Why I Loved Star Trek, and Hated Star Trek

So according to Topless Robot, Star Trek 2 seems to be getting underway. I'm a little surprised it's taken this long, given how well-received, both critically and commercially, the J.J. Abrams reboot was. You'd think they'd have wanted him to turn right around and get to work on part two as soon as possible. Maybe other commitments got in the way? Not being a great fan of Abrams, I really couldn't say.

I am, however, an unabashed Trekkie. Sure, I can't speak klingon or convert stardates in my head, and I haven't followed the SCE book series, or Vanguard, or IKS Gorkon, or a bunch of the other spinoffs. But one of my earliest memories is of getting to stay up to watch the premiere of Encounter at Farpoint, a gift beyond value from my parents as far as my little four-year-old self was concerned. Despite all the problems I can see with the episode now, at the time Star Trek was the most exciting thing ever, and Encounter at Farpoint, with Q and the jellyfish aliens and Data the android and Geordi and his VISOR, was as exciting as it got.

Why? Because it was new.

I don't mean to say that I loved TNG because I'd exhausted TOS. Far from it! I was actually well into my teenage years before I managed to catch The City on the Edge of Forever, justly one of the most well-regarded episodes of the TOS and, of course, the one that kept getting shown when I was stuck doing something I simply could not escape from. Spock's Brain, Catspaw, And the Children Shall Lead, Miri? Seemed like they were on every other day, and all hours to boot. City on the Edge of Forever? Scheduled exclusively during business hours in the school year, on weekdays, and only when I was in the absolute pink of health. Which is all to say, it wasn't just that they were 'new' episodes that I hadn't seen before. No, it was that it was new, and different, and interesting. Not all of it, of course, especially not during those first few years (two TOS remakes and a clip-show?), but for the most part TNG kept me enraptured by pushing forwards, outwards, onwards into the unknown.

And then came DS9. For the first few years it, too, was an exploration-focused show; runabouts would pop through the wormhole, find an interesting planet, have an adventure and then come back to the station. What it lost in the scale of TNG, with the massive Enterprise and the power of the Federation flagship itself, it made up for in scope. TNG explored the Klingons, and to a lesser extent the Romulans and the Federation itself; DS9 practically invented the Cardassians, the Bajorans and the Ferengi, and did in fact invent the various races of the Dominion, and still managed to give us a good look into the Klingons and the Federation, particularly Section 31. So DS9 kept me entertained because even when the crew wasn't going to new planets, they were telling new stories about old, familiar places. And the Star Trek cosmology was always loose enough for there to be more stories to tell.

But that was the high water mark for Star Trek. TNG and DS9 were on at the same time, and the TOS movies were in full swing, presenting Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest with new problems they had to use new aspects of their characters to resolve. It was, frankly, a creative golden age for the franchise, but it already contained the seeds of its own destruction.

The last season of TNG is generally regarded as being average, though the series certainly went out with a bang; All Good Things... is easily the best Trek finale ever produced. But the exact same writers, who were clearly burning out on episodic adventure plots, were immediately moved to the writing staff of Voyager, where their implosion would be completed. Voyager managed a few interesting ideas, mostly centred in the person of the Doctor and his status as a holographic life-form, but the entire underlying premise of the show worked against it; instead of going boldly, the crew of Voyager were desperately trying to get home. They were adventurers and explorers by a trick of fate, not conscious choice, and that problem kept nagging at me the longer the series went on. Yes, the Enterprise would fly away at the end of an episode, never to return, but you knew it was because they were off to the next big adventure, and some other Federation crew would follow along and keep learning about the planets and celestial flotsam and jetsam they discovered. But when Voyager flew away, it wasn't because they were off to another adventure, it was because they wanted to go home, and nobody would ever hear from these aliens again. Worse, Voyager had the worst character development at the time; by the show's end, Neelix, Harry Kim, Chakotay and even Janeway herself were exactly the same as at the start, Paris and Torres had changed somewhat, and of the whole cast only the Doctor and 7 of 9 managed to grow enough to move beyond being complete ciphers, fit for any plot or role. So, with nothing new in the way of planets, just the same, increasingly worn-out ideas we'd been seeing since TNG, and nothing new in the way of characters, Voyager seemed like the worst the franchise could throw out.

And then came Enterprise.

I still maintain that Enterprise has an absolutely excellent premiere. Broken Bow is full of action and adventure and wonder and intrigue and special effects and character conflict and potential for growth. Unfortunately, it's pretty much the only part of Enterprise that was. The series failed at all the same things Voyager did, but more comprehensively. Not only were the alien-of-the-week stories not exploring new and interesting ideas, they were often built on callbacks to earlier, better works. A series set hundreds of years before first contact was made with them managed to tell worn-out and even stupid stories about both the Borg and the Ferengi. Holodecks made an appearance, despite not having existed during TOS. And the less said about the finale, the better. And not only were the characters not going to grow, they were going to be even less well-developed; Hoshi, Reed and Maryweather would stack up poorly against Uhura, Chekov and Sulu, nevermind any of the contemporary Star Trek characters. The series had no idea where it was going or why, and that was reflected in the characters, who often seemed to just bumble themselves into a crisis, acting more like space tourists than trained professionals. The series limped along, undergoing repeated changes in tone and content, until it was cancelled after season four. The first modern Star Trek series not to run for seven years, it was widely considered a near-complete failure. And at the same time the TNG movies were limping along, showing little of the personal growth the TOS characters went through, engaging none of the interesting kinds of opponents, with the last two movies in particular so determined to revert to an older status quo it was a wonder Troi didn't end up in a V-neck jumpsuit again. Creatively, the television and film franchises were spent, and for a while it looked like Star Trek might follow Star Wars' example, and just be a book series for a nice long while.

And then, along came Star Trek.

I didn't like Star Trek. I thought it lacked charm, that the characters were too one-note, the villain too cliche, the science too awful. Yes, the science was too awful even for Star Trek. I didn't see any need for it to be a TOS prequel, and I still don't; if you changed the characters' names and swapped 'from the future' with 'from an alternate reality', you could tell the exact same story a generation after TNG/DS9/Voyager. I thought the plot was juvenile, and that several of the characters were juvenile as a result, Kirk worst of all. Gone was the cheerful, charming, slightly swaggering James Kirk of William Shatner, and in his place was a rather insufferable and smug young man that just happened to be named James Kirk, who had all the swagger and none of the charm or the accomplishments to justify it. But the worst aspect of the film, for me, was the staleness of it all. There was nothing new there. We're watching a fifty year old set of characters, who have yet to learn any of the lessons we already watched them learn or experience any of the growth we watched them experience, who don't explore anything, and don't contribute to our understanding of the Trek universe, and don't go up against any kind of interesting antagonist. Sure, Nero is kind of fun in and of himself, but as far as personal antagonists go he's no Khan or Chang or Borg Queen, and far as Earth-threats go he's no V'Ger, and he's sure no Probe! At best, he's a more entertaining version of Shinzon, and that's damning with faint praise indeed.

The problem with Star Trek is that it mostly forgot what the series is about. There's a reason there was a Russian on the bridge and a 'mixed-race' kiss in the 60s, a Klingon and a blind guy on the Enterprise D, reformed terrorists and a black captain and religious fundamentalism on DS9. Heck, for all its faults, Voyager gave us a female captain, a North American indigenous person as first officer, and the Doctor, the only 'non-human learning to be human' character Star Trek has ever really done right. Star Trek isn't just about exploring strange new worlds and new civilizations, but about exploring the human condition, tackling things from a new perspective and saying, do you see anything new now?

But somewhere along the way, somewhere in the middle of Voyager, the series started to lose track of that. And with Enterprise and the last two TNG movies, that failure was complete; Enterprise basically had the TOS bridge crew, just with the african-american and asian-american people switching jobs, and Nemesis was so lazy about moving backwards, rather than forwards, that aside from the new ship the story could have been an early TNG episode, Worf and emotionless-Data and beardless-Riker and all. Those three entries in the franchise set the stage for Star Trek, which completes the circle by actually regressing past the beginning, and running as far and as fast as it can from anything new or interesting or thought-provoking. Muslims and arabs? Homosexuals and trans-people and other LGBTTQ folk? Latinos? Sure, they're groups with whom we in the western world have long had a troubled and tumultuous relationship, but don't expect Star Trek to have anything to say about them! What do you think this is, some kind of spiritual successor to a progressive-minded and forward-looking property?

Star Trek isn't an action-adventure property. It uses those elements, absolutely; Wrath of Khan, Undiscovered Country and First Contact are some top-notch Trek stories built around solid action-adventure elements. But those movies are so much more than just shootouts and fist fights, from the emotional beats in Khan to the post-Glasnost metaphors of Undiscovered Country to First Contact's look at obsession, they have so much more to say. Even The Final Frontier tried to have something to say about faith and pain; it basically dribbled on itself trying to say those things, but they were there. But what does Star Trek say? That Kirk and Spock are friends, not because they respect each other and slowly built a solid emotional connection to one another, but because 'the universe wouldn't allow it' any other way? That blowing up planets is bad? That giving the Asian character who originally fenced and loved the Three Musketeers a cool katana is the laziest possible creative choice?

I loved Star Trek, and thanks to the novel series I still do, even if they've decided to jump over DS9's promising conflict with the Ascendants. But Star Trek? Well, really, what's to love?