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Is Star Trek on Television Dead?

I saw Star Trek last night and was quite impressed – it is one of the best movies in the franchise (albeit not the best). It riproared effectively and gave us a brilliant look at the Kirk/Spock relationship, which is one of the oddities of the show – how such an impulsive, womanising and irrational man would develop a lifelong friendship with such a stoic and logic individual was always a slight mystery to Star trek fans. Still, there is a world of difference between the television shows and the movies, and I wonder if we’ll ever see another Star Trek show back on the airwaves?
The original original crew...

The original original crew...

The Original Series (abbrieviated to ST: TOS) is constantly used to guage your ‘hardness’ as a Star Trek fan, your geek cred, as it were. There’s an insinuation that the show was the high point of the series and that everything that followed was an inferior copy or, worse still, a stripped down model missing the ingredients that made the franchise great. I’ve never understood such approaches. The original is groundbreaking, as far as network science fiction goes. It is iconic and it is deep and profound. Though popular culture may poke fun at the concept, the fandom, the special effects and the acting, it’s an affectionate mocking – like joking with an old friend. It is not the high point of franchise, by any means, but that does not detract from its originality or its role in pop culture history.

What distinguishes the show from the movies (apart from budget and scale) is the freedom that the episodic formula allowed writers to explore the issues of the day. If the episode on Vietnam (“A Private Little War”) didn’t land with audiences, maybe the one on racism (“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”) would. This ignores the sheer power the series had to tell strong science fiction stories. “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “Amok Time” and “The Doomsday Machine” should be required reading for any pop culture enthusiast.

There’s also the fact that character development could develop gradually (too gradually, but keep in mind the era of the show) over three years. Witty repartee between Kirk, Spock and Bones was enough to underscore their friendship this week, because two weeks ago you say Kirk sacrifice his life so Spock could have a chance to marry. The films don’t get that opportunity. To show the deep-rooted friendship among the ‘big three’, you have to demonstrate it every movie. That’s why some are unhappy with Bones’ delegation to a supporting player in the new film, when relegating him to the role in an episode would be nothing.

Anyway, Star Trek was canned by the network for not being a hit (even though it was a massive success by today’s standards, hitting the key audience demographic of 18-43 year olds), and the franchise went on to languish in development hell for a few year. Roddenberry was even planning a spinoff – Star Trek: Phase II – that never happened. It took the release of Star wars to convince executives a movie franchise could be viable. And it was. The original series actors went on to have six big screen adventures of variable quality (rule of thumb: the even-numbered ones are the best) that had reasonable box office success.

Then The Next Generation (ST: TNG) arrived. This was the motherlode. The first two seasons (the ones under Roddenberry’s direct control) were ropey, to be honest. After that, the series hit its peak. Somehow managing to be a huge audience hit, the show went on to be the only Star Trek to receive a nomination in the Outstanding Drama Series category at the Emmy’s. Benefiting from an incredible cast – in many ways superior to that of its predecessor – and an open-door to fan-submited scripts – which gave nerd god Ronald D. Moore his first big break into showbiz – the show was brilliant when it hit its stride.

Patrick Stewart was so awesome, we even believed he was playing a French man...

Patrick Stewart was so awesome, we even believed he was playing a French man...

Strong character studies – particularly of Patrick Stewart’s stalwart Captain Picard (“Darmok” and “The Inner Light”) – and intriguing morality plays – on euthanasia (“The Cost of Living”), sexuality (“The Outcast”), humanity (“The Measure of a Man”) and many more – kept people tuning into the syndicated drama. It’s just a shame, that with the show so strong, the movies featuring the cast – with the exception of Star Trek: First Contact – were fairly lacklustre efforts. Until the release of the new film, this show was as close as Star Trek came to the mainstream. It is also the show responsible for keeping Star trek on people’s minds, as it is the most frequently syndicated of the series.

There’s no denying that the following spinoffs moved the series back to the very edge of pop consciousness, if not out of it completely. They were niche shows. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a fringe show in a good way, though. Set on a space station orbitting a planet recovering from an occupation, the series didn’t so much boldly go as boldly sit. It threw out the rule book when it came to Star Trek – many of the recurring cast were skeptical of each other, conflict was rife, it dealt with religion in a more than passing way and it seemed to accept the idea that human beings are fundamentally flawed, but it is the struggle to do right that makes us unique as species. Though its first few years were dodgy, it did give us some classics early one – episodes dealing with religion in school (“In the Hands of the Profits”), forced relocation (“Progress”) and atonement for war crimes (“Duet”) were some of the best of late-nineties television.

Rather than dealing with allegories week-on-week, the whole show was one. Embracing the concept of the Federation as an American-style superpower, it cynically explored its cultural expansion (“For the Cause”) and the frailty in its political systems under threat (“Homefront” and “Paradise Lost”). It proposed the harmony of religion and secularism, tolerance on both sides (“In the Hands of the Prophets”; “The Rapture”). It looked at the rebuilding of a planet in the aftermath of a violent, bloody occupation, and the lengths to which that planet would go to defend itself (“The Circle” trilogy).

Arguably the show got even more relevent in retrospect. In the fourth season – in the late-nineties – it ran two episodes where a shapeshift used a crude device to launch a terrorist attack on Earth, the first act of aggression on Earth soil in decades. These beings could change their forms – like like anyone. The next attack could come from anywhere. In midst of this panic, those hawk-minded individuals began to crack down on civil liberties in a plow to save the Federation – risking destroying paradise in order to save it. This was all written before the attacks of September 11th.

Star Trek: Voyager was the antithesis of this. An attempt to be a carbon-copy of The Next Generation, it suffered from a lack of originality, poor writing and poor characterisation. It also seemed to suffer from a need to cater to the lowest common denominator – no other theory accounts for Jeri Ryan’s wardrobe. It was forgettable, often boring television that played it safe and pandered to the young male demographic. The show did produce a few noteworthy episodes (“Future’s End”; “Scorpion”; “Year of Hell”; “Meld”; “Gravity”), but not enough to make it compulsive viewing.

Captain Archer reveals he's a massive fan of The Original Series

Captain Archer reveals he's a massive fan of The Original Series. A massive fan.

Once Voyager ended, the network commissioned Enterprise. A more blatant attempt to ‘sexify’ Star Trek, the show was a prequel. It was also a carbon copy of Voyager. As with all copies of copies, each became more faded. This design for Star Trek didn’t work (surprisingly enough) and – after two years of boring repetitiveness – the network was hovering the axe over the show. With their minds focused, the creative team managed to pull it out of their ass. Despite an uncertain start, the third season was the best season of Trek the show had produced since Deep Space Nine. A crude look at the toll of the ‘war on terror’, the season was admittedly flawed, but it did show some measure of the courage and morality that defined Star Trek towards the end.

If the third season was flawed but good, the fourth season was good but flawed. Finally embracing that the canon consisted of more than The Next Generation and Voyager, the show finally looked at how you construct a future as idyllic as the one that Kirk and Spock inhabited. Beyond that, it was actually fun. The fourth season – while perhaps too focused on playing into the mythos – gave us some sturdy characterisation and pulse pounding action. It also delivered on what the show had promised three years previous: the origins of the Star Trek philosophy. For the first time in years, the hits outnumbered the misses, but it was too little too late. The show managed to conclude with relative dignity in a two-parter about the xenophobia that comes with mankind accepting their place in the stars (guest starring Peter Weller no less). You may have heard about a finale featuring the cast of The Next Generation, but that never happened… right?

At the very least, the fourth season of Enterprise was the first season to feature evil alien space Nazis since Star Trek's econd season in 1968
At the very least, the fourth season of Enterprise was the first season to feature Evil Alien Space Nazis since Star Trek’s second season in 1968

And then there was nothing until JJ Abrams’ Star Trek. I’ve always believed that star trek’s home was on television – simply because it isn’t Star Wars, but also because it is far grander in scale and feels more at home there. The film adaptations are an attempt to distill that, which sometimes work, but sometimes don’t. Maybe the intellectual Star Trek of the first three shows is dead – its spirit lives on in other works such as Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. Maybe it isn’t.

I do see a spinoff coming back down the line, sparked by JJ Abrams’  movie. It is only a matter of time. I do hope that the show exists with enough support and encouragement to bring on a solid team of writer who can feel competent in what they write and can count on the network not to undermine them or ask them to pander. If the series is offered the same freedom that the movie was, I don’t see why not, but I doubt it will get that freedom. The only reason that Abrams was allowed his scope was because the studios viewed the franchise as dead. Now that it’s a steady source of income, there’s a need to regulate and control it. Still, if Star Trek taught me one thing, it was to hope.

In hindsight, this is a longer past than I anticipated. I didn’t know I cared this much. It is a credit to the latest movie, but also to the forty years that it built on that I do. I don’t know about the new shows, but if you’ll excuse me, I have some DVD’s to watch.

2 Responses

  1. Wow, we have a lot in common about the most underrated show in Star Trek ‘Deep Space Nine’. We have a podcast about this underdog we love so much.

    Google lead me here after a few clicks. I am not an ad bot or anything. My site is given, you can also find us in the iTunes store under “The Gamma Quadrant”

  2. That was an excellent review of all the Star Trek shows. I grew up with Deep Space NIne and watched Voyager on syndication. In my heart, I’ve always felt Voyager was better than people say, but I guess it was always just a guilty pleasure.

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