Opinion: The Day the Future Died: How STAR TREK Ran Out of Gas

David Reddish
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“To boldly go where no man has gone before…”  So the opening narration claims, and since it debuted in 1965, Star Trek became the epitome of optimistic futurism.  What began as a cult show–and a failed one at that–became a cultural touchstone, and quite likely the most influential television show in history, as well as a long running series of films.  Even Americans who have never seen an episode or film know of the pensive Mr. Spock, the transporter, the alien Klingons and the famous warp speed.  As the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the beloved franchise approaches though, Star Trek has become less of a pop culture driving force, and more of a bumper sticker on a sputtering, self-renewing money machine.  How did something so influential become something so cheap?  What happened to Star Trek, and can it ever regain its emeritus status again?

The Show That Wouldn’t Die

Born of the 1960s thirst for television content, series creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned the show as a sort of alternative to the popular western dramas of the era.  Roddenberry dubbed it “wagon train to the stars,” a sort of caravan aboard a space ship journeying from planet to planet, exploring the universe and having wild adventures.  Just like cowboys, Captain Kirk and his crew carried futuristic six shooters at their hips–phasers–and much like a covered wagon heading West, encountered mysterious and savage tribes of aliens, substituting for the 60s caricatures of Native Americans.  Kirk’s two most loyal aids on his trip, Dr. McCoy and Spock, fill in for the western stock characters of the Indian guide and the grizzled traveler, and throughout the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, the crew always brings enlightened thoughts to alien civilizations still relying on violence and savagery to survive.  The principles of Star Trek as embodied by Starfleet represented American exceptionalism at its most idealistic–the hope for a world of evolved thought and technology.

Even the untimely cancellation of the show could not dim the hope it brought to the audience, and after ten years in reruns and a brief animated series, Star Trek rose again, this time to the big screen.  In the wake of Star Wars, Hollywood rushed to science fiction in hopes of creating blockbusters, and Paramount the parent studio of Trek, spared no expense in reviving the show as a big-screen mammoth.  In an ironic twist, the original cast members who had struggled for work following the demise of the series now found themselves at the center of a major production under the watchful direction of Oscar-winner Robert Wise.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture, though plagued by legendary production problems, revived the series in the popular consciousness, even as it was criticized for being too ponderous.  Paramount commissioned a sequel a few years later, and with the cast aging and wishing to move on beyond the typecasting of their characters, opted to kill off the beloved character of Spock.  The film proved so successful, however, that Spock returned, and a series of additional sequels would follow, each a rollicking adventure indicative of the 1980s space milieu.

The 80s space adventures of Star Trek prompted a return to television, and with the original cast about to qualify for Medicare, Paramount opted to introduce a new cast.  Set 100 years after the adventures of Captain Kirk, Star Trek: The Next Generation proved a television sensation, running seven seasons, netting several Emmy awards, and spawning four long-running TV spin offs.  The story style expanded from the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triad into a full-blown ensemble show, maintaining the space adventure format, almost to a fault.  The 1990s saw the Next Generation cast step up to carry the cinematic torch, though without the long-running success of the original films.

As the TV franchise stalled as well, Paramount looked for ways to revive their golden egg-laying goose.  Enter J.J. Abrams, a failed actor and derided screenwriter who found success as a television producer.  Abrams, who by his own admission had no respect for the thoughtful science fiction of the earlier iterations of Trek would seek to make it financially viable again.  Taking a cue from the blockbuster Star Wars prequel films, Abrams opted to revive the series as a space opera, scoring a hit with 2009s eponymous reboot.  2013’s less-successful follow up would prove a let down to audiences and to Paramount, but in order to understand its failure, the success of the initial series on both film and television must be evaluated.

Milestones

Star Trek could be a religion, a fact not lost on the series creator Gene Roddenberry.  The man once boasted that he’d known Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, and that if he, Roddenberry, had wanted to start a religion, he certainly could have.  Given the number of self-described Trekkies, Trekkers, or general Trek fans, the church of Star Trek would not only dwarf membership in Scientology, but in most of the world’s religions. Star Trek achieved its success by commenting on its era.  The Trek of the 1960s grew out of the Cold War acrimony between the United States and Russia.  Roddenberry recognized, accidentally or deliberately, the changing public taste away from Westerns to science fiction, and successfully transplanted the standard “road” series into space.  With the space race shocking the world and technology evolving faster than ever before, the world dreamed of a day when technology could cure the ills of humanity–disease, poverty, war, greed–and band together for a greater goal.  Star Trek embodied that goal by including a diverse cast of men and women from different nationalities and ethnicities, imagining a humanity that had evolved beyond petty squabbling to better understand the universe.  The varied cast spoke to different audiences; actress Nichelle Nichols recalls a conversation with Martin Luther King, Jr. about how having an African-American woman in a position of power offered hope to a race campaigning for equal rights. The characters of Sulu–a Japanese man–and Checkov–a Russian–pointed to a lasting world peace beyond the bloodshed of the World Wars and the tension of the Cold War.  Spock, though alien, exhibited a number of Semitic gestures and habits (not to mention being played by the Jewish Leonard Nimoy), suggesting racial and religious acceptance. Though Captain Kirk acted somewhat as a Lothario, his womanized never hindered his job performance or leadership abilities, nor did he ever force himself of a woman.

By the 1980s with the film Trek revival in full swing, Kirk and his crew had become elder statesmen.  The power of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan lies not in its spectacle or action (though both add to its impact).  Rather, the lasting popularity of the film comes from its comments on aging and death.  The characters, middle aged and tired, grew as people and faced their own mortality, as exemplified by the death of Spock.  Likewise, the War generations of the 20th century struggled with their own mistakes and loss, wondering how to proceed into their winter years.  Just like in real life, Kirk had to face his own past, embodied by Khan, and a coming younger generation, personified by Spock’s protegee Saavik, and Kirk’s son David.  As the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers faced their own progeny, so would the crew of the Enterprise, and, much like the ultraconservative political swing of the 80s, the younger generations would find themselves waylayed by a cast not ready to give up the captain’s chair.

By the 1990s though, Generation X could no longer be denied and thus Star Trek: The Next Generation was born.  If Captain Kirk embodied the 1960s ideal for a leading man, than Captain Picard was a product of the 90s, more thoughtful and even tempered than the cowboy diplomat Kirk.  Picard would also oversee a more diverse crew, in particular, more rife with women in positions of both physical and political power than the Enterprise of yesteryear.  Likewise, the stories began to focus more on character growth and self actualization than the original show, and the conflicts of The Next Generation echoed the increasing globalization of the 1990s, a quality even more fleshed out in the spinoff shows Deep Space Nine and Voyager. Like Picard, both spin-offs featured captains of the 90s–the African American Sisko and the tough woman Janeway.  The shows also further explored 1990s anxieties, with Deep Space Nine fleshing out the alien cultures and interactions, and Voyager confronting an uncertain future and the dangers of technology, as epitomized by the Borg.  The final TV spinoff, Enterprise would prove more problematic, however.  Again taking a cue from the Star Wars prequels, Paramount opted for a series before the days of Captain Kirk, which created numerous problems, not the least of which were the tired stories.  By the early 2000s, producers Rick Berman and Brannon Braga–stewards of Trek since the Next Generation days–had run out of new plots. Moreover, a globalized world obsessed with religious fundamentalism proved hard for them to analogize, with Enterprise upstaged by less-utopian, grittier shows like Battlestar Galactica.  Paramount’s decision to charge J.J. Abrams with rejuvenating the series offered immediate financial gain, but quickly burned out.

Much as Berman and Braga faced trouble in adapting Enterprise to the modern era, for Star Trek to resonate in the 21st century, Abrams would need to retool the format to face the woes of the moment. Recalling an aging Leonard Nimoy from retirement, Abrams concocted a brilliant premise: have an elder Spock travel in time to the past to meet his younger self, thereby altering history to allow younger versions of Kirk and Spock to have new adventures.  The problem was, Abrams stumbled at every opportunity.  Star Trek had always been thoughtful science fiction, and Abrams sought to dumb it down into banality.  Instead of fresh characters, he presented classic characters devoid of their personalities and relationship dynamics, forcing Kirk, Spock and the rest of the crew into archetypes–the boy from a broken home and the wrong side of the tracks, the uppity nerd, the slutty hot chick, the buffoonish European foreigners, the man raked by his ex-wife, and the ultra-warrior Asian.  The story itself became self-obsessed, operating on mugging in-jokes, ham-fisted fan references and overuse of special effects to drive the paper-thin plot.  Using the opening narration of the original series as a sort of Starfleet pledge of allegiance makes for one glaring example of self-reference jammed into a plot.  Instead of a story about the spirit of adventure and exploration, the Trek reboot and its even more abysmal sequel carefully avoid adding to the cinematic universe, recycling characters and storylines all while breaking the parameters of the universe for convenience sake.  A character like Khan, once so threatening and interesting because of his intellect and long-festering resentment for Kirk becomes a generic super-powered villain, able to teleport across the universe and harboring resentment for Kirk, though they have never met.  This last observation leads to perhaps the greatest sin of neuvo-Trek: Kirk, Spock and the other come together because of destiny.

Hope for the Future?

An aside: the great Roger Ebert once observed the primary difference between the Greek tragedies of Sophocles and the dramas of Shakespeare rested on the notion of choice.  In Greek tragedy, characters are bound to their fate from the first moments on, their destines ordained by the stars and the gods.  In Shakespearean drama, an outcome hinges on the choices of the characters, regardless of what is written in the stars.  The original Star Trek, from the earliest series on to Enterprise, followed the Shakespearean model. The Abrams incarnation has more in common with Greek tragedy: Spock and Kirk become friends because older Spock tells them it’s their destiny.  Khan hates Kirk and Spock because it’s his destiny to do so as well. This focus on destiny flies in the very face of everything Star Trek embodied: the utopia of Earth came about not from divine intervention, but because mankind chose a brighter future, forcing itself to evolve into a higher species.  Looking ahead, Trek faces even more tribulation in the forthcoming Star Trek Beyond, a story said to be modeled after the slapstick sci-fi of Guardians of the Galaxy.  While Star Trek has done comedy before on film–most notably in Star Trek: The Voyage Home–comedy doesn’t quite lend itself to presenting the lofty goals of the original series.  Instead, it seems more geared to sell toys and popcorn.

To save Star Trek, Paramount should elect a filmmaker to focus on the sense of exploration and wonder that made the original show a classic.  Instead of recycling characters, create new ones of complexity and depth, providing dynamic relationships to explore.  Star Trek should provide a hopeful example for a better future, while finding ways to examine the present ills of the world: income inequality, religious fanaticism, climate change and a diversifying culture.  Most important of all, whoever takes up the helm of Star Trek needs vision and a sense of style–something Gene Roddenberry and all the subsequent writers of Trek presented with taste and courage, and a quality that J.J. Abrams with his noise, lens flair, and insipid jokes cannot ever hope to replicate.  In essence, Star Trek must become bold again; how else to “boldly go where no one has gone before?”