So, I saw the new Star Trek movie recently. As a life-long Trek fan, I loved it. Loved it so much because it was so cool, in fact, that it brought into sharp relief just how limp so much of what came before is. This new movie, this reboot, had so much more guts and emotion and life than most episodes of any of the five TV series. Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent TV episodes out there. And I’m sure I missed a lot of good ones too. But I think it’s been a very long time since any of them were made.
Let me backtrack a little. Star Trek, the original series, captured my imagination when I was a very young child. I can’t remember when I first saw it, but I know that at eight years of age I named it as my favourite TV show. I had seen The Empire Strikes Back when I was five which kicked off an insatiable appetite for space adventures that Star Trek filled well. Sure, even then I could see how fake it all looked, but just didn’t care. Spock was one of my childhood heroes. I learned how to lift one eyebrow and separate my fingers into the Vulcan salute just because he did those things.
When I first heard about Star Trek: The Next Generation I was very excited with only a hint of trepidation. It was announced to me by a magazine article that I cut out and kept. And when I saw the series, I loved it. It soon surpassed the original series as my favourite. Picard and Data took their place as heroes during my teenage years. And I was enamoured with Deanna Troi, even though she hardly ever did anything on the show.
Even though it hooked me, I could see some pretty big flaws with the show. In most cases it was (no) thanks to the writing. The season two episode Skin Of Evil is the epitome of just how lame the show could be sometimes. On an alien planet the crew of the Enterprise are confronted by a sentient oil slick. Regular crew member Tasha Yar was killed by this malevolent goo in one of the most pathetically weak death scenes ever. It was so poorly done, in fact, that the next year Yar was brought back and killed off properly in the time-travelling cracker Yesterday’s Enterprise.
One of the biggest weaknesses in both the original series and TNG was creator Gene Roddenberry’s decree that in the future, we are beyond interpersonal friction – everybody in Starfleet gets along. It’s only the hostile aliens like the Klingons, Romulans, Borg and oil slicks that the crew would have any conflict with. While this allowed the shows to focus more on the plot concepts (which really wasn’t always a good thing), the shows were often robbed of any real dramatic tension and the characters often came across as lacking in depth. The feeling of lack of depth was not helped by the flat lighting and sterile-looking sets. Sure, they were bound by budgeting constraints, but still, it doesn’t cost money to put out a few lights, or set them in a different position. And of course, the acting was not usually very impressive. Patrick Stewart as TNG’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard somehow made his performances tower above those of anyone else in the entire franchise.
With the third series, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, interpersonal conflicts were allowed by placing Starfleet personnel alongside alien race the Bajorans (along with Ferengi and all sorts of other species) on the eponymous space station. Watching early seasons, I thought it got off to a slow start, but it did get better and was certainly more consistent than either of its predecessors. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any of the last two or three seasons of the show, which are reportedly the best and may well make my argument here moot. It changed into a serialised story as opposed to the episodic format it started with, and the darker tone would have made it a lot more interesting.
DS9 overlapped with TNG for it’s first two seasons, and the fourth series, Star Trek: Voyager, for its latter five. It’s thanks to Voyager (along with lacklustre TNG feature films Insurrection and Nemesis) that I became disillusioned with Star Trek overall and stopped watching. Because they were slipping so badly, I possibly missed out on all the best of DS9. Grr. Thankfully, there are boxed set DVDs.
Voyager spoiled it for me because it absolutely squandered its promising premise. Each Star Trek series took a different angle – TNG on an exploratory starship, DS9 on a space station at the gateway to unknown space – so Voyager had a starship lost on the other side of the galaxy, far from known planets and species, out of touch with Starfleet, trying to find their way home. The Starfleet crew were also forced to share their ship with a rebellious terrorist group known as the Maquis, another opportunity to generate some dramatic tension between characters. Yet, within a few episodes, the members of the Maquis were pretty much fully integrated into the Starfleet crew and one of the first unknown alien species encountered, the Kazon, are basically a piss-weak rip-off of the Klingons. Voyager didn’t boldly go where no-one has gone before.
One of the biggest problems with the show was summed up by writer/producer Ronald D Moore (who served very briefly on the staff of Voyager after successful runs on TNG and DS9):
The premise has a lot of possibilities. Before it aired, I was at a convention in Pasadena, and Sternbach and Okuda were on stage, and they were answering questions from the audience about the new ship. It was all very technical, and they were talking about the fact that in the premise this ship was going to have problems. It wasn’t going to have unlimited sources of energy. It wasn’t going to have all the doodads of the Enterprise. It was going to be rougher, fending for themselves more, having to trade to get supplies that they want. That didn’t happen. It doesn’t happen at all, and it’s a lie to the audience. I think the audience intuitively knows when something is true and something is not true. Voyager is not true. If it were true, the ship would not look spic-and-span every week, after all these battles it goes through. How many times has the bridge been destroyed? How many shuttlecrafts have vanished, and another one just comes out of the oven? That kind of bullshitting the audience I think takes its toll. At some point the audience stops taking it seriously, because they know that this is not really the way this would happen. These people wouldn’t act like this.
Spot-on, Ron. Moore went on to address these issues brilliantly with his magnificent recreation of Battlestar Galactica.
Meanwhile, the fifth series, originally just called Enterprise, started up. This one went out of its way to be different, dropping Star Trek from it’s title and set chronologically before the original series. Okay, sure, I appreciate that they were trying not to do the same thing over and over. But they took it too far with that disgustingly awful Diane Warren-penned power-ballad over the very American-centric opening titles. Oh my fucking god. I could barely stand to watch the show itself after that. Interestingly, and surely due to poor ratings, the Star Trek returned to the title in season three but that didn’t save the show from being axed in season four.
The TV trek was over. All for the best, I think. The trek universe is a big one, to be sure, but given the formulaic and frankly stodgy way they made most of the series, there was nothing more to be done there.
But then J.J. Abrams came along to bring Trek back to life, and thank fuck he did. It was a pretty ballsy thing to do, a prequel to the original series, with those iconic characters being played by a bunch of actors who weren’t even alive when the original series was being made. But Abrams and his writers cleverly made a movie that is right in all the right ways, and changes things by creating an alternate universe for the sequels to take place in. Brilliant.
Sure, it wasn’t a cerebral as many older Trek stories, nor did it wrestle with some of the moral dilemmas that the many series tackled, but it brought Star Trek back from the dead with an exciting story well told and invested it with more energy and resonance than all but a mere handful of episodes ever captured. This movie justifies my fandom and has revived it. Now I think I need to seek out the DS9 DVDs to see if I’m wrong about all this…