Don’t let the title fool you. I’m a longtime Trekkie who loves the franchise, and I’m not inherently opposed to a new Star Trek series. But dammit, Jim, they need to get it right, and I’m not confident that today’s Hollywood production studios could pull it off. And that’s why I’m taking the “Khan” position that the newly announced Star Trek relaunch shouldn’t happen.
Here’s the problem: Star Trek has always been a product of the zeitgeist of the eras in which it appeared. Let’s start with the gold standard of The Original Series which aired from 1966 to 1969. Fortunately, I’m not that old: I grew up watching it on reruns and VHS. As a kid, I grew up enjoying the outlandishness of the series, as every episode presented something new and ridiculous for our bold explorers. Time travel! Cute overbreeding alien pets! A giant killer ice cream cone! The spirit of Jack the Ripper! I really can’t think of any other American television show, past or present, that was able to incorporate so many bizarre and outlandish things into science fiction and space travel as effectively as Star Trek did.
As I grew older, I came to appreciate that the Original Series stood as an allegory for the Cold War which lasted from the late 1940s up to the 1980s. The ongoing tensions among the Federation, the Klingons, and the Romulans represented our own ongoing rivalries with Russia and other foreign powers. As a kid, I remember the threat of nuclear war being out there. We weren’t paranoid about it, but there was always this ongoing concern that these evil Russians somewhere over the horizon were going to start launching missiles and we’d all die horrible, radiation-induced deaths. A lot of what made Star Trek what it was was its ability to tap into our national paranoia at these alien “others” who threatened our very existence through its metaphorical use of the Klingons and the Romulans.
This all wrapped up with the last classic Trek movie, The Undiscovered Country, which effectively closed out the stories of the original crew (a few appearances in The Next Generation notwithstanding). The final resolution of the Federation-Klingon rivalry was based on the destruction of one of the Klingon moons, an environmental disaster which threatened to exterminate them. Their only solution was to turn to the Federation for help and integrate with their long-standing enemies. Thematically, this concept was based on our own real-world fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, events marking the end of the real Cold War. Symbolically, there was no longer a need for a Federation-Klingon rivalry when its basis in our own reality no longer existed.
If Star Trek was the gold standard for sci-fi television, then The Next Generation was of course, a very close second. I have no illusions that TNG was a very different show from its predecessor, especially as the show grew into maturity by its third season. (The first two went through some remarkably painful growing pains.) It had elements of the older show, sure, but it really was a new cast and crew, as well as new ideas. The Original Series was grounded in a combination of trippy 1960s themes, cowboy diplomacy, and cold war tension. The Next Generation was for people like me, the children of the people to whom those 1960s elements appealed.
The Next Generation tended to be less about international politics and more an exploration of sociological and ethical issues that concerned where our world was going. There was still alien-fighting tension, but most episodes concerned things like medical ethics, assisted suicide, homosexuality and gender, cloning, artificial intelligence, and even rape. The episode “Chain of Command” showed brutal depictions of military torture which predated our post-9/11 concerns about the practice by ten years. “The Masterpiece Society” explored where we’re going with genetic engineering as we learn more and more about the human genome and how that relates to unborn children.
What The Next Generation did keep in common with The Original Series were a lot of wacky, one-off episodes that had fun with the limitless possibilities of outer space. Whereas it wasn’t unusual for the original Enterprise crew to run into Abraham Lincoln or Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, the crew of the Enterprise-D could likewise encounter Professor Moriarty or find themselves transplanted into Robin Hood’s England. Neither show had a problem with (as the title sequence said) exploring strange new worlds, but also having a lot of fun in the process.
One thing that both shows did really well was having almost nothing but stand-alone episodes, with The Next Generation occasionally delving into a two-parter as well as kicking off the concept of the season-ending cliffhanger. By and large, though, most episodes worked on their own merits. There was progress, yes–characters got older, married, had children–but even though these things gave a sense of change and development, the individual episodes stood by themselves. There wasn’t a tremendous need to have to catch every episode…though of course, the show was compelling enough that you certainly wanted to.
I think it’s all these factors that make me think it’s dubious that a modern Star Trek series would really work. Modern television producers don’t seem to want metaphorical exploration of our international, political, or social issues, or even the weird “Space Lincoln” stuff. Nor do they want standalone television episodes. These days, television plays the long game, with season-long plots that rarely have episodes which stand by themselves. (Even this week’s The Walking Dead episode “Here’s Not Here,” which was mostly standalone, was still heavily tied to the attack on Alexandria.)
I fear that a modern Star Trek series would be something that neither The Original Series nor The Next Generation ever was–introspective and reflective of our times and culture. I’m sure it would still borrow some familiar elements–the Federation and Vulcans and phasers–but it wouldn’t have the spirit of what made the older shows work so well. I would expect that a modern series would, like many other shows, have season-long storytelling and would probably focus on a single alien threat. Stuff like Space Lincoln and planets full of Nazis and gangsters would probably viewed as too “silly” for today’s audiences. Unfortunately, modern television doesn’t seem to allow for the nuance that older serialized shows had. Whereas a show like The Walking Dead or The Flash seems to be the same thematic thing week after week with only a degree or two of variety, the older Trek shows could mix it up with classic sci-fi, humor, tension, emotion, and more between episodes.
Oh, and one last thing–the $5.99 paywall. I’m sorry, but paying for television is something that’s going to take awhile to catch on. I don’t know that a Star Trek limited exclusively to one network’s website is going to draw in a lot of viewers. Older fans who grew up with Trek might not be tech-savvy enough to want to pay for a show they used to watch for free. Younger fans might not be familiar enough with Trek–outside the two Abrams films–to want to make that kind of investment. This is taking a big chance with the franchise, and a financial failure might be blamed on the show itself rather than the lousy scheme to get it.
CBS could prove me wrong, and next year’s relaunched Star Trek could end up worthily reproducing what made the other shows work. Or it could be its own unique spin on the genre. But based on the state of modern Hollywood–which reduced Star Trek to a pair of action movies a few years ago–I have my doubts. I don’t want Star Trek to come back until it’s in the hands of a capable production team that can keep it in the spirit of the original.