Warning! This is what you write after 12 hours of STAR TREK spinoffs. I am in a better mood, now.
Here’s one where I probably make some people mad or something. Um, sorry.
In approaching STAR TREK, I have been paralyzed by all that has been said. Well, that and my familiarity with the text. I won’t say that it’s bred contempt, but it’s bred complacency.
In the earliest days, what was said was simply, “This is a show unlike any other. Please keep it on the air.”
The words worked.
I’m especially fond of the writing about STAR TREK in the 1970’s. The franchise was three years and a good fight and yet it lived. It’s astonishing to read STAR TREK LIVES and LETTERS TO STAR TREK. We hear of the lives shaped and changed by STAR TREK, but it’s all taken for granted as a generality. These books detail how and why that happened, as it happened.
STAR TREK was always a part of my life, as essential to my interpretation and expression as colors or numbers. Yes, essential. That’s a good word. Without those characters and their outlook as a reference, my communication would be completely handicapped. These books are testaments as to why. I’ve never faced the challenges of those most influenced by the possibilities of STAR TREK, but they provide real evidence that it happened. And, perhaps, still happens. But I doubt it does.
Devoid of its freshness and flooding the market of ideas with so many hours and pages, can STAR TREK still have the same influence? How can it be counter-cultural when it has become the culture? I would argue that it cannot. (Or cannot do so often.) It’s cool. Lotsa neato ships and swag. But “second generation” Trekkers speak more of the fondness of the family time they enjoyed while growing up with TNG and DS9. Perfectly fine, but that might have just as easily happened while watching a football game. I don’t hear them talk about the ideas, perhaps because the ideas are now self-evident parts of our culture. And as Mission Control eagerly points out, for those cursed with cable, it is ubiquitous. It’s just cultural wallpaper rather than the window to a world where humans have conscientiously made better choices.
This is all sounding rather dreary, and I didn’t intend it to be.
After inundating myself with a lot of STAR TREK, I am numbed. After, what? Three weeks? But I was not numbed by STAR TREK. I was numbed by the overall franchise. It can be some very good storytelling. They’re wearing Starfleet uniforms and using the right vocabulary. But it is not STAR TREK.
You know what STAR TREK was? Whatever goofy thing Gene said it was at the moment. And yes, there may be a correlation to Gene’s mental decline, his retirement from active production duties, and the improvement in TNG’s quality, but that is not causality. Let’s saddle JMS and Joss Whedon with strokes and ennui-battling substances and see how well they run a show. Thank you, and there’s the door.
I’ve often wondered if STAR TREK were still necessary. We can basically say whatever we need to on television. The only exception was what Ron Moore did at the beginning of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. Although he backtracked with a shameful cowardice, that show began as an exhibit of how dangerous religious thinking can be. (Can be, not will be or must be.) In the shadow of 9/11, that was the elephant in the room that no one was willing to discuss. Perhaps ENTERPRISE should have and could have addressed that, but by then, STAR TREK was just a corporate machine designed to make things that looked and sounded as much like STAR TREK as possible without jeopardizing Hallmark’s ornament sales.
But other than that, there are few things so dangerous, as 1776’s Stephen Hopkins might gave said, they can’t be talked about on television. And with the best shows existing on cable? With breasticles and words and blood and all of the rest of the Good Stuff? Something huge is going to have to happen to necessitate the sheep’s clothing of STAR TREK to serve as a counter-cultural voice. I’m not sure I want anything that huge.
I remain amazed that the truly powerful episodes of the Original Series still retain their freshness. It’s like Mozart. The actors. The characters. The poignancy of the commentary. It all still seems fresh and relevant. Most vitally, it is a story about humans who’ve evolved. Hang on to that. Know that this is STAR TREK. It is a future that shows us existing in something beyond a dystopia. And I’m sorry that it gave TNG writers the sniffles, but a future in which they would not have conflict over things we shouldn’t be fighting about, anyway. Yes, that’s hard storytelling. Maybe you can only eke 78 good episodes out of that concept. Fine. Stick with that.
Beyond TOS and maybe a tiny handful of TNG episodes, the rest is kind of like most of SKYFALL. Until the end of SKYFALL, I was not watching a James Bond movie. I was watching a very good movie about a guy named James Bond. Well, there’s some great TV there — some of my favorite — but I don’t know if it’s really STAR TREK.
When stories give us permission to make the choices we’d never see as possible… that’s STAR TREK. When we see writers saying things they’d never be able to say without pointed ears… that’s STAR TREK. When we walk away knowing that we can and will make a better future… that’s STAR TREK.
All of the TREKs are cheerleaders for humans doing the right thing. Fine. But so are lots of shows. For me, if you have…
Individuals who’ve grown beyond our current prejudices.
Bold stances on issues that cannot be politely discussed unless draped in the trappings of s/f.
Solutions that are found in “third-side” thinking.
… then you have STAR TREK.
And that’s why I can’t get all weak in the knees over “The Inner Light.” It’s great TV. But it’s great TV that could happen on any number of s/f shows. If you can take the basic story and repackage it as a good episode of STARGATE, then it isn’t STAR TREK.
Doesn’t make it bad. But it isn’t STAR TREK.
Thankfully, DARK SHADOWS has not reached that level of cultural over-saturation. That may be why this is, ultimately, The Collins Foundation.