I took a class in college a few years ago called “Star Trek and the 1960’s.” The setup for the class was rather ingenious: we would explore issues and themes from the 1960’s from three perspectives- conservative, liberal, and radical. This meant readings from groups on both sides of the political spectrum, from the John Birch Society to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Watching Star Trek episodes represented the liberal viewpoint in the 1960’s. I’ve been a Trekkie my whole life. But I was born in 1985, so Star Trek began for me with Jean-Luc Picard and the Enterprise-D. Watching episodes of The Original Series (ToS) for class was the first time I’d ever sat through 44 minutes with Kirk, Spock and Bones. The episodes were at times cheesy, and at times baffling. I wondered how a show like this could have survived even back in the 1960’s, and indeed it didn’t: it was cancelled twice. This is me looking back on a show that was produced twenty years before I was born though.
Star Trek, like any cultural work, is inevitably a product of its era. Most television shows from the 1960’s are borderline unwatchable, but Star Trek in particular has a unique combination of ancient special effects, ham-fisted acting and spoon-fed moralizing that either endears it to viewers or makes it toxic. A great deal has been written about Star Trek’s failings in terms of its portrayal of women as well. It was very much a show made in the 1960’s, where women aboard a military vessel wore miniskirts and knee-high boots, the Scottish character enjoyed his alcohol, and Kirk somehow managed to take his shirt off on more than one occasion.
All of these things are true. Yet Star Trek still posited a brighter future. Star Trek was unabashed in its egalitarian view of humanity. The stars of the show spanned racial, gender and sexual lines. The lessons were often heavy-handed, but Star Trek never shied away from making moral statements. The execution of Gene Roddenberry’s vision was as progressive as mainstream television culture would allow it to be, and while there were many people doing radical work at the time, the power and influence that Star Trek had in the popular imagination can’t be overstated.
Likewise, Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) is very much an 80’s sci-fi series. One need only look at the design and color scheme of the bridge, which looks like the interior of every luxury car from the 1980’s ever made. TNG still managed to be a continuation of TOS in tone and approach despite the twenty year gap. Roddenberry’s fingerprints are caked all over TNG. The people are the best and brightest, save for the bad-guy-of-the-week, the ship is the biggest and strongest in the fleet, and we’ve even made friends with the Klingons! The moralizing is still present as well, although the metaphors and writing were much more sophisticated (see: The Measure of a Man). TNG represented the perfection of Roddenberry’s formula, where technology and humanism combined to form a philosophy where the solution to every problem was always a better machine. There were no personal problems, global catastrophes or interstellar mysteries that couldn’t be fixed with clever engineering. “Clever Engineering” may as well have been the motto for the 1980’s in general, as the world stared in awe at the Apple Macintosh, and the groundwork was laid for the modern world we inhabit today.
Voyager (VOY) falls into this category as well. The internet and Web 1.0 were really hitting their stride during Voyager’s seven year run, and like TNG, there was no problem that couldn’t be solved with the right technology and know-how. The tough, messy moral choices were never really choices at all- you always knew the crew would do the right thing (or export the wrong thing to a non-Starfleet crew member). VOY was almost the perfect representation of the 1990’s: action without consequences. We defeated Iraq while losing only 100 soldiers; lobbed a few cruise missiles to save the Balkans; drafted NAFTA and the WTO; everyone could start a business or buy a house. No one worried, because everything would work out in the end. Likewise, lip service was paid to ideas like rationing in VOY, but in the end there was always enough food to eat, always enough fuel to explore, and no matter what kind of pounding Voyager took, it always looked like it had just launched from McKinley Station.
Deep Space Nine (DS9) is the polar opposite of this approach. DS9 was in the same syndication market as TNG. But it chose to tell a more serialized, and far darker tale than any Star Trek before or since. For the first time, the Federation was critiqued as simply one of several hegemonic powers in the galaxy, and humans were no longer infallible paragons of virtue, but instead people who lied, cheated and did some pretty awful things.
DS9, like the X Files and Babylon 5, could be considered ahead of its time in terms of both story structure and tone. The heady, technology-infused optimism of the previous Treks is missing from DS9. While it never becomes as hopeless as the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (which, despite being a remake of the original BSG, I feel is more a spiritual successor to DS9), DS9 is not about happy endings. It’s incredibly telling that the last shot of a series set in Gene Roddenberry’s glorious future is Jake Sisko, longing for his father.
DS9 did not reflect the giddy hedonism of the 1990’s like VOY, when we were told that globalization and The End of History would solve all of humanity’s ills. Instead, it predicted the glum, sometimes dire realism which has characterized the 2000’s: more than a decade of war, several economic busts, a recovery which has overwhelmingly favored the rich. DS9 has seen a resurgence of popularity in the last few years. Of course, this is mostly due to Netflix being suited to its semi-serialized format in a way first-run syndication never was. However, I also believe that DS9 is back now because it finally does reflect the current state of affairs. Garak put it perfectly in the series finale: “We live in uncertain times.”
For everything that DS9 accomplished though, it left so much on the table. The show addressed issues of race and class, but left issues of sexuality and gender almost completely untouched. Some potentially thought-provoking television was lost, as an asexual character like Odo, who could become any gender he chose, and a character like Dax, who identified as both male and female, presented great opportunities to truly explore sex and gender in a way that few other television shows could. Like ToS before it, it was limited by a culture that wasn’t (and still isn’t) ready to confront the reality of life for so many who don’t fit into neat gender and sexual categories.
Today we have a new Star Trek, in the form of J.J. Abram’s reboot of the franchise. We’re back in the 23rd century, with a new suped-up Enterprise and a Dawson’s Creek version of the original cast. And while a lot (and I mean A LOT) has been written about the various failings of the Abrams timeline, I think it functions as a perfectly serviceable entry point for a generation of potential fans who had to make due with Nemesis.
I find myself asking, though: what are we introducing these fans to?
Each Star Trek has said something about the era in which it was situated. Those messages were alternatively hopeful, naively optimistic, foreboding, political and social. Yes, the episode from ToS with the black-and-white people looks silly today, but it was necessary then. Just as in post-Gulf of Tonkin (or, to continue with DS9’s prescience, post-WMD) America, an episode like “In the Pale Moonlight” is necessary.
But what does the adrenaline-fueled male fantasy which characterizes Star Trek 2009 and Into Darkness say about our current era? How did we get from the Kirk of the prime universe to one who the director feels must be engaged in at least one sex scene per movie? How did we get from Wrath of Khan and the brilliant Dr. Marcus to Into Darkness, a film which seems to go out of its way to demean and humiliate its female cast through objectification and stereotypes? Why is Khan so goddamn white? It’s undeniable that the new Trek films have broadened the franchise’s appeal, but at what cost? Nevermind that Star Trek is now Star Wars Lite; I can honestly live with that if it leads to another series, because Star Trek has never been about the movies. The franchise is at its best when a crew spends months and years together, and confronts the social, cultural and philosophical issues that arise in deep space, but are really just imaginative stand-ins for our everyday lives. I’m not convinced that a Star Trek series now, in the vein of the Abrams reboot, would even come close to actually accomplishing any of that.
And that frightens me. Not because Star Trek has been ruined; I can always disregard the new stuff and go back to watching reruns of DS9. It frightens me because Abram’s Star Trek, just like Roddenberry’s and Berman’s, might actually be reflecting our current era. If there’s one thing that truly defines Star Trek, it’s progress. And while the show’s vision that technological progress will drive social progress may be narrow (and flat-out wrong), it at least imagines a better world, and we’ve seen this reflected in the casting of the show: a blind engineer, a black captain, a female captain. Those of us who often find ourselves on the outside of the mainstream looking in embraced Star Trek with a feeling that maybe, someday, our real society would reflect the fiction we enjoyed. Now, after 48 years of moving forward, even our fiction has regressed to the heroic white man banging chicks and blasting bad guys. Where do we look to for hope now?