scenes on the starship have more realism, corresponding better to what one imagines the interior of a starship would actually be like. But the planet scenes often look blatantly studio-bound. It is almost as if the series were challenging us to accept the fact that it is a studio set we are looking at, in the manner of the “alienation devices” employed by Brecht or other dramatists of the absurdist-Minimalist line of theater, a means of reminding the audience that it is watching a show, not reality. This is very different from the successor series to Star Trek. The successor series are preoccupied with impeccably appointed, detailed settings, showing attention to gadgets in interiors that look like real interiors, and emphasizing interiors more than planetscapes, which are more difficult to mount and less easy to control.
This change in look is partly accomplished simply by having a lot of things for the audience to check out. The lighting is also much dimmer, even murky. In the original series, the lighting is extremely bright, and favors high-key lighting far more than in the successor series (Figure 7). The brightness of the lighting is in fact a defining characteristic of the Star Trek look. Shadows are rarely used: occasionally blocks of darkness, so to speak, are used, but the shadows so beloved by film noir, for instance, are avoided. Occasionally, shadows are used to enhance lighting by way of contrast, especially with faces, but then the shadows simply disappear, because attention is so focused on what is illuminated. The characteristic high-key lighting is most obvious in the halo effect of bright light outlining the top of the head, giving the scene a definite comic book effect. Such haloing is a recurring stylistic feature of Star Trek, and one more way of keeping emphasis on the actors and the acting situation, rather than permitting attention to drift off to the display of objects on view.
In the later series, special effects and budgets had advanced far beyond what the original Star Trek could possibly manage, and the visual look of the successor series abundantly shows this increased interest in detail. However, upping the attention to things — objects — and dimming the lighting also has the effect of lessening the tension and decreasing the dramatic energy. There is a drain of attention from character and action to sheer objects, to sets, sets that show off the technology of film in the post-2001 era. The special effects have got to be good, because viewers increasingly insist on perfect and if possible dazzling special effects. Though this was impossible in the original Star Trek, still, making more with less, there are memorable cinematic visual sequences (Star Trek was, after all, an influence on that most spectacular of all sci-fi movies, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a byword for special effects). For example, “beaming down” or “dematerializing” is itself one of the most simple visual features of Star Trek, yet its power as a cinematic effect is outstanding. People never tire of it. As an effect that stays with the viewer, few if any cinematic moments in science fiction movies or TV can match it. Yet it could hardly be more simple (Figures 8a and 8b). It is a visual effect that has a hypnotic quality, but it is also, interestingly, a kind of metaphysical statement about matter, energy, and identity. The Minimalist effect means something as well as shows something.
The most conspicuous Minimalist esthetic in Star Trek is the color and use of colored light. But something more subtle is almost as important, and that is the sound. Star Trek has a noticeable style not just in the visual appearance but in the auditory appearance, as well — the sound of it. On one hand, there is a sort of Wagnerian musical scoring — sometimes appropriate, sometimes sonic overkill (especially in the fight sequences). This scoring comes complete with Wagnerian leitmotifs — musical phrases associated with certain types of situations, phrases that get used throughout the series, again and again.
But there is a contrast — a totally different musical style that is also used, one that is Minimalist in the extreme. This is the use of a single chord (or closely related grouping of chords and overtones) that sounds continuously throughout a scene. If this is “background music,” it is very different from the background music familiar in movies and television (or the more conventional musical background also used in Star Trek).9 The difference lies in the fact that the music — the chord being played — is continuous, with narrow harmonic variations, sounding constantly and independently of the dramatic texture of the action. There is no “melody” to it. It’s a surprising technique and a rare one — indeed it is daring. And typically Minimalist.10
Like the lighting, this sound effect compensates to some degree for the lack of expensive staging. It is used mainly in the planetary sequences, when the crew visit a planet, and less onboard the Enterprise.11 The strange sound is an emblem of the alien. The sound is so subtle that viewers can watch without even being conscious of the music, even though it is definitely not soft: it is plainly audible. The music creates an otherworldly effect, the sense of the eerie and the unfamiliar, a kind of sensation that is an important part of the success of the series. It was a bold move to incorporate this effect into the show, but a striking device for creating a “mindscape,” not a mere landscape: it is a stimulus of the imagination. It signals entry to a different domain, where anything is possible.
A particularly interesting example of this technique is the episode called “Specter of the Gun” (Figure 9). “Specter of the Gun” presents the viewer with a Minimalist Western town of the 1880s, or at least such a town as popular movies have visualized the scene. Against an extraordinary orange-red sky and a few bushes on a nondescript slope — shades of Waiting for Godot — the viewer is shown a town consisting of façades of buildings, with nothing or nothing much behind them. In a few cases — bar, jail, barbershop — we see an interior, but even in these cases the set is stylized and far from the sort of realism viewers demand in a Western movie such as High Noon or El Dorado or Ride Lonesome — or a Western television series (a genre then extremely popular), such as Wagon Train or Gunsmoke or Have Gun Will Travel. The set is beautifully Minimalist, and anybody looking for realism is not going to find it. Beckett would have approved.
The townsfolk are not exactly people but part of the setting. That is, they are not actually people, independent beings, but like the partial people who populate absurdist drama. They are a function of the set. Naturally, then, they are completely at home in this ersatz town — unlike the crew. The crew see façades. The townspeople see buildings. They have a detailed history of their situation but cannot communicate outside their automatism, their role. With earnest effort, the crew try to convince the townspeople that they are not the Clantons, and fail. They are in their uniforms (the clothing style notably Minimalist, by the way), but everyone in the town sees them dressed in movie-western clothes, exactly as they themselves are. In fact they do not see Kirk and the crew at all — they just see the Clantons. It recalls exercises in a drama class, where, with no props at all, actors act out scenes that require the imagination to fill in details. The background “buzz” score is unusually conspicuous: a single harmony of notes sounds continuously, without a melody. Indeed the sound in the episode, apart from dialogue, some flute riffs and a bar or two of orchestral music, is mainly this eerie buzz — and the gunfire obligatory in a Western.
Curiously, the basic point of this episode — the theme, if you want to call it that — is Minimalist, too. The title is strange. The phrase “Specter of the Gun” recalls the Minimalist dictum of architect Mies van der Rohe, “Less is more.” A specter is an immaterial ghostly appearance; by contrast, a gun is the most tangible, material sort of object imaginable, and it has the power to affect other tangible, material objects, indeed the power to destroy them. It is a symbol and a means of power over others: the cultural capital invested in the gun is incalculable, especially in American society. In the episode, aliens punish Captain Kirk and his officers for trespassing on their territory, but they do so in a peculiar manner, adopting the role of observer often taken by Star Trek aliens. Thus, Captain Kirk and his men suddenly find themselves in the Western “set” just described, the façade of Tombstone, Arizona. To their horror, incomprehensibly, the townspeople identify them as the Clanton gang: the famous shootout at the OK Corral is about to replay, and they are going to be gunned down in it, like the ill-fated Clantons. It is an absurdist situation, one that you did not create or seek and that is soon going to result in your death. But then, a situation that you did not create, do not understand, and that is going to kill you is more or less what life itself is, according to existentialist philosophy, the philosophy associated with Minimalism and popular in the Star Trek era. Here again the visual style expresses a thematic, even metaphysical conception.
The crew desperately seek a way out; tension mounts, complete with echoes of High Noon — clocks ticking and bad guys assembling in the formalist manner typical of Minimalism.12 The climax is indeed a shootout, but it is also a realization. The Enterprise crew realize that the scenes and characters and situations they have had to confront are actually phantoms — specters, as it were — and hence nothing can hurt them. The bullets aren’t “real” — unless you believe they are. Therefore, when the Earp team shoot them, in the OK Corral, nothing happens. There is a dramatic cascade of guns firing and bullet holes appearing — a breathtaking auditory and visual effect. Again, Minimalism increases dramatic effect — without a lot of stuff on view to distract attention from the action, emotion, dialogue. The scene is extremely formalistic. On one side Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and Scotty, trance-like, are lined up. Opposite this file, a second line consisting of the Earp group, equal in number to their opponents, deliberately fires nonstop at the Star Trek crew. Bullets spray and are heard exploding, but the crew remain standing, calm and untouched, while the Earps, equally motionless, fire uninhibitedly. It is an extraordinary tableau.
What is interesting in “Specter of the Gun” is that the Minimalist ethos has shaped the thinking, not just the look, of the episode. In this corner of the universe, reality does not follow familiar rules, and things are what we think and believe they are. If we act on our thoughts and beliefs, they will be confirmed by experience. But that does not make them real in any absolute sense. This sort of idea has Minimalist implications, because it requires imagination to fill in gaps and details, just as imagination must fill in the clothes we do not see but that the characters in the town clearly see. What you take for granted is real for you, whether it is really there or not. Again, the “Specter of the Gun” episode is like an acting exercise, whereby events are imagined — visualized — not depicted in terms of realistic physical staging, still less depending on props.
Star Trek‘s landscapes, or planetscapes, are interesting in this context, because creating one of these successfully is not easy, and a great many had to be thought up in the course of the show, each one different from the others, and with minimal time to think them up. The viewer must not feel bored or disappointed by the landscape of a planet or the interior of an alien architecture. The scene must convince and must at the same time allow the dramatic interaction to remain the focus of attention. The setting and scenery in Star Trek do not distract from the drama. We don’t want to be constantly looking at the backdrop instead of at the characters and their doings. Yet at the same time, the viewer must feel satisfied and stimulated by that backdrop; attention must not be drawn to it on grounds of inadequacy. It has to please, without distracting. The solution to this contradictory requirement — it must look good but it must not distract attention — is pure Minimalism. In a Minimalist setting, where there isn’t much to look at, the smallest object draws attention to itself, creating a kind of emphasis that is impossible in more elaborate sets. Simplicity enhances dramatic effect. Less is more.
Television is not the most obvious medium for science fiction, especially in the 1960s, because the screen is so small. The contrast between 2001: A Space Odyssey and any science fiction show on TV makes this point dramatically clear. The big screen makes a big difference. Television is a medium congenial for film noir, with its claustrophobic interiors and entrapment anxieties, a point exploited by Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Yet Star Trek has succeeded remarkably well, and did so, certainly in the first and establishing series, with a Minimalist style and approach. One reason for its success was the skill with which the producers and directors made use of color, sound, and architectural emphasis on maze-like constructions that enhance the Minimalist coloring. This approach does not rely on shadows or the kind of chiaroscuro that is visually so important in other styles, especially film noir. In fact, shadows are avoided and rarely register visually or psychologically in Star Trek. Color television (as opposed to black and white) was still fresh and new, and the avoidance of shadows is also the avoidance of a basic technique of black and white visual expression.
But what was key to success in the small-screen environment of Star Trek was the main character, Captain James Kirk, played by William Shatner. Shatner never had much of a movie career, but he worked well in television. His success in Star Trek has to do with the way he uses his face. Television is a medium obsessed with faces. The close-up is virtually built into the medium, because of its small size. Shatner’s face is remarkably congenial for television, because he is so skilled in communicating emotion, thought, reactions, in his face by means of his face. He acts with his face. The facial mobility is extraordinary, without being in any way freakish. Shatner is a good-looking man, no doubt, but he does not possess the looks of a matinee idol. His face is handsome but not that handsome: he is close to the “boy next door” — enhanced average — the clean-cut, all-American male look at its most attractive.13 He projects a feeling of immediate familiarity — never distance or emotional remoteness.14 We know him before we know him. I referred earlier to his boyish quality, the sense of adventure and even of children playing that he brings with him.15
The same principle applies to his physique. Though obviously muscular and happy to take his shirt off, Shatner is hardly a tall man. Height is important for leading men. Indeed, height in men is a common predictor of success generally. Kirk is shorter than Spock — noticeably shorter. Also, Shatner is far from thin, or even slim. He is muscular but his build always gives the impression of being on the edge of pudginess, of having to struggle with weight. His head is well proportioned with highly expressive eyes, but the hair is thinning, and a toupee is in the offing. The point is that Shatner is not the sort of male figure that one expects in such a role as Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, one of the handful of elite star-ships. After all, as Commodore Decker reminds us in “Court Martial,” “Not one man in a million” can do this job.
Despite these limitations, Kirk consistently projects authority — and power of personality. He expresses every sort of emotion — his range is extraordinary — but he always retains a dignity that comes from immense confidence. His physical style is itself interesting. He is never stiff. He has the ease and fluidity of movement more of a professional dancer than of an athlete. But it is his face that is central to the show. The camera loves his face and dwells on it, allowing constant opportunity to metamorphose through the variety of emotions and reactions that constitute the drama. One of the most conspicuous features of the series is the contrast between the leading characters, between Kirk and Spock, including the color of their uniforms (light brown vs. light blue). Physically they could hardly be more different. Spock’s physical movements have a slightly awkward, even mechanical, shambling quality. He is not graceful. But the difference is especially noticeable in facial expression. Spock’s studied immobility doubles the effect of Kirk’s expressiveness. McCoy performs the same function of contrast, but in a different register: his face is visibly older than Kirk’s, and his raised eyebrow has a simple — Minimalist — but dramatic effect. One small feature can be surprisingly important. Shatner’s skill in this department contributes significantly. The dramatic logic of many if not most episodes of Star Trek is simply to lead up to close-ups of Shatner, then withdraw from him, a rhythm of approach and withdrawal. The camera follows the action up to his face, taking us with it — and his face performs. It is perhaps not exaggerating to say that much of the show is carried by the movements of his face16 (Figures 10a-d).
Thus Ina Rae Hark misses the point in her negative verdict on Shatner’s acting: what she calls “Shatner’s narcissistic performance style” (30). It is not narcissism that he projects but, like him or not, happiness, an intense delight in his role. To put it a bit crudely, it is charisma: a remarkable skill in using his face and his body, his physical presence. Without this contribution to Star Trek, the show would lose its trademark vitality. One has only to compare the original choice of actor for the role of Captain Kirk to see how vital Shatner is to the Star Trek origin. The original actor, Jeffrey Hunter, presents a total contrast to Shatner. He is stiff, his face is stiff, with piercing blue eyes very unlike the soft brown of Shatner (Figure 11). Hunter’s emotional range is not great, though he does anger very well, and in action movies, the basic requirement of a male protagonist is that he must be able to display anger. Hence Hunter is the sort of actor that one would expect to be chosen for the helm of a star ship.
This is an important point. Hunter is close to the typical macho male, feelings always under control, preoccupied with action and assertion. He has a definite hardness, one that comes from freedom from emotion: a determination to control and overcome emotion rather than express it. In this he is the opposite of Shatner. He has a hard manner and a hard look in his face, very unlike Shatner’s style. His hair is dark, his skin pale and clean-shaven; he would have a dark beard and a five o’clock shadow. Shatner on the other hand is decidedly warm in coloring: his brown hair matches a complexion that is warm, not pale. His face does not show much of a beard, giving him a boyish, even soft look. But that warmth is definitely masculine, indeed it projects erotic energy — an erotic appeal frequently exercised. The warmth he exudes is at odds with the hardness of the familiar macho male action hero. This is not to say he cannot be hard, too, but this hardness is only one of a repertoire of emotions, not the default position.
Scotty declares in “Turnabout Intruder,” the last episode of Star Trek: “I’ve seen Captain Kirk in many ways — but NEVER red-faced with hysteria!” In fact, Shatner is pretty hysterical in several episodes (thanks to torture or coercion). He projects spontaneity and even a delight in expressing emotion. He may not be hysterical, but Shatner is openly and consistently emotional, expressing a remarkable range of emotion, from rage and panic to love, curiosity, passion, shock, and, yes, even fear — not an emotion always allowed a lead male in an action show. That is, he expresses emotion without being overcome by it, so that he always retains the sense of command that a genuine leader must have. The enhanced emotionalism of the show is one of the most conspicuous features: “For its time, Star Trek‘s fascination with the workings of male friendship and its openness in depicting raw manifestations of male emotional vulnerability were hardly the norm” (Hark 31). Shatner thus stimulates interest in the drama of the show from another angle: his personality. This personality, his emotional expression, draws attention to itself, just as the personality of Spock attracts attention, largely by the absence of emotion. In fact, as the show evolved, the other characters, too, especially Dr. McCoy, develop an appeal simply for their expression of emotion. Emotion alone — the display of emotion — matters.
It is consistent with this emphasis on emotion that the plot in the series is often about emotion, its expression and value. For instance, the children who don’t cry in “And the Children Shall Lead Them” (because they are under what amounts to demonic possession) cry and grieve for their dead parents — when they are freed. Emotion breaks what in an earlier kind of story would simply be an enchantment. Nor is this need for emotion just for children. It works for adults in “This Side of Paradise,” in “By Any Other Name,” and elsewhere. Freedom means the expression of emotion. Likewise, beings who have intellect but lack feeling must achieve the power of emotion, the power to feel. The showing of emotion is an essential part of the Star Trek look. The large blocks of often intense color — what I referred to as color panels — are themselves powerful visual expressions of emotion, as they also are in Minimalist painting.
Shatner’s warmth and vitality are at odds with the culture of hardness that defines so much of the masculine mystique. His bodily style in itself makes a defining statement. The drama of Star Trek depends upon emotion and the expression of emotion, and while every episode has its requisite fight scene(s), the emphasis on face for the sake of face is conspicuous.17 The face is an object of intense visual interest generally, of course — people are fascinated by faces — and Star Trek exploits this fascination to the hilt. Interestingly, the face that draws attention in the successor series and movies is often a mask — the strange appearance of an alien being such as a Klingon, for example. Viewer interest is drawn to face/mask because of the peculiarity of its appearance. But masks hide emotion. That is, when the face becomes a mask, it ceases to be a medium for expressing emotion.
In this respect, the original series owes a huge amount to Shatner. Props, special effects, action all are reduced in function. It is an interesting innovation. But, again, it is typical of a Minimalist style: more with less, more effect with less stuff. Again, the acting and the stripped-down look of the series are very close to the comic books popular at the time. As if to promote, even enable, the fascination with Shatner’s face, the lighting of Star Trek is bright and sharp, high-key. The close-ups are not mere close-ups, they are close-ups with high key lighting, against a backdrop often just a colored space, for instance a featureless wall — featureless except for light coming through a color filter. That is, the close-ups are pressurized: they often show face and nothing else. The effect is, again, to keep attention focused on facial expression.
Star Trek is, in almost every respect, then, starkly Minimalist. It affects the décor and background music — the look and sound of the series — but it also shapes the use of stage sets, with their color panels and winding ways and garish skies. It affects the acting style, which is dependent on emotion and facial expression, especially the acting of the trio characters (Kirk, Spock, McCoy). Furthermore, in this series, Minimalism is a way of thinking, as in the metaphysical thinking that shapes the plot of, for example, “Specter of the Gun.”
It was inevitable that the successor series and movies should reject Minimalism as a style: changes of taste and approach had to be made. The sense that we are in a much bigger spaceship is immediate in Star Trek: The Next Generation. There seem to be a lot more people. We are already in the era of what Stephen Prince calls “in-your-face special effects” (“The Emergence of Filmic Artifacts” 24). Facial expression is less emphasized, replaced by the elaborate masks used to create unusual beings — this includes even Data, with his plasticized skin. The color panels, so prominent in the original series, disappear in favor of a proliferation of visually interesting objects and details. It is as if the dramatic energy of the series is more diffused, spreading out over a wide range of characters and interiors. In the earlier series, Minimalism concentrates the drama, creating the impact that this series continues to have. Above all, it stimulates the imagination, the active engagement of the viewer. Such active engagement is often featured in the plot construction itself: the power of the mind, something that cannot be seen, is what the action is all about, as in “Specter of the Gun,” for example, or “Plato’s Stepchildren,” or even “Day of the Dove” and “Wolf in the Fold,” where evil presences feed on emotions of fear and hostility.
Minimalism has a subversive energy. According to Kenneth Baker, the movement was a rebellion against unconsciousness: the sense that people are overworked automatons: “to accept without question the seemingly self-explanatory quality of everyday life in America is to be duped by entertainment, advertising, and political spectacle, into dwelling thoughtlessly in a world of engineered illusions” (24). That is what Minimalism is opposed to. Hence “Minimalism’s disruption of the traditional relationship between a fixed, static object and a fixated and static viewer” (Berger 8). Even in this thematic respect, Star Trek is Minimalist. The Minimalist style thus expresses the rebellious features of Star Trek — consistent with its time, the rebellious and unpredictable sixties. It is the Minimalist appeal to the visualizing power — to fill in the Minimalist spaces assigned to imagination — that gives this series its extraordinary impact.
Though critics argue about these points, Star Trek has a definite social theme. It devalues aggression and domination by insisting on peaceful solutions and cooperation. The chief male figure, Kirk, constantly displays emotion in a way that is contrary to male ideals of the time (and of today, for that matter). Stella Bruzzi notes that film of the 1960s commonly shows “the unsustainability of the autocratic paternal model” of masculinity (80), in accord with the rebellious cultural currents at play during that period.18 The shift in attitude toward male roles reflects a deeper shift: a growing belief that differences between people are unimportant compared to what people share. Star Trek presents “stories of disparate, distrustful, culturally alienated and emotionally wounded people who somehow come together for the common good when the chips are down” (Hark 7) — “the program’s affirmation of and optimism about multiculturalism generally occupies a central place” (Kanzler 66). A particularly obvious illustration is the famous interracial kiss (Figure 12): “Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner transgressed [racial] boundaries in their groundbreaking, first-ever televised kiss between a black woman and a white man seen in ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ (1968). The threat of this kiss to the social establishment of the time is not to be underestimated” (Dariotis 68).19
In Minimalism, a single kiss can blow up a whole culture.
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Berkwits, Jeff, ed. Asterism: The Journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Space Music #6 (Winter 1997).
Baker, Kenneth. Minimalism: Art of Circumstance. New York: Abbeville, 1988.
Barrett, Michèle, and Duncan Barrett. Star Trek: The Human Frontier. Cambridge: Polity, 2001.
Berger, Maurice. Minimal Politics: Performativity and Minimalism in Recent American Art. Blatimore: Fine Arts Gallery, U of Maryland, 1997.
Bernardi, Daniel Leonard. Star Trek’s History. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1998
Booker, M. Keith. Strange TV: Innovative Television Series from The Twilight Zone to The X-Files.Westport CT: Greenwood, 2002.
Dariotis, Wei Ming. “Crossing the Racial Frontier: Star Trek and Mixed Heritage Identities.” In Geraghty, ed. 63-81.
Eberl, Jason T., and Kevin S. Decker. Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant. Chicago: Open Court, 2008.
Fern, Yvonne. Gene Roddenberry: The Last Converstion. 1994; New York: Pocket Books, 1996.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.
Geraghty, Lincoln. “Eight Days That Changed American Television: Kirk’s Opening Narration.” In Geraghty, ed. 11-21.
Geraghty, Lincoln, ed. The Influence of Star Trek on Television, Film and Culture. Jefferson
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Gerrold, David, and Robert J. Sawyer, eds. Boarding the Enterprise. Dallas: Ben Bella Books, 2006.
Goulding, Jay. Empire, Aliens, and Conquest: A Critique of American Ideology in Star Trek and Other Science Fiction Adventure. State College, PA: Sisyphus Press, 1985.
Hardy Sarah, and Rebecca Kukla. “Interior Design in Star Trek: The Next Generation.” J of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 57.2 (Spring 1992): 177-91.
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—. “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory.” Film Quarterly 49.3 (Spring 1996): 27-37.
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Spinrad, Norman. “Star Trek in the Real World” in Gerrold, ed. 17-32.
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Vanneman, Alan. Review of Encyclopedia Shatnerica: An A to Z Guide to the Man and His Universe, by Robert Schnakenberg. Brightlightsfilm.com 63 (February 2009).
- And probably are plywood painted grey. As Gene Roddenberry remembered, “There was nowhere in those days where you could go to get a computer keyboard. We had to make ours out of wood! We predated the computer generation” (qtd. in Fern 58). [↩]
- For analysis of interiors, space, and virtual space in Star Trek: The Next Generation, see Sarah Hardy and Rebecca Kukla. [↩]
- “The term ‘minimalism’ was first coined in an article published by the critic Richard Wollheim in the journal Arts Magazine in 1965″ (Minimalism 34), but as the authors of Minimalism point out, the elements of Minimalist style go back much further than 1965. [↩]
- “Their music is simply based on the continuous repetition of a tune, a phrase or of short figures, normally diatonic, in the interaction of which slow and gradual rhythmic and harmonic transformations are introduced. Minimalist music is not the kind of music you listen to but one that you enter and leave” (Minimalism 111). “Initially described variously as ‘static music,’ ‘hypnotic music,’ and ‘repetitive music,’ it came to be known as ‘minimalism'” (Toop 466). The musical effect of the sounding chord(s) in Star Trek is precisely minimalist. [↩]
- “Lighting is one of the most important aspects of minimalism, both in architecture and interior design” (Minimalism 122), no doubt, because, as a standard guide to lighting technique puts it, “the most fascinating and rewarding use of light is the possibility of influencing the mental state of the audience” (Reid 6). [↩]
- This emphasis on drama as opposed to objectivity parallels minimalism in painting, where, as Edward Strickland observes, “Minimalism made the canvas all there was, the apotheosis of the phenomenal” (80). [↩]
- The same is true of Dr. Who, in the Tom Baker years. How to design “corridors” that were visually interesting and distinctive was an ongoing problem in the series. [↩]
- The comic book aspect of Star Trek is emphasized by the “Captain’s Log” commentary by Kirk (sometimes “Ship’s Log” when Kirk is absent). It’s a difficult device to get away with, but it works. [↩]
- There is also a surprisingly modernist, almost atonal, style of music in Star Trek, used to depict chaos or storm, for example when the Enterprise crosses the ” energy barrier” at the limit of the galaxy in “By Any Other Name” and “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” An impressive “Star Trek suite” could be made out of this music. [↩]
- See the special issue of the journal published and edited by Jeff Berkwits, Asterism: The Journal of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Space Music #6 (Winter 1997), for more on Star Trek music. [↩]
- The bridge has its own futuristic “buzz” — a sound effect instantly recognizable as a kind of minimalist anthem of Star Trek, but the musical “buzz” technique is used elsewhere in the ship, notably in the transporter room. The incorporation of early electronica into the music is definitely in keeping with the spirit of minimalism in contemporary music. [↩]
- And reminiscent of High Noon itself, High Noon being famous as a Minimalist Western, with a natural affinity with the stripped down look and formalism of Star Trek. [↩]
- Ironic, because, of course, Shatner is a Canadian — one of a number of Canadians to play culturally important Americans. The great American patriarch of the time, Pa Cartwright in the very popular Bonanza, was played by Canadian Lorne Greene. Greene had been an announcer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). [↩]
- Shatner has a reputation for being self-dramatizing and flamboyant off-screen. For a wittily hostile account of Shatner, see Vanneman. Shatner is a classically trained actor with a background in performing Shakespeare — he is highly literate, intelligent, and anything but a mere buffoon, whatever his limitations. [↩]
- “Not only is Captain James Tiberius Kirk a man of action, he can also deploy a syllogism with deadly force,” as Jerry Kapus puts it (246). [↩]
- The characters in Star Trek are what is technically known as “humor characters.” That is, they have basically one emotion, which they repeat again and again, certainly in each show where they appear. Thus, Mr. Spock is always cool; McCoy always gets angry; Scotty is always fearful, especially about his engines. Kirk always expresses passion for his ship. Although a rather primitive characterization technique, it works surprisingly well. Figure 9 offers a sample of Shatner’s facial style — a very small sample, it should be noted. [↩]
- What really matters is not just the emphasis on emotion, but the way that emotion is used: in Norman Spinrad’s words, “This positive emotional openness to the new and the strange, this empathy for the alien. . . . this acceptance of the alien, the foreigner, the Other” (31). [↩]
- Sexist attitudes are pretty blatant in Star Trek, but even in the sexism department, there are anomalies and surprises. But clearly, the series is more critical of standard male attitudes, not female roles. In a key episode in the first season, “Errand of Mercy,” Kirk is not allowed to enact the standard male-aggressor ideal, when peace is forced upon his and upon the Klingon war effort. Afterward, he confesses to being, as he says, “embarrassed” by his warmongering. [↩]
- On a more general level, Thomas Richards asserts that “Star Trek is the only science fiction to have successfully created a comic universe in which contact leads to conflict, resolution, peace, and laughter” (56). Not everybody agrees, of course: “Fans tend to read Roddenberry’s enlightened humanism as hope for the future, while many academic critics see it as business as usual” (Relke xiv). [↩]