On September 23rd, the first episodes of a new Star Trek series, subtitled Discovery, were released via CBS’ All Access streaming service, placing the latest incarnation of the series that has often defined our vision of the future on the most advanced technology available. Of course, the pay-to-play nature of the streaming option has alienated some fans, who may have little interest in the other programming offered on the service. Then there is the series itself, a tortured product of post-911 American popular culture filtered through the producer’s ambitions to compete with high-status anti-heroic series such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Game of Thrones. The result is a visually stunning series, deeply immersed in the lore of Star Trek, that fails miserably to be anything that Star Trek ever was. In many ways, it works as a TV series, especially when it isn’t trying too hard, but it lacks the optimistic and humanistic core that defined every other (genuine) incarnation of the series.
Some may argue that since this series is set in a time of war, optimism and humanism might just be natural causalities of the setting. But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine dragged us through several seasons of the Dominion war without compromising the heart of the series. The episode In the Pale Moonlight explored how war can lead a person to the compromise their principles. It worked because Avery Brooks’ character, Captain Benjamin Sisko, remained committed to those principles even as he was led to violate them. He was anguished by his choices, and the consequences of those choices. Captain Lorca on Discovery feels no anguish. He’s just a soulless bully bent on victory. Bullshit post-911 thinking tells us that we want soulless bullies standing between us and our enemies, but I’d rather have a man of principle like Captain Sisko. Ultimately, what the arrival of Discovery, and the series of big-budget reboot movies that have been released since 2009, reveals, is that it is no longer possible for America, as a culture, to produce the thing called Star Trek.
When Star Trek was created in the 1960’s, the United States of America was at the zenith of its military, economic and scientific power. Vietnam was becoming a quagmire, but only a few at that time realized that it was an unwinnable war. By the mid-50’s, Japan and Europe had recovered enough to begin competing economically with the US, but a vast portion of the world’s industrial and financial base remained in America. And the space race with the Soviet Union was definitely turning in America’s favor, as NASA worked to put men on the moon. This was also a time when American society started to move toward greater racial and gender equality. Yes, these social changes and the growing antiwar movement created turmoil, but in spite of that turmoil, and the continuing threats of the Cold War, it was a time of unparalleled optimism, an American optimism that formed the core of Star Trek.
Of course Star Trek, in its first incarnation, was cancelled the same year as the moon landing. Its optimism was not profitable enough to keep it going past three seasons on network television. It would live on in syndication, and briefly as a Saturday Morning cartoon, but as far as anyone knew, even the growing cadre of hardcore fans, Star Trek was finished. Then Star Wars happened, and even though the two properties had little more in common than the word Star in their titles, the potential profitability of a science fiction film series led Paramount Pictures to produce Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Of course, between 1969 and the December 1979 premiere of the movie, Americans had been forced to abandon Vietnam, had lived through Watergate, the OPEC oil embargo, and Three-Mile-Island, and were still over a year away from the end of the Iranian Hostage Crisis. American optimism was limping around on crutches.
But Star Trek remained optimistic. Sure, The Motion Picture told us a cautionary tale about the emptiness of technology, its follow-up The Wrath of Khan warned us that the past can catch up with you (with fatal consequences), we got an environmental scolding via whale song in The Voyage Home, and saw the end of the Cold War paralleled in The Undiscovered Country, but for the most part, the future was still so bright that we had to wear shades. These movies, featuring the cast from the 1960s, remained grounded in the spirit of the original series. Their relative success, and the continued success of Star Trek in syndication, led to something else, a new Star Trek TV series.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) was set 87 years after the original, and featured a new crew of diverse characters exploring the final frontier. There was a Klingon on the bridge, because just as we would overcome the enmity we had with the Russians to put Chekov on the bridge in the original series, so would we overcome whatever enmity we had with our interstellar adversaries. Optimism. The first two seasons of TNG alternated between atrocious and acceptable. As George Lucas would prove a decade later, the original creator of a pop culture phenomenon was often the least qualified to reinterpret it for new audiences. But as Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s influence over the new series waned, it grew into something better, and eventually spawned 2 spinoff series and a dubious prequel.
The 90’s proved almost as good for American optimism as the 60’s. The collapse of the Soviet Union had left the US as the only superpower on the world stage, and the American economy appeared healthy enough if you didn’t look too deeply at the foundations. Enough people were just prosperous enough for the public to feel somewhat hopeful for the future. As the philosophical conflict of the time shifted from competing economic ideologies (communism vs. capitalism) to competing religious/cultural ideologies (Islamic fundamentalism vs. Western technocracy), Star Trek adapted its storylines to respond, creating in Deep Space Nine (DS9) the franchise’s first serious look at faith (no, Star Trek V doesn’t count as serious). In addition to religion and the war story, DS9 would examine other deep and dark topics (including the Holocaust in an episode titled Duet), but it remained quintessentially Star Trek. As did the next spinoff, Voyager, which stranded its crew in another quadrant of the galaxy so they could meet new aliens that were essentially like the old aliens with different makeup. Voyager didn’t really cover any new ground, though they did make good use of one of TNG’s best antagonist species, the Borg. But by the end of that series, Star Trek was suffering from a severe case of franchise fatigue. Unfortunately, for its future, American optimism was about to be dealt a fatal blow.
On September 26, 2001, two weeks and one day after the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, a TV series called Enterprise premiered on UPN. Lacking the title Star Trek, and indulging in the unfortunate prequelism that was all the rage at the time, Enterprise dropped a hammer through decades of Star Trek continuity to tell a story about an Enterprise crew from 100 years before the original series. Also premiering that fall was a series about a teenage Clark Kent called Smallville. That these more vulnerable versions of modern American myths, the pre-Starfleet starship crew and the adolescent Superman, should both appear within a few weeks of 911 is an interesting coincidence. Maybe the event defined a vulnerability that pop-culture was already in the process of exploring. The name of Enterprise’s first season villains, the Suliban, was only two letters away from the name of real-life villains, the al-Qaeda harboring Taliban, a conscious decision on the part of the show’s producers. They would double down on the war stories by creating the Xindi, a collection of alien races bent on destroying the Earth. Although Enterprise was the least Star Treky of all the Star Trek series, it still echoed the humanism and optimism of the original.
A last underwritten and overwrought movie with The Next Generation cast and a couple more seasons of Enterprise saw the end of professionally produced Star Trek. The nascent fan film industry would certainly seek to fill that void, but the results were mixed at best. Back when it had been a mere 79 episodes and four movies, I couldn’t imagine ever getting tired of the franchise. But after six more films, 178 episodes of TNG, 176 episodes of DS9, 172 episodes of Voyager and 98 episodes of Enterprise, I had finally had enough of the final frontier. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have watched more, only that if I never got the chance it wouldn’t have bothered me in the least. Still, I was intrigued when it was announced that a new big budget film, featuring a recasting of the characters from the original series, was being planned. Star Trek had avoided the hornets’ nest of recasting for decades by re-characterizing, creating new characters rather than replacing beloved actors such as William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy. Instead of Kirk you got Picard, Sisko or Janeway. Instead of Spock you got Data, Odo or Tuvok. It had been a winning formula. But that was about to change.
Star Trek (2009) was the brainchild of a Star Wars fan named J.J. Abrams. Abrams is, at best, a hack with one trick up his sleeve, the vaunted mystery box, which he deployed most effectively at the start of the TV series Lost. We all know how that ended. For Star Trek, Abrams and his crew created one of those big blockbuster summer tentpole movies that had become a Hollywood standard in the 2000s. These films tend to be heavy on special effects, light on story, and usually feature an abundance of gratuitous property damage (such imagery usually evoking the events of 911). The first movie was made somewhat tolerable by the presence of Leonard Nimoy, reprising his role as Spock, but the rest of the thing bore little resemblance to Star Trek.
The Hollywood obsession with the anti-hero would, in turn, make thugs out of Captain Kirk, Sherlock Holmes, and Superman. In the follow-up to the first of the Star Trek reboot films, the abysmal Into Darkness, NuKirk submits a false report to Starfleet to cover up a violation of the Prime Directive. While the original Captain Kirk was more than willing to break the rules (“he was never a Boy Scout”), he was a man of honor. He would not have lied about the violation, but rather would have defended his decision and faced the consequences. But America has no more use for men of honor and truth, however fictional they may have always been. The third film in the reboot series, Star Trek Beyond, was a slight improvement, and did capture some of the spirit of the original series, but mostly it was as much an explosion-riddled noise maker as the first two.
Then, there was Discovery, the first new Star Trek TV series since the cancellation of Enterprise in 2005. Originally the brain child of Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, Hannibal), he departed as showrunner in 2016 to focus on Showtime’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. There is no certainty that Fuller’s presence would have made Discovery better. After all, the production team that took over was working from his storyline. What they’ve created looks a lot like Star Trek, superficially, but seems profoundly disconnected from the essence of that enterprise. The series dabbles in hope and optimism by having a few of the characters say and do the right things, but the underlying tone is dark and pessimistic. And maybe it was never possible for it to ever be anything else. Informed by the trauma of 911 and sixteen years of endless, misguided war, maybe it’s impossible for American popular culture to sincerely create anything in the spirit of optimism, in the spirit of Star Trek.
Then again, there is The Orville.