May 4th is one of the many unofficial geek holidays, a time where people dress up and watch the Star Wars film and dream about a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This is not how I spent my 4th, sometimes I simply being enjoy being the contrarian and so I went home after work and put on some Star Trek instead.
As I sat smugly eating my supper in front on the screen, ever so happy with myself for bucking the trend, I found myself getting into the stories with a sense of wonder and joy I hadn’t experienced since I was first exposed to this world as a little boy. I was watching a franchise that was smart and actively challenged me as a viewer to think about what I thought and believed about life, the universe, and everything and left me feeling it was my duty to be the best person I could be. In my high of fascination and emotion an idea hit me…
This is why we need Star Trek.
Star Trek was born in the radical 1960s. As far out as real life had become, the world of the boob tube remained mostly safe. Star Trek was a severely rebellious show, able to push the bounds way past other shows in terms of social commentary by pretending to be noting more than I crazy sci-fi where people wore funny make-up and costumes. Star Trek took on racism, greed, nationalism, and very nature of the Cold War itself. Hell, Star Trek was the first American show to feature an interracial kiss!
Truly finding its audience after completing its initial run, Star Trek would go on to become a movie franchise that tackled topics such as preservation of the environment, the birth of AI, the end of the Cold War, continuing to find purpose in your life as you age, and mortality.
As the films were winding down, Roddenberry and friends sought to bring his vision of humanity to a new generation, hence the rather on the nose title of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After struggling for two seasons TNG found its footing and continued the trend of asking hard questions of humanity and driving us to be better. This is also the part of the story where I come into play, TNG was how my Dad introduced me to Star Trek. Sharing those episodes with him remains one of my warmest childhood memories and truly gave birth to my love of science fiction as a genre.
TNG then led to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. DS9 shifted focus away from exploration an threat of the week for a more episodic format following the lives of those trying to make a life in a remote geopolitical hotspot. Star Trek has always been heavily inspired by the western genre and this was its crack at the frontier town/outpost sub-genre.The show focused on the relationship between politics, religion, and war, how they fed off one another and how people could use them for good or ill to justify their actions.
Sadly, DS9 was the last high point for some time. The movies for TNG proved to be a mixed bag at best and neither Voyager or Enterprise had a true spark of creativity and fresh ideas to win the fans over. I’m not going to go over every last detail of Star Trek’s decline, I’d be here all day and besides, that’s what folks like SF Debris are for. Of the decline I will say this, as time went along the franchise became more and more about keeping the property alive than having something interesting to say. It became overly formulaic and stale and was treated as too big to fail, which is exactly made it fall apart.
When Enterprise ended in 2005 no one believed it would be the last time we would see Star Trek the screen, be it the big one or the ones we keep in our homes. Fans would just have to wait and hope that when it returned Paramount would pull its head out of its ass and give the property over to somebody who could do the franchise justice and the freedom from restrictions to do just that.
Enter J. J. Abrams. Abrams’s 2009 film went back to the source as we returned to the original Star Trek characters of Kirk and his merry band. The film and its successor, Star Trek: Into Darkness were box office winners, but as many people noticed, while they were Star Trek in name they weren’t all that Star Trek in terms of content. The Abrams’ films did a fine job in almost every department, the cast was great and the film made great use of the grand size and scope available in modern film making with both digital and practical effects, but the writing, the writing just wasn’t to the level anyone hoped. The writing relied heavily on nostalgia and references to the series’ history, not an entirely ineffective approach, but a limited one and not one that would help grow the franchise for the future. To be fair, Into Darkness did have more social commentary elements, but those elements weren’t given enough time to develop, losing time to even more unnecessary (and some would argue unearned) call backs and references.
I don’t hate either film, I enjoy them quite a bit, but I know this franchise can do so much better.
We need Star Trek to question our society and to do that it is going to need to quit being as safe and go back to being the rebel it once was. We need a Trek that is once again willing to push and take us places we might not be ready to go to yet. For instance, for as socially responsible and inclusive as Star Trek purports to be, why is it we have yet to see a gay or lesbian main character? How did we get to the point where real life modern society is more accepting than our version of Star Trek? We need a Star Trek that is once again willing to shock and offend, and not in a cheap way either.
The thing that gives me hope that we might see that Trek again is that Simon Pegg is one of the main writers of the next film. Not only does Pegg have all the geek cred he would ever need, but his body of work shows an understanding of genre and how to use it and to subvert it in ways to talk about the human condition. That is exactly what Star Trek needs to do again.
We need Star Trek to pick up that big stick it carried for so long, and start leading again instead of following the trends of others. The sooner the better.
Live long an prosper.
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