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‘Star Trek’ needs to boldly go where it has gone before

Has Star Trek lost its way?


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

In the midst of a titanic wave of hype for the newest Star Wars movie, the trailer for the upcoming Star Trek: Beyond grabbed the nerdiest arms of the Internet by the throat this week with heavy computer-generated imagery, quirky humor, and a Beastie Boys soundtrack. While one might think the re-energized intro could bring “fun” to the Star Trek universe, many geeks expressed dismay at the new, hip turn for a franchise entering its fifth decade.

The trailer does resemble a sci-fi/action approach perhaps more befitting an entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unlike most Hollywood fare, Star Trek, for most of its existence on screens big and small, has kept and renewed one of the most rabid fan bases on Earth with smart, cerebral plots dense with backstory, character development, and moralistic musings. The TV series, especially, have been notably free of the kinds of action scenes that have filled their competitors and would today stand in stark contrast to the CGI-heavy worlds of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones.

That contrast will hopefully come to light sooner rather than later as CBS prepares to reintroduce Star Trek to the airwaves with a brand new TV series, the first since Star Trek: Enterprise ended its mediocre run in 2005. As The Guardian’s Luke Holland noted upon the announcement of the reboot, the series tradition in tackling the human condition through analogy and debate may pale in our action-packed present. “Viewed from the post–Breaking Bad TV landscape of 2015,” writes Holland, “at their worst–and apologies to any Trekkies out there–they were sometimes ponderous, pious and slightly dull.”

A rush to keep young people on broadcast television has encouraged a newfound wave of TV shows based on geek culture standbys saturated in special effects, violence, and action sequences–network shows like Arrow, Gotham, The Flash, and Agents of SHIELD are creating an entire generation of comic book fans who have never opened a comic book, and the reboot of the Star Wars universe will soon come to your TV or streaming device, as well.

Star Trek has always been episodic and philosophical, even breaking political ground as it opened audiences to new and challenging ideas.  

If you line up any of the Star Trek TV series on your Netflix queue in parallel with any one of these shows, the difference becomes clear. Star Trek has always been episodic and philosophical, even breaking political ground as it opened audiences to new and challenging ideas. The top-rated shows of this “Golden Age” are serial, building tension and relationships with audiences over entire seasons The first series became famous for tackling issues about race and inequality, featuring one of the most diverse casts on TV.

Which is not to say a show can’t do these things while including a few stunt sequences, but the two qualities often find themselves at odd with one another.

A warning for the writers of this latest Star Trek series should lie within the last season of Game of Thrones. Based on the immersive and literary A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, the HBO show retains a massive following despite being a story primarily about politics. As showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been forced to go off-script from the books (fans await the sixth installment of the book series with intensely baited breath), however, the fifth season became more filled with gratuitous rape and violence as well as lengthy, choreographed battle scenes. In short, what was once an intelligent, complex show about the ethics of leadership and the cost of war has refocused on sensationalized tactics verging on smut.

Such a road is a nightmare for most Trek fans, but the newly-released trailer seems to indicate no disdain among CBS and Paramount for rollicking sci-fi blockbusters. While one could imagine a situation in which CBS and Paramount (the studio licensed to produce the two previous entries into the Star Trek film canon) would keep one tone on film and another on television, it doesn’t seem likely. CBS announced the new series will be headed by Alex Kurtzman co-writer and producer for 2009’s similarly tense Star Trek (directed by new Star Wars director J.J. Abrams) and Heather Kadin, producer on shows like Matador, Sleepy Hollow, and Limitless.

Those are not comparisons that might be welcome to fans of one of the oldest franchises in American television. But relying on dense arguments, sprawling backstory, and space operatics while still remaining entertaining is risky–any writer could easily come across as preachy rather than academic, heavy-handed rather than scholarly. By taking the film series and, potentially, its new TV series in a more modern direction, CBS could be saving the franchise from obscurity.

There remains something to be said, however, for what will be lost. Science fiction has long been a genre for toying with big ideas about philosophy, ethics, politics, or society. While writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip. K. Dick, and Arthur C. Clarke used the genre to such ends on the page, Gene Roddenberry and the original Star Trek series brought big concepts out of the pages of pulp magazines and into the average American living room. As we encounter science fiction concepts in real life–mass surveillance, virtual reality, gene editing, transhumanism, artificial intelligence–it’s easy to see how the world could benefit from a thoughtful version of the show instead of yet another computerized festival of explosions and stunts. 

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

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