Thursday, 30 December 2021

Best Dramatic Presentation Boldly Goes Forward (1967)

This blog post is the tenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems only natural that Star Trek should win a Hugo Award in its first season.

The Hugo shortlist in 1967 included Fantastic Voyage,
Fahrenheit 451, The Menagerie, The Naked Time, &
The Corbomite Maneuver. (Image via IMDB)
At the time, however, this decision was not without controversy.

The Worldcon chair for 1967, Ted White, published a screed against the show calling its writers patronizing and ill-informed. Hugo-winning fan writer Alexei Panshin opined that Star Trek was filled with cliches and facile plots.

But for every voice criticizing the new show, there were several voicing their support. Big-name authors like Harlan Ellison and A.E. Van Vogt campaigned for the television series to win a Hugo, hoping that the recognition might buy it a second season. Writing in the fanzine Yandro, Juanita Coulson offered the definitive counterpoint: “The scorners of Star Trek do not seem to have an alternate dramatic piece of science fiction to offer; they usually do not like anything TV calls science fiction or fantasy.” 

It was by far the most talked about Best Dramatic Presentation ballot up to that point, with various pundits at turns praising Fahrenheit 451’s elegant direction, complaining about plot points in Fantastic Voyage, and analysing the merits of “The Corbomite Maneuver.” The quality of this debate, the resulting shortlist, and the final vote all look exceptional from the perspective of 2021; this was the year that the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation came into its own. 
In 1967, Gene Roddenberry was
one of the few Best Dramatic
Presentation winners to accept
the award in person.
(Photo by Jay Kay Klein


Considering the eligible works for this Hugo shortlist, one member of our cinema club (Paul) watched no fewer than 43 science fiction and fantasy movies that had hit cinemas in 1966, and concluded that Hugo voters could hardly have done better.

As we started watching movies and television shows from 1966, many of us had expected Fahrenheit 451, directed by François Truffaut to be the shortlist standout. However, we were surprised to find the movie had aged far more poorly than other works. Most readers will be familiar with the source material, which criticizes anti-intellectualism and post-literate culture, but this is an adaptation that does not live up to the provocative premise. The first half of the film moves at a pace that makes the Mendenhall Glacier look like quicksilver; and although the second half provides some good moments, it’s undermined by questionable choices around gender representation. That being said, Truffaut is a master of building individual shots, and some of the imagery continues to hit hard. Scenes which center the action on the television in Guy Montag’s apartment are visually arresting and prescient. The set design — both the use of existing architecture and the film’s own props — is iconic and lush. There are moments of brilliance in the movie; particularly a speech in which Captain Beatty cynically dismisses the value of books. In several other years, this might have been at the top of our ballots, but in 1967 it was outshone.

The most expensive science fiction movie to have been made up to that point, Fantastic Voyage, holds up somewhat better. Sparingly and effectively directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie follows a five-person submarine crew who are shrunk to microscopic size and injected into a scientist in order to perform life-saving brain surgery. Although far too many movies of the era over-explained their premise, Fleischer’s dialogue-free opening sequence is a masterclass in visual storytelling, showing the events that kick off the movie’s action.
A pleasure to burn perhaps, but not a pleasure to watch.
(Image via Pintrest)
It’s worth noting the quality of the visuals in Fantastic Voyage, which earned the movie two Academy Awards. Art Cruickshank’s visual effects pushed the limits of compositing technology at the time, while Jack Martin Smith and Dale Hennessy’s clean and functional design work made the secret military base setting seem real. The movie may have had a leg up on some of its competitors that year, since Isaac Asimov’s novelization of the movie had received mostly positive reviews. This might have been a very worthy Hugo winner, if it hadn’t been for the genre-defining presence of Star Trek.

From the day that Gene Roddenberry first showed “The Cage” and “Where No Man Has Gone Before” at the 1966 Worldcon in Cleveland, Star Trek had dominated discussions of science fiction. One unsigned complaint in the fanzine Algol notes “somewhat more than half of every fanzine I have seen this year was concerned with one subject and one subject alone: Star Trek.” Three episodes made the ballot in that first year: “The Menagerie,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” and “The Naked Time.” 

“The Naked Time,” which aired first of the shortlisted episodes, is without a doubt one of the most well-remembered episodes of the original series, if for no other reason than the image of a shirtless Sulu wielding a fencing sword. The episode — which depicts a touch-transmitted disease that causes the protagonists to become disinhibited and act drunk — features some of the earliest moments of the series that show the range and depth of the characters. While “space makes people go mad” storylines were already a tired trope by the 1960s, the panache of the direction and the strong performances elevate the material. For at least one member of our viewing club, this would have been the top pick from the year.

In a slightly less-well-remembered episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,”  the Enterprise crew is
We’d suggest that of the eligible episodes
(those that aired in 1966) both "The Conscience
of the King," and "Balance of Terror" might
also have made very solid inclusions on the ballot.
(Image via Youtube)  

confronted by an immense and implacable alien ship that seems intent on destroying them. At the risk of offering a heterodox opinion, the primary plot of the episode is less clever than its authors seemed to think, with Captain Kirk’s bluff reading as ham-handed. But despite this criticism, there’s enough in the episode to make it a worthy inclusion on the ballot. The theme of resolving conflict and building bridges between cultures is well handled. And this is one of the first opportunities to observe Kirk as a trusting and supportive captain.

“The Menagerie” is the only two-part episode of the original series of Star Trek. Making use of the original unaired pilot, it brings back the original captain Christopher Pike on a quest to return to the planet of Talos IV. Though it would be difficult to argue that it’s one of the best Trek episodes, it’s fine and provides backstories and insights about the show’s intentions. But fans had other reasons to support “The Menagerie” for the Hugo Award.

“We're agreed that we vote for “The Menagerie” and get the Hugo for Roddenberry personally, even though that wasn’t really the best episode,” Hugo-winning fanzine editor Buck Coulson wrote. “It's the only way to honor the man who made all the Star Trek episodes possible.”

Given how significant Roddenberry’s contributions to the genre would prove to be, it’s difficult to argue that Hugo voters got it wrong.

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