How Do You Screw Up Star Trek?
At some point, and I think it is easy to point to it, Star Wars became superior to Star Trek. And I say that taking into consideration the Star Wars sequel films. Let me explain why I feel this way.
Let me start at the beginning. Or my beginning anyway. Star Trek and Star Wars had been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I loved both equally. They were both two very different things and I appreciated them equally for what they were. One provided me with fun adventure and great spectacle. The other provided me with thought-provoking stories. One was dessert. The other was dinner.
Star Trek had perhaps the bigger impression on me. It was available for my consumption on a daily basis as it was well into its life in syndication by the time I came along and blessed the world with my presence. There was a time you could switch between channels and watch two or three or more (if your television had good reception) episodes of TOS per day or in a row. It was said at this time that Star Trek was playing somewhere in the world every hour of every day. And this was at a time before Paramount truly understood what it had. I consumed it willingly. Not all of it mind you. The short-lived Marvel series after TMP was just too silly for me but the Gold Key comics with the blond Uhura was acceptable.
In contrast I was much more tolerant of whatever Star Wars stuff I could get. I still have no issue with the green rabbit (who thought that was good?) Jaxxon from the early days of the Marvel Star Wars run. Even the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special was not an issue. I guess it had more to do with available content at the time than anything else.
As time moved on, I did not accept everything Star Wars or Star Trek without hesitation or just because the franchise name was attached. I admit to not being too thrilled by TNG towards the end of its run. It felt too much like an alien of the week series and they were repeatedly too involved in the minutia of alien politics of that one off world they were at rather than exploring strange new worlds and using it as an excuse to examine something about humanity. Still though it was good Star Trek overall for me. I understand how the series is viewed now but back then this was all new. There were still many thought-provoking stories that explored the human condition or just big ideas than there were, say, the succession rituals of the Klingon Empire for example.
DS9 was a hard pill for me to swallow at first. Star Trek on a space station? Who thought this was a good idea? I ask that a great deal on just about anything. But I gave the show a shot and saw potential.
Season One was a little disjointed and they were clearly not sure what to do. This was possibly because it was Star Trek on a space station and even the writers did not know how to explore strange new worlds or the human condition or anything on a concept that until that point had been entirely centered around a space travelling vessel but the show found its footing but tossing in a continuing threat and recurring characters. Even from Season One (poorly) all the way to the very end (expertly) DS9 explored big ideas and examined the human condition and even put Starfleet ideals to the test in sophisticated character driven stories once it understood itself. By the end it became my favorite Star Trek spinoff to date.
Voyager arrived and the show largely went through the motions, but they still did character driven stories but leaned a little more towards the humor. Given the environment the ship was in, it was a better place to do what DS9 did than DS9 was but often they played it safe. The characters rarely faced situations where they compromised their morals, or even had their ideals put to the test.
Enterprise showed up on the scene as a prequel series. For a show that was about moving forward, going back felt like an odd choice. It had the right formula if it had taken place after Voyager or DS9 or even TNG but for a show set in the most dangerous point of exploration (that had been said a few times in Star Trek) the characters were never in a significant level of danger and managed to survive relatively unscathed. Season Three was their only heavy test. It was not consistently bad, and it kept the basic Gene Roddenberry framework but could have been better.
At their core, each show was Star Trek. Each show was built around a better tomorrow for humanity. Each show was an ensemble. DS9 and Enterprise had more antagonism among the crew than TOS, TNG, or Voyager but the characters were always on the same side. The shows put human questions and human situations into a science fiction story and discussed them in largely character driven ways. While not perfect, the movies and shows fit together and you could see a flow from one to the next.
Starting with the TNG era though, the movies began to falter. Data and Picard were shown to have this close relationship that was largely absent from the series. Geordi, Data’s best bud in the series, got largely stuck yelling about damage to the ship or giving technical updates. The first TNG film was about cleaning the slate of TOS with the following two attempting cool spectacle. It was not until the fourth that they focused more on character.
Then Star Trek vanished for several years. No real new content. No new movies after the box office disappointment of Nemesis. There were hints of a few television shows that never came to fruition. We got some fan films and novelizations continuing things suggested by the shows but nothing canonical in the live action realm.
Enter JJ Abrams. Here is a man who openly preferred Star Wars over Star Trek and is said to have stated he lacked any real familiarity with the Star Trek universe. But unlike Nicholas Meyer (who himself knew nothing at first) he showed no interest in familiarizing himself with it. Abrams knew Star Trek in a superficial aspect and never ventured beyond that.
Abrams wanted to make something he preferred and decided to make Star Trek like Star Wars with all the visual punch and limited character development that entails. All three movies contain lots of explosions and lots of space battles and in those battles was a style more akin to what you would find in Star Wars than Star Trek. Star Trek tried to make the combat naval in appearance. In the reboots the battles are frenetic dogfights. The focus was on action and spectacle. The shows that followed these movies continued that trend. Much like Star Wars, they are well produced but lack the attempts at depth of previous Trek efforts.
Star Wars came on the scene in ’77 partially inspired by Flash Gordon and with at least one moment, the cantina at Mos Eisley, inspired by a moment in the TOS episode “Journey to Babel.” From the beginning it was space opera filled with daring do and space wizards. The heroes were larger than life and the issues were of a galactic scale.
Once the original three films were completed, we got the Ewok television films as well as the animated Star Wars: Droids and Star Wars: Ewoks. All were different creatures, but all felt like they belonged in the Star Wars universe. Even The Star Wars Holiday Special which was meant to tide fans over until Empire fit in. Then there were a few years of silence with vague mutterings of new material outside of books and comics, but nothing ever happened.
Then the prequel films arrived in May of ’99. Say what you will about them, they fit with what we had seen previously. You could see they sprung from the same source. Afterwards we got videogames and a new animated series and even a theatrically released pilot for that series. It all felt as if it belonged.
The House of Mouse steps in and buys Lucasfilm because from my perspective George Lucas got sick of complaining fans. They gave us five more films, two animated series, and as of this writing one live action show. Aside from The Last Jedi, they all had a similar tone and vibe to what came before. You could easily see that they were related without seeing their name anywhere.
Star Wars, for all the flaws of the recent films, is still what it was in 1977. It still has lightsabers and Jedi, and it has adventure in it. It has kept the basic elements of what it started with and at times done things different that still fit (Rogue One). The Last Jedi tried to take a crap all over everything but one hiccup in that universe does not mean it has become something completely different.
Star Trek cannot say the same. Moving near it in the reboots and embracing it starting with Discovery, everything is dark and sinister now. They are agendas within agendas and nefarious plots abound. And worse, the stories are shallow. They are adventure type stories.
I remember an interview with a writer for TNG. He remarked how after meeting with Roddenberry, how Roddenberry after listening to what he had to say about a possible episode reiterated the question that started it all: what is the story they were discussing all about? The stories had to be something more than what you could get from the start surface. In this case it had to be about more than Q taking the crew on a wild goose chase. There had to be some character growth or some lesson or something. That is no longer the case. If Burnham and pals are going to investigate a strange signal, then they are going to do just that. There will be no lessons learned or character growth nor will the events be an allegory to anything.
Star Trek has forgotten what it is mostly because it is headed by people that never liked it for what it was or know much about the Trek universe. It is no longer a positive depiction of tomorrow with thoughtful stories as allegories for things today. Star Trek now is trying to mimic Star Wars with a heavy dose of cyberpunk but has simply become a pale imitation of Star Wars. There are plenty of explosions and frenetic space battles that serve as a resolution to a storyline. That is Star Wars. In Star Trek, not every resolution needs to be exciting and filled with action. They just need to be logical.
Star Trek is not Star Wars. It is not flashy and filled with lots of “Oooo’s” and “Aaah’s.” It can have them in it, but they are not the focus. They are not the sole means of resolving plot issues. The stories are to be more character driven and to be more than a fun adventure. Sometimes the character growth that comes in the final act is what resolves the issue with no shots being fired.
And that is why Star Trek is less now. The stories lack substance. There is no longer anything that makes you think. If it were to get back to exploring strange new worlds or touching on big ideas or even demonstrating a positive tomorrow for humanity, then it could become once again the equal of Star Wars. Return to being substance over style and let Star Wars be style over substance. Let the adventure stories for someone else. Be your own thing.
By trying to be what it never was meant to be, Star Trek has abdicated its throne. We need variety in our fandoms. Greatness at times comes from being different. It does not come from ripping off something else. Be Star Trek.