A Doctor Who Fan Looks at Star Trek: But How Do They Compare?

I like Star Trek. I do. I wouldn’t call myself a fan because I don’t have the same emotional investment in it as I do with Doctor Who. It doesn’t irk me when it’s off-air or when its latest incarnation is cancelled; I don’t desire to know everything about it; I wouldn’t be interested in going to Trek conventions. I just enjoy it. It’s good.

I’ve just been re-watching all of the original series – the one with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy – on Netflix. It’s been lovingly remastered and the ’60s effects (which were still good) have been replaced with CGI ones, though they’ve been sensitively done and don’t grate by looking massively too advanced for the time it was made. I’ve seen the episodes before, many times: the BBC used to show them repeatedly in the school holidays when I was a child, though they banned a few episodes until the ’90s (4 of them, all for being too violent for a family audience. This was no great loss: 3 of them were mediocre anyway and one should have been banned on artistic grounds because it was truly dreadful).

Here, then, is an appreciation of Star Trek from the viewpoint of a Doctor Who fan. Oh, and we’re using footnotes too because we’re trying something different…

This isn’t meant to be triumphalist: I appreciate lots of readers will know much more about Trek than I do, and I apologise if I ever appear to be sneering at Trek or at Trek fans, because I’m not trying to diss either. Inevitably, an appreciation is going to look at things warts and all, but I can fully understand that there’s a converse position: there will be Trek fans who like Doctor Who but who consider it inferior to Star Trek, and they’ll have good reasons for doing so. With a bit of luck, we’ll find someone who can write an appreciation of Who from such a perspective for the DWC.

Even so, I hope that this article, which is written from an inevitably biased viewpoint, may throw some light on Trek and reflect some back onto Who itself, as there’s a contrast between the two series: they’re often seen as rivals, after all, even though they’re actually very different.

As you know, Star Trek has been going for almost as long as Doctor Who. As with Doctor Who, there have been gaps in its production; longer ones in the case of Trek than for Who. At the time of writing, there have been 754 episodes of Trek, as opposed to 851 for Who. (It depends how you count them, and the figure for the former also includes the animated series, which I suppose you have to include as it’s considered canonical.)

The Cage, the pilot episode starring Jeffrey Hunter, was made in November to December 1964: the same time as the BBC were broadcasting The Dalek Invasion of Earth. The first series premiered in the US on 8th September 1966, two days before Part One of The Smugglers. The final episode of Season 3 was Turnabout Intruder, first shown on 3rd June 1969, the same week as Part Eight of The War Games.

Most of the original series (TOS), then, was contemporary with Troughton’s run of Doctor Who.

I’m going to concentrate on TOS, mainly because the article would be impossibly long otherwise, but also because I prefer it to the others. Not quite the same as saying it’s better: there’s a strong case for saying The Next Generation (TNG) is actually the best incarnation of Trek; it’s just that I like the original version better and have a strong affection for it.

The first thing to say is that it’s very good. It’s very uneven: Trek has its own Horns of Nimons and Tsuranga Conundrums; more of them in the third and final series than in the other 2. Its best episodes are excellent. The majority of those are in the first season, when a number of science fiction short story writers were invited to contribute scripts.

Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley are genuinely superb throughout. And although he’s the least good of the three leads, William Shatner is still good. It’s become the generally accepted view that he grotesquely overacts and is a dreadful old ham; actually, when you rewatch his performance, you realise this judgement is a cliché and actually rather unfair. He does overact (well, Who isn’t free from overacting either) but, even so, this is comparatively rare: it becomes more common as the series progresses (and admittedly it can be risible). The habit of putting in. Full stops. In. His sentences. At random. Doesn’t really start. Until towards the end of Series 1. It’s irritating and a good director should have picked him up on this – and yet, in fairness, it’s a habit that Peter Capaldi also used and which was copied occasionally by Jenna Coleman, so one shouldn’t cast nasturtiums.

For the most part, Kirk is a believable and well-realised character; he’s the least interesting of the three principals, admittedly, but he’s also much better than the bland and dull Christopher Pike of the pilot. (Anson Mount, who plays Pike in Discovery, rescues the character: his Pike is much better than Jeffrey Hunter’s.) Trek would have been much worse had they gone for a different cast: Shatner, Nimoy, and Kelley carry the show with great professionalism.

(Did you know that Kelley was offered Spock before Nimoy was, and that he turned it down? True.)

The most obvious difference between Who and Trek is that one’s an ensemble piece and the other isn’t. Doctor Who is always about the Doctor; Star Trek is not always about the Captain. The Doctor is in a tradition of fictional British heroes like Sherlock Holmes, Falstaff, Rumpole, Number Six, and to some extent Quatermass: the outsider, the maverick, the individual, the person who refuses to conform and whose relationship with society in general is at best uneasy (1). Trek’s set-up – and this isn’t to imply it’s therefore inferior – is more conformist. Although there are occasional exceptions, the Enterprise crew conform to the society of the Federation and are committed ambassadors of its ethos. Gene Roddenberry was passionate about his idea that Star Trek should show the best of humanity and demonstrate the best of what was possible for human beings: a world where our baser instincts were mastered and we had overcome conflict (2). The theme’s much more muted in TOS than it became in the early, Roddenberry-helmed series of The Next Generation; it didn’t work there because the characters became so bland and noble and wise and mature and goody-goody that they also became very, very dull (3).

The involvement of the programmes’ creators is another huge difference between Trek and Who. Sydney Newman was content to hand control of his baby over to others to develop; Roddenberry was absolutely not. He was sidelined from the third series of TOS and from the Trek films, much to his chagrin, and he continued to bombard the producers with memoranda and unsolicited advice. He could be litigious. He hated Star Trek V (4) so much that he declared it wasn’t canon. Roddenberry’s work could be excellent, as some of his screenplays show (The Menagerie, for example) but his judgement was frequently poor: he could be as heavy handed as Chris Chibnall in smashing the viewer over the head with his Message. (The Omega Glory – the one where the planet’s inhabitants cherish a copy of the American Constitution – is breathtakingly awful. Roddenberry thought it was superb.) Alas, the producers of the films found him a nuisance and ignored him as much as they dared.

What else? Well, TOS gave us the best-looking spaceship in any science fiction programme or film. The Enterprise is a stunning piece of work; it looks better in TOS, too, than it did in the films or in Discovery. (I think that’s because designers can’t resist the tendency to fiddle with something that looked near-perfect anyway; adding detail and changing the colour detracted from the simplicity of the ship’s original design. The Daleks look best in The Dead Planet, too.) The bridge set is effective, if dated; again, the later versions necessarily have to update it: you couldn’t use that set now. But it’s lost something in the reworking for the films and in the later starships. (You can say the same about the Hartnell TARDIS set vs its later tweakings.)

Something else that struck me on my recent re-viewing was how little the other characters have to do. With a few exceptions, Sulu, Chekhov, and Uhura are pretty much in the background; they only have a few lines when they appear; their characters don’t really take off until the films (5). It’s to the credit of George Takei, Walter Koenig (to a lesser extent), and Nichelle Nichols that they’re believable people; they could easily have been cardboard. Indeed, Mr Kyle, the nearly forgotten Englishman on the Enterprise, is in it almost as much as Sulu and Chekhov. Scotty is effectively the fourth lead and James Doohan is splendid. Doohan was a war-hero, too: he landed in France on D-Day and later became an accomplished radio actor. The producers took full advantage of this: many of the computers and aliens in TOS are actually voiced by Doohan and sound nothing like Mr Scott.

The contentious stuff now. Why do I think Doctor Who is better than Star Trek?

In part, it’s because it’s more imaginative. It’s probably unfair, but you could argue that Star Trek is basically a series about the crew of an aircraft carrier or a submarine, updated and set in space. As a result, it’s more recognisable as something from our world – and I appreciate that this may be precisely why Trek fans prefer their own series to Who: it’s not as outlandish or (one could say) silly.

Having a non-human protagonist is arguably more interesting, too; the human Dr Who of the Cushing films is far less compelling than the alien Doctor of the series, especially when you’re not absolutely sure what he is going to do next. There are non-humans in Trek, of course. But while Nimoy is superb, Spock’s character is more limited than the Doctor’s; both are alien, but Spock is (usually) more predictable. Even Spock is essentially a conformist; the Doctor is decidedly not. I don’t know… perhaps this preference for the non-conformist oddball is a consequence of the British psyche, if there is such a thing. The British can have a suspicion of the establishment and an uneasiness with patriotism or conformity, even though we’ve managed to have two old Etonian prime ministers in the last 4 years. But it’s dangerous to generalise and I may be talking rubbish.

The attitude to interfering in other cultures is a major difference, perhaps the major difference, between Doctor Who and Star Trek.

Starfleet’s Prime Directive is Thou Shalt Keep Thy Nose Out of Other People’s Cultures, at least if they’re not capable of interstellar travel.

The Prime Directive comes to the foreground much more in TNG; it’s present in the original series, but is cheerfully ignored much of the time. Something very similar was also the prime directive for the Time Lords and it became clear that it was precisely because of it that the Doctor ran away from their society: because it bored him, because he thought it was morally wrong, because he wanted to get his hands dirty, and because no one was going to tell him what to do. In Trek (especially in TNG), the Prime Directive can become very self-righteous and patronising. TNG can take it to extremes, so that it becomes morally relativist (if a bunch of idiots are killing each other, who are we to interfere and impose our cultural values on others?).

Who and Trek have totally contrasting approaches to the doctrine of non-interference. And yet both were (are) informed by a strong moral position; both of these positions reflect very different national experiences.

In the Sixties, and especially between 1966 and 1969, American experience was dominated by the Vietnam War and British experience was not. For the UK in the Sixties, Vietnam was important but largely peripheral.

Lyndon B Johnson wanted Harold Wilson to send British troops to Vietnam; Wilson repeatedly refused. Roddenberry was a passionate opponent of the war – the Prime Directive was in part his attack, through fiction, on the idea that a strong nation shouldn’t interfere in the affairs of another nation or culture. Roddenberry did not want the stories of the Enterprise to be seen as a parable for American foreign policy. Hence the Prime Directive.

Given the background, you can fully understand where he was coming from. Max Hastings’ recent book, Vietnam provides a depressing and brilliant history of the conflict, with neither side emerging morally unscathed. While far more Vietnamese were killed than American or allied troops, allied atrocities were also far rarer and on a much smaller scale than those committed by the Vietnamese communists; moreover, allied troops who committed war crimes were tried and punished and communist troops were not. Hastings shows the whole thing to have been a terrible mess and a tragic waste. It can be fashionable in the UK to be anti-American – not just opposed to individual policies of US governments but to be xenophobically anti-American – and Hastings shows how shallow and wrong such a view is. Perhaps, then, it’s not for me to criticise Roddenberry’s views; he strongly believed in what he was saying, and used Star Trek as a vehicle to express them. The difference in approach of Who and Trek to the concept of non-interference reflects the different experiences of the British and the Americans to the Vietnam War.

This is getting heavy. Let’s look at the baddies.

Trek was limited by its budget, as was Who, but Who managed to do much more with it. The big bads of Trek are the Klingons (6). The big bads of Who are the Daleks. I think it’s not difficult to conclude which are superior in concept and execution. As a child, I was always disappointed that the aliens in Trek were nearly always people with make-up or odd costumes; the Ice Warriors and the Cybermen knock spots of the Andorians.

Trek was also far too interested in exploring its own continuity, though again this is much more muted in TOS (and another reason why I prefer it to the later versions). Once the Klingons starting sticking Cornish pasties on their foreheads, we had endless explorations of their culture, language, religion, history, and even opera (7). Trek became almost Tolkien-esque in its labyrinthine complexity. This is a matter of taste and clearly people are perfectly entitled to enjoy that and find it fascinating. I think it’s dull but that’s me; it’s also why I enjoyed reading and watching The Lord of the Rings but don’t want to read any more Tolkien – you can have too much of that sort of thing. It reached its nadir in the first episode of Discovery, which opened with a long and deeply dull scene entirely in Klingon, which was so tedious that I turned the telly off. (I tried Discovery again and actually it’s good: highly recommended).

Much of Trek, then, seemed to become aimed at a particular type of fan who enjoys exploring a fictional universe’s continuity (and I wonder how much the general viewers do). Doctor Who was more interested in stories for their own sake; continuity could be cheerfully sacrificed to the desire to tell a ripping yarn. It was left to the fans to produce any Tolkien-esque backstories; the series didn’t bother. It’s much easier to write a history of the Klingons than of the Cybermen. Cyber-continuity is all over the place – and it doesn’t matter. We didn’t even know who the Doctor was for 6 years. How the TARDIS works isn’t explained and it doesn’t need to be. Scientific accuracy is ignored in the interests of telling a good story. Science only features when it’s needed for a particular story: hyperspace is a concept in The Stones of Blood because it’s required for the story; it’s then forgotten about and never mentioned again. There’s no noise in space in Doctor Who except when there is. The Doctor’s age goes up and down; Pertwee’s Doctor implies he’s lived for many thousands of years. Continuity in Who is far less important than it became in Trek.

Part-Silurian, part-Boris Johnson.

There’s also the genre. NBC selected the fifth episode, The Man Trap, to air first; this irritated Leonard Nimoy and others, who felt it was too much “monster of the week”. It’s also one of the more horrific episodes and, as such, rather unrepresentative. By contrast, Doctor Who thrives on “monster of the week” and rejoices in it. Again, this could be a perfectly legitimate reason for preferring Trek to Who. It also exemplifies the difference in tone. It’s a generalisation, but Star Trek is basically straight science fiction and Doctor Who is basically horror, with science fiction overtones. Who aims to terrify; Trek doesn’t. The tone is completely different and any Trek / Who crossover – it’s been tried, in the comics – would never really work.

Trek is also more limited in that it’s set in a particular period (8). It has all of space to play with; Who has all of time and space. Its canvas is larger than Trek’s and that allows its stories to be more varied; Who’s concept allows for no limits on its storytelling. One of the reasons I gave up on Voyager and Enterprise was that I felt they were re-treading old ground: the A plot of an earlier Trek episode would be joined to a B plot from another and it was rehashing stuff. (Again, a personal view.) Doctor Who never recycles old plots and people like Terry Nation were never guilty of this, O dear me no. (And the TARDIS is better than the Enterprise so ner ner ner.)

Some of TOS is dated. So’s some of its contemporary in Sixties Who. Classic-Who is sometimes gently chided for being sexist: female companions look decorative, get into scrapes, ask “What are we going to do now, Doctor?” and “Tell me everything that’s going on, Doctor, because I’m really thick, me” (9). Perhaps more a function of the storytelling than of the sex of their characters; the male companions could be equally dumb. Male companions were generally less decorative, though Ian Chesterton had some amazingly sexy cardies. TOS is more overtly sexist, alas, not just in the costumes for the female characters (some of the alien women’s outfits are so ridiculous as to verge on soft porn), but in Kirk’s habit of snogging them all the time, usually within 10 minutes of first meeting them. Even David Tennant didn’t clock up as many snogs as Jim Kirk. There’s even the notorious bit when Kirk tells Elaan of Troyius that, as a spoilt brat, he should spank her. As Hartnell would say, “Dear dear dear dear. How very disturbing.” It also seems obligatory to have a punch-up in every single episode; they suggest disputes can be settled with fists, and they’re often badly done, with obvious stunt doubles. Sometimes, as with The Gamesters of Triskelion, they fill almost a whole episode and the biff biff sock pow action is generally accompanied by horribly blaring incidental music. Punch ups are deeply boring.

It’s also an oddity that, while Who is more horrific, it’s also less overtly violent. The Doctor never carries a gun (10); the Enterprise crew are routinely armed and are occasionally trigger-happy. This can make viewers like me uneasy. Again, perhaps a British thing: even now, British police officers don’t carry guns as a matter of tradition and honour, and the occasional sight of a plod with an automatic rifle at Heathrow Airport just looks very wrong. This observation comes with the usual caveats: it’s an over-generalisation and it isn’t meant in any way to be a negative comment about other countries. Nevertheless, being able to shoot your way out of trouble can make for lazy storytelling – a problem also found in Who with K9; and anyway, now that the sonic screwdriver has become a magic wand, you don’t need a gun to overcome most scrapes. (Not a triumph for the imagination, alas. Time for some Tereleptils to come back and blow the sonic up again.)

And finally. At its best, TOS was excellent. It was very uneven and much of it was not good. Some of the stories that have been characterised as rubbish by received opinion turn out to be much better than expected when you watch them. If you’re not familiar with the original series of Star Trek, or indeed even if you are, may I offer my pick of the best episodes?

I think the best of all of them is The Doomsday Machine. Very well written, very tense and menacing, an excellent story, and it features a superb performance by William Windom as the crazed Commodore Decker.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but…

Also highly recommended:

Season One:

  • Where No Man Has Gone Before
  • The Man Trap (11)
  • Charlie X
  • Balance of Terror
  • What Are Little Girls Made of? (11)
  • The Menagerie
  • A Taste of Armageddon
  • Space Seed (that’s the one with Khan in)
  • The Devil in the Dark (11)
  • The City on the Edge of Forever

Mudd’s Women is fun, too. So’s The Squire of Gothos (11). The Cage is worth a look: it’s clearly a work in progress and most of it was re-used in The Menagerie, but it’s still interesting.

Season Two:

  • Metamorphosis
  • Wolf in the Fold 11
  • Mirror, Mirror
  • The Trouble with Tribbles
  • The Immunity Syndrome

Season Three (12):

  • The Paradise Syndrome (generally panned but I quite like it)
  • The Enterprise Incident (rather like Discovery in tone)
  • Let That Be Your Last Battlefield
  • All Our Yesterdays

And finally finally. Most episodes of the original series ended the title sequence with a photo of that bloke from The Corbomite Maneuver.

In homage to this, and to end this article, here is a photo of me impersonating him.

The DWC invites you, dear reader, to post below a photo of your own impersonation of him, too! We can then look at all of them, assess their merits, sigh contentedly and say together:

“What a load of Baloks!”

(1) Pertwee’s Doctor was arguably the least conformist, though it’s a caricature to say he was a conservative (and/or Conservative) grandee. He initially fitted in with UNIT because he had to; it was only later that he realised he liked being with the Brig and his fellows, and even then, he longed to be off on his travels. It’s also true to say that the companions, plus recurring characters like UNIT and the Paternoster Gang, disqualify Doctor Who from being a series with a solo lead, but the Doctor still dominates and other recurring characters are very much secondary figures – at least, until the Jodie Whittaker series arguably made the Doctor much more a member of an ensemble than a protagonist.

(2) This included tailoring the uniforms of the Enterprise crew without pockets, much to the irritation of the cast; Roddenberry reasoned we would have no desire for individual possessions in the future. The cast did desire their original possessions, however, and the bridge set was littered with their fags, hankies, keys, and wallets, hidden out of shot.

Roddenberry hated the uniforms of the films from The Wrath of Khan onwards because they committed the unforgivable sin: they had pockets.

(3) Roddenberry thought human beings were perfectible. This was also the view of a 4th Century Christian philosopher called Pelagius, who was roundly trashed for talking rubbish by St Augustine. Whether one calls it original sin or the id, there seems to be an inherent darkness in humankind that can be subdued but never entirely eliminated. Roddenberry was also an atheist who strove to promulgate atheism in his writing – Message, again. The excellent Babylon 5 is superficially similar to Star Trek but, by contrast, was much less optimistic in its view of human perfectibility and its characters are therefore much more recognisable as real people. B5’s showrunner, J Michael Straczynski, was also an atheist, but he recognised that both atheism and religion would endure; there’s even a Benedictine monastery on his space station. Doctor Who, very wisely, is almost entirely silent on the question of the truth or otherwise of religion; it’s not a good idea to alienate large chunks of your audience and people dislike being told what to think by a science fiction programme, whatever their views. The anti-religious message of Trek is, again, much more muted in TOS than in TNG; indeed, Who Mourns for Adonais? and Bread and Circuses are explicitly Christian. But a pro-Christian message goes down the same way as an atheistic one: badly. Science fiction shouldn’t preach; it should tell stories.

(4) Admittedly, not a great film, though it’s still fun.

(5) Ignoring The Slow Motion Picture, which served none of the cast well. Roddenberry was allowed free reign for this and he went massively OTT, indulging himself and his Vision to a ridiculous extent. It is a pompous and deeply dull movie, with none of the subtlety of the best television episodes. He drove the director to distraction with constant rewrites, which also called for more and more long and boring effects sequences, pushing the film massively over budget. Roddenberry was not asked back for the subsequent films.

Incidentally, Orson Welles did the voiceover for the cinema trailer.

(6) It was originally to have been the Romulans but their ears made them too expensive. The Klingons were easier to do. Roddenberry always wanted the forehead crests for the Klingons, which they had from the first film onwards, but they were too expensive for TOS.

(7) Contrast… Dalek culture: none; language: English; religion: none; history: exterminating stuff; opera: are you kidding? Mind you, Daleks signing opera would be hilarious.

(8) Okay, different periods for different series.

(9) This line was given to Vicki in a sketch performed – shameless plug coming up here – by Maureen O’Brien and Peter Purves at Bedford Who Charity Con 3. Maureen thought the line was very funny.

(10) Unless Eric Saward’s writing it.

(11) I probably like these episodes because they’re the most similar to Doctor Who, which makes me very shallow, doesn’t it? Without too much rewriting, they’d work well as Who stories. What a narrow approach! I’d also argue that the best episodes of Trek aren’t as good as the best stories of Who; even The Doomsday Machine isn’t a patch on Genesis of the Daleks or The War Games.

(12) Roddenberry was sidelined from this season. As previously stated, he could produce both brilliance and trash (cf Russell T Davies?); at this stage of his career, the good stuff outweighed the bad and his loss affected the quality of the final series. Producing duties went to the less talented Fred Freiberger, who later also produced Space: 1999. While working on the latter, Freiberger saw a name on a British road sign and thought it so wonderful that he used it for an episode title. This was The Rules of Luton.

(I am indebted to my friend Anthony Forth of Bedford Doc Soc for drawing my attention to this glorious fact.)