Is Star Trek’s day done?

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enterprise crash and burnThe SF world is abuzz about talks to create a new television show set in the Star Trek universe. Nothing is set in stone, so everyone is predictably offering their opinions on what the new series should be like.

Sorry, Trekkers… but I question whether the world needs another Trek series at all.

First, allow me to go on record that I love Star Trek.  I grew up on it, and it helped shape and guide my interest in science fiction.  It’s a great franchise.

That said… here are a few things to consider: First of all, Star Trek was conceived by Gene Roddenberry, an American war veteran and policeman turned TV writer and producer.  Gene, in conceiving Star Trek, presented it to TV executives as a “Wagon Train to the stars,” a reference to a popular TV show format wherein a group of people travel unfamiliar lands, helping people (and sometimes themselves) out of trouble along the way.  The organization he chose to embark on such a trip was a quasi-military organization, a sort of romantization of the post-war navy.  The stories featured adventures in strange lands, or places where strange phenomena required the best and brightest to solve and overcome.  The aliens they encountered were very clearly designed to be caricatures of existing foreign peoples, and conflicts with them closely resembled conflicts with certain countries with which Americans were very familiar.  And a great deal of the world-building involved a cold-war-esque threat of armageddon with those various other races.

All of which was fine, for the late-twentieth century United States seeking to reconcile their position as world superpower with their own domestic problems, confident in its ability to solve any problem with a judicious use of technology, and hoping to be the country that would lead the world into a future with a decidedly American skew.

Fast-forward to 2013: We are only three years from what will be Star Trek‘s 50th anniversary; and to be blunt, the world has changed quite a bit.  The planet and its issues have proven to be much more difficult to solve, and even technology has proven to be not up to the task in many instances.  Further, we’ve seen examples where technology causes as many problems as it solves, or meets unexpected resistance due to its impact on the personal, social, financial or political balance of life and power.  Technology is not the shining white knight of fifty years ago; it has shown itself to be as often dangerous, corruptible and unpredictable.

Our view of the world’s people has changed, too.  The American “melting pot” has pretty much finished simmering, and the domestic issues involved with different races living together is all but gone.  On the other hand, lifestyles and preferences have become more of an issue than ever before, and we’ve discovered that many Americans tend to be more isolationist than ever before.  Other countries seem much more like America than before, but strangely, America finds itself being simultaneously held up as an ideal place to live and a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the world.

Even the impression of our own industry and organizations has changed significantly.  Where once the American work ethic was considered without peer, a recent history of corruption, lies, infighting, crime, misrepresentation and unfair practices has tarnished the reputation of the American organization, whether it be corporate, government, military or public service.

And finally, our knowledge of space and science has grown.  The simple assumptions made by Star Trek (or presented due to budgetary limitations) are no longer accepted by scientists, the media or the public.  Alien races that all inexplicably speak English, ships that easily travel faster than light, matter replicators, energy weapons and other physics-shattering phenomena are the quaint stuff of the 1900s, but hopelessly dated in the 2010s.

In this light, a fleet of great, infinitely-powerful ships plying the universe landing on new planets every week and sharing universal truths with the humanoid occupants seems ludicrous.  Star Trek, a concept born in the 1960s, has effectively lived to see its own obsolescence; we’ve outgrown it, the same way we’ve outgrown Flash Gordon and H.G. Wells’ Martians.  Even Gene Roddenberry wouldn’t want us to plant our feet in the mud and refuse to move forward.

Ironically, the recent movies have shown us how much we’ve outgrown Trek.  Stories featuring characters who openly defy authority and command structures, technology that looks shiny but incomprehensible to today’s audiences, exploration having given way to coarse conflict and destruction, character relationships pulled out of prime time soaps, and demonstrations of physics straight out of cartoon reality, represent clear abandonment of what Star Trek represents and strives for.  And these movies are proving very popular with audiences, demonstrating that they’re okay with the idea of giving up the ideals of Star Trek for something new (essentially, Star Wars).

So I say it’s clearly time to retire Star Trek, and build a science fiction show for today.  A show that better represents our world today and our hopes for tomorrow, and our increased knowledge of science and physics.  A show that doesn’t revolve around a gargantuan space-faring navy… that doesn’t have humanoid aliens on every other planet… that doesn’t cross the galaxy in mere minutes… that does more than set up obvious parallels with human international and domestic issues… that shows technology in a realistic light, as tools that help us to do our jobs, that occasionally need coaxing to do so, but are not magic buttons to solve every crisis.

Firefly castI’ll go ahead and make the suggestion that Firefly is probably much closer to the science fiction show to carry us through the next fifty years of television; a show about humans and pretty much only humans, since we are much less likely to meet and communicate with aliens like us than we previously thought; a show whose boundaries are a lot more human-scale than entire galaxies, and whose physics reflects the things we now know.  Another suggestion: Cowboy Bebop, a show that never leaves the solar system, but that built up a wealth of locations and mythology to set stories within.

Sure, it’s not as fun as Klingons, phasers and mind-melding; but it is more modern, more realistic and more grown-up.  And if we do it right, it can be the vision that takes us all the way to the 21st century.  I think Mr. Roddenberry would approve.

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8 thoughts on “Is Star Trek’s day done?

  1. In some senses I agree with you – but with the recent advances in hot fusion, the seemingly infinite power now looks possible… this is but one step in the direction of Star Trek. Others may follow…
    However, the but comes in the story-line for me. People have subtly changed from the 60’s when it was first produced. Star Trek is a snapshot of the past and how we saw ourselves then. A good example would be to compare Spock to Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes.

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    • Even with advances in fusion, we also now know that reaching the speed of light will require much more than raw power, if it can be done at all (and some scientists are already concluding that simply pushing ourselves faster than light won’t happen, ever; it will take some other method of travel to allow us to cover stellar distances).

      So many of Star Trek‘s elements, like warp drive, were designed simply to enable the stories they wanted to tell. But we science-minded people can no longer ignore the fallacies behind those TV-based assumptions. They were the fantasies of youth, and like all youths, eventually we grow past “childish things.”

      The changes in society and in the world are indeed very different. Star Trek was great for its day, but it no longer reflects the reality of the present. The messages of the sixties need to be updated to the relevant messages of the twenty-teens, and there are better vehicles to do that than Star Trek.

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  2. Mastro

    I think there is room for your modern take in a rebooted Star Trek. I even seem to remember Star Trek warning about the dangers of technology. It was post Abomb, after all.

    You seem to have mixed a very world-weary viewpoint with a version of Star Trek I never saw.

    I doubt anyone would want to watch the show you describe- which sounds like The Wire in space. The last episode of that show basically asks for a trip for antidepressants.

    Oh- I think Firefly is overrated- it basically is Wagon Train in space but the Mal’s character was unrealistic- he should have sold out the siblings as soon as they were trouble- I guess he had an optimistic world viewpoint- sorta like Star Trek.

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    • Mastro,
      Firefly has been more accurately described as “Stagecoach in space” (look up the John Ford movie as reference). Though Mal has proven to be mercenary, he also has a soft spot for the underdog, and a hard nose against anything the Alliance wants… hence, his willingness to help two Alliance fugitives, one of whom has clearly suffered at Alliance hands.

      I’m really not sure where you see my description of SF as “The Wire in space,” but rest assured, a space-based cops-vs-drug dealers show is not what I’m after. My description of the modern science fiction I’d like to see is based on a more up-to-date, realistic look at the universe that reflects Trek’s obsolescence. Today’s Star Trek, moreover, is looking backward, not forward, reflecting the sci-fi desires of children and FPS gamers, not scientists and intellectuals.

      I can’t really argue with being “world-weary”; I am admittedly sick and tired of shows about wars, hatred, chaos caused by ignorance, dystopia and ruin. I think there is plenty of room for optimistic SF. But if you’re not going to have optimism in Star Trek, the show which showed us how an optimistic future works… then you don’t have Star Trek at all. Might as well call it Star Wars and be done with it.

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