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Saturday Supplemental: On the Future of Star Trek

21 Nov

So it’s been announced that 2017 will see the arrival a new Star Trek series. And as a lifelong fan of Star Trek, and a supporter of its original message of an idealistic vision of humanity’s future, I’m dreading it.

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Star Trek was great, but also had singificant flaws. I think ultimate root of my problem with J.J. Abrams’ new incarnation is that Star Trek has not only abandoned its mission statement, but seems to think that several of its flaws are actually selling points. Although geek culture has become mainstream in the new millennium, Star Trek fandom, so I believe, is still regarded as a bit of a joke in some quarters, including among some of the fans themselves. I’m therefore concerned that what could be a fanstastic new progressive sci-fi series will end up, like the movies, concerned more with retro self-parody.

The Mary Sue recently compiled an excellent list of things the new Star Trek is going to have to start doing in order to maintain its relevance in this era of television. io9 has produced a couple of them. Not wishing to accentuate the negative, I nonetheless want to point out some of the things that I believe were holding Star Trek back that, if it is to be great again, it needs to stop doing.

5. Don’t Keep Falling Back on Rubber Forehead Aliens.

By the TNG-era Star Trek shows, the standard method for making a character appear alien was to glue some rubber prosthetic to their foreheads. The Klingons were the vanguard of this technique, but it was the go-to method for most alien characters. Sometimes it was relatively subtle, like the nasal ridges that mark out Bajorans. Other aliens like the Ferengi, Cardassians, and Jem’Hadar have almost their entire heads covered with prosthetic.

On the face of it (har har) this was a reasonable way to do it. It’s relatively cheap, you can crank out a zillion of them at a time, and it still leaves the actors with some ability to emote.

There are a couple of big problems, though. For one thing, it isn’t very scientific that right-on-the-money humanoids would be this ubiquitous. For another thing, some of the designs are so arbitrary and token that they just look goofy – somebody even mentioned in-universe once that Cardassians all appear to have cutlery glued to their heads.

More troublingly, looking at a lot of episodes, you start to realize that how sympathetic and relatable the aliens are is sometimes in direct proportion to how much they resemble Anglo-Saxons! This is a really unfortunate habit for Trek of all franchises to have fallen into. The good news is that, if the creators are willing to really give Star Trek a place in modern media, as opposed to making it a parody of itself, there are lots of ways around this. CGI now allows a lot more possibilities for relatively small expense, not to mention less agony for the actors. And the idea that ‘relatable’ must mean ‘human-looking’ was firmly discredited by one of Trek’s later contemporaries: Farscape. Farscape’s aliens were in many cases Jim Henson puppets, and Pilot and Rygel were principle characters with legitimately emotional performances.

That’s not to say they should go back and un-rubber-forehead the Klingons, Cardassians, Romulans or anyone else, but if they want to build something new in Star Trek and not just circle the drain a few more times, this is a good way to go.

4. Chuck out the Holodeck and Transporter Malfunction Plots

Within the fandom this has to be one of the biggest jokes going. The Holodecks go catastrophicaly wrong so often that there ought to have been a massive recall on them at some point. Futurama had a dig at this once; it’s the only joke at Star Trek’s expense that’s ever made me laugh. Some of these episodes were legitimately good, like TNG’s “Emergence” or DS9’s “Badda Bing, Badda Bang,” but there were too many of them for it not to seem absurd and tiresome after a while.

The transporters don’t go wrong as often but they still did it to excess. As before, some of them were alright. Again, nothing this basic and common to the universe should go awry this badly, this often and still be in use. I’d almost be willing to see them chuck out the transporters entirely, or do what Enterprise did and only use them in emergencies. The reason the transporters were introduced at all was because it was too expensive in the 60s to do a landing sequence effect every week, and today it’s easy as pie.

There’s a bigger issue here involving excessive amounts of plot-important but meaningless technobabble, not unlike Doctor Who, but in Star Trek’s case it’s usually just a bit irritating at worst, except particularly in regards to holodecks and transporters. Deal with that, and much else can likely be forgiven.

3. No More Bridge Bunnies

This isn’t neccessarily the biggest flaw in Trek but it is the one that most gets on my nerves. Gene Roddenberry was a great and progressive person, by most accounts a very nice chap, and ahead of his time in many ways. At the same time, however, he was a massive chauvinist. And it showed.

The ubiquitous miniskirts on the Original Series are the least of it at this point. Counsellor Troi, a commissioned Starfleet officer in TNG, spends most of the series bumming around the bridge in what looks like a stripper’s pyjama onesie. I can understand Troi wanting to be approachable despite her rank to, say, a nervous newbie on the Enterprise. She’s basically a non-denominational chaplain after all. But how anyone could concentrate on her advice is beyond me. DS9 mostly kept this habit mercifully in the background with Quark’s barmaids, which at least made some kind of sense. Voyager restrained itself for a while but then gave up and introduced Seven of Nine in her boobtastic unitard. Eye candy was apparently so desperately important that it overrode such trivial considerations as the oxygen supply to Jeri Ryan’s brain.

The absolute nadir was, naturally, Enterprise and T’Pol. T’Pol had no excuse. She was an officer, with scientific and tactical specialities, from a highly formal culture and yet arses around the ship in a freaking castuit. Vulcans don’t care about sex appeal and every other non-Starfleet Vulcan ever has worn robes. That’s not even touching on the contrived situations where she strips for no good reason.

And for me, this is one of the biggest obstacles to Star Trek being respected as a social commentary platform, or even just as a show: it’s a damned hypocrite! You can’t have an all-inclusive diverse vision of humanity’s future and then plaster it with male-gaze eye candy. It makes your message look clueless, or worse, like you don’t actually mean it.

So, if Star Trek is to be regarded in the wider world as anything but a sweaty male nerd’s delusion of intellectualism, you have two choices: either get rid of the eye candy or make it equal opportunity. Not saying I want the second one, but you can either play fair or not play at all. Them’s your options.

2. Don’t Throw the Word ‘Logic’ Around

From the word ‘go,’ Star Trek has been famous for juxtaposing a highly passionate or emotional character with a cool, highly rational one. Kirk and Spock, Riker and Data, Kira and Odo, Paris and Tuvok, B’Lenna and Seven of Nine, Archer and T’Pol, to name a few possible dichotomies you could make in the casts.

The thing of it is, that the scenarios that pit passion against logic are oftentimes horribly oversimplified, and tend to be delivered in favour of the passion-driven character and very condescendingly to the rational character. Data getting lectured about chess by Troi is one instance I’ve always remembered, since playing chess illogically is basically impossible. The poker metaphor used in other episodes, like “the Corbomite Maneuver” works rather better, and when Dr. McCoy tried to call Spock out, Spock could usually throw it right back at him.

The accumulating evidence leads me to conclude that a lot of writers don’t know what ‘logical’ actually means. Because in Star Trek, it far too often translates as simpleminded, naive, or even callous.

So the writers of a new series are going to really have to up their game in writing how a strictly non-emotional thinker would see the world, and make sure that each side of the coin actually represents a legitimate point of view.

You can also subvert it sometimes. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you might want to take a page from Steven Moffat. The reason “Scandal in Belgravia” is my favourite episode of Sherlock despite its very dodgy gender politics is that in the end, the cold-emotionless-rational guy wins precisely because he’s the cold-emotionless-rational guy!

It also pays to consider that Vulcans and similar races oughtn’t be all the same. There can be more than one kind of logic or perspective, something which Star Trek’s been inconsistent at demonstrating with its ‘Planet of Hats’ monolithism.

1. Don’t be Cavalier about Worldbuilding

This is a tough one because it encompasses a lot of Star Trek’s myriad little flaws, but they are so many that it becomes the key issue Trek needs to deal with. Star Trek has always suffered from chronic ‘depending on the writer’ syndrome. In an age where consistent canon and long-running story arcs are the rule, this is a vice it can’t afford anymore.

Starfleet protocol is a big one. Assume for the moment that Starfleet has a military structure, whatever else it might be, and several questions arise. Why is Riker, as ship’s executive, allowed to flirt and even have flings with personnel under his supervision? You can’t even do that in non-military hierarchies. Why do the most senior personnel always go down to the dangerous planets first? Related to that, why does Starfleet only seem to have officers and precisely one enlisted specialist: Chief O’Brien? Why do officers never salute or stand to attention? How big is Starfleet? For that matter, what is Starfleet’s exact role? They talk up exploration but they do a lot more than that.

In general, it would be nice if they would let the protocol inform the story, rather than bending protocol to serve the story. Sisko’s standing in the fleet in DS9 doesn’t make sense except on the basis that he’s the hero and therefore must be in charge. If they’d promoted him to flag rank, or the Defiant had had to play a crucial but supporting role, that would have worked. Including more enlisted types, or to borrow a phrase from TNG, more regular “Lower Deck” characters would help this one a lot, too.

Some of the rules, like the Prime Directive, are never more than summarized, so they mean whatever the writer wants them to mean. Some rules are just plain forgotten about, leading to many examples of how Star Trek started chasing its own tail in later years. TNG did a number of episodes about the rights and status of artificial intelligence, some setting legal precedent in-universe, only for Voyager to tackle the exact same ones, as if nobody in the Federation had learned a damn thing the first go round.

The society behind Starfleet is seldom shown. We know that the Federation doesn’t use money, but what do they do instead? How does day-to-day life work? How much autonomy do Federation member worlds have? This is a big problem inasmuch as we never get a clear sense of what our heroes stand for except in general, idealistic terms. They’re pretty good terms, mind, but I think Star Trek would be made much more compelling if it became a comprehensive model of a future society. Politcally high risk – the writers might fear being denounced as ‘Social Justice Warriors’ – but potentially high rewards. We also have to consider the possibility that some of them just flat-out don’t work and have to be retconned, like the replicators that by rights should render all mining, agriculture and manufacturing obsolete.

I said earlier that other races in Trek occasionally threatened to get monolithic. On the flipside, though, sometimes they were quite inconsistent. For some reason, the Klingon attitude to suicide sticks out at me; in some episodes it’s acceptable, in others it’s absolutely taboo. This isn’t differing attitudes between Klingons, it’s the same Klingon saying different things.

Another issue is scope: Star Trek is the posterboy for the Trope that science fiction writers have no sense of scale. This was actually the one thing about Into Darkness that every Trekkie seemed to catch: given the travel time from Earth, you’d think the Klingon Empire started at Pluto. The TNG two-parter “Unification” had the Romulans trying to invade Vulcan even though Vulcan is nowhere near Romulus. It’d be like if the Nazis had tried to invade just Las Vegas but no other part of the USA along the way. If they had a stronger sense of astrography, as in Honor Harrington, then it would define the Trek universe much better and open up interesting options for strategy in the stories.

The biggest one for me personally is the battles. I’ve said before that combat should not be the focus of Star Trek storytelling. The trouble is that when it did come up, it was stilted as hell and inconsistent. TNG was especially bad for this. If the plot needed the Enterprise to win, they’d usually mop the floor with the other side in three shots. If the plot required our heroes to lose, they would promptly lose fifty IQ points and the ship would magically turn into glass and cardboard. The battle in Star Trek: Generations was particularly exasperating for this reason.

Never mind being accessible to the masses, this sort of thing frustrates the most loyal Trekkies, and it’s not something they can afford in the current age if it wants to stand tall beside today’s television epics.

Of course, you have to wonder, depending on how much reworking the Trek verse needs to avoid all this, and to do the things the Mary Sue or io9 called for, would it still be Star Trek? But then that leaves me back where I started. If Star Trek can’t function beyond these parameters, then it’s gone as far as it can go, and you might as well make a new, original series. Which would be best? I don’t know, but if Star Trek is going to become a province of the nothing-but-remakes culture we live in now, it had better make it worthwhile.

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Posted by on November 21, 2015 in Saturday Supplemental, Television

 

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