I’ve been known to say that Star Trek is long in the tooth, that its recent iterations are the equivalent of flogging a dead franchise. Given how beloved the franchise is, it’s no surprise I get push-back on that.
A lot of push-back.
And I get it. People love Star Trek. And so do I; I’ve only watched it for almost all of my conscious life. But, seriously, there’s a reason why I want Star Trek to change, already. And it goes back to Trek’s origins, and its creator, Gene Roddenberry.
When Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek to Desilu Studios, he described it with this phrase: “Wagon Train to the stars.” Wagon Train was a popular TV series featuring a group of people travelling across the untamed American west, and encountering other settlers and various dangers, like hostile Indians, wild animals and claim jumpers, along the way. It was the model of jingoistic manifest destiny that early America was about. The original Star Trek emulated this premise, and the premise’s familiarity with American audiences was a major part of its success.
Since then, Star Trek has created numerous spin-off series and a number of movies, including movie reboots and prequel series. Its first sequel was Star Trek: The Next Generation, which depicted a new crew on the same mission as the original series, and the movies re-presented the first and next generation crews on cinematic missions (of varying quality). Problem is, they myopically follow the same premise, Wagon Train to the stars, and refuse to consider the future of their own premise beyond simple updating of their familiar technologies. (There is a single exception so far, which I’ll discuss later.) And this is the problem with Trek: It’s not even trying to advance itself to keep up with history.
Eventually, the American west was settled, and the hostile and dangerous elements were tamed. American TV followed suit, evolving from shows about exploring and settling the dangerous west to shows about the established settlements themselves… small towns and big cities that largely adhered to the laws of the government, with occasional problems and problem people. In that era, shows like Route 66 featured characters traveling to and from these settled areas, providing extra hands or fresh perspectives to help out the locals and maintain the status quo (except where the status quo didn’t match that of the laws and morals of the land, and needed to be adjusted).
Eventually television shows settled into featuring characters in those home settlements, helping out their neighbors, or trying to navigate the stresses of modern life. This is how America progressed. And this is how I maintain that Star Trek should have progressed: Instead of being stuck in the same slice of American history forever, Trek should have given us new series that would explore later eras of the occupation of space.
Following the original Trek’s jingoistic manifest destiny phase, later series should have given us an era of newly-established settlements and the non-military, non-explorer people who go from settlement to settlement, or planet to planet, encountering people and helping them with their local problems, mostly that threaten to disrupt the settlement on a small or large scale. It could be a future analogue to Route 66, The A-Team or Knight Rider, centered around a small group who travels freely around the newly-settled Federation, meeting new characters every week and helping out.
Does this sound familiar? Firefly very much featured this type of premise, a small group of travelers, moving about the newly-settled Verse, meeting new people and helping out where they can. It represents the Route 66 era of the future, the next step after exploring and settling the frontier.
Later Trek series could then give us a fully-established world and characters established within it, living and struggling to get by in that not-so-perfect future. This would be the equivalent of series like The Rockford Files, Breaking Bad or Moving On, stories about working stiffs dealing with the rigors of modern life as they try to make a living.
And here is where we get to the exception to the Star Trek rule, the one series that bucks the manifest destiny trend… Star Trek: Picard. Picard is about a retired military commander, whose peaceful life in an established Federation is interrupted by a mystery and a conspiracy associated with an old friend; so he gathers a group to help solve the mystery presented to him. The world around him is established, as is his life within it; but there is a problem presented to him, which he longs to right. Picard represents the Breaking Bad era of the future, just as Firefly represents the Route 66 era, both the next steps beyond Wagon Train‘s frontier era.
And after over fifty years of Wagon Train, it’s high time for Star Trek to give us more of either the Route 66 newly-settled eras, or the Breaking Bad life in fully-settled eras, stories about humanity’s next steps in settling and living in the future.
Concerned that stories set beyond the galaxy’s manifest destiny era won’t be Star Trek? Fine. Change the names, redesign the trappings and create the original series. Call the first post-Trek series Star Worlds, and the post-Worlds series Star Life. Call them whatever… but give us those series, please. No more Wagon Train. We expect the future to progress. Star Trek should progress, too.