Star Trek: A Retrospective (Or Autopsy?)

What went wrong with Star Trek? And when?

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For those late to the show: I like Star Trek. A lot. I wouldn’t have written a Star Trek parody/homage novel otherwise. But being a Star Trek fan in this day and age – who am I kidding, every age – means that you are most definitely aware of the limitations of the franchise. There is virtually no mass market appeal, a lot of the old series are so dated in their storytelling that it’s hard to get new people on board, the new tv show is plagued with behind-the-scenes drama, the last movie didn’t do so well… did I miss anything?

Now as an “old-school” Trek fan and having read my review of Into Darkness, you would probably think that I believe the franchise went wrong the moment JJ Abrams took control of it. And well, you wouldn’t be all that wrong, but in search of what made Star Trek derail, as a good historian, I went a bit deeper (Note to self: insert Inception horn. Remove before publishing).

Star Trek is in its 51st year at this point and there are more than enough places it could have gone wrong, but I decided on five specific moments that, even if inadvertently so, caused many more problems in the long-haul or outright destroyed the prospect the show could have had for a brighter future:

I’m not a hardcore TOS fan, but even I will admit that almost the entirety of the first season is a great viewing experience. When it comes to overall quality only latter-day DS9 could surpass it in quality and quantity. Some of the great science fiction writers of Hollywood wrote for it, including the great Harlan Ellison. And then season 2 had a surprising amount of quality drop, barely any of the writers returned. Do you wanna know why? Going by Harlan Ellison’s 200 page “fuck you” to a 20+ years dead Gene Roddenberry, the answer is quite simple: Gene Coon and Dorothy Fontana, the real geniuses behind Star Trek’s early success, called in all their favors with great writers. Then Roddenberry pissed them off. Normally I wouldn’t just believe an old man who’s holding a grudge past the grave, but knowing Roddenberry’s antics? It seems plausible.

Right then and there, Star Trek lost a huge amount of momentum. Season 1 was adventurous, sexy, daring, and most importantly: not preachy. All of that changed come season 2, with more and more camp elements entering the show, and by season 3 it had become completely unbearable. A lot that, of course, had to do with Roddenberry’s famous ego, but a lack of good writers certainly did the rest to kill off the potential for one of the classics of 60s tv to transcend time. In that vein, it also lay the ground work for TNG and later series, as no one in their right mind would touch Star Trek ever again.

Okay, picture this: it’s the 1980s, your show has been off the air for nearly two decades, you are a washed-up has been who has been kicked off his own movies. You get a chance to relaunch Star Trek, the property you are most known for. You get to prove everyone right who said you were a genius and you get to shut up those that think you are power-grabbing asshole. What do you do? If you’re Gene Roddenberry you double down. The Next Generation’s first two seasons are unwatchable garbage (Ron Moore said it more politely, but here you go). Terrible characterization, terrible writing, an overbearing showrunner more busy building his legacy than make sure his tv show is watchable entertainment.

This led to the point where TNG was often considered cerebral, but also not in any way good. Roddenberry’s box being what would most haunt the franchise for years and years to come. While the characters from the original series had edges and flaws and were broadly drawn at the best of times, they were, unmistakenly, human. By the time we reached TNG, all the edges were filed off. Characters were utter pricks about the prime directive, enlightened pricks too busy to actually help people rather than stand around and hold speeches about how retched the… early 1990s were. Yeah. Roddenberry’s box? No character development, no conflict, no emotion.

By the time the late Michael Piller took over as showrunner, Roddenberry’s box had created a show in which the actors were props to be used to get to the spaceships and broadly drawn aliens. The characters had been designed as one-dimensional stand-ins for any situation. This is shown so many times whenever they try to make a character-based episode and then fail to carry through with anything because they were still in an era when Star Trek refused to have real consequences between episodes. This would haunt the franchise as it entered the 90s and scraped into the 2000s, as tv began blooming as a series storytelling medium with such shows as Oz and The Sopranos.

And then, following TNG’s lauded and quite successful run as the beige/inoffensive thing of syndicated early 90s television, came Deep Space Nine. A show much less popular throughout its run than TNG or Voyager, but lauded by critics and non-Trekkies as the “good one”, to the point that DS9 fans differentiate themselves by calling themselves “Niners” rather than Trekkies.

DS9 proved one thing: Star Trek can be good just like TOS season 1 when you assemble a team of writers that were willing to piss people off, specifically, Star Trek fans. DS9, to this day, is the redheaded bastard child in the Trek community, as many see it as either “not Star Trek” or a “defilement of Roddenberry’s ideas”. DS9 followed in the vein of early TOS and the TOS movies. A bit darker, a bit more mature, dignified, willing to go against the grain of the Roddenberry box. Many people will deny this, but one thing is true: Star Trek only works when taken away from Gene Roddenberry and his ideas.

DS9 was a brilliant show, but ahead of its time in many ways. It was a syndicated show just like TNG, but its serialized nature made it less interesting to the syndication model, as you had to air everything in order. Add to that the fact that the 90s were a non-threatening time of post-cold war good feels, DS9 is more of a predecessor to the 2000s and the war on terror, rather than the famous “end of history” period.

Now in the age of Netflix, this is the format that has stood the test of time and many people are discovering its qualities for the first time, but TNG and Voyager did not. They had the early success with non-offensive storytelling which basically amounted to little more than giving the test signal a smoke break, but couldn’t survive in a world of binging and storylines.

Voyager continued the trend of TNG’s inoffensive, episodic format, but the problem with that being of course that: a) the format was really dry after 170+ episodes of the same stories by the same writers, and b) studio execs making demands to turn Voyager into the UPN flagship show. Voyager was successful at the time by being pushed as original programming, but mainly redid everything TNG had already accomplished. It was also a great stop-gab program: it fit snugly in between the era of Trek, reflecting the optimism and era of good feelings that were the 90s, while stopping just in time for the biggest cultural shift in decades. And times were moving on, the celebrated late 90s, early 2000 shows with story arcs and continuity were coming out. Unlike during the times that TNG was on the air, Star Trek was no longer alone.

The late 80s through mid 90s were a barren wasteland when it came to science fiction (and quality tv in general for that matter) and Star Trek was able to fill that niche. This went well until the end of TNG, but from then on the franchise got competition. More imaginative and daring, and, most importantly, more modern. Star Trek had recycled the same old 1960s formula with some new paint for a while, and while DS9 infused some fresh blood, bad ratings from the wrong networking decisions, led to Voyager becoming the benchmark of what people liked about Trek. Inoffensive and forgettable. By the time the 2000s came about, Enterprise had started to air, and with its outmoded principles and the same personell in charge that had run things since TNG, it was ill prepared for the cultural zeitgeist shift that came with 9/11. People grew weary, the optimism of the 90s disappeared, and Star Trek failed to reflect the American experience accurately on the screen, as it had done in the 60s and even the 80s and 90s. Enterprise failed as it had just found its niche, and many science fiction shows of the era did too. Firefly, Farscape, only Stargate and Battlestar Galactica held on for long enough with smaller budges and more relevant social dynamics for the 2000s. And even their era ended in 2008. Science fiction was too niche and too expensive and, frankly, too wrong for the down to earth, gritty, ambivalent era of television and film brought on by the war on terror. And as the Trek movies failed at the box office, the franchise was put on hold.

2009 saw the return of the franchise to the big screen, this time helmed by JJ Abrams and a complete reboot of TOS. Everything got sexier and the franchise finally got a big budget… sorry, the franchise finally got a budget. What we got was a slick action film that was non-threatening and finally providing some levity after almost a decade of paranoia. Coincidentally, it premiered the summer America got itself high on electing Barack “Hope and Change” Obama as president. Everyone was feeling good. But just like with Voyager, the Abrams reboot/Kelvin Timeline universe films would turn out to be a stop-gab solution. 2013 saw the release of the next film. Four years later and it felt like a re-do of the 09 film. The problem? Society had once again shifted in the face of the 2008/09 financial crash, President “Hope and Change” Obama failed to accomplish much with a locked congress, and cinema had been dominated by comic book and Michael Bay-esque blockbuster films for half a decade at this point. Was the 09 film still up to the task of providing Star Trek for that era, so Into Darkness failed to provide any substance in an era when substance was the thing more obviously lacking in the category of “who can out-CGI the other guy’s CGI?”. The result were higher box office results than the last film, but also diminishing returns in terms of the long tail Star Trek used to have. As with many blockbusters, there was a specific problem with being memorable. Disposable projects.

Within 3 years the next film came out. Star Trek Beyond was the 50th anniversary film and felt like a return to form for the franchise. At this point the Trek movies though were already 7 years old and only 3 movies in. In the age of 4-6 comic book films, often be the same one or two companies, and entire franchises like the Hunger Games, etc, coming and going in the mean time, Star Trek once again seemed like it had failed to look at the future, rather than look at the past. And this is truly the irony about Star Trek: for all its lauded positive future, the real-world decisions more likely than not look towards the past.

Coupled with the fact that in the era of film execs wanting to be Marvel Studios and Michael Bay, and therefor not being happy with making a lot of money if they can’t have all the money, the Trek movies barely making twice their budget is not a good way of keeping the franchise afloat. And while Beyond tried to salvage as much as it could to infuse the reboot with some much needed substance, Star Trek on the big screen now stands before a true dilemma worthy of Captain Kirk: too expensive to make the new Undiscovered Country or Wrath of Khan, and too niche too warrant the expensive price tag.

But we can end on a bright, hopeful note: The end of the year will see the release of Star Trek Discovery. Released digitally by CBS All Access in America, and Netflix in the civilized world, it will hopefully marry the old with the new in a world that has proven to the people with the money that they want clever storytelling and great characters. Let’s see if Star Trek can deliver.

Author: Alex

Full time student, part time "writer" of things.

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