Frederik vs the Franchises: To Oldly Go When Many Have Gone Before

When discussing Star Trek, it’s almost become an obligation to affix a bright red asterisk to Gene Roddenberry’s name. Because, you see, the Great Bird of the Galaxy wasn’t so much a cosmic being as he was a prisoner of gravity – and, if you believe his detractors, a marketing construct. The “corrective” portrait that’s emerged in the years since his death – notably through books like Joel Engel’s Gene Roddenberry: the Myth and the Man Behind Star Trek and the documentary Chaos on the Bridge – is sometimes tragic, sometimes hostile, mostly unflattering, and all too human. It’s a tale of his need to control Star Trek, his clash with dissenters, and tendency to take credit for other people’s ideas, which not only resulted in head-on collisions with studios but also alienated his friends and allies. The “real” history of Star Trek’s creation, if we can say there’s such a thing, casts doubt on Roddenberry’s visionary authorship of its mythos and the narrative that Star Trek was a ship of peers guided by a singularly capable captain. In space, it seems, no one can hear a scream. But the sound of an idol being shattered comes through the vacuum loud and clear.

Whatever the behind-the-scenes truth is, Roddenberry might have tripped over himself when it came to realizing his vision, but I’d argue that Star Trek is significantly diminished without his influence.

Today’s Star Trek is very much the product of a committee, a patchwork whole shaped by diverse and not necessarily compatible perspectives, creative conflicts, compromises and, yes, cash grabs. While the glut of spinoffs and the prospect of a fourth Kelvin-timeline movie indicate a period of thriving creativity, the symptoms suggest to me a case of franchitis that obscures the fact that, despite polished productions and occasional flashes of brilliance, Star Trek has become a mediocrity whose ambitions were jettisoned along with the Great Bird’s space-borne ashes.

There are two moments that, to my mind, mark Star Trek's decline. The first comes from Deep Space Nine, when showrunner Ira Steven Behr reasoned that the nobility of the Federation was only possible with the support of a ruthless and amoral secret security apparatus. Apparently inspired by a line of dialogue for Commander Benjamin Siskso from DS9 episode "The Maquis" – "It's easy to be a saint in paradise" – Behr mused in the 1999 reference companion to the series, "Why is Earth a paradise in the twenty-fourth century? Well, maybe it's because there's someone watching over it and doing the nasty stuff that no one wants to think about." He expressed an interest of exploring what life was really like for those living the fictional 24th century, saying "Is it this paradise, or are there, as Harold Pinter said, 'Weasels under the coffee table'." With that decision Star Trek’s fundamental outlook shifted from aspirational to cynical. Since then, not only has the malignant Section 31 and the moral calculus used to justify its existence become entrenched in current continuity (both Prime and Kelvin), we’ve also been given a militaristic, realpolitik Federation that seriously contemplates genocide (Discovery Season 1, DS9’s Dominion War seasons) and succumbs to xenophobia and resentment (Star Trek VI, Picard Season 1). And that’s before we even get to discussing how contemporary showrunners repeatedly portray the Federation as inept – scientifically, judicially and defensively – and, all too often, an ideal just outside the characters’ reach. Discovery’s come-to-Gene moment in season 3 was a nice gesture, but rather Pyrrhic given the franchise context.

The second moment comes with the release of Star Trek II: the Wrath of Kahn, which marked a significant course correction for Star Trek movies after The Motion Picture’s lackluster response. Its success established a move toward conventional action movie storytelling rooted in a conflict between heroes and villains typically resolved through violence. Hence: Voyager’s crew fought TNG’s Borg, Enterprise had its temporal cold war, Discovery’s seasonal rotation of villains included Klingons, the Mirror Universe, malevolent AI, and the Orion Syndicate. Picard’s first season also involved hostile AI, and the Kelvin timeline movies each had their own Big Bad for the good guys to fight. Only Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home bucks the trend with its heartfelt environmentalist cautionary tale, delivered with a good humor that’s generally lacking in the newer films and series. The fact that fandom has embraced this course correction is evidenced not only by the box office and television ratings, but through the current crop of games (e.g. Star Trek Fleet Command and Star Trek Timelines) that trumpet the opportunities to engage in space battles.

Underlying these two influences is the successful overturning of Roddenberry’s injunction against interpersonal conflicts between crew members, which further contributes to Star Trek’s devolution into conventional storytelling modes not all that different from Firefly, Dark Matter, or other gritty SF series. Picard exemplifies how UnRoddenberries finally got their wish with a crew of liars, murderers, drug addicts, and PTSD-sufferers, all working for a captain the showrunners present, intentionally or not, as out-of-synch with his peers in a narrative that undermines his values. (For example, the resolution of season 1 doesn’t emerge from moral insight and diplomatic skill, but the wielding of force.)

The thing is, it isn’t hard to discern Roddenberry’s distinct vision for Star Trek, especially considering that he elsewhere conceived alien invasion and space opera series that were posthumously developed in, respectively, Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda. When given the opportunity to revive the original series in the late 1970s, the result – after many development twists and turns – was Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a high-concept film obviously inspired by icons like 2001: A Space Odyssey. It apparently wasn’t what critics or fans wanted to see, however, which was more visceral, action-oriented storytelling than TMP’s more cerebral approach. For my part, however much it puts me in the minority, the film’s humanistic design aesthetic, artsy cinematic vision, and rejection of action movie conventions are bold gestures in service of a premise that is actually science fiction – the very reasons why TMP stands out as my favourite Star Trek movie along with Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. While we can debate the film’s strengths and shortcomings, TMP clearly lays a defined course for Star Trek that looks beyond reflecting humanity’s 20th and 21st century failings to focus instead on the next stage in our civilization’s evolution.

While the movies more or less sidelined Roddenberry as Paramount charted a new course, his efforts in television with The Next Generation provides further evidence of the vision he was striving to realize against a current of opposing, or at least unsympathetic, creative forces. Representing a manifesto of sorts for the series, the first episode credited to D.C. Fontana and Gene Roddenberry, “Encounter at Farpoint,” centers on the Enterprise’s crew solving a diplomatic mystery not with a brawl, but with empathy and science. And in the process, they prove their worthiness as galactic good citizens to the omnipotent and judgmental Q. While we could nitpick at how well the episode juggles its multiple goals of telling an SF story while introducing new characters, a new ship, and updated world-building, the episode nevertheless expresses the very ideals underlying the series that would find further expressions in episodes like “Inner Light,” widely considered one of the series’ best.

Broadly, the shift away from Roddenberry marked a shift in Star Trek’s fundamental genre from high-concept science fiction of the kind you’d find in literary SF to the action thrillers that Hollywood churns out in between outpours of superheroics and horror. The impression to me is of a franchise that not only lacks the skill to deliver on the challenges of science fiction – a particularly difficult genre because it involves both crafting stories with compelling characters and drama as well as the ability to speculate about science rooted in an understanding of actual science – but a lack of interest. How else to explain the relentless repetition of plots centered on the Mirror Universe, Federation corruption, planetary destruction, war, time travel, and the tiresome Borg, who are to Star Trek what the equally one-dimensional Daleks are to Doctor Who? How else to account for the jagged, disjointed history attempting to link together the various series? And forget about embracing the socialist implications of the Federation, because Hollywood’s fealty is to capitalism.

It makes no sense, for example, that the Romulans in Picard would be ghettoized and impoverished in a universe in which material needs can be easily satisfied with the help of technologies such as replicators, clean and plentiful energy generators, robots, and so on. Similarly, it makes no sense for Federation medicine to be unable to repair the defect in Picard’s parietal lobe, and the resulting terminal illness, given nanotechnologies, genetic technologies and the capability to break people down at a subatomic level and reassemble them (transporters). But today’s Star Trek is rarely interested in science fiction as anything other than a mood and aesthetic, and the franchise’s technology is not the concrete foundation on which stories are built but rather malleable devices that are adjusted to serve whatever the writers happen to need for their storytelling goals. So if they need to inflict an uncurable disease on Picard, confine Data’s mind to a box, make Section 31 especially formidable, or portray the Federation as a racist bureaucracy with disparate economic classes, then that’s what we get even if it means sacrificing consistency – and the ambition for speculation – within established sciences and technologies. Worse is how showrunners regularly sacrifice fruitful science fictional plotlines in favor of action thriller story beats. Picard’s Season 1 provides a particularly egregious example of this when it literally kills off all the characters involved in the show’s most intriguing idea: a project to help the victims of Borg assimilation rebuild their mental and physical health so that they might eventually return to their home societies, many of which have themselves not healed from the trauma of Borg attacks. An SF medical drama? Now there’s an idea for a Star Trek series! But as it stands, we have been given over the years generally middling series that, despite occasional displays of inspiration, don’t measure up to their ambitions (e.g. Enterprise, Voyager). Even in light of my reading of it’s Season 2 synopsis, I can’t shake the feeling that Picard is, essentially, oldly going where many have gone before. Or at the least, arriving very, very late.

If Star Trek’s Powers That Be were genuinely passionate about, and committed to, science fiction in general and Roddenberry’s vision in particular, than the answer to Ira Behr Stevens’ question would be obvious: speculate on a better future through more than just technology, engineering, physics, and medicine. A common blind spot in popular science fiction, sciences such as psychology and sociology, as well as arts, the humanities and political science, are frequently glossed over, if not outright ignored. In a society with the technology to eliminate material needs, what role do psychology and sociology play in promoting harmony? How has humanity’s practice of politics evolved to leverage advances in psychology and sociology to create harmonious social structures? Can ship crews organize themselves better than the traditional military-inspired hierarchies? What would xenoarchaeology look like? There are certainly precedents in literary SF of speculations beyond the conventional disciplines, James Whites' Sector General series being a notable example. Which means there’s a wealth of untapped potential Star Trek showrunners could draw on to support an optimistic vision of the Federation, if they were so inclined. In a sense, it’s almost as the showrunners are afraid of leaning too far into the implied socialism of future Earth and the Federation lest they betray their aim to appeal to the broadest audience possible.

Even Star Trek’s much-vaunted humanistic values are curiously behind the times and conventional by speculative SF standards. As much as I welcome the inclusion of a romantic gay couple in Discovery from the beginning, and trans characters in Season 3, the gesture feels belated and just a bit self-congratulatory. Decades after the Original Series broke ground with an interracial kiss on TV, an admittedly problematic statement given the specifics of the scene, it’s sad to think how long it took the franchise to fulfill its promise of “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.” Better late than never, I suppose, but these gestures might not come across as so contrived if they expressed a well-thought-out universe beyond gadgets.

Perhaps the Star Trek I want and, I believe, Gene Roddenberry wanted, the one that boldly goes where no one has gone before, would have a much more limited appeal. So what? I’d rather have less but higher caliber Star Trek than a buffet that sacrifices its ambitions for low-hanging entertainment. And I don’t buy the argument that there’s a Star Trek for everyone with the various series currently on air and in the works (i.e. from the more comedic Lower Decks to forthcoming fair like a Michelle Yeoh-starring Section 31 series). By definition, a vision that molds itself to whatever people want to buy is a vision that lacks integrity, even after accounting for some creative flexibility. Star Trek should be Star Trek.

So beam me up, Scottie. Let’s see what else is out there.