With Jaundiced Eye
|Title:||With Jaundiced Eye|
|Fandom:||Star Trek: TOS, science fiction|
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The February 1968 column of "With Jaundiced Eye" was an essay about Star Trek: TOS and its dreadfulness. It did not have a separate title.
"The Jaundiced Eye turns this time to scrutinize that sudden hero of tv, STAR TREK."
Some Topics Discussed
- Isaac Asimov
- Star Trek's lazy plots, stupid science, bland dull characters, poor writing
- the usual statements about how true science fiction fans shouldn't lower themselves to watching television, as literary science fiction is the only smart stuff
- making money
- trying to make science fiction "respectable" and the fear that Star Trek is undermining that goal; for more on this topic, see Science Fiction and Star Trek
- I Spy and The Avengers as examples of "good" television science fiction
- Harlan Ellison's "scream for help" and a letter he wrote "the Committee"
The Editor's Comments
In this issue, the opinions of the writers are not necessarily those of the editors Personally, I consider the average "Star Trek" show to be considerably more entertaining that the average written stf story. (This is admittedly damning with faint praise, but it irks me to see fans saying that written stf is superior. Sure, some written stf is superior — damned little among recent writing, but some, I think Don Thompson said it all in the last issue; written stf provides "the internal consistency of The World of Null-A. the character development of Galactic Patrol the originality of an Emil Petaja novel". Or if you want to compare with all modern stf, then the plotting of The Star Magicians, the scientific accuracy of The Cosmozoids, the literary pyrotechnics of Watchers of the Dark. If "Star Trek" hasn't reached the heights attained by Heinlein and Sturgeon, neither has it plumbed the depths reached by Frank Belknap Long, Larry Maddock, S. J. Byrne, and dozens of others I could name.) I don't believe in telling columnists what they should write, so Ted's column is carried'as written. But I had to overcome a severe temptation to send it back.
I have a passing knowledge of the program, but I am not intimately concerned with it. I do not follow it avidly every week. The funny thing is that there are tv series programs which I will attempt to follow each week. The, first of these since I got my present tv set was THE ROGUES, Then, came I SPY, and, late last year, THE AVENGERS, which I have bitterly regretted missing earlier. I watch these programs because I like science fiction. I do not watch STAR TREK often, for the same reason.
In a recent issue of TV Guide, Isaac Asimov took several of the sf shows on tv to task for their elemental stupidities in both conception and execution. It was a fine Asimov article: witty, urbane and quietly scathing. Although LOST IN SPACE and TIME TUNNEL were worst treated, STAR TREK did not emerge unscathed. Ike slugged a couple at that very same pilot show which I'd seen at the Westercon and you, perhaps, saw at the Tricon.
But my beef with Peeples and writers like him is not on fine points of science, but for writing badly. The ordinary holes in his logic are enough for a six-year-old to point out. The instruments didn't register that radiation belt? But it showed up visually on the viewscreens? Come on! The heroes of STAR TREK had centuries of future science to draw upon. Where was it? And how come that mysterious radiation worked just like it always does in the grade-Z monster flicks? The story was stupid, the lines banal, and the actors wooden. But when the show goes off, they'll blame it on science fiction.
As you can see, I was still laboring under the misimpression created by Harlan's scream for help that STAR TREK was not long for the air. Actually, its ratings were high enough that I would've been surprised if it had been cancelled.
There are two points of view worth considering re: STAR TREK. One is that sure it's bad, but if it keeps going maybe we can improve it. The other, stated succinctly by Alex Panshin, is that drek like this we can do without. Who needs it?
According to Harlan, we need it. This seems to break down into several separate arguments. Undeniably, the scriptwriters need it. It supplies something like $5,000 a throw to each scriptwriter (if my general figures are accurate).
But are we scriptwriters?
Fans aren't. The fan needs STAR TREK purely in the sense that he needs sf at all: a source of vicarious adventure coupled with those properties uniquely stfnal, such as the Sense of Wonder to be found in contemplating the future. It stands to reason that if fans need science fiction at all, they need good science fiction: the best a medium may reasonably be expected to supply.What about sf's professionals? They might conceivably need STAR TREK in two senses. The first and direct need is as a market: they might become scriptwjriters for the show. That makes their need identical with the scriptwriters. Apparently the program is not considering buying previously conceived and published stories for use, which leaves many-sf writers out of it.) The second need is direct: the need to foster public acceptance of sf, so that their other markets can grow, and, perhaps, they can Hold Their Heads High.
Fandom doesn't need STAR TREK, because, as I intend to point out, it is not supplying science fiction of any quality — the actual sf content is not far removed from the shallow wonder of FANTASTIC VOYAGE. Fans need STAR TREK only slightly more than they need LOST IN SPACE, and it should be pointed out that the similarities in, the two programs are greater in number than their differences.
Fans used to think that they should promote sf: its respectability might then reflect itself upon them. This is a paranoic concept which withered with the death of the pulps, Bergey covers, and bacover rupture easer ads. The fact is that sf is moderately respectable now (although a recent visitor to this house stared surprised at my collection of sf paperbacks and then asked, "Aren't these mostly juvenile? I mean, they haven't published that much adult sf, have they?"), and indeed, nothing done on television has served to do anything but weaken that respectability. Television has too often been an image-maker: people think of any genre of fiction in terms of its television appearance. For years after sf ceased to be "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff", it was "that stupid Captain Video stuff" for the world at large.Fans, in any case, rarely enjoy any side-benefits of sf's respectability, and in most cases where "respectability" has been equated with popularity", the fad of popularity has driven out the good with the bad.
At this point, we can answer the question fairly easily: who needs STAR TREK? Only those who profit from it. And these are a handful. I fully expect that Harlan Ellison will rebutt [sic] me by pointing out that STAR TREK pays more money than writing three or four books (on the short term). However, STAR TREK, and tv sf in general, buys very little. If every program was written by a different writer, only two or three dozen writers would have a chance at that money. The paperback market supports many times that number.
So let's return to Harlan's letter "for the Committee". He (and they) have conned the rest of you into supporting a private charity of sorts: of maintaining a specialized and narrow market for them. And for what? For "good sf on tv"? Don't hand me that. No one who has seen STAR TREK could unblushingly claim that it is "good sf". It can't
Oh well. It's only a tv show.
Well, whaddya want for tv?An implicit assumption in the "noble' sentiments espoused by Roddenberry and STAR TREK's apologists is that tv is a limiting factor: you can't do good sf on tv, because the people — you know, the cloddish masses out there who aren't as smart and as hip as you or me — the people —I say, can't accept it. It' s Beyond Them.
Actually, the public is gadget-happy now, and is surprisingly hip to all those old sf gimmicks like time-travel, hyperspace, matter-transmission, and miniaturization. But have you noticed how much more authentic the gadgets look on THE MAN FROM UNCLE? They don't have that cardboard-mockup look that STAR TREK has borrowed from Captain Video and every Republic Serial of the late forties and early fifties.But most important, the protagonists of I SPY and THE AVENGERS, to name two shows currently popular with both me and The Public, are well-characterized, and shape the situations in which they find themselves. This is a matter of good acting and good scripting. It also boils down to a conception which allows this kind of by-play. Both programs are intelligently conceived. Sometimes the plots are thin, but they are rarely as insulting to the viewer's intelligence as are STAR TREK's, and there is always the saving grace of lovely writing, beautifully acted. The by-play between Scotty and Kelly [in I Spy] is warm and human, often humorous, and sometimes bitter. The by-play between Mrs. Peel and Mr., Steed in THE AVENGERS is dry, witty, and sometimes campy. The by-play between Mr. Spock and his captain is wooden and obvious, and restrained to the single thin schtick of Spock's lack of emotions.
It doesn't require money. It requires only attitude and ability. As nearly as I can tell, no one connected with STAR TREK has either one. Gene Roddenberry has constantly reiterated his love for science fiction, but I see no evidence of it in his work. I see no signs that he has ever regarded science fiction as a vehicle for more than another patronizing piece of hackery. I've heard too many cop-outs on this show: "They wanted something more popular," "the public isn't sophisticated enough for what you or I might like," etc.Let's face it: STAR TREK isn't good enough, on its own terms, as tv entertainment, because it isn't being approached as first-rate stuff. If it perishes from the screen at the end of the season, I shall shed no tears. By me, it deserves no more.
- "Bacover" is fanspeak for "back cover". "Rupture easers" are hernia belts or trusses, which really were advertised on the back covers of pulp magazines, with the presumption that most readers were older men.