So the Internet has been set afire with the news that CBS is planning to produce a new Star Trek television series that will air in 2017.
That’s it. That’s the announcement. There is maddeningly little information about the premise of the new series or its creative direction, except that it will be produced by some of the same people behind the rebooted Star Trek movies.
And that is worrisome, because the recent films have not delivered on some of the essential aspects of Star Trek’s appeal.
What is it that Star Trek brought to the culture that has made the franchise so long-lasting? I mean, this was a low-budget science fiction series in the late 1960s that lasted only three seasons—but then grew to spawn ten feature films (before the recent reboots), a sequel television series that ran for seven seasons, and three further spinoff series (“Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager,” and “Enterprise”). There were 17 continuous years, from 1987 to 2004, when the franchise had at least one television show on the air and one film in development.
There are four keys to the unique universe of the Star Trek franchise.
1. An optimistic view of the future.
The original “Star Trek” series was made during the tumultuous late 1960s, but it projected a future in which the big problems of the day had all been solved. At the height of the Cold War, “Star Trek” showed Russians and Americans working together as fellow crew members in a futuristic navy. At the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, while cities were still being set ablaze in race riots, “Star Trek” showed us black and white crew members working in harmony, as equals. Not only was the Earth united peacefully in what was clearly a free society (despite a few background noises about socialist economics); we had also formed an enlightened Federation of Planets and set out to peacefully explore the galaxy.
Gene Rodenberry didn’t think we were going to get to this benevolent future easily, and his short-term outlook for humanity was actually quite bleak. The franchise has had to continually rewrite its retrospective history to account for all of the horrific late-20th-century wars that never happened. But the point was that we were going to get there. By showing a future in which our big problems were solved, it gave us confidence that we could solve them.
Of course, fans of the franchise know that it never left today’s problems alone. The Cold War between the Federation and the Klingon Empire was a stand-in for the Cold War of the present. In later series, the Romulans change from being the Roman Empire in space to taking on the characteristics of Chinese or North Korean totalitarianism. And so on.
And that leads us to another key aspect of the Star Trek franchise.
2. The use of science fiction to explore big ideas.
Star Trek was able to comment on the big issues of the day by recasting them in a futuristic, science-fiction form. It famously projected the racial conflicts of 20th-century America into the implacable hatred between two alien races who are half-black and half-white—the only difference being which side of their bodies is which color.
It was not the best-written or most subtle episode of the series, but it had a huge impact at the time as one of the few ways network television was addressing racism more or less openly.
The original Star Trek series came on the air only two years after “The Twilight Zone” went off the air, and the influence was obvious: the use of fantastical science-fiction premises to deal with big ideas and philosophical questions. The original series built the issue of reason vs. emotion into the very fabric of the show, with the contrast between Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock, a half-alien committed to a creed of unemotional logic. These were not just characters. They were philosophical archetypes. (The fact that they were also interesting characters is a tribute to the writers and actors who brought them to life.)
Later series would come up with new variations on the same themes (as with the character of Data, an android crew member) and explore many new themes. The Borg, which assimilates conquered races into a vast collective in which individual identity is extinguished, is a timeless symbol of the evils of collectivism.
And Star Trek was not afraid to go high-concept. One of the most artistically and intellectually ambitious episodes of television ever filmed was the “Next Generation” episode “Darmok,” in which Captain Picard shows how far he will go to learn how to communicate with an alien species whose form of language is completely incompatible with our own.
This is an episode in which the incomprehensibility of one half of the major characters is the premise of the plot. Who does this?
This is why I argue that, for all the renewed frenzy over Star Wars, Star Trek is the superior franchise. It brought greater depth and thoughtfulness to its story lines.
3. An excited interest in science and technology.
Star Trek is thinking man’s science fiction, and not just because of its philosophical themes. “Treknology,” the fictional science and technology of the spacefaring future, is central to the franchise. It wasn’t just there as a background. It was interesting in and of itself. (Perhaps a little too interesting, if you’ve ever gotten drawn into fierce debates among the franchise’s hardcore fans—which, I’ll admit, I have.) In fact, the series’ projections of future technology have been self-fulfilling prophecies, inspiring real-world innovators to create the flip-phone and the tablet computer. The engineers at Google have proclaimed that the Star Trek computer, which is capable of answering spoken questions with authoritative answers, is the goal of their work.
But it wasn’t just about the technological products. It was about the process. Star Trek made scientific problem-solving a recurring theme, particularly in the “Next Generation” sequel series, where whole episodes are given over to the starship’s chief engineer and his struggle to solve a technological problem.
In the process, he falls in love with a hologram of a spaceship engineer. This is, of course, every geek’s dream of glory.
4. An icon of individualism.
For all its intellectualism, however, Star Trek always provided us with men of action, and none more so than the main character of the original series, Captain Kirk. For all of the idealistic internationalism of the Star Trek future, it was clear that Americans were going to rule the future, and Kirk was a classic American type: confident, decisive, and irreverent. He was a man who was not afraid to break a few rules—his unique solution to the Kobayashi Maru Test is legendary—and above all he doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios.
He projected an optimism, assertiveness, and self-confidence that seems, I am afraid to say, like a relic of America in the 20th century. We could sure use an infusion of it today.
So how have the rebooted films done at capturing the magic of the original? Chris Pine has done a good job of bringing the character of James Kirk back to life, but with an ominous twist: an alternate timeline in which Kirk grows up fatherless, as a troublemaker with a chip on his shoulder. (He also seems to be having less fun than William Shatner’s Kirk.) That indicates the biggest departure from the original series. The new Star Trek universe is less optimistic. The title of the last installment, Star Trek into Darkness, says it all. The original series was a manifesto of optimism in a time of turmoil. We could sure use some of that again, yet we’ve been getting more of the fashionably dark pessimism that pervades the art of the present.
But most of all, the new films have been big action movies in space. They have been light on the thoughtful explorations of philosophical questions and paradoxes and heavy—very heavy—on fight scenes and splashy digital rendering. They are almost like a reverse image of the original series: huge resources have gone into the special effects, but less thoughtfulness has gone into the story lines.
These are, however, the typical failings of today’s big blockbuster films. The need to bring people into the theaters, when they could comfortably stay home and stream Netflix on their big-screen TVs, means that the studios wants big action and big special effects that can be projected onto the IMAX screens in 3D—accompanied by simple, visual stories that are easy to translate for the overseas market. These market pressures conspire to produce films that ask a lot from the visual effects teams, but very little from the audience.
Television is a different medium, which can allow for greater exploration of characters and of intriguing and creative plot premises. It might allow the creators of the new series to return to the characteristics that built the franchise—if they choose to figure out what it was that made Star Trek special in the first place.
As Spock used to say, there are always possibilities.