The Star Trek universe started out as a deeper than most (of the time) three-season science-fiction series that by all rights should have been forgotten when the last episode aired in 1969 but it was not. Three season shows rarely stay in the public consciousness. Yet here we are decades later with multiple films and spinoffs and tales told across multiple types of media.
Star Trek’s concepts of a better tomorrow with a better humanity resonated with a public reeling from the chaos and social change of the 60s and gave the show staying power. Through the magic of syndication Star Trek reached new people and vastly grew its fanbase.
Why? Because it had something to say. It could be enjoyed for more than what a particular story was on the surface about. Through successive iterations such as Star Trek: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and even Enterprise the stories had something to say either about the characters or the human condition or some current event. They were focused on telling a good story more than they were on special effects or just general spectacle.
Following the success of the initial Star Wars, Paramount decided to turn Star Trek into a movie and we got six films that while keeping the relationships the same moved the characters in new and interesting directions. They grew and evolved yet remained true to what they started as. The hope of a better tomorrow for humanity as we achieved great things together having moved past our differences remained at this fictional universe’s core.
And then some things started to happen after the TNG films things went quiet in the world of the Federation. When JJ Abrams came along and rebooted the Star Trek universe, Star Trek finally got the big budget I thought it always deserved and a director that I thought could at least deliver an enjoyable Star Trek project even if the legacy characters were recast and in an alternate timeline. I read assurances that the characterization would be essentially the same and it would be a good Star Trek film. Nope on both accounts.
But it produced financial results. It followed the template of many current films and focused on creating memorable sequences even if that was at the expense of story and characterization. They focused on making you go “Wow!” rather than leaving you with something to think about.
Part of the creative team that arrived with Abrams stayed behind when he moved on.
And then film production sputtered and eventually stopped and Paramount decided to create another TV series. “Yay” right? Wrong. They put in charge Alex Kurtzman. He was one of the creative minds behind the three reboot films and had previously stated his preference for Star Wars over Star Trek which was clear without having to be said based on what was in the movies he helped write.
Enter Star Trek: Discovery. Gone was the hopeful vision of the future and replaced by a down and dirty depiction of humanity where we were nothing. The crew is regularly at each other’s throats in one way or another and we have a series focusing on the central character (despite pretenses of being an ensemble series) when previous shows were ensemble cast. Worse yet this new character is not that appealing. As with all the characters in the show she is just one note.
Gone are deeper stories about something more. If the episode is about tracking down alien signals, it’s just about tracking down alien signals and nothing else. To resolve a plot let’s start shooting and blowing things up. Admittedly that could occur in previous Star Trek but that was not the preferred resolution as it is now.
The sequel series Picard has fallen to the same fate. Resolutions are shooting and explosions and shouting and the hopeful vision is still missing. It is about the worst in us and not the best. A great leader got ‘deconstructed’ in his own show.
Star Trek is a universe that currently wishes to be more like Star Wars than the Star Trek it is supposed to be. It’s not trying to be thoughtful or deep. It’s trying to be all flash and appeal to people that like superhero films and who necessarily don’t gravitate toward something like Star Trek. Admittedly Star Trek was never the deepest science-fiction out there, but it was vastly deeper than it is today. I keep hearing show runners talk about “cinematic” rather than mention story.
There were certain elements that made Star Trek unique and kept the core fans around for as long as it did. These were also elements that made it stand out from other science fiction. It was a hopeful future and a better humanity. Earth wasn’t some dirty decaying cesspool, and everyone got along more or less. There was conflict between the crew at times but they weren’t perpetually at everyone’s each other’s throats.
We now have presented to us a near hopeless future where everything is bad in its own way. We as a species are really no better off than we were. We just have nicer toys. Plus it’s starting to feel like Star Wars.
What I call ‘space magic’ is becoming more and more prevalent throughout Star trek. I’m not talking about technologically or physically advanced beings. I’m talking about characters or objects having vast power for no discernible reason. Gone is the need for an internal logic that gives a scientific sheen to how things work and why they happen.
The message that was trying to be conveyed per episode if there was a message was given a candy coating that went down easy. You can get on the surface a good character driven episode but maybe a second viewing might tell you it was about false gods or bad religion or the futility of war or even how damaging drug abuse can be. Gene Roddenberry insisted that the stories be about something more.
I recall seeing an interview with a former TNG writer. He was pulled into Gene Roddenberry’s office one day and they were discussing a script that would eventually become “Q Who.” Roddenberry asked the writer to discuss the story what the story was about. The writer went through it. Essentially Q took the crew on a wild goose chase. After the explanation was over Roddenberry asked one more time so what is it about. The point was it had to be about something more than Q taking the crew on a wild goose chase. The writer went back to the drawing board and made it about Q experiencing a little humanity.
While Wrath of Khan is about battling a megalomaniacal villain it’s also about confronting the wrongs and mistakes of your past and growing older. The Search for Spock is about the strong bonds that can be forged in friendship and not just battling the Klingons for a super weapon. “Inner Light” is a classic TNG episode that grows the character of Picard and is not just some encounter with alien technology.
But that maturity is gone. It is replaced with low concept and low intelligence. There is little to no hope. Star Trek was once about hope and positivity and now it’s not. It has lost its way and needs to find its way back.