What is Star Trek… really?

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enterprise crash and burn

Hint: This ain’t it.

The recent release of Star Trek Into Darkness has stirred up a lot of debate in the fanspace: Its action-packed but not particularly intelligent script is being challenged as to whether or not it adheres to the “spirit of Star Trek,” and therefore whether it should be considered a good movie vehicle.  Other movies have been pulled up to compare it to, including Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, a movie deserving of the exact same scrutiny as Into Darkness.

But base to all of this debate is the fundamental question that needs to be addressed: What is Star Trek, exactly? We can’t reliably say whether or not the movies are or are not Trek without coming to a full understanding of what Trek is.

(Note: This commentary will restrict itself to the Star Trek movie and television productions, as there is simply too much in other media to be intelligently included here.)

In the mid-1960s, TV producer Gene Roddenberry conceived of a new science-fiction-based television show to present to the networks.  He sold it to them as “Wagon Train to the stars,” an allusion to a popular western TV show about a group of people who traveled from place to place and had interesting and exciting adventures.  (Even today, the best way to sell a new TV show is to compare it to another successful TV show… “CSI in Seattle”… “Survivor in space”… “Galactica across the Alps”… etc.  TV execs get that.)

He got an okay to produce a pilot, into which he tried to introduce a galaxy-spanning starship (part of a military police force, ala Forbidden Planet) and some (at the time) groundbreaking concepts, like a cool, logical woman in second-of-command, an alien crewmember that wasn’t there for horror or comic relief, and a fairly integrated and liberated crew.  His pilot episode featured science-fiction-standby elements like advanced aliens, mind-control, humans caged like animals in a zoo… then went them one better, by presenting a compassionate and sympathetic reason for the aliens’ actions, depicting them in the end as not evil at all.

The execs didn’t like the pilot.  “Too cerebral,” they said.  They wouldn’t buy a female executive officer… because she was female, or because she was cool and logical… take your pick.  And the alien crewmember looked “devilish.”  No sale.

So Roddenberry did another pilot.  This time, the female exec was replaced by the alien crewmember, who was now presented as the cool and logical one.  Most of the other lead characters were replaced, and the new storyline involved an officer who is zapped by a strange energy field and becomes a powerful threat to the crew, and whom the Captain must dispatch in an epic battle of yelling, energy blasts and phaser-fire.

The execs went for that.  Star Trek had its green light for production.

Although Roddenberry was mindful of the TV heads’ disdain for “cerebral” material, he was also a smart writer, and mindful of the period he found himself working in.  The 1960s was a unique era in television, wherein shows were taking advantage of the medium to explore other, more controversial subjects in the news at the time: Race and gender equality; political ideologies; war and morality; American values; environmental issues.  Westerns, anthologies and historical dramas had begun to tell these stories, hidden behind the trappings of genre.  Roddenberry hoped to do the same.

With his guidance, Star Trek became one of the best known and most successful TV series to explore those controversial subjects, and break new ground regarding characters and their roles and relationships, as well as delving into subjects hitherto only seen between the pages of serious science fiction novels, exploring concepts like human psychology, intolerance and prejudice, might and right, morals and psychology, pain and loss… the very the definitions of humanity and our efforts to be the best species we could be.  Its original tagline—To boldly go where no Man has gone before—referred to the exploration (and improvement) of the human condition as much as the exploration of the galaxy.  And to this day, the original Star Trek series is still lauded as the most shining example of such television.

Not that Star Trek was perfect: Besides its legendary budgetary constraints, it found itself warring with censors on a regular basis.  Stories often lost much of their flair by the time they reached the small screen, and the shortcuts that had to be taken to depict a high-minded concept often came out trite, even outright laughable.  And Trek still often resorted to good old-fashioned fisticuffs and battles to win the day, proving that American might always makes right in the end.  As much as Star Trek was lauded for its high morality, so was its star, William Shatner, regularly lampooned for his melodramatic dialog and torn-shirt-flying-kick “cowboy diplomacy.”  Cowboy diplomacy notwithstanding, Trek was always held up to a high moral standard that few shows could be said to match.

Unfortunately for Star Trek, the audience that valued such material was never as large as the audience that liked sitcoms, action and more familiar genres like Westerns and War.  Trek only managed to get through three seasons before being cancelled.  Though efforts were made to revive the show, Paramount showed no real interest in the project… until a little movie called Star Wars broke box office records worldwide, and Paramount wondered how they could get in on the good thing that 20th Century Fox had unexpectedly tapped into.

You can almost hear the echoes bouncing through the corridors of history: “Hey, check it out… we have a sci-fi thing too!  It was called Star Trek.”  “Sounds like the same thing as Star Wars… good deal!  Get this into the pipeline, stat!”  “stat… stat… stat…

And so began Paramount’s revival of the Star Trek franchise, first in the theatres, then back on television.  But Paramount was seeking a different audience for the movies… a Star Wars audience.  And Trek was not a Star Wars vehicle, as the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture clearly illustrated.  Movie audiences generally panned their attempt to explore “higher states of being” and allegorical Creators as so much snooze-fest.  So Paramount brought in directors and producers who knew nothing about Star Trek… but knew how to make action movies with big scores and cool special effects.  Instead of stories that hit on iconic Trek elements, they went with attacking Trek icons… especially the starship Enterprise, which eventually became the most-repeatedly-destroyed ship ever in a science fiction franchise.  The next Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, squarely hit the buttons Paramount was aiming at, and won over moviegoers who hadn’t even seen the original episode from which the movie was based; as far as the studio was concerned, this was the formula for Star Trek movies forever more.

Khan had little in common with what had always been the intent of the original Star Trek series… or even the original Khan episode, Space Seed.  Problem was, no one at Paramount, and precious few moviegoers, cared.

With the success of the movies came more television series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise; which, in general, made a more concerted effort to be more faithful to the original intent of Star Trek.  Unfortunately, television is controlled by ratings more than ever before, and the new Trek series found themselves struggling to maintain audience share.  Though they were buoyed by movie and general franchise popularity, the TV series found themselves resorting to heavily action-oriented plots—generally season-spanning wars between the Federation and one of the many other empires or races they encountered over the years—and elements designed for titillation (something the original Trek series was also not unfamiliar with, but which had been generally used as background elements; in later series, sexy main cast members designed as eye-candy became featured foreground elements).

The wars and eye-candy made the shows very popular, as the movies featuring the same morals-free action and effects-laden conflicts continued to win box-office… which, depending on your point of view, was either great or galling.  For Paramount, a company devoted above all to making money off of media entertainment, there was no question how they felt.  And as the clear majority of TV watchers and moviegoers were right behind them, they had no reason to doubt their direction.

But in the midst of all this, the original intent of Star Trek has been loudly bulldozed over by the profitability of flashy mediocrity.  And with J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the movies in 2009 and 2013, Star Trek‘s morality, philosophy and ideology has been completely obscured by profit-inducing sleight-of-hand: The misdirection of a young cast aping established character archetypes; and the blinding effect of lens flare.

If Q, the nigh-omnipotent pan-dimensional being introduced in The Next Generation series, were able to see what had become of the franchise known as Star Trek, from its ground-breaking beginnings to its common-denominator-pandering present, he would be reduced to tears of laughter at our expense, guffawing at the high-minded humans, so sure of their superiority and destiny of greatness… and who finally, by their own hand, proved themselves to be no more than ground-scratching apes after all.

And in the case of Star Trek, he wouldn’t be wrong.


The Kestral Voyages represent my foray into sci-fi adventure… check it out.

cover of The Kestral Voyages: My Life, AFter Berserker

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11 thoughts on “What is Star Trek… really?

  1. Donn

    I think you got it, Steve. I thought STID was a passable summer action flick, but it was not a passable Star Trek movie. Other than explosions, chases and thumping fists; the only real theme was a murky allegory to pre 9/11, 9/11 and post 9/11 reactions. I say “murky” not because the allegory was not obvious, but it was ambiguous as to what the movies point of view was.

    What was most missing was any real conversation between the beloved ST characters beyond mere catch phrases shouted between explosions, and odd pop culture references. I would so much have loved to see everyone gathered in Kirk’s Ready-Room, discussing the situation, theorizing potential actions – Hell, just having a discussion longer than 30 seconds long before another *BOOM*.

    STID has no heart, and precious little intelligence.

    What it does have is talented actors, and extremely slick special effects. That does not a Star Trek movie make.

    I would love to see the next ST movie made for under 60 million, and written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Lord knows what the result would be, but it couldn’t help but be much more interesting than STID.

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  2. Tarantino?!? Huh. My list of prospective directors would be M. Night Shyamalan, David Lynch, Robert Zemekis, Ridley Scott or Andrew Niccol. Someone who not only gets other-worldliness, scope, psychology and sociology, but can make their actors show the impact within them… that “Why didn’t I see that before?” moment, the “Thank God we didn’t screw all this up” moment, the “Christ, I’m an ant, no an amoeba, in the cosmos” moment.

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  3. I find this article conclusion hasty in my opinion. Of course, the ST franchise has changed a lot to become STID, but it’s not a bad thing. I went to see the movie twice in a week (which is a personal record in my book) and I am as excited to see a ST3 reboot movie as I was when I finished to first one in 2009.

    You say that the ST series was “transformed” by higher ups and producer, yes I give you that. But can a series that was born in the 1960 remain the same without evolving in some way and keep the attention of the general public? Nothing can stay static, everything need to upgrade in some way to survive and it’s not a bad thing.

    I started to watch STNG again last month since it’s was added on Netflix and even if the show is great, there are some things that are lacking in a lot of department to keep my interest as a veteran series viewer. Personally, I cannot see how we can get new viewers to get hooked-up to this series. Even my girl friend, who his a compete ST neophyte went: “What’s that crap?” when I tried to make her watch an episode. How can a series survive in the modern times if it’s stuck in the past?

    Yes the original series was in a “legendary low budget” state, but does it have to be this way for it to be great? Why is it so bad to find a few well made action scenes to keep the audience hooked-up? It could have been way worst, the movie could have been made by Micheal Bay (BAYSPLOISIONS EVERYWHERE!) The action “facette” is good because without that, we only get a bunch of intelligent people speaking about “space stuff” in space and nothing happen. Kind of boring in my opinion.

    STID was refreshing, there was a little of everything for everyone. It kept the same spirit of the first movie with it’s character and the reality of having the timeline change by Nero in ST1. (Loved the old/new Spock paradigm) The character development was also well made and for the first time in any ST movie we saw the future human society up close. Don’t get me wrong, I love the enterprise and seeing aliens worlds, but one of the joy of any sci-fi is to see where humanity will be in X years in the future and I had this feeling with the earth scenes in STID.

    Also the action scene with Khan made me realize how superior he was. Back in the original ST:WoK, I only saw Khan as an old guys wearing a rocker hair cut with a over the top superiority complex followed by a crew of brainwashed hooligan. I remember saying to myself: “What’s the big deal about this guy?” I completely understand the production context back in the days, but it’s a shame that it took me 20 years to understand who Khan really was.

    The fan service in STID was spot on. On my second viewing of the movie I went to see it with my friend who is a bigger ST fan that I will ever be and every once of fan service was a delight for him. The movie is not perfect (far from it) but if you can get someone who is as uptight as my friend about his beloved ST franchise giggle like a Japanese school girl all movie long, that’s an epic win I give to J.J. Abraham that require the highest high five ever.

    In conclusion, I think that STID is a great movie that will encourage the new generation to learn more about the ST in general. It’s adapted to the modern standards that is required to get any attention at all from the general public. That the role of any movie, get new fans and STID does it pretty well. If you want to keep the spirit of a franchise, that’s something that happen in the series, not on the big screen in my opinion. Also if you keep a mindset that everything in ST need to be kept the same as it was, you will suffocate the franchise since everyone will see it as a airtight circle that only the true “connaisseurs” of ST can join. That the same thing as a long agonizing death sentence for any franchise.

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    • Tao,
      If a franchise has a central theme… and it is decided that, 40 years later, the audience no longer appreciates or is interested in that theme… then why, in heaven’s name, would anyone create something new for that franchise at all? Would it not make more sense to create your new program with its new theme, and call it “Space Grads,” or something, and let the old franchise lie?

      “The action “facette” is good because without that, we only get a bunch of intelligent people speaking about “space stuff” in space and nothing happen. Kind of boring in my opinion.”

      I don’t consider “intelligent talk” and a lack of explosions boring, myself. Give me movies like Solaris and Moon any day of the year. And I don’t mean rebooting Solaris with running gunfights on the station; it’s fine the way it is.

      Star Trek stands for a central idea: To boldly go where no Man has gone before. Chasing terrorists? Been there. Madmen blowing up planets? Done that. If you can’t create Star Trek movies that are about human outer and inner exploration and intelligent concepts… don’t make them at all.

      Go make all the Space Grads movies you want, but labeling them Star Trek is like making a Transformers movie and calling it I, Claudius.

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      • Thank you for your reply.

        I think the core of the franchise is still the same. Like you said: “To boldly go where no Man has gone before” The theme was used in both movie in my perspective: In the first, Nero and Spock goes back in time though a black hole (If that fact don’t qualify as “where no man as gone before”, then what is) and in the second, we see actual native alien life form. It’s not much, I give you that, but it’s better than nothing.

        In big movie productions, the space exploring angles is kind of hard to exploit in order to deliver a good experience in 90 minutes (or so) Even in the original movie (with the exception of final frontier) all the action was around the Earth and the shadow of a crisis over it. The audience need to connect with the main problematic of the movie and it’s not that easy went you are rooting for the survival of an alien world.

        The core is still appealing to the general public, but “le problème” is the way it’s delivered that need to upgrade a little. Where you see Space Grads, I see a way for the new generation to connect to the character of the franchise (and see the “making of” the original crew at the same time). Young peoples need models to identify themselves in order to get hooked and immersed into a imaginary universe. With all the respect I have for William Shatner and Leonard Nemoy, they are not as appealing as they once were (although Nemoy nailed it’s as old Spock. Still got it)

        That’s the angle of the “upgrade” the franchise needed. Yes, some theme are redundant. Terrorism is a theme that a lot of movie did get (even Batman), but that’s the flavor of the month and it can happen to any franchise. But that’s a natural process any franchise need to go through in order to “survive” Even James Bond became a bad boy in the latest iteration, some kind of anti-hero “à la” Dexter or Breaking Bad which is another theme that’s been overused in the latest series.

        As long as the core is still intact, I don’t see anything to get upset about. I wish we could have seen more of uncharted space in the second movie, but that’s something we might see in the third.

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  4. I don’t see the “core” of Star Trek to be intact here at all. “Boldly going” doesn’t just mean flying a starship to a place we haven’t been before; it’s a metaphor for exploring the human condition, humanity’s goals, morals, foibles and fears. It’s about understanding humanity as much as, if not more than, the cosmos around us… and exactly what part we have in that cosmos.

    It’s so much more than “This thing is bad, let’s punch it until it dies.” The original Star Trek studied issues to understand whether something was bad… if our human morals and opinions deemed it bad… and whether, in fact, it was not bad at all… merely different, and deserving to be cherished. Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC) was not only a motto of Vulcan philosophy, it was the motto of the show itself. Aliens weren’t automatically considered monsters because they were different.

    True, the show often sought to exercise American morals and opinions on other societies… an inevitable result of American jingoist values and “manifest destiny.” But even these moments were examined and judged, sometimes not in our heroes’ favor, and knee-jerk reactions almost always turned out to be wrong ones. We were out there to learn, about ourselves most of all, so we could best appreciate where we’d come from and where we are going.

    That’s the “core” of Star Trek, and Abrams’ two movies have had none of that.

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    • LazarX

      You said “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations (IDIC) was not only a motto of Vulcan philosophy, it was the motto of the show itself”

      In truth, it was mainly an excuse for Spock to wear a pendant on one episode of the show. Roddenberry knew that the series was on it’s last legs and wanted to capitalise on as much marketing as he could. So the IDIC pendant and resulting quote was thrown into the episode for that reason only.

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  5. erik

    I kind of liked Into Darkness. In my opinion, Sci-fi has to evolve to survive. Perhaps it could evolve to more intelligent scripts and less action. But hey… intelligent series has made it an habit to die after one season.

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  6. Perhaps… but science fiction in movies and TV seem to be “evolving” in the opposite direction, more action and “low-brow” fantasy elements (attacking aliens, zombies, etc) and less of intelligent subjects and discourse.

    The majority of the public has clearly voted with their pocketbooks. We have reached an era when people want to forget their troubles and get lost in movies; to scream and laugh like maniacs on a mini-vacation. Producers are going for mindless entertainment optimized to sell the most movie tickets and popcorn—which is their job, after all—because the majority of us are demanding it.

    As entertainment media continues to branch out into non-traditional on-demand outlets like the web and mobile networks, we might see a resurgence in viewers interested in “intelligent SF” and seeking a more diverse world of choices. But major media keeps a great deal of control over those non-traditional outlets, too, and strive to limit exposure to more diverse material, instead using web and mobile to showcase their own popcorn-based fare and draw us back to traditional media (where they make the most money off of us).

    All of this makes the immediate future of Star Trek dicey at best: Prepared to re-emerge as superior material, but kept down by producers’ emphasis on low-brow, high-profit traditional media. But considering what Star Trek stands for, I’d rather see it fade from major media for a time, to be rediscovered by a more intelligent crowd later… instead of being turned into another Star Wars clone because Star Wars sells popcorn.

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  7. Scott

    Let me start by saying, I am a *huge* Trek fan. I grew up watching NG with my father, I’m one of those Trekkers who can tell you the little details behind that alien choice, and I write Trek collaborative fiction.

    I have a running theory that science-fiction is today’s parable. Like parables, they have different levels. Depending on the readiness of the audience, you can enjoy the weird aliens and explosions or delve deeper and see the issues of our day. It’s non-offensive because it’s about aliens, not same-sex marriage right?

    That being said, I think this evaluation of Star Trek is a little skewed. Star Trek has a broad audience, but not as broad as other franchises. I think that audience can be divided into two parts: Movie-goers and series-watchers.

    The movie-goers are the broader of the two. Sure some teenage jock will go see Star Trek Into Darkness because he hears there are cool effects and nearly naked aliens. But would he watch the series every week? No.

    The series-watchers will go see the movie because it’s Trek. I haven’t heard of any fans who refused to see the movie because “it has too many explosions”. It’s the series where Trek becomes more intellectual. Where they can “go where no one has gone before.”
    Just like you cannot expect a television series to do big budget explosions and special effects, you can’t expect the movies to tackle issues of race, equality and exploration. It’s not the audience for it.

    Last, I think your comparison is taking a snapshot of Trek and comparing it to the running movie. Trek includes intelligent discourse and exploration. It *also* contains womanizing Kirk, jumping into the air in front of explosions, special effects, bumpy-headed aliens and lens flares. All of it is Trek. You can’t have one without the rest and still call it Trek.

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