The recent release of Star Trek Into Darkness has stirred up a lot of debate in the fanspace: Its action-packed but not particularly intelligent script is being challenged as to whether or not it adheres to the “spirit of Star Trek,” and therefore whether it should be considered a good movie vehicle. Other movies have been pulled up to compare it to, including Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, a movie deserving of the exact same scrutiny as Into Darkness.
But base to all of this debate is the fundamental question that needs to be addressed: What is Star Trek, exactly? We can’t reliably say whether or not the movies are or are not Trek without coming to a full understanding of what Trek is.
(Note: This commentary will restrict itself to the Star Trek movie and television productions, as there is simply too much in other media to be intelligently included here.)
In the mid-1960s, TV producer Gene Roddenberry conceived of a new science-fiction-based television show to present to the networks. He sold it to them as “Wagon Train to the stars,” an allusion to a popular western TV show about a group of people who traveled from place to place and had interesting and exciting adventures. (Even today, the best way to sell a new TV show is to compare it to another successful TV show… “CSI in Seattle”… “Survivor in space”… “Galactica across the Alps”… etc. TV execs get that.)
He got an okay to produce a pilot, into which he tried to introduce a galaxy-spanning starship (part of a military police force, ala Forbidden Planet) and some (at the time) groundbreaking concepts, like a cool, logical woman in second-of-command, an alien crewmember that wasn’t there for horror or comic relief, and a fairly integrated and liberated crew. His pilot episode featured science-fiction-standby elements like advanced aliens, mind-control, humans caged like animals in a zoo… then went them one better, by presenting a compassionate and sympathetic reason for the aliens’ actions, depicting them in the end as not evil at all.
The execs didn’t like the pilot. “Too cerebral,” they said. They wouldn’t buy a female executive officer… because she was female, or because she was cool and logical… take your pick. And the alien crewmember looked “devilish.” No sale.
So Roddenberry did another pilot. This time, the female exec was replaced by the alien crewmember, who was now presented as the cool and logical one. Most of the other lead characters were replaced, and the new storyline involved an officer who is zapped by a strange energy field and becomes a powerful threat to the crew, and whom the Captain must dispatch in an epic battle of yelling, energy blasts and phaser-fire.
The execs went for that. Star Trek had its green light for production.
Although Roddenberry was mindful of the TV heads’ disdain for “cerebral” material, he was also a smart writer, and mindful of the period he found himself working in. The 1960s was a unique era in television, wherein shows were taking advantage of the medium to explore other, more controversial subjects in the news at the time: Race and gender equality; political ideologies; war and morality; American values; environmental issues. Westerns, anthologies and historical dramas had begun to tell these stories, hidden behind the trappings of genre. Roddenberry hoped to do the same.
With his guidance, Star Trek became one of the best known and most successful TV series to explore those controversial subjects, and break new ground regarding characters and their roles and relationships, as well as delving into subjects hitherto only seen between the pages of serious science fiction novels, exploring concepts like human psychology, intolerance and prejudice, might and right, morals and psychology, pain and loss… the very the definitions of humanity and our efforts to be the best species we could be. Its original tagline—To boldly go where no Man has gone before—referred to the exploration (and improvement) of the human condition as much as the exploration of the galaxy. And to this day, the original Star Trek series is still lauded as the most shining example of such television.
Not that Star Trek was perfect: Besides its legendary budgetary constraints, it found itself warring with censors on a regular basis. Stories often lost much of their flair by the time they reached the small screen, and the shortcuts that had to be taken to depict a high-minded concept often came out trite, even outright laughable. And Trek still often resorted to good old-fashioned fisticuffs and battles to win the day, proving that American might always makes right in the end. As much as Star Trek was lauded for its high morality, so was its star, William Shatner, regularly lampooned for his melodramatic dialog and torn-shirt-flying-kick “cowboy diplomacy.” Cowboy diplomacy notwithstanding, Trek was always held up to a high moral standard that few shows could be said to match.
Unfortunately for Star Trek, the audience that valued such material was never as large as the audience that liked sitcoms, action and more familiar genres like Westerns and War. Trek only managed to get through three seasons before being cancelled. Though efforts were made to revive the show, Paramount showed no real interest in the project… until a little movie called Star Wars broke box office records worldwide, and Paramount wondered how they could get in on the good thing that 20th Century Fox had unexpectedly tapped into.
You can almost hear the echoes bouncing through the corridors of history: “Hey, check it out… we have a sci-fi thing too! It was called Star Trek.” “Sounds like the same thing as Star Wars… good deal! Get this into the pipeline, stat!” “stat… stat… stat…“
And so began Paramount’s revival of the Star Trek franchise, first in the theatres, then back on television. But Paramount was seeking a different audience for the movies… a Star Wars audience. And Trek was not a Star Wars vehicle, as the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture clearly illustrated. Movie audiences generally panned their attempt to explore “higher states of being” and allegorical Creators as so much snooze-fest. So Paramount brought in directors and producers who knew nothing about Star Trek… but knew how to make action movies with big scores and cool special effects. Instead of stories that hit on iconic Trek elements, they went with attacking Trek icons… especially the starship Enterprise, which eventually became the most-repeatedly-destroyed ship ever in a science fiction franchise. The next Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, squarely hit the buttons Paramount was aiming at, and won over moviegoers who hadn’t even seen the original episode from which the movie was based; as far as the studio was concerned, this was the formula for Star Trek movies forever more.
Khan had little in common with what had always been the intent of the original Star Trek series… or even the original Khan episode, Space Seed. Problem was, no one at Paramount, and precious few moviegoers, cared.
With the success of the movies came more television series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise; which, in general, made a more concerted effort to be more faithful to the original intent of Star Trek. Unfortunately, television is controlled by ratings more than ever before, and the new Trek series found themselves struggling to maintain audience share. Though they were buoyed by movie and general franchise popularity, the TV series found themselves resorting to heavily action-oriented plots—generally season-spanning wars between the Federation and one of the many other empires or races they encountered over the years—and elements designed for titillation (something the original Trek series was also not unfamiliar with, but which had been generally used as background elements; in later series, sexy main cast members designed as eye-candy became featured foreground elements).
The wars and eye-candy made the shows very popular, as the movies featuring the same morals-free action and effects-laden conflicts continued to win box-office… which, depending on your point of view, was either great or galling. For Paramount, a company devoted above all to making money off of media entertainment, there was no question how they felt. And as the clear majority of TV watchers and moviegoers were right behind them, they had no reason to doubt their direction.
But in the midst of all this, the original intent of Star Trek has been loudly bulldozed over by the profitability of flashy mediocrity. And with J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the movies in 2009 and 2013, Star Trek‘s morality, philosophy and ideology has been completely obscured by profit-inducing sleight-of-hand: The misdirection of a young cast aping established character archetypes; and the blinding effect of lens flare.
If Q, the nigh-omnipotent pan-dimensional being introduced in The Next Generation series, were able to see what had become of the franchise known as Star Trek, from its ground-breaking beginnings to its common-denominator-pandering present, he would be reduced to tears of laughter at our expense, guffawing at the high-minded humans, so sure of their superiority and destiny of greatness… and who finally, by their own hand, proved themselves to be no more than ground-scratching apes after all.
And in the case of Star Trek, he wouldn’t be wrong.
The Kestral Voyages represent my foray into sci-fi adventure… check it out.