Star Trek returns to television on Sunday, and to understand why this is such a big deal, you have to realize how dominant Trek used to be in this medium. For 17 years, from the franchise’s return to TV in 1987 with “Star Trek: The Next Generation” to when “Enterprise” limped off the air in 2004, there was not a single television season without a Star Trek series on the air. For a while, during the late-1990s runs of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” and “Star Trek: Voyager,” there were two.
Television is also the heart of the franchise in a deeper way. The Trek movies have been hit-or-miss, but by their nature the successful ones have had to place more emphasis on action and less on high-concept science-fiction premises and scientific and technology wonkery. The television series have always had more leeway to indulge the franchise’s geekier side, which is the core of its appeal to its die-hard fans. Or to me, anyway.
For the past eight years, the franchise has come back in a series of reboot films that have tried to mine the characters of the original series while messing with its original timeline and context, which has gotten a mixed reception. With “Discovery,” it has a chance to return to its television roots and return to the story-telling skills and high-concept science fiction that made it a cult favorite in the first place.
The production of the new series has been troubled and delayed, and there are worrying reports that its producers want to turn it into a cheesy, tendentious parable about the Trump administration. (Star Trek has never shied away from political parables, but there are better and worse ways to do it. More on that in a bit.) All of this has set me thinking about what makes for a good Star Trek series and what we should be looking for in this one.
I recently rewatched “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” which is important not just because it is the best of the Star Trek movies, but because it was so successful that it took a short-lived television series with a cult following and made it into a franchise. Without that film, “The Next Generation” and all of the rest wouldn’t have happened.
There’s a lesson there. The first Star Trek movie was filled with state-of-the-art special effects—everything they wanted to do in the original series but never had the money for—but its middling performance at the box office meant they got just one last chance, with a much smaller budget. This forced the producers to fall back on good old-fashioned storytelling and to find the essence of what was appealing about their characters.
Drawing lessons from that movie and from the rest of the franchise, it strikes me that a good Star Trek series is all about balance. Trek is at its best when it manages to find a balance between opposing characteristics in five areas.
1) Big Ideas Versus Action
What makes Star Trek different from a mere shoot-’em-up in space is its use of science fiction as a medium for philosophical speculation. Back in 1966, Gene Roddenberry was clearly inspired by Rod Serling’s just-ended series “The Twilight Zone,” and he often used Trek to tread the same kind of territory. The strange powers of weird alien species were vehicles for exploring questions of power, mortality, and individuality, and at the heart of the original series, the beloved half-Vulcan Spock was used to explore the relationship between reason and emotion.
This is also what differentiates the franchise from Star Wars, which is more about visual spectacle and family drama. That is why Star Wars tends to be a hit among younger kids, while Trek tends to reach the peak of its appeal as its audience grows a little older.
But these geeky philosophical ruminations are usually punctuated by action. The strange aliens who make us look differently at how we live also have a tendency to try to take over the ship, and that means our heroes are going to have to fight them. Philosophy and action are integrated most successfully in what is arguably the franchise’s most successful long-running story arc: the conflict with the Borg, a vast cybernetic empire composed of species that have been “assimilated” into a collective mind, subordinating their individuality.
This leads us to the next duality.
2) Earnest Liberal Idealism Versus Individualism
The Star Trek franchise always leaned toward liberalism, but the old, mid-twentieth-century version of liberalism. That wasn’t because of their vague, infrequent nods toward socialist economics, which mostly happens off-screen anyway. It was more because of their emphasis on themes of open-mindedness, tolerance, multicultural harmony, and peace (in between the shooting in all of those action scenes). The message could get a little bit preachy and the allegories a little too obvious, and that could definitely interfere with the audience’s enjoyment. The patchy first season of “The Next Generation” is largely attributable to Rodenberry’s heavy-handed utopianism, particularly his idea of having the ship be commanded by a three-person committee.
But this liberal utopianism was offset by good old-fashioned American individualism. The tone was set by William Shatner’s Captain Kirk, who was a classic American type: decisive, confident, self-assertive.
One of the downsides of twentieth-century liberalism (and particularly of 1990s-era political correctness) is that it threatens to turn us into a society of enervated rule-followers who are afraid to violate some artificial, suffocating etiquette. Shatner’s Kirk never had that problem. This, by the way, is why “Star Trek II” was so important to the franchise. It introduced us to the Kobayashi Maru Test—and Kirk’s unique solution—and firmly established him as a maverick who doesn’t mind bending the rules. When someone refers to Kirk as an “overgrown Boy Scout,” Carol Marcus replies: “Jim Kirk is many things, but he was never a Boy Scout.”
This is the role taken on in “The Next Generation” partly by William Riker—which is why he needed to grow that beard—but also by Jean-Luc Picard, whose later character arc is memorable for his vendetta against the Borg. We see elements of it in “Voyager,” whose crew is assembled partly from loyal members of the Federation and partly from a fractious group of rebels. It is also picked up in a memorable episode of “Deep Space Nine,” when the Dominion tests the space station’s main characters to see how peaceably the Federation would submit to Dominion rule—and finds they won’t submit very peaceably at all.
This is also the best part of “Enterprise,” set in the first days of human interstellar exploration, in which we are presented as adventurous, idealistic explorers chafing at the disapproval of the stuffy, cautious Vulcans. It was a perfect parable for the geopolitics of the early years of the War on Terror: we humans were idealistic American cowboys, and the Vulcans represented the cynical realpolitik of “Old Europe.”
That bring us to the right balance between social and political commentary.
3) Relevance Versus Originality
There were times Star Trek veered toward preachiness and spelled out its social and political allegories a little too obviously—about racism, atheism, or homosexuality. The galactopolitics of the Federation was also filled with indirect allegories to the present-day geopolitics of Earth. The conflict between the Klingons and the Federation was an obvious stand-in for the Cold War (including the way it resolved). The hermit kingdom of the Romulans became a stand-in for North Korea. The Cardassians, a land of poets and philosophers that veered toward racism and militarism, were a fictionalized version of Nazi Germany. I’ve always thought the Dominion was meant as a (very subtle) critique of Israel: a persecuted race who seek security through military dominance. On the other hand, I’ve heard fan theories that describe Bajor as Star Trek’s metaphor for Israel.
That is to say these allegories are, at their best, subtle and open to interpretation. Particularly with recurring characters and species, they also take on a life of their own. They rise above mere allegories and follow the logic of their own narrative. Moreover, the allegories are balanced well enough to provide scope for vigorous debate among our leading characters about what to do. That was part of the point of the constant sparring between McCoy and Spock: to present Kirk with contrasting perspectives on the same issue. Even when our heroes make what is clearly regarded as the correct decision, the result isn’t always neat and clear-cut.
CBS is denying reports which imply that “Discovery” will turn Klingons into some kind of crude, propagandistic allegory for Trumpism. Let’s hope they remember the franchise’s overall history. Since Star Trek likes to take on big ideas and big themes, it is natural that it will use science fiction as a medium to comment on current events. But at its best, Star Trek is about making you think about these issues—not telling you what to think.
4) Treknology and Camaraderie
Star Trek’s central audience is the curious, intelligent young person with an interest in science, and that has always given the show an unusual emphasis on scientific and technological problem-solving—so much so that it has spawned a whole field of “treknology,” in which fans debate the finer points of the franchise’s fictional science and technology. Given the recent success of “The Martian,” in which the entire plot revolves around technological problem-solving, “Discovery” would do well not to forget this aspect of the series.
But this was always balanced by the sense of camaraderie among the core cast of every series. Star Trek has been described as the portrayal of an ideal workplace, with crew members working together as a team motivated by a common goal and common ideals, and forging a bond of friendship by working together. Trek has always balanced out the treknobabble with a touch of human drama, but not the petty, backstabbing drama of “reality TV.”
At a time when the most popular piece of prestige TV is “Game of Thrones,” where the main characters always seem to be viciously plotting against one another, this would make for a nice sense of relief. It would also provide what its fans have always loved about Star Trek: an optimistic view of the future.
5) Seriousness and Humor
Star Trek’s optimism was never Pollyannaism. We were going to reach a wonderful future as a united and technologically advanced civilization, having conquered war, racism, and poverty—but we were going to get there after a series of cataclysmic wars, which keep having to be backdated as they somehow never manage to happen in real life. So Star Trek didn’t just deal with big issues, it had a sense of seriousness. It dealt with issues that were matters of life and death for the future of humanity.
Yet the series was always interspersed with humorous dialogue and good-natured teasing among the main characters. The new series will do well if it remembers that in between the earnest idealism and big ideas and exciting action and meaningful allegories, Star Trek is also supposed to be fun.
Given the experience of the first season of “The Next Generation,” I’m going to give “Discovery” a chance to get its feet under it. But these are the criteria I’m going to keep in the back of my mind Sunday when I watch the first episode.
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