I’ve received a number of comments about my post describing how Star Trek is as out-of-date today as Buck Rogers was in 1980.
Most of it negative.
Many of the commenters clearly didn’t read beyond the title of the article. Or they read further, but the only thing they got out of it was my saying “Star Trek drools!” (Which—ahem—I never said.) Then they sought to beat back my argument… thereby missing my point by a light-year.
It’s no mystery why this happened: One of the most incredible things about Star Trek is that its popularity has, over the years, made it a subject of nostalgia and romance, among aficionados and among people who just fondly remember it from their past… putting it in the company of such shows as The Twilight Zone, Bonanza, All In The Family and M*A*S*H*. It’s become an icon itself, a demi-god of a show that everyone looks up to overall, even beyond its obvious imperfections. It has become essentially unassailable, science fiction television’s indomitable father-figure, the revered bust on the mantle, Teddy Roosevelt.
You know what? It deserves to be all of those things. And I never said it wasn’t.
What I said was: Star Trek is fifty years old. But our knowledge of technology, physics and the nature of the universe has changed a lot in those fifty years. And as good as Star Trek was, it’s really no longer the best vehicle to present a modern science fiction exploration show, because the show concept is based on a fifty year old understanding of science, space and television itself.
So we’re crystal clear on what I’m saying, let’s go over a few details, and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.
Star Trek was created in the early 1960s. At the time, we were in a Cold War, the Russians had put a satellite in orbit, we’d seen innumerable cheap movies about weird aliens swooping down and trying to conquer Earth, and strange creatures borne of atomic testing and radiation exposure accidents. Television audiences were enjoying I love Lucy, starring a woman who would soon give the green light for a new series that was to be a “Wagon Train to the stars,” alluding to a popular western show with a premise of a group of people traveling the space frontier, dealing with their own problems and helping people along the way.
Got that? Star Trek was a space western. It was conceived by Gene Roddenberry, a man who had served as a pilot in World War II, then after the war as a policeman, and shared traditional American values of Democracy and Christianity. He created Trek for an American audience that was raised on war shows, westerns, detectives, sitcoms and soap operas, then toned it down and colored it up for television executives who thought it was “too cerebral” for those audiences.
Just as we had shows about people who would visit new places and meet strange people every week, television audiences were willing to entertain the notion that we’d be able to fly to new planets and meet strange aliens… just a lot faster, since space was so big. Despite the fact that scientists, led by a guy named Einstein, told us that there was no way to travel faster than light, Roddenberry decided the ship would go faster than light anyway, so his space “Wagon Train” could be at a new planet every week.
In order to make the show pretty and save production money, Roddenberry and his crew invented things out of whole cloth—things that looked and sounded futuristic and cool to technologically unsophisticated 1960s audiences—and he didn’t worry about whether or not they were actually possible. The transporter, for instance, was created in order to avoid the costly special effects of landing a ship model on a planet every week. He didn’t worry about the realistic fact that solving the engineering problems required to create a device capable of breaking down the atoms of a person, “beaming” them to another location and reassembling them perfectly at the other end were a hella bigger than solving the problem of landing space ships on planets. He also renamed elements with techy-sounding labels, like “di-lithium,” “tri-tanium,” “quatro-triticale,” etc, to make the things we’ve heard of in real life sound… well, more futuristic, and better. And he conceived of incredible power advances, enough to push a starship faster than light, enough to pump raw energy at other ships and destroy them, enough to cause an overloading hand weapon to be able to explode and devastate a large room.
Roddenberry combined all that made-up stuff with realistic extrapolations of some technologies, like sensors, recorders, displays and control systems, to help blur the line between possibly and fantasy. It provided an acceptable backdrop to the stories of exciting battles, strange worlds and exploration of the human condition that all mirrored the realities of the world in the 1960s. In a way, it was the flip side of the coin that gave us The Twilight Zone; but where Twilight Zone gave you morality tales and told you up front, “this is just fantasy, folks,” Star Trek gave you the same stories but told you, “this could really happen.”
Largely due to Roddenberry’s past in the military, he also decided to build the show around a military organization, patterned after a modern naval vessel and its crew. His starship Enterprise was manned with hundreds of professionals, each working specialized jobs and reporting to the Captain and his officers, engaging in military-themed battles with other ships, and sending landing parties to newly-visited planets. This was also very familiar to 1960s TV audiences, which had grown up watching wartime dramas on TV and in the movies, and provided that additional grounding to the present that audiences needed. And the aliens of Star Trek were simply patterned after caricatures of various nationalities or social groups also familiar to television audiences, making the “visiting new
lands planets, meeting new peoples aliens” element easily relatable. Audiences of the time didn’t really know for a fact that there wouldn’t be Earth-like planets peppering the galaxy, nor that aliens would not likely look like us… so they were prepared to suspend their disbelief and go with it.
And for that relatively unsophisticated 1966 audience, it all worked. Star Trek was such an imaginative and well-conceived package, the future (and the fantasy) smoothly intersected with the familiar, combined with highly-relevant stories about the burning social and political issues of the 1960s, and wrapped into an episodic show format, that it captured the imaginations of worldwide fans like few shows before it ever had.
So, let’s fast-forward 49 years—half a century—to 2015. In 2015, we are no longer in a Cold War (we are now embroiled in worldwide terrorist incidents). We’ve been to the Moon, and plan to go someday soon to Mars and begin prospecting the asteroid belt. But we haven’t heard from any aliens, and as we’ve learned from deeper examination of the life forms on this planet, we have less of an expectation that intelligent beings will by necessity look just like us. And our experiments to communicate with our intelligent neighbors, the ceteceans, has proven that mastering an alien language will be a lot tougher than we thought.
We’ve found a few Earth-like planets out there. When I say Earth-like, I mean planets that we know are at a distance from their star that allows the existence of liquid water, an element we consider vital for life. At least, the kind of life we’re familiar with on Earth. Except that we’re already discovering organisms that can live in inhospitable cold and heat, and creatures that can survive the rigors of open space… showing us that life is a lot more variable than we thought. And those planets: Many of them are so large as to crush us if we tried standing on it, or may not have the electromagnetic field that protects us from solar rays, or… yes, not even the definition of “Earth-like planet” is what we thought it was. There aren’t likely to be too many places where people will be able to arrive, stand, breathe the air and converse with friendly aliens.
But we do know about the theory of terraforming. Maybe we can find ways to make the planets we want, or redesign existing planets (hopefully without indigenous life) to be hospitable to us. Or maybe it makes more sense to build stations in orbit above planets that can provide needed resources, even if we can’t live on them. Life in the future in space should be very different than we expected in 1966.
Science now teaches us that mixing matter and antimatter won’t provide the massive energy surge we thought, negating the likelihood of using that power for propulsion or energy-based weapons. We also haven’t figured out how anyone or anything can create shaped electromagnetic fields that can bend time and space and create reality-breaking bubbles for us to travel within. Pushing a giant ship rapidly from place to place is just not realistic, given what we know about space, science and physics today. And things like artificial gravity and inertial dampeners? Invented to make television shows look good and keep your cast from having to wear wires all day. Ask a scientist or engineer how we build them, and they’ll just laugh.
Computers, once the size of auditoriums, and in 1966 large enough to pack a cafeteria space, now fit in our pockets and can automate tasks we never thought possible. Scientists still tell us we can’t go faster than light, so plying the galaxy like a ship cruising the Caribbean is pretty much out of the question. A ship in space isn’t likely to need a few hundred crewpersons to keep it flying, the way a modern naval vessel needs hundreds of people to operate; a small team of specialists, a good computer system and a few well-designed robots would do the same job.
Even television has changed: Episodic shows like the original Star Trek, that essentially resets everything at the end of the program, are passé; audiences like shows and characters that morph, grow, change, and even die, as the series progresses. Shows don’t have to be watched once a week… audiences can record shows to watch whenever it pleases them, including all at once. And shows are available in online venues, allowing viewers to consume it at their television, or at a computer, tablet, even a cellphone. All of this allows shows to better target their desired audiences, and to present a more flexible, realistic and comprehensive entertainment that audiences of fifty years ago could scarcely conceive.
The whole point of this is to demonstrate that the Starship Enterprise is flying on ideas conceived of in the 1960s, by people who had to further bend the rules to deal with television executives whose idea of sophisticated television was Route 66 and Days of Our Lives, and who never would have entertained the idea that a TV show should have a science adviser to keep it honest.
The reality of today is that professional scientists, physicists and academics not only watch these shows, but are actually paid by the shows to keep them real. The audiences are much more sophisticated as well, and know a lot better when they’re being pandered to by clueless producers and walked through a set by out-of-touch actors.
And please take note that at no time did I suggest that the idea of exploring the unknown and examining the human condition, the story premise upon which Star Trek was based, is a pointless or obsolete notion. Rather, it’s what we explore and how we explore it that’s changed so much in fifty years. A new show that truly nails that original premise, in a science fiction format, should be doing it within the latest knowledge of science and physics that we have, in order to not be laughed out of the quadrant.
And I’m sorry, but Star Trek is no longer the cutting-edge science fiction show that it was in 1966. Those who believe it is still that cutting-edge, relevant show, are viewing it through the Trek-colored glasses of nostalgia and romance for a scientific era, and the show that depicted it, now 50 years past.
There are a lot of ideas that can alter or substitute for Star Trek‘s setting and science, and still be an exploration and science show. Firefly set its stories within one solar system of many terraformed planets and moons. The Battlestar: Galactica reboot gave us a way to travel from system to system that, frankly, is more likely to be workable than pushing giant ships around (and they did it in a non-episodic, serial format). Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda showed us a military vessel that was effectively controlled by a half-dozen people, assisted by the ship’s intelligence and robot drones. There are novels out there (including some of my own) that present a more realistic future, and have the potential to be a great basis for an exploration and science show. Find one you like and run with it.
But we do not have to stick with a show that, great as it was, was conceived during the Cold War by a visionary World War II veteran, and shaped by Mad Men more intent on selling laundry detergent than thinking about science. In 2015, we can do better. We should do better.
Finally, think about the last post again, and my comparison of Star Trek and Buck Rogers. When Buck first came out in the late 1930s, it was considered the height of adventure science fiction in the movies; when everyone used to reference science and futuristic technology, they called it “that Buck Rogers stuff.” In its day, it was the icon of science and technology. But when Star Trek came out, thirty years later in 1966, Buck Rogers paled embarrassingly by comparison, and found itself completely eclipsed by the new guys on the block; now popular discussions about futuristic science and technology were referred to as “that Star Trek stuff.” (Ten years later, a new movie came along, and the popular lexicon took to calling futuristic science and technology “that Star Wars stuff.”)
It’s almost 2016, fifty years after Star Trek; and we are at the cusp of another such moment, when a new science fiction show can come along and be so far beyond the shows of the past as to become the new icon, the popular touchstone of futuristic science and technology. Imagine a show so modern, so advanced, so thought-provoking and cool, that Star Trek (and Star Wars) actually pales in comparison.
Don’t you want to see that? I know I do. Let’s lay aside our Trek-colored glasses, and look to the future.