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Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Star Trek

08 Jun

Since I put my cards on the table in my review of J.J. Abrams so-called Star Trek film Into Darkness, I feel that, as a fan, I should explain for those only broadly aware of Star Trek where I’m coming from and how we got here.

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Star Trek is so ingrained into the popular consciousness that you can ask someone to draw the starship Enterprise and they probably can even if they can‘t remember ever seeing it. Along with Star Wars and Doctor Who, it is one of the benchmarks of popular science fiction and has a storied history behind it.

In the mid-1960s air force and LAPD veteran Gene Roddenberry presented Paramount with a new, idealistic vision of the future, reflecting both the sky’s-the-limit spirit of its time and the grand adventure of Flash Gordon or Horatio Hornblower.

And so was born Star Trek, which, while the first series had its intended ‘five year mission’ cut short by executives, proved a late bloomer in popularity and has since swelled into a franchise incorporating twelves films, five television shows, and a vast range of paperback novels, comics and video games.

The shows that form the core of it proceeded thusly:

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Star Trek: aka Star Trek: the Original Series or TOS was the first, obviously. In the 23rd Century, the Enterprise is a starship of the United Federation of Planets, dedicated to exploring unknown worlds, making contact and forming good relations with alien civilizations. Captain Kirk, Science Officer Spock and Doctor McCoy form the core of a diverse team who tackle the dangers and wonders of these discoveries. Often, they play the tense games of a Cold War against the militaristic Klingon Empire.

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Star Trek: the Next Generation, or TNG skips ahead 70 years to a new crew on a successor Enterprise, led by Captain Jean-Luc Picard to continue the mission of their predecessors, confronting personal conflicts and political puzzles, as well as new tensions with the sly Romulans and fascistic Cardassians, while far beyond the Federation, the implacable Borg Collective threatens sentient life as they know it.

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or DS9 overlaps with TNG, taking us to a remote outpost, the space station Deep Space Nine, where world-weary widower Commander Ben Sisko leads the Federation efforts to help reconstruction and integration of the people of Bajor, lately freed from oppressive Cardassian occupation. Selected by the alien energy beings who are as gods to the Bajorans to be their emissary, Sisko pulls together dispirate elements of Bajor, the Federation and the station community to set an example for cooperation, even as a shadowy new power, the Dominion, creeps into their affairs and threatens to make Bajor the centre of a war that will engulf the galaxy.

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Star Trek: Voyager features Captain Katherine Janeway of the starship Voyager and her ad hoc crew. Sent in pursuit of a group of anti-Federation colonists, both groups are swept up and carried to the Delta Quadrant, seventy years distance from home. Pooling their resources under Janeway’s leadership, both crews begin to integrate and begin the journey home. As they go, they make new friends, new enemies, fight the Borg on their own turf and challenge the limits of Starfleet ideals as they face these obstacles alone.

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Star Trek: Enterprise is a prequel series. Captain Jonathan Archer leads the first crew to go on a mission of exploration. As they do so, they learn the basic principles which will someday drive the Federation, learn to fight and to be at peace as needed, and become the wild cards in a fair few interstellar conspiracies.

The great thing about Star Trek in most every form it took was that it embodied a progressive and positive vision of humanity and its future. This is most obvious in the Original Series, where, among other things you have a crew of senior officers including a Russian, an Asian and a black woman. This seems quaint now but at the time their mere presence was revolutionary. Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, was so revolutionary that, when expressing an intent to leave the show, was talked out of doing so by none other than Martin Luther King! Her example inspired Whoopi Goldberg (who famously screamed to her entire household ‘come quick! There’s a black lady on TV and she ain’t no maid!’) to enter acting. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, likewise took inspiration from Uhura.

TOS and TNG both used analogies for current poltical issues like the Cold War, displaced peoples, cultural meddling and personal liberties. These dilemmas were almost never a case of shooting the bad guy. Wits, not weapons, were the choice tools for many situations. When fighting did take place, it was usually when no other choice was at hand (although it might explain why Trek battles often seemed dreadfully stilted). TOS episodes like “Let That Be Your Last Battelfield,” “Errand of Mercy,” “Day of the Dove” and “Balance of Terror” are among my favourites and all cover different angles on this.

The sad thing about TOS, alas, is that all anybody remembers about it is stuff like this:

TOS was born in the midst of 60’s camp culture, and a lot of the ways it tells its stories arouse contempt today. A principle gripe I, my fellow WordPress blogger Lady Geek Girl, and others hold is that Abrams’ films seem to be building on the pop-culture stereotype of Star Trek, not on actual Star Trek.

Enjoy or ignore the camp as you please, but you can reliably find the point they were trying to make about peaceful coexistence, futility of conflict, or any of the other Star Trek morals. From a historical perspective, it’s now a fascinating look into the culture and ideas of the period it came from. Crucially, the friendship dynamic of Kirk, Spock and McCoy carried the series through deep analysis of what being human meant, a dynamic recreated time and again in later series.

TNG brought things up into the 80s-90s and continued the tradition of challenging and cautionary tales, interspersed with rollicking adventure and comic relief. The concept of the Prime Directive of non-interference was brought to the fore and used to create a moral dilemma that resonates with a globalizing world to this day. Whereas TOS lived in a black and white age and was determined to paint some grey on it, TNG explored various shades of grey in a post-Cold War period.

Up to this point, Star Trek was doing well but was in definite danger of stagnation. The series’ episodic structure limited character development and forced a certain shallowness on the setting (although this improved later in TNG). The writing had evolved a lot by the time TNG ended in 1994 but could still be a little pretentious and certain plot-convenience fallbacks like the holodecks were beginning to get a little too frequent. Still, it did introduce Q and the Borg as recurring villains, which drove some of the most memorable stories like “Best of Both Worlds,” and the performances of a well-balanced cast led by Patrick Stewart secured its widely-held status as the best Star Trek series.

Deep Space Nine represented a change toward a darker and more cynical spirit. It started out with a TNG leaning toward political intrigue, and put a twist on by keeping the show in one place and making an ongoing arc. By going out to the Federation’s frontiers, it started deconstructing a lot of the utopian vision of Star Trek, both showing that there must always be exceptions and compromises, and suggesting that the Federation has gotten a bit cocky about its own wonderfulness. DS9’s female characters also achieved new heights. TOS and TNG had tried at that, but a certain chauvinism still haunted them. The fact that Counsellor Troi was arguably TNG’s least-well written (and, for no apparent reason, least-dressed) main character reflects this. While TNG is often regarded as the best series, Deep Space Nine produced a number of Star Trek’s best-regarded episodes.

Its main failing was that its writers, keen to give their show the cutting-edge morals of its predecessors, started tackling religion seriously for the first time, but often muddled it a bit, due to either timidity or ignorance. Still, it had shown the best character development, the dialogue became more naturalistic and it brought in a Captain of colour to Star Trek’s roster.

Voyager had a lot of potential to challenge Federation ideals further, throwing a Starfleet crew and a group of rebels together in a near-hopeless situation. It was a series with a million good ideas but a return to episodic format and inconsistent writing kneecapped it almost immediately. When Voyager was good, it was very good, but it wasn’t good often enough. Characterization was either hopelessly static or all over the place. The introduction of the first female captain was undercut because the writers couldn’t get straight what kind of person she was. Her actress, Kate Mulgrew, has remarked that she often thought Janeway seemed to be mentally unstable. Several other actors in the series also voiced dissatisfaction with the writing. The aliens encountered got quite bland after a while, and the Borg, once the shadowy menace from beyond, devolved into a common and easily-evaded nuisance. The introduction of Seven of Nine, a liberated Borg, represented a new exploration of the human condition in the tradition of Spock and Data, but it kept getting snarled up in the agenda of showing off the actress’s cleavage.

I didn’t stick with Enterprise for long. After four previous series it seemed very by-the-numbers; the Captain had gone back to being an all-American white guy and a few quite interesting stories early-on were outnumbered by numerous frantic attempts to recapture the glory days, goofing around or playing to the cleavage-seekers. It got worse when the second season introduced a massive attack on Earth and our heroes rush off into the galaxy to seek the evildoers. This was a couple of years after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, keeping in line with the popular spirit of the times. But Star Trek is supposed to examine and even subvert the popular spirit. After an attempt to reinvent itself, Enterprise quietly passed away.

In fairness to those who thought Trek a bit tacky, some signs of rot were showing early on. Being the work of many hands, Star Trek had trouble staying consistent. In world-building details like the exact logic of the Prime Directive, the cultural minutiae of the Vulcans or Klingons, and how exactly Federation society and Starfleet protocol work, the writers couldn’t seem to make up their minds. TNG started to show the first signs of pushing morals that the story writers didn’t think through properly, or else were ham-fistedly executed. Increasing reliance on techno babble and recycled plots like holodeck and transporter malfunctions began to look pretty absurd, and there‘s only so many times you can do aliens who look exactly like humans with weird foreheads. Oh and I might add, civilian clothing in Star Trek always looks bloody ridiculous. With Enterprise they even started ignoring their own canon and coming up with events that didn’t gel with the other series.

And sadly, after a while, the commentary at the heart of Star Trek started to fizzle. The marketing image of a sci-fi fan as a sexually repressed male meant that profound stories of the human condition occupied the same space as a lot of fan service, the plots and morals started to repeat themselves to the point of meaninglessness, and TNG, DS9 and Enterprise brushed up against LGBT issues but never seemed to work up the nerve to tackle them head-on.

I stand by what I said before, that the Star Trek reboot is futile if it doesn’t maintain the franchise’s original mission statement; let me amend by saying that I think rebooting Star Trek is futile anyway. It’s not because Star Trek isn’t worth it. It’s because Star Trek is over. It’s run its course. There’s no place left to boldly go. It did great and memorable things but eventually ran out of steam. Anything it couldn’t do (or didn’t do properly) has been left to others. A lot of the potential Voyager in particular had was achieved later by shows like Farscape and Firefly.

I love Star Trek. I miss the days when an optimistic vision of the future was the going thing. But it told its stories, it made its mark. Rather than trying to resurrect it incompletely, better to remember it for everything that made it a classic and bid it a respectful farewell.

“I have been, and ever shall be your friend. Live Long, and Prosper.”

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1 Comment

Posted by on June 8, 2013 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

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One response to “Saturday Supplemental: A Brief History of Star Trek

  1. Marcus Lycus

    June 9, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Awesome defense of your position – well said! (and I agree 100%)

     

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