To Boldly Go Where 6 Shows And 12 Movies Have Gone Before
An Open Letter to Alex Kurtzman, Bryan Fuller, & CBS
Star Trek has a decidedly mixed track record. I’m a devout Trekkie, but even I have to admit that there have been episodes, and even entire series, that are best forgotten. With the recent announcement that Trek will be returning to television, it seems like a good idea to review why Star Trek has such an enduring cultural legacy, where it fell short of its goals, and what you can learn from that.
“He’s Dead, Jim”
The original Star Trek series may well be the most iconic, even though it was also one of the most troubled. Despite uneven special effects and wildly uneven writing, everyone can recognize Mister Spock, and words like “Klingon” and “phaser” are part of our everyday language. During an era when most people expected nuclear annihilation at any moment, Star Trek gave us an optimistic vision of the future — a time when people weren’t perfect, but were definitely working on it.
Americans and Russians worked side by side on the Enterprise, and even Vulcans were treated as equals. Star Trek wasn’t afraid to take sides, even when it meant alienating people. At the height of the Civil Rights movement, Star Trek featured the first interracial kiss on television. There was even an whole episode that was an extended parable about the folly of racism.
This boldness carried over into the visual aspect of Star Trek. The Enterprise itself looked nothing like traditional rockets or flying saucers, and hinted at technology and design principles that were utterly unfamiliar to viewers. The costumes, particularly for women, were elaborate, titillating, and bizarre.
Perhaps best of all, this hopeful world was filled with vivid, colourful characters who still managed to be realistic. Spock may have been described as cold and logical, but he was deeply loyal to his friends, committed to Starfleet, and endowed by Leonard Nimoy with a dignified, reserved sense of humor. Doctor McCoy was the human heart of the series — a passionate, down to earth man who cared more about people than rules. Captain Kirk was the middle ground between the two, but he was also a leader who wrestled with responsibility, a womanizer, and a man of action.
“Make It So”
The Next Generation faced an uphill battle. It had an entirely new cast, and did things a lot differently than the original series. Instead of Captain Kirk, it gave us Jean-Luc Picard, a tea-drinking Frenchman with an English accent, who preferred to solve his problems with words rather than phasers. The interior of the Enterprise looked more like a cruise ship than a star ship. Don’t get me wrong : I love every one of those things, but they were one hell of a change.
The biggest change of all, though, was in the relationships between characters. Gene Roddenberry had decreed that by this point in human history, interpersonal conflict and most forms of disruptive behaviour had been eliminated. Starfleet officers might disagree, but they would always be respectful and mature about it. Substance abuse was unheard of, and even grief was a thing of the past.
Somehow, despite all these changes and obstacles, The Next Generation was a hit. The original series gave us vivid fairy tales, while The Next Generation delivered more mature, grounded stories. One of their best episodes was “The Measure of A Man,” a courtroom drama that hinged on the question of whether Data, an android, was a person or a piece of property.
Of course, The Next Generation made mistakes, too. But even its mistakes were of a different kind than those of the original series. When the original series went wrong, it was often because it was too bold — it embraced ideas and scripts that should have been cast aside, like “Spock’s Brain” and “Turnabout Intruder”. More often than not, when The Next Generation screwed up, it was through excess timidity. The original series repeatedly took a brave stand against racism, while The Next Generation had many opportunities to come out against homophobia, and almost always backed down. In one episode, Commander Riker fell for an alien from a race that didn’t have any gender. He/she/it returned Riker’s affection, but faced severe consequences from his/her people for daring to express gendered behaviour. Jonathan Frakes ( @jonathansfrakes ), who played Riker, tried to get his love interest played by a male actor, which would have been a hugely significant moment for the gay rights movement, but the producers felt that Riker sharing a kiss with a male would be going too far.
This tentative approach extended to many aspects of The Next Generation. After Captain Picard was rescued from the Borg, who had turned him into a monster that helped destroy an entire Federation fleet, the writers had to argue fiercely to get permission to make an episode that would deal with his recovery. The producers were uncomfortable with any degree of serialization, and wanted to move on from Picard’s trauma with no explanation or continuity.
Even sound design was affected by the need to play it safe. Famed composer Ron Jones was fired after the fourth season of The Next Generation because his music was too exciting and memorable. The producers wanted a less noticeable sound track, an approach that has been described as “sonic wallpaper”.
That brings us to Deep Space Nine, possibly the most divisive part of Star Trek. The Next Generation proved that you could have a successful Star Trek series without the original cast, and Deep Space Nine set out to prove that you could do the same thing with no ship.
In many ways, Deep Space Nine marked a return to the original series. It experimented, tried new things, and even had a strong comedic element. It embraced serialization, which allows for far more complex, sophisticated stories, at a time when this was an extremely risky move. DVD-Video was still three years in the future when Deep Space Nine began production, and it was widely believed that successful TV shows had to be accessible to casual viewers, who might watch the episodes out of order.
That gamble paid off in a huge way. Instead of the usual “alien of the week” episodes that were so common in The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine gave us in-depth explorations of two alien civilizations, the Bajorans and Cardassians. One of the most important enemies in The Next Generation were the Borg, who only appeared in 6 episodes. The Dominion War story arc in Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, played out over five seasons.
Moreover, with the passing of Gene Roddenberry, the writers were free to explore characters who weren’t perfect. They were allowed to dislike each other, to have conflicting views, and to be far more relatable. One of the major themes of Deep Space Nine is that “it’s easy to be a saint in paradise.” Back on the Enterprise, or on Earth itself, people could be perfect because they weren’t faced with challenges to their world view. Deep Space Nine, though, took place in a broken-down alien space station on the fringes of civilized space. It was crewed by a mixture of Starfleet officers, civilians from many races, and Bajorans, who had just fought a war of liberation against their oppressors.
Deep Space Nine was the most sophisticated Star Trek series. It made a few mistakes, but none of them are significant enough to be worth mentioning. It was a beautiful, complex tapestry, and it wasn’t what most people wanted from Star Trek. Hardcore Trekkies often cite Deep Space Nine as the best Star Trek, as do fans of shows like The Wire. More casual viewers, however, know Star Trek as a show that takes place on a ship which explores the unknown.
I’m not running down casual viewers, or traditional Star Trek. I don’t think the new series should imitate Deep Space Nine, and I do strongly feel that it should take place on a star ship. Deep Space Nine was a beautiful exception to the rule, and it shouldn’t define Star Trek. Sometimes you need to return to your roots. The new series should, however, pay attention to the things that Deep Space Nine did well. That’s where Voyager went wrong.
“There’s Coffee In That Nebula!”
Voyager may well have been doomed from the very beginning. It started out with a strong premise. The USS Voyager became stranded on the far side of the galaxy, and in order to get home, they had to team up with the very enemies they had been chasing. On a perilous 70 year trip home, they would cross through unknown territory, meet strange new races, and face dangers and challenges that were entirely unfamiliar. And then they threw almost every part of that premise out the window at the first opportunity.
Voyager was supposed to be all about the reality of being cut off from your home. It made a big deal about how they had to ration supplies and energy, and how they would have to gather resources, and then never lived up to any of that. In the very first episode, they loudly proclaimed that they had only a limited supply of photon torpedoes, and had no way to restock. Of course, they ended up using far more than they supposedly had. The same goes for shuttlecraft — the USS Voyager was supposed to be a small ship, but they seemed to have an unlimited supply of shuttles.
The holodeck may have been the worst offender on this count — it’s one of the main sources of entertainment and recreation for the crew, but it’s also an immense energy hog. Depriving the crew of that luxury could have been an interesting plot point, and would have driven home how desperate their situation was, but holodeck episodes are easy to write, so the writers came up with a rather absurd work-around. The ship itself fell victim to this disease — no matter how badly it was damaged during the course of an episode, it would almost always be in pristine shape by the time the next episode rolled around. This blatant and unjustified reversion to the status quo was nothing more than lazy writing, and an insult to viewers.
If you were watching Game of Thrones, and one episode had a scene in which the Night Watch played a volleyball tournament on the Wall, it would be rather jarring. If the survivors on The Walking Dead spent an entire episode wearing suits & drinking martinis in a cocktail bar, and never addressed the fact that this was somehow odd, viewers might be understandably confused. When you refuse to engage honestly with your premise, you betray your art and your fans.
Were you worried that I forgot to talk about conflict between the Starfleet crew of Voyager, and their new Maquis crewmates, the very same Maquis that they had been sent to hunt down? I didn’t forget it, but it seems the writers sure did. This should have been one of the defining characteristics of Voyager, and instead it got brushed under the rug ASAP.
Nevertheless, Voyager might have been able to overcome these problems with good characters. Unfortunately, that’s not what they had. There’s a game you can play to see how strong characters are : ask someone to describe them without talking about their appearance or their jobs. It’s easy to do : Jean-Luc Picard is a mature, reserved, and intelligent person who is highly principled, and although he prefers to solve problems by talking about them, he is also comfortable with violence. Worf is gruff, somewhat emotionally immature, and very cautious. He tends to treat physical force as his first resort, and he has an idealized, romantic view of the culture he was born in.
As for Captain Janeway…well, Captain Janeway likes coffee. Kate Mulgrew ( @TheKateMulgrew )has said that she ended up playing Janeway as bi-polar, because that was the only way she could reasonably interpret the uneven way she was written. Most of Voyager’s other characters suffer the same fate. Harry Kim was such a useless character that he was almost written off the show. Just before the producers made their final decision, the actor who played Kim was named one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, so they ended up firing Jennifer Lien instead. Her character, Kes, wasn’t missed.
This actually ended up working out incredibly well, because she was replaced by Jeri Ryan ( @JeriLRyan ), playing Seven Of Nine. Ryan was probably brought on for her sex appeal, but she turned out to be one of the finest actors on Voyager (although it helps that the writers, tired of writing for the same boring characters, gave her some great material to work with). Another highlight was Robert Picardo ( @RobertPicardo )as the Doctor. Other shows might have relegated the balding, prissy holographic medic to the role of comic relief, but although Picardo certainly did a lot of comic work on Voyager, he also had a lot of meatier dramatic scenes.
In the end, Voyager became a cut-rate imitation of The Next Generation, with occasional great performances from a couple members of the cast. I’m not blaming the rest of the actors — they just didn’t have anything to work with. Voyager’s lack of artistic integrity is best shown in the episode “Tsunkatse”. Voyager aired on UPN, which was also the home of WWF Smackdown, and UPN wanted a cross-over, so “Tsunkatse” featured a wrestling match between Seven of Nine and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson ( @TheRock ). In comparison, when Ron Moore ( @RonDMoore ) (who worked on Deep Space Nine) was asked by the Sci-Fi Channel to include some kind of party in an episode of Battlestar Galactica, in order to lighten the grim mood of the show, he did indeed write a party scene, which happened to feature a munitions mishap. There were no survivors.
“I Grew Up On A J-Class”
And now we come to Star Trek : Enterprise. In theory, Enterprise seemed like a great idea. Viewers were tired of absurd techno-babble, and a prequel with more primitive, realistic technology was very promising. It offered a chance to explore the formation of the Federation, and the history of humanity’s relations with species like the Vulcans, Klingons, and Romulans.
From the very beginning, however, Enterprise was very tentative about its connection to previous Star Trek series. For the first two seasons, the show was called “Enterprise” — the words ‘Star Trek’ weren’t included. Even the theme song, “Where My Heart Will Take Me”, was an enormous departure from the instrumental orchestral themes that had always been a feature of Star Trek. Now, while most people would disagree, I’m OK with the idea of a pop song as the Enterprise theme, I just think they chose the wrong one. A fan synched up the Enterprise intro with Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and it works amazingly well. Nevertheless, the change was jarring.
To be honest, I can’t really criticize Enterprise, because I barely watched it. I stuck with Voyager long after I realized that it was never going to be what I wanted, but I came to that realization with Enterprise much sooner. In fact, I remember the episode that made me stop watching — “Stigma”, in the middle of the second season. It was an incredibly thinly-veiled allegory about AIDS — T’Pol is revealed to have contracted a disease which is highly stigmatized, as it is only spread by mind-melders, who are a small, reviled portion of the Vulcan population. While the sentiments it expressed were admirable, the whole episode was so heavy-handed as to be unwatchable. Episodes as clumsy as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” were OK back in the ’60s, but modern audiences demand something more sophisticated.
I did end up watching a few more episodes of Enterprise, during the last season, and I was pleasantly surprised by the Mirror Universe two-part episode. I was much less impressed with the final episode, “These Are The Voyages”. Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin with this episode — every single aspect of it was poorly handled. For now, let’s just note that many of the people involved have apologized for it.
“Space Is Disease And Danger Wrapped In Darkness And Silence”
The recent Star Trek movies have been a mixed bag. The 2009 movie made a few small mis-steps, all of which are outweighed by the entertaining story and excellent acting. Quite frankly, however, I think that this sort of “soft reboot” was the wrong direction for Star Trek. We learned back in the ’80s that you don’t need Kirk and Spock in order to have a successful entry in the Star Trek franchise. There have been 2 excellent Star Trek series that had little or nothing to do with the original crew, and 1 (or 2, if you count the Animated Series) that did.
One of the major strengths of Star Trek is that you have an entire galaxy with centuries of history to draw on for stories. Going back to the well of the original series smacks of desperation — ‘A new adventure with Captain Kirk’ would probably be a bigger box office draw than ‘A bunch of people you’ve never heard of doing things vaguely connected to stuff that only nerds know about’. Unfortunately, using the original crew inherently limits the kinds of stories you can tell, and it also places additional pressure not to take risks. In a sequence that Star Trek Into Darkness borrowed from The Wrath Of Khan, Captain Kirk dies. In the original, it was Spock who died, and he wasn’t brought back until the end of the next movie. In the modern version, Kirk was only dead for twenty minutes or so. It seems highly unlikely that the studio would have let him stay dead at the end of the film, and even less likely that they would let him die permanently. Using these beloved legacy characters makes it much harder to change things.
The new Star Trek series can learn a lot from what came before. Here are a few lessons it should keep in mind :
You Dance With The One Who Brung You
It was the fans who turned a canceled science fiction show into a 50 year old multi-billion dollar franchise. You don’t have to pander to the fans, and you don’t have to give them everything they ask for (back in ’93, was anyone asking for a Star Trek that took place on a space station, and took a deep look at religion and politics?), but you do have to deliver something that will satisfy them. Don’t downplay your connection to previous Treks (as Enterprise tried to do), and don’t dumb things down to make them accessible to a wider audience (as Star Trek 2009 did with a number of things, like “red matter”). Speaking of which…
Smart Is The New Sexy
Shows like Breaking Bad, The Wire, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and even Archer prove that you don’t have to cater to the lowest common denominator. Clever shows that deal in subtlety and nuance can be very successful. If the show is good enough, it will find an audience.
Character, Character, Character
Skilled characterization elevates good plots and witty dialogue, but it also makes it a lot easier to tolerate bad plots and leaden dialogue. The original Star Trek is beloved, despite episodes like “Spock’s Brain”, because people have a connection with the characters. On the other hand, no amount of wonderful writing can overcome weak characterization.
For inspiration, look to the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, to Picard, Riker, Sisko, O’Brien, Odo, and Quark. Look outside Star Trek, too. In the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian you’ll find some of the best-developed, most realistic characters in all of fiction, in a naval setting. While the main character in George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series probably isn’t the kind of fellow who will pop in Star Trek, many of his books feature extremely vivid portrayals of fascinating historical characters who would be wonderful in a science fiction setting.
Just don’t give us another character whose only identifiable trait is “born on a freighter”.
Don’t Start Fresh
A lot of amazingly talented people have worked on Star Trek over the years. No doubt many of them would be thrilled to come back. Quite a few of the actors, for instance, have gone on to direct. There are also a lot of writers associated with the franchise who would be ideal choices to help develop a new series — some of the obvious choices are Ira Steven Behr, who was largely responsible for Deep Space Nine, and Ronald D. Moore, who worked on Deep Space Nine, and ran Battlestar Galactica. There’s also Manny Coto ( @mannyhectorcoto ), who (I’m told) helped turn Enterprise into something watchable. Other strong candidates include Peter David ( @PeterDavid_PAD ) and Diane Duane ( @dduane ), who are responsible for the best Star Trek novels, some of which became New York Times best sellers.
Don’t Be Afraid
If there’s one thing that the history of Star Trek makes perfectly obvious, it is the need for boldness. Kill off a popular character. Stake out a position on a controversial issue. Try an unconventional story-telling technique. Do something the network won’t approve of. Split an infinitive. You may make a mistake, but you sure as hell won’t be boring.
Borrow From Other Science Fiction…But Not Too Much
Harlan Ellison wrote an episode of the original Star Trek. Isaac Asimov was a consultant on The Motion Picture. The Tribbles were (albeit unintentionally) borrowed from Robert Heinlein, and both Starfleet and the Federation economy seem very similar to other parts of Heinlein’s work. It would be foolish not to draw inspiration from existing science fiction. At the same time, you have to remember that you’re making Star Trek, not a generic sci-fi series. For instance, a major part of Star Trek has always been a relative lack of automation — people are responsible for even simple tasks that could be carried out much more effectively and reliably by robots or computers. Another example would be ship to ship combat — Star Trek has always treated it like naval warfare, without the high-speed fighters that show up in Star Wars, or Battlestar Galactica.
“Serial” : Not Just For Breakfast
Good TV shows don’t have to be serialized. The Next Generation wasn’t. The X-Files and Castle both have it in small doses. Even Buffy The Vampire Slayer, often seen as one of the earliest mainstream shows to adopt serialization, had a healthy number of stand-alone episodes. The truth is, though, most popular dramas these days, especially ones that aren’t procedurals, are heavily serialized, and that’s what audiences seem to want. Just don’t go too far — the format of Star Trek is very friendly to stand-alones. Deep Space Nine is probably a bit too serialized a model to follow, while a show like Veronica Mars, for instance, isn’t quite serialized enough. Something right between those two would be perfect.
Listen To The Experts
Why would you ever want consultants on your show? They’re all nerds who don’t know anything about telling a good story. There’s some truth to that attitude — an obsession with technical accuracy over good story-telling is definitely the wrong approach. You don’t even need to go as far as Futurama, which was notorious for being as scientifically accurate as possible while also telling funny stories (don’t believe me? Look up ‘Keeler’s theorem’). At the same time, you do have to keep things relatively plausible.
Star Trek’s warp drive has been described as working more or less the same way as the Alcubierre drive, a method of faster-than-light travel proposed by real life scientists. As a nerd, I find this very satisfying. However, if Star Trek suddenly decided to use a more generic, less realistic form of travel, like ‘hyperspace,’ I’d keep watching, and so would most Trekkies. Hell, we put up with far more absurdity from Doctor Who, a show that delights in being ridiculous.
Problems start to crop up when you violate common sense. In “Genesis,” a Next Generation episode, the writers took some pretty extreme liberties with the theory of evolution, but fans were OK with it because the rest of the episode was pretty good. A few years later, the Voyager episode “Threshold” took the same approach way too far. “Genesis” based a good story on an implausible view of evolution, while “Threshold” based a terrible story on an understanding of evolution so utterly wrong that even a child would recognize it as literal nonsense. “Threshold,” like “These Are The Voyages,” was so bad that even the people who made it hated it.
These issues occur even outside of science. In the original series, the Prime Directive started off as a simple rule, with a simple explanation : Don’t interfere with primitive cultures, because that never ends well. Later series would go on to significantly expand the meaning of the Prime Directive, in order to service various plots. Some of these expansions made sense, but others were inconsistent or poorly thought-out, in ways that anyone who has taken Philosophy 101 would recognize.
Learn From Marvel
One of the most common demands from Star Trek fans in recent years has been an anthology series. It could devote one season to life aboard a Klingon warship, and the next to political intrigue in the Federation Council. This format seems ideal for Star Trek, but there are obvious production reasons why it’s unlikely. CBS should take a page from Marvel’s book : when Marvel brought their cinematic universe to television, the flagship show was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but they also had the Agent Carter mini-series, which aired during the Agents mid-season break. Marvel went on to make the Defenders macro-series — starting with a 12 episode Daredevil series, followed by Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and then the Defenders, which will unite all 4 heroes. While only Daredevil has come out so far, it was truly excellent.
Could there be a more perfect model for Star Trek? Imagine a flagship series set on a new Starfleet ship, with a new cast, along the lines of the original series and The Next Generation. Give it 20 episodes per season, which should be enough to establish a complex storyline while fleshing out characters, and still avoid padding. Follow that up with an 8 episode mini-series dealing with life on a Federation colony world, or the business dealings of a Ferengi mega-corporation, à la Mad Men, or any one of a million possibilities. The next season, you get the continuing adventures of the flagship series, and then an entirely different mini-series.
A major bonus to this approach is that you could bring in a new creative team for each mini-series. There isn’t a nerd alive who wouldn’t give her right eye for a Romulan mini-series made by Greg Weisman ( @Greg_Weisman ), or a Department of Temporal Investigations mini-series from Josh Friedman ( @Josh_Friedman ).
All Good Things
Star Trek isn’t just a TV show, or even a high-value media empire. It’s a symbol of hope for the future. That symbol has been entrusted to your care — treat it well. I’d love to leave you with my pitch for a 3 season ‘House of Mogh’ series (starring Michael Dorn — @akaWorf ), but let’s face it : that crosses the line from ‘reasonable advice’ to ‘creepy fan’ at Warp 9. I’ll wrap this up with just one small request that I’m sure is shared by Star Trek fans everywhere — for god’s sake, give us Summer Glau as a Vulcan. I don’t care what you have to do, just make it so.
Addendum : I know that reading the comments is never a good idea, but it seems that there are a few points I need to clear up.
The first half of this article is only intended to provide a brief overview of the things that Star Trek did well, and the areas that could use improvement. I never meant to write a complete review of every series — that would be a Herculean task, the result of which would be so long that no one, not even the most dedicated Star Trek nerd, would ever read it. What’s more, it wouldn’t even advance my argument.
My views on Voyager are my own. In fact, both of the Star Trek episodes I most recently watched were from Voyager. One was OK, and the other was awful. There were certainly some good episodes of Voyager, but not nearly enough. I didn’t mention any of Voyager’s virtues because, at the time I wrote this, none of them seemed new to me — if the only good things it did were also things that TNG did well, then there was no real need to mention them.
To be fair, Voyager did do alternate universe episodes (and other ideas in that vein) really well, and perhaps I should have mentioned that. But one of the reasons those episodes were so good is that the writers didn’t have to worry about returning everything to the status quo afterwards. That just highlights how dull and unambitious the rest of Voyager was.
As for my recommendations, I can’t claim that any of them are ground-breaking. Most of them should be common sense. In fact, they’re generally things that the fans have been asking for, and there are plenty of shows out there that already seem to be following guidelines like the ones I’ve laid out.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in my other work -
Serious Stuff : my thoughts on the White Poppy Campaign, a quick biographical sketch of a Canadian hero, thoughts on masculinity in the modern era, and The Sad, Strange Story of the Taliban’s Canadian Hostage.
Pop Culture : My Harry Potter apologia, an essay about Heinlein’s influence on Harry Potter, my reviews of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Supergirl, The Magicians, and Star Wars : The Force Awakens, and my thoughts after reading every Discworld book