Fifty years after the starship Enterprise first graced our TV screens, we are suddenly awash with new Star Trek properties, from the big screen adventures of a rebooted Kirk and co., to CBS’ forthcoming attempt to reclaim the television for the Federation. But will they, can they really be any good?
As many of you already know, I am a huge SF nerd and despite my love of, say, Iain M. Bank’s Culture, and the X-Files, if I am truly honest, my heart belongs to Star Trek. And not just any Trek; as a child of the 80s/90s, TNG has always been the daddy to me, opening my eyes to Roddenberry’s universe of soul-searching interstellar allegory via Patrick Stewart’s dulcet tones at 6pm on BBC 2 every Wednesday.
Rushing to get my homework done on time I would sit and watch it religiously, studiously recording and cataloging each episode to create my own VHS library of all seven seasons which, despite my painstaking efforts, I’m pretty sure I never watched and probably quite unceremoniously threw out when I went away to university. Not the most exciting way to spend one’s early teenage years, perhaps, but I have absolutely zero regrets – the lessons I learned on the bridge of the bulbous Enterprise D will last me a lifetime and will come in particularly handy should I ever find myself having to debate the merits of the Prime Directive. Any day now, I am sure of it.
ST:TNG is, in my humble opinion, among the very best TV ever created and, once it hit its stride, home to some of the very best small screen SF. Aside from the ever-present threat of the Borg, the continual testing of humanity’s worth by Q, some excellent holodeck-fueled adventures, and Data’s Pinocchio-like quest to become human, who can forget standalone gems such as The Measure of a Man, I Borg, The Inner Light (the very top of my list), and the excellent top and tailers Encounter at Farpoint and All Good Things? It’s in these episodes, as we watch Picard and crew wrestle with what it means to be human in a universe of uncertainty, that Star Trek really reached its peak, building on all that went before to create programing that was both entertaining, thought provoking and, thanks more often than not to Patrick Stewart, genuinely moving.
Post TNG is another matter however, and, forgive me for saying this, but the with the demise of the regular televised adventures of Picard and co., the franchise went rather swiftly downhill. Despite some initial promise, and the first female captain (gasp!), ST:V was largely derivative, rehashing old TNG plots in the same way TNG plundered TOS in the first season, but with little in the way of interesting, original content (even the series-saving addition of Seven of Nine called for the introduction of the TNG big-bad, the Borg, which Voyager swiftly proceeded to neuter by making them series regulars). And although I do occasionally hear moderately good things regarding Archer and co., I never even tried to get into ST:E – I just couldn’t get past that theme song!
I do have a soft spot for DS9, however, and the series did have moments of brilliance (Far Beyond the Stars and In The Pale Moonlight, to name but two) and TOS is of course home to many classic, genre defining and genuinely quite groundbreaking episodes of television, but try as I might, I just can’t muster the same affection for Kirk and Spock as I can for Picard and Data. Perhaps it’s a formative thing and I just happened to hit TNG at the right time, but for all its numerous faults (like most of the first two seasons) I just can’t stop holding a candle for the crew of the Enterprise D, and of course Tasha Yar (*sob*).
With this in mind, and after four rather disappointing TNG movie outings, I approached 2009’s J.J. Abrams-led big screen Star Trek reboot with some trepidation. Although various developmental tasks, like growing up and getting married, had somewhat reduced my, perhaps at points bordering on unhealthy connection to the TNG crew, the world of Star Trek still meant a lot to me and I was keen for Abrams not to screw it up. And largely he did not.
2009’s Star Trek offered a pleasantly surprising and engaging take on the Kirk/Spock relationship with the kinds of space battles Trek fans had only previously dreamed of, and 2013’s Into Darkness, while a little silly (and redundant – remake The Wrath of Khan, really?!?) was an enjoyable space romp nonetheless. Now that Abram’s himself has departed the director’s chair in favor of that other little space franchise obsessed with a group of light-sword fighting monks, we are due to get the third installment in the shiny new universe next month in the form of Star Trek Beyond (they have done away with the colons for some reason).
Although the misjudged first trailer for Justin Lin’s Trek film was worryingly un-Trek-like in tone and universally panned accordingly, the second has more than whetted my appetite, showcasing the characters we know in new and yet appropriately Trekkie situations: debating the ethics of the existence of the Federation and its near obsessive drive toward galactic expansion with an unrecognizable yet menacing Idris Elba, for example. Moreover, Lin (of various entries into the Fast and Furious franchise fame, apparently) seems to be putting his credentials as a action movie director to good use, finding (if the trailer is to be believed) several exciting new ways to film the main star of the show, namely the Enterprise herself.
And isn’t that what these new Star Trek films are all about? Explosions in space and spinning cameras, lens-flares (it’s Abrams after all) and inter-species martial arts? The excitement factor has definitely been turned up all the way to eleven and if the box office tallies from the last two reboot entries are anything to go by it certainly seems to be attracting audiences to the cinema, but is it really Trek?
Watching Abram’s first Star Trek again the other day it was hard not think of it as an extended audition for the job he ultimately got rebooting/continuing/re-imagining Star Wars, complete with an Ewok-esk comedy sidekick for Simon Pegg’s Scotty. In fact, about half way through I actually found myself wondering where all the scenes of old people wearing wobbly prosthetics sitting round a table and debating interstellar politics were. Not to mention the Enterprise’s famous mission that speaks to the very heart of Trek – to seek out new worlds and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before! Despite repeated verbal references to a five year mission we have yet to see the new Kirk and co. actually do any exploring.
Come to think of it, it’s not just the reboots that are guilty of this – from The Motion Picture to Into Darkness, none of the Star Trek films show the crew of the Enterprise doing any star trekking – not in the way Roddenberry had envisaged anyway. Arguably, Star Trek has never been fully realized on the big screen with few, if any, of the films, viewed solely on their own merits, actually working.
Think about it: can you name a single one of the movies that would stand up against 90 minutes (so two episodes) of the best of TV Trek? Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home are usually cited as the best of the silver screen bunch (although I have a soft spot for The Motion Picture) but how do they rate against, say The City on the Edge of Forever and Space Seed? We only really got one half decent TNG movie and arguably First Contact suffers from the same action-oriented flaws as Abrams’ offerings (albeit without the flares), and although the Jonathan Frakes directed outing gave us the Borg Queen, it’s still not as good as the Best of Both Worlds double-header story arc from which it draws heavily.
The point is, I’m not sure Trek really works on the big screen. Yes, it makes its money, but after 12 (soon to be 13) worthy attempts I think we can safely say that Roddenberry’s wagon trail to the stars is, I believe, an idea intrinsically linked to the episodic nature of television. As we watched, for example, Data’s quest to gain his humanity in TNG unfold over seven seasons and numerous interactions with main and incidental characters, pivotal or otherwise, we observed through repeat and slowly building exposure what this obsession truly meant to him, and his insertion of the emotion chip in Generations is therefore seen as a culmination of this seven year journey rather than a knee-jerk response to a minor holodeck embarrassment.
When Picard is first revealed as Locutus, his distinguished face drained of color, implanted with multiple painful looking metal augmentations, one eye covered by a cool-looking but quite obviously useless laser pointer, it is only because we have watched this man lead the Enterprise for three full seasons now that it really matters, and I’m not sure that connection can adequately be reproduced in twenty minutes of preamble before a the first big set-battle in a summer blockbuster.
Similarly, The Inner Light, a truly glorious episode in which Picard relives the entire life of a long dead alien via a telepathically delivered message from an ancient probe, would not work in the cinema at all – it’s far too slow and, ultimately, rather pointless. Picard now has this alien’s memories but where’s the interstellar threat, the lens flaring, camera wobbling dynamism? There isn’t any, and there shouldn’t be, for The Inner Light is a slow, meditative musing on the nature of mortality, the kind of risk no big studio would take (not with the Star Trek name on it anyway) but the very kind of TV SF that works precisely because of all the emotional investment we, the audience, have made in Captain Picard over the preceding episodes. In short, it’s just good TV.
Which brings me to CBS and their so far only teased new Star Trek TV series set to premiere this fall. Now, I’m trying not to get too hopeful about this (it’s set in the prime universe! Ahhhhh!) and I can’t be alone in wondering if it is in fact not just an attempt to get millions of Trekkies to cash in their love of the franchise for a subscription to CBS’ streaming service on which all episodes after the first will run and which surely doesn’t stand a chance in hell aginst the might of Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu without them, but beam me up Scotty if I’m not excited anyway!
Can they really recreate that magic though? Star Trek, TOS, was undeniably a product of its time, a more optimistic time, arguably, and the same goes for TNG. How CBS’ offering will fare in a Trump, Brexit climate of economic uncertainty is anybody’s guess. Perhaps a new wagon trail to the stars is exactly what we need to take our minds off the petty squabbles of modern existence, or maybe the creators will dare to offer us a darker, grittier version of Roddenberry’s future, where humanity still wrestles with demons and there is no last minute mcguffin to save the day?
Either way, I await their offering with bated breath, hopeful that Star Trek can once again assume its rightful place at the forefront of TV science fiction. If they have any sense, surely the producers at CBS will ask themselves WWJLPD? before every major decision. Since 1987 it has been one surefire way to never go wrong!
Are you a Trekkie or an SF fan in general? Do you have an opinion on the reboot(s)? Are you hopeful or fearful for CBS’ coming TV offering? Let me know in the comments below.
That’s all for now internets.
As always, thanks for playing!