Spoiled on Star Trek
I’ve been thinking a lot about Star Trek lately. All right, that’s not fair; I’m frequently thinking about Star Trek. But I’ve been thinking about it more than usual. About the backlash against the new films, backlash that in many cases seems to amount to lashing out against these films because they’re so different from the original takes, rather than being upset at some legitimate flaws in the structure.
Seriously, there are loads of reasons to dislike Star Trek Into Darkness, but none of them have to do with the fact that it’s not Star Trek enough.
But there’s more going on here, and as I watch through Voyager I’m struck by something I’ve always been aware of but never really thought about. For a really long time, Star Trek had a very steady pattern going, and the new films represent the same sort of paradigm shift that The Next Generation introduced. We, as fans, shouldn’t be all too unhappy with the new films, even if we don’t like them – because this has happened before, and to be honest, we’re kind of at fault here.
It’s really weird to think about in hindsight, but Star Trek shows were on the air continuously from 1987 until 2005. That’s eighteen years. From the time that I was four until I was twenty-two, there was always a show featuring a captain facing strange new worlds, new people, and all the rest. The middle was the densest, of course, when Deep Space Nine spent seven years always airing with another Star Trek series (first it was The Next Generation and then it was Voyager). For nearly two decades, these shows were running.
Back when The Next Generation first came out, of course, some of the older fans hated it. Not just because the first two seasons of the show were about as scattershot as could be in terms of writing and characters, but because the show was just so different from its predecessor. The pseudo-Western aesthetic that had run through the original series was largely purged, the Federation felt more cohesive, the makeup and sets were more elaborate. It felt very different. It wasn’t the Star Trek that people had been fixated upon for the entire time between the cancellation of the original series and the launch of the sequel; it didn’t even feature the same characters.
But despite the roughness of the first two seasons, The Next Generation went on to work quite well, and it set up a very solid set of rules and frameworks for stories. It established a playground rich enough for two more spinoff series set in the same era, followed by another series set much earlier but still following the same basic protocols. Not that it took that long for fans to get a bit uppity, as even during Voyager‘s run fans were getting upset with how much it deviated from established Star Trek. This, of course, was after fans protested about Deep Space Nine being more morally ambiguous and sending the ideals of this utopian future into troubling waters.
Thing is, they kind of needed to. Because there’s only so far you can stretch the premise of “crew meets rubber-forehead alien of the week and either makes friends or doesn’t” before it starts to get silly.
Obviously, the producers were chasing ratings. That’s how a franchise survives. It appeals to new people, to an audience that hadn’t been watching before, and convinces them that even if they didn’t like the previous installments of the franchise they should start in on this one. I’ve seen a lot of theories bandied about for why Enterprise was a prequel, but personally I’ve always thought it was an attempt to draw in new viewers by cutting out the collected twenty-four seasons of material serving as backstory for any sequel show. If you know a few bits about Star Trek via cultural osmosis, that’s all you’ll need – this is new stuff, not asking you to go back and rewatch.
Not that we as fans were happy. And I can understand why, don’t get me wrong – Enterprise had a lot of problems from the start, enough that it deserves its status as being the least beloved series. But the fans didn’t watch the show, and the new audiences didn’t watch the show either, and so the whole thing was shuttered.
I don’t think anyone really expected that might be the end of an eighteen-year run. But it was.
The three series set adjacent to one another, along with the ersatz prequel, each follow the same basic structure and format. Oh, sure, the premise of each show differed a bit, the cast was different, but can anyone honestly say that a direct sequel to The Next Generation would be profoundly different? How many more strange anomalies could a crew run across in which everything is strange for most of the show until it gets wrapped up in the last few minutes? How many aliens need to show up before you start asking whether these guys are allegories for cultural issues, allegories for social issues, or just a new threat with makeup applications?
Sure, if they put it on the air, I’d watch it. And I’d probably complain about it, too, just like I complained about Enterprise, just like I complained about Voyager. Funny thing, as I go back through Voyager I’m finding that it’s not nearly as bad as it’s painted; it has weaknesses, without a doubt, but the show on a whole manages to do quite a bit and keeps the majority of its plots running along nicely.
The new Star Trek film universe isn’t like this. It’s a very different environment, with a Federation much less sure of itself and a much looser command structure. And it is, on a whole probably about on par with a lot of the previous movies in the franchise when it comes to overall action compared to quiet discussion. The movies have always been more active, largely because you kind of have to minimize your various time-travel paradoxes on the big screen.
Is this limiting? Sure. Would I like another show on the television instead? Yes. Are these movies bad just because they’re so different from the Star Trek I grew up with? No. I’m not even convinced that they’re that different from the Star Trek that gave us movies like First Contact and Wrath of Khan, or the franchise that gave us the entire Dominion War arc, or the first aired episode in the show in which Captain Kirk punches an older woman in the face repeatedly.
Are the films necessarily going to be good overall? We don’t know yet. We have two to go by, one of which was a solid story and a fun watch, while the other one started strong but devolved into a pile of stupid twists and pointless aping of prior stories by the second half. They’ve certainly been successful, though, and while I’ve seen lots of cries that they’ve turned Star Trek into a generic action franchise I don’t see it.
I think a lot of the fan backlash comes down to the simple fact that these are not the same sort of animal that we’ve come to expect after nearly two decades of a consistent formula, especially if you liked what was coming out of those years. We’re used to having a television series, something slower and with more space to explore. Sure, Wrath of Khan was almost all action, but there was a lot more time in the show proper to explore who these characters were and what they were about beyond fistfights and phasers.
But just the same, it’s an evolution. It’s a change from what came before, just like those decades were a change from what had come before, just like the next iteration will be different yet again. We don’t get to be the gatekeepers of the new iteration and we don’t get to decry it because it’s not what we wanted – we got what we wanted and we weren’t happy then, either. A franchise changes or it dies, and I’d prefer more Star Trek, even if it’s not quite the same as my favorite versions.
That having been said, if we do get another series set back in the original timeline? Oh, I’ll be all over that.