Is it time to retire the Star Trek franchise?
In recent years, Star Trek has been more failure than franchise. Harsh words, I know. To make matters worse these words are coming from someone who is old enough to have cut his teeth on EVERY episode of Star Trek from its beginning.
To have loved every adventure of Star Trek: The Original Series no matter how ridiculous, from space Nazis to disintegration booths, from missing brains to doomsday machines, I have loved them all. There is something strangely campy and disarming about Star Trek in those days. It was a show desperately trying to be different, yet secretly having to be just the same enough to make it past the censors.
For three seasons, it did the unthinkable. It put a multinational crew into a spaceship and pointed it toward the unknown. It did a lot of things wrong. It’s production values were both ahead of their time and often at the same time in the toilet. The Feinberger props (Dr. McCoy’s tools, for example, were just very exotic salt shakers…) but the cool sliding doors were two guys behind the wall pulling the doors open if they got they caught the cues.
But Star Trek did a lot of things right, and this is why I have pronounced Star Trek: Discovery, dead on arrival. “It’s dead, Jim.” (STD, Ugh… Did no one consider the acronym before they named this ship?)
Why so dour? Why such a grim pronouncement for a show that hasn’t even aired? While Star Trek: The Original Series (ST:TOS) was a balancing act which eventually gave way to poor ratings after three seasons, it managed to do something few shows can lay claim to. It excited people with something that wasn’t believed to have existed at the time: a hunger for a better future. Star Trek: TOS, sold to CBS by Gene Roddenberry as a “wagon train to the stars” was a serious attempt to bring speculative science fiction to audiences. In my opinion it arrived just a bit too early and died a bit too soon, but its arrival spurred science fiction-themed television and movies to the forefront of the minds of the viewing audience.
There were plenty of sci-fi shows on TV in the early 1960s: Dr. Who (1963), My Favorite Martian (1963), Johnny Quest (1964), Lost in Space (1965), Thunderbirds (1965), The Outer Limits (1963), Fireball XL5 (1962), The Time Tunnel (1966), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967), The Invaders (1967), Fantastic Voyage (1968), Land of the Giants (1968) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964) to name a few. Star Trek didn’t create speculative science fiction on television. But Roddenberry’s brain child was one of the first attempts with live actors to try and create a significant presence using ideas and extrapolations of what the future might turn out to be in a space-based setting in the far future.
Star Trek had vision. It was ambitious. It dared what few of its compatriots dared to do. It dared to create a utopian future where humanity had worked its way past its petty perspectives, past its religious mummery, and lazy political rhetoric. It dared to present the idea that humanity stared into the abyss, launched its nuclear arsenals, created its Master Race (See: Khan Noonien Singh) and still came out on the other side, scarred but wiser.
Star Trek dared. Gene Roddenberry dared to see a better future. This was the essential element of Star Trek which made fans clamor for its return to the small screen for 21 years and which lead to the next nearly 30-year window of new Star Trek television series and at least 13 movies (of varying quality, I must admit). Each iteration of Star Trek dared to do something different. Star Trek: The Next Generation postulated a future even beyond what TOS imagined. A future fraught with danger, adventures, and intrigues within the Federation itself. (See: Section 31 and Temporal Integrity Commission)
We learned while the Federation was beyond scarcity and promised work and opportunity for everyone, they could not make this promise across the galaxy and other empires would oppose such viewpoints, thinking them weak or ill-conceived. Star Trek: The Next Generation presupposed space adventure shouldn’t separate families and indeed perhaps the future of humanity was indeed, as a space-faring species.
TNG had its own issues. So far removed from TOS, it was fighting an uphill battle and its early works retold a number of TOS stories. Crew difficulties, writer challenges took their toll in the first and second seasons but by the third season, instead of dying like their predecessor, they thrived, introducing new characters, new ideas and new threats, such as the threat of bonding too closely with one’s technology in a fashion such as the Borg had.
Star Trek: The Next Generation kept its forward-looking view all the way to its end, and though the movies made from its crew were well-received, each grew weaker, as though the writers were simply unable or unwilling to make a significant effort for what they deemed an over-extended series. TNG had lasted for seven years. Longer than anyone could have hoped, long enough to be a career-delineating event for many of its highly professional actors.
Part of the suspicion for the decline of TNG was put on the next series Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST: DS9) which debuted in Year 5 of TNG’s run. DS9 would expand the borders of the Federation, introduce religion into Star Trek, made politics a central theme, and expanded the cast of Star Trek to include a wider array of aliens. Star Trek began to address truly alien viewpoints which were lightly touched by bringing aliens into TNG’s crew but DS9 had far more extreme alien viewpoints which made for regular story elements.
Again, Star Trek moved forward. Commander Benjamin Sisko was the first Black commanding officer of a Star Trek crew. There were words when we discovered he would command a space station, not a starship but in a season or two, he would command not just a ship but a ship designed for battle, the tiny but terrifying ‘Defiant’. He would also become a religious figure, a single parent, and a commander of an inter-species fleet fighting against an alien incursion into the Alpha Quadrant. In my personal opinion, as a series, while many disagree, I believe much of what made Star Trek great peaked in DS9.
The show dealt with so much of what makes us Human, using alien analogs, discussing religion’s effect on decision-making (Bajoran storylines), on defining rights and slavery (the Founders and the Jem’hadar), on war and ethics (the entire Dominion War was filled with such quandaries) on expansion and colonialism (the Founders) on identity (Odo’s coming to grips with his Founder origins), the nature of time (especially in relationship to the Prophets)… DS9 almost tried to do too much… this is what made them great and what ultimately destroyed the series.
DS9 also had another problem. The urge for the Studios to put more Trek on your television lead to Star Trek: Voyager (ST: VOY), which debuts in Year Three of DS9 (around 1995). If you were a Star Trek fan, you probably were cool with this introduction but Voyager was a further departure, in some ways from the original formula and yet a return in others.
Star Trek: Voyager introduces a new ship, a new crew, a captain whose scientific knowledge is top notch and she is the first female captain of a starship: Captain Katheryn Janeway. Played by Kate Mulgrew, many disliked her for the role but it didn’t stop her from playing it to the hilt. She was the captain of a starship which would find itself flung 75,000 light years from the Federation, without resources, without any Federation support and without any quick means of getting home. Voyager returned Star Trek to its roots: the voyage through space, meeting new species, new life forms, and new civilizations. Voyager boldly went where few, if any members of the Federation had gone before.
I respected that, even as I realized what it meant. There would be no other parts of Star Trek that I enjoyed. None of the learning about the future of Humanity and what it’s development might be like. We would now only see alien species whose viewpoints might play as analogs for Human development but may not offer true paths to enlightenment for us.
Many view Voyager as the downward slide for Star Trek. Poor record keeping (number of quantum torpedoes), unnecessary crew members (Kes, Neelix, the Doctor), unnecessary sexuality pandering (Seven of Nine) and dull unimaginative storytelling were deemed the weakness of Voyager as a series.
Personally, while every episode wasn’t a barn-burner, Voyager had many episodes I think made up for the alien/threat of the week premise set up by the show’s format. I enjoyed seeing the Borg and Species 8472 as well as the development of Seven of Nine as a crewmember onboard Voyager. All things considered, Voyager may have been what I considered the last great Star Trek adventures for one reason: Star Trek Voyager was the last time we moved forward on the Original Timeline.
It was the last time Star Trek moved into the future, took risks, dared to say what the future might look like. It was the last time anyone in the Star Trek team dared to see into the future and ask questions like: Should androids have rights? If so, what kind? Are photonic AI’s people? Who gets to decide what those rights are? Are they people with the same rights and capacities as ours? Can we imagine technologies, real technologies beyond what was originally envisioned in TOS?
Most of the tech for the entirety of the series was based on what was imagined from TOS. Arguably made slicker, more compact, (or more ridiculous – phasers from TNG were terrible – how did you aim them effectively?) but very little was added to the canon. Roddenberry was known for his wanting to keep the stories about humanity, thus the lack of serious AI or robotic sentient stories but later Star Trek challenged those views with Data, the Holographic Doctor and eventually the very idea of photonic life forms having rights.
Voyager’s Janeway stole technology from the future to create better ships. The Federation had faster warp drives, and an understanding of the Borg Warp Conduits and could theoretically use them to cross the remainder of the galaxy in bigger steps or create our own network starting in the Alpha Quadrant. We could have ships run by alien species, androids or photonic crew. Literally, the galaxy beckoned.
And then, the writers of Star Trek blinked.
And stopped dead in their tracks. Call it what you like. Creative bankruptcy. Call it fear. Call it an unwillingness or inability to work past the huge list of canon ideas already in place. It doesn’t matter. From that point forward, Star Trek has done nothing but go ‘back to the future’ from there.
Its next television series was Enterprise (ST:ENT). Instead of going further forward, we regress to a period prior to TOS. When ships were smaller and weaker (and presumably easier to write for). Where technology was barely effective and Humanity was nascent in its exploration of the stars. Not saying it was bad (though its theme music was execrable) but by moving backward, part of what made Star Trek what it was, died on the vine.
We no longer traveled to the future of what we knew. We nostalgically clung to the past. Bits and pieces of that past had been seen but with ENT, we expanded on the period between the formation of the Earth as an interstellar power and the pre-Federation period. We had never seen this time but it was a known and safe entity and hardly worthy of Star Trek’s legacy at all. Fan enthusiasm languished and the series only lasted four seasons. Three of those four seasons, however, were very good. I will let you decide which worked for you.
My point of all of this review is this: Since Star Trek: Enterprise as well as the three Kelvin Timeline Star Treks, (Star Trek (2009), Star Trek: Into Darkness and Star Trek: Beyond) we have stopped looking to the future. Star Trek has become as lame as the political rhetoric many of us despise in our real lives.
“Make America Great Again” is the rallying cry used to talk about the past as if it were some great thing to be reclaimed and returned to. When the truth of the matter is the past is never as good as it seems and to seek refuge in the past is to deny the present and refute the future altogether.
CBS’ latest television series Star Trek: Discovery also takes place in the past (presumably the original timeline past, not the Kelvin Universe past) some time after Archer but before (or maybe during Kirk’s Enterprise) period. What we do know is this is not a far future Star Trek.
It is not an extrapolation of all we can be. It is not a look at the future of Humanity at our best and our worst. It is a remix of Star Treks, mashing costumes, designs, ships, and probably stories. Yes, they probably dumped a degree of canon, in their words, to make it easier to write. I am not wishing anything bad upon the people who are doing the work. But I suspect the executive decisions being made are not by people who know this franchise and what its fans expected from the work.
It’s not accessible (you need yet another streaming service to see it); it’s not progressive, (why isn’t Sonequa Martin-Green of Walking Dead fame the captain of Discovery – isn’t it about time?); it’s not new (we are again back in some time between ENT and TOS or slightly after). Nothing looks like it should (See: Klingons below). It’s another series filled with retro-engineering the Federation past to not look cooler than the present we recognize in ENT or TOS.
Why work this hard to shoehorn this series between two other already great series? Why not just create a brand new show, with no previous history, no previous baggage, and no previous expectations? Fear of failure? It doesn’t have to. The Expanse is doing great. Star Trek: Discovery isn’t Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. It might be based on it, but it looks like a soulless bastard child unable to lay claim to the dynasty it is trying to emulate. It has no apparent vision. It emulates what has gone before.
Is Star Trek: Discovery really embodying the values of Star Trek?
Is it exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, Is it boldly going where no one has gone before? From what I can tell, its setting, its basic premises are all remade, re-imagined retreads, from a wagon train that has long since moved on. Will I watch it? Probably. Will I be angry about it? Probably. Why? Because it fails the true test of Star Trek. To take risks. To imagine boldly. To create a utopian future I could imagine myself living in. If in Discovery we’re hiding in the safety of the past, then…
It’s not Star Trek. Not from where I’m sitting.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.