Following up my lament upon the state of the new Star Trek movies, and my assertion that Star Trek, as a premise, has run its course… I’d like to continue the line of thought with the inevitable examination of what, if anything, would be a more modern premise to base our SF adventures and morality tales on.
To recap: The recent Abrams Star Trek movies have been vague caricatures of the original franchise, with any and all common sense and intelligence leeched out of them and replaced with banal dialogue, mindless action and outright fantasy pretending to be science fiction (in much the same way a 6-year-old girl puts on a plastic mask and pretends to be Wonder Woman).
I contend that Star Trek‘s day has come and gone; it is no longer an adequate platform to present modern science fiction tales (as the last movies have more than perfectly demonstrated). Star Trek is to modern day what Flash Gordon was to Star Trek’s first days on television. The massive military-slash-scientific fleet, made up of air-breathing, English-speaking humanoid aliens from numerous star systems, operating like a Terran space navy (despite the participation of the aforementioned many other alien races) and promoting a future version of American Manifest Destiny… is a lot of twentieth century allegory and outright fantasies, many forced upon the program by the limitations of the commercial television medium and our knowledge of science and physics. It has as much to do with modern reality, modern science and physics as Flash Gordon did in the late twentieth century. Star Trek is overdue for a graceful retirement, and any attempts to prolong its working life will only succeed in looking more and more like Dino de Laurentis’ Flash Gordon remake of 1980. (Haven’t seen it? Consider yourself fortunate.)
It’s the twenty-first century, and we need a new flagship science fiction franchise to inspire millions of future writers, physicists and heroes. What should it be like?
At this point, I feel I must admit that I’ve penned a number of books in the Kestral series, which was supposed to be my modern take on the Trek-style franchise. The premise of the series had similarities to Trek, in that an overarching organization of planets existed, and a space-faring navy was in place to protect those planets. But from there, most similarities ended, as the Kestral universe was not chock-full of humanoid alien races (besides humans, only one alien race was known). Planets were terraformed to be habitable, as much as possible, and humans living on the rougher of those planets underwent genetic-level alteration to make their bodies more compatible with the terraformed environment. This resulted in races of people, tailored to their home planet but all descended from humans; which, coincidentally, meant that most of them could breathe the same air and speak the same languages with similar sets of vocal cords, etc.
The stories were about regular people, trying to make a living (the main characters flew a freighter) and getting into adventures where they traveled. They didn’t encounter exotic aliens and doomsday machines, but they did encounter planets that seemed to be sentient and fall into the middle of corporate espionage and brinksmanship. The characters were very varied and interesting, much more than vague caricatures of Earth nationalities and races. The series turned out to have a few more similarities to Firefly, another series that I’d contend would be a much better premise to base our modern SF and morality tales.
But using as your central characters the operators of a space freighter is only one option available. Any number of “working-class” professions that generally involve a lot of traveling from place to place would work, including law enforcement (at a more limited scope than a navy), courier, detective, explorer, field scientist or engineer (of any discipline), troubleshooter, journalist, work specialist, trainer, etc. A few of these would support a small cast of characters, allowing for further variety of storytelling. Attaching them to an official organization would allow some of these to have access to all strata of life, not be limited to one or two groups… but being limited to certain strata, with only occasional exposure to other strata, could be interesting as well. And maybe aliens are too far-fetched, but we could include robots, possibly with specialized abilities and unique perspectives on human life.
Star Trek was big on heady moral and political concepts, usually played out on an alien planet that stood in for some Earth nation or culture. This can still be a major part of a modern SF program, provided the characters do not have to be exotic aliens; we know enough to understand when the strange green people with very traditionally-rigid family structures are supposed to be Japanese. But we can also tell stories that don’t pertain to age-old nationalities and their (often stereotyped) customs and behaviors. Make up some of your own… something that can provide a good contrast with another character’s traits and behaviors, giving you a more unique twist on the old morality tale.
Star Trek was also big on science, though much of it was trumped up or outright fantasy in order to heighten a story’s drama. Today, we struggle with real scientific concepts related to energy production, human health, waste management, new chemicals and compounds, better transportation, the transfer of wealth, power or information, modifying or maintaining (and occasionally repairing) environments, etc. Any of these can be a major part of a realistic SF story about humans dealing with the challenges and ramifications of these concepts.
In order for Star Trek to present these far-reaching concepts, they traveled a lot, all over the galaxy (and occasionally beyond) in mere minutes. Today, we know “warp drive” isn’t likely to bring far-flung star systems within minutes (or even months) of each other, so maybe we need to think of a premise that allows for a wide-ranging environment, but without galaxy-spanning distances. Firefly‘s setting was in a unique solar system, filled with many planets and moons terraformed for human habitation… not strictly realistic, but moreso than sailing back and forth among the stars. Planets don’t have to be the only habitats in a science fiction show: Multiple locations on one planet can serve as very different environments. As Man moves out into space, he might set up orbital habitats, or live in ships that stay spaceborne but remain near a planet or star.
There was also the question of travel between the stars. The “warp drive” concept had the advantage of giving a television audience a visually familiar way to imagine ships flying from star to star as easily as yachts sail the ocean… but it had no basis in any reality we know or understand. Though some scientists have come to suspect that a “warp drive” may, theoretically be possible, we still have no imaginable way to build and operate such a drive. Realistically, we have to consider one of two possibilities: Either it is impossible to travel faster than light; or, if it is possible, we may need to devise a method other than using raw force to push us at trans-light speeds, or compressing time in a local bubble, to achieve it.
If we assume the former, we’d better come up with a more compact universe to tell our stories in. If we assume the latter, our story universe can be significantly larger; but as there may be other ramifications to exotic means to travel faster than light, we may find many more tales to tell about the voyages themselves… to paraphrase an old motorcyclists’ motto, the stories won’t only be about the destination, but often, they’ll be about the journey.
What’s that… what about conflict, you ask? Wasn’t a major aspect of Star Trek the battles against powerful alien foes, the Cold-War-esque conflicts against other star empires?
Yes, it was. Star Trek strongly reflected the attitudes of the Cold War, imperialist governments and the threat of nuclear armageddon of Earth’s twentieth century. However, we are now in the twenty-first century, and the landscape of conflict has greatly changed. H-bombs are no longer the concern; Improvised Explosive Devices are. Wars are no longer fought on conveniently-isolated battlefields; they take place in occupied cities. Gentlemen spies have been replaced by terrorists and jihadists. And hackers in dark bunkers do as much damage to the enemy as any missile strike.
There is plenty of room for conflict in a modern SF premise, whether it takes place between groups, between factions, or between individuals. The romantic notions of war are blinding us to a reality that we’ve done our best to ignore for decades… maybe it’s about time we opened our eyes to the real horror of war, and how conflict impacts individuals as opposed to anonymous hordes of starship crewmen.
At any rate, we have plenty of potential material here for a twenty-first century SF series; say, an engineer on a space habitat that tries to duplicate the many cultures of Earth; or a small team of scientists that assist groups trying to settle new and terraformed planets; or a robotic law enforcement field specialist who investigates strange cases on various worlds or space stations. Any number of which could be a viable modern SF series to carry us into the next century.
Star Trek is so twentieth century. Let’s build our twenty-first century series now.