Why the Star Trek Franchise Is Great—and Meant for TV

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
May 15 2013 5:31 AM

I Boldly Went Where Every Star Trek Movie and TV Show Has Gone Before

Now I can tell you exactly why this franchise is great.

(Continued from Page 1)

Typically, Picard and the Enterprise-D face problems—Wesley’s been sentenced to death, Riker is held prisoner on a pre-warp planet, Troi’s mom is coming to visit, Tasha Yar is being pressed into a forced marriage—that could be easily solved by photon torpedoes or a commando squad, and the real dilemma is how to get out of the jam without resorting to violence.* We also see the practical operation of a post-scarcity socialist economy. Picard explains in Star Trek: First Contact that “money doesn’t exist in the 24th century,” when “the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives.” Instead, “we work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”

And it could hardly be otherwise. Consider the miraculous technology of the replicator—a machine that can seemingly create anything out of thin air, based on rudimentary raw materials plus energy. When computers and energy can substitute for productive human labor, either the energy supply will be controlled democratically for Federation-style liberal socialism, or else it will fall into the hands of some narrow clique and give us the fascistic authoritarianism of the Klingons, the Romulans, or the Cardassians. Under the circumstances, nothing resembling capitalism as we know it could survive. As Marx wrote in his Critique of the Gotha Program, the material prosperity made possible by ever-better technology is the necessary precursor to an economic system ruled by the principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” And that’s the principle the Federation lives by.

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The Next Generation was so successful it spurred two spinoffs that shared its 24th-century setting. Star Trek: Deep Space 9 launched while TNG was still on the air and physically set itself on the very edge of the federation. Star Trek: Voyager came a few years later, after TNG departed but overlapped with DS9 for several years. In order to avoid getting excessively tangled up in DS9’s plot arcs, Voyager sent its crew all the way to the other end of the galaxy, marooned by a space accident in the remote Delta Quadrant, a decades-long journey from home.

The two shows were quite different in tone, structure—and quality. DS9 is the most narratively ambitious Trek of all; it even managed to pull off a good holodeck episode (“It’s Only a Paper Moon”). Voyager, on the other hand, was a deliberate and somewhat perverse effort to recapture the spirit of the (lest we forget) ultimately unsuccessful Original Series. Except this time, the characters were less interesting.

And both shows suffer for having been filmed during the awkward teenage years of television drama. Modern TV features a fairly sharp divide between shows structured around long plot arcs (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones) and those built as a series of one-offs (CSI). But in the late ’90s, things were different. DS9, like Buffy and The X-Files, flits back and forth between a big-picture story and alien-of-the-week one-shots. This makes for disconcerting binge-watching. The sustained 10-episode narrative that concludes the series is the best run of Trek that’s ever been made. But it comes after years’ worth of television in which the grand clash between the Federation and the Dominion is regularly interrupted. Some of these one-offs—those set in the Mirror Universe especially—are fun. But others are dreadful (Sisko has to train his crew to beat a bunch of arrogant Vulcans at baseball) or simply bizarre (Sisko fights racism in the sci-fi industry of the 1950s).

Rather than build on the most promising elements of DS9’s narrative ambition, Voyager essentially retreats from them. The location in the Delta Quadrant allowed the writers to dream up brand-new alien races. Even better than that, the Borg—Trek fandom’s favorite rarely seen foe—lived in the Delta Quadrant and could be featured frequently. But the plotting is very much alien-of-the-week. Over the course of its seven-season run, the ship never feels like it’s actually making progress. By the penultimate episode, the crew is still stuck decades from home—then it’s rescued in the finale by a deus ex machina. That both those episodes are actually quite good only underscores the larger tragedy of the series: Thought through a bit better, it could have been excellent.

DS9, on the other hand, is anchored by a dangling plot thread from TNG: The planet Bajor has been subject to brutal occupation by the militaristic Cardassian Empire, which is simultaneously involved in a territorial dispute with the Federation. Just before DS9 begins, the Federation and Cardassia reach a peace deal that involves freedom for Bajor in exchange for the handover of some Federation colonies to the Cardassians. The show is set on a Federation station orbiting the newly independent planet, adjacent to 1) the hostile Cardassians and 2) a band of ex-Federation rebels who refuse to have their homes handed over to the enemy. Even worse, the station turns out to be right at the mouth of a wormhole that leads to the distant Gamma Quadrant and eventually becomes the entry point for an invasion of hostile shapeshifters.

Partly because of that premise—and partly because one of the major creative forces behind it, Ronald Moore, went on to reboot Battlestar GalacticaDS9 is often considered the “dark” Star Trek. Meanwhile, many fans lambaste Captain Janeway of Voyager as a dopey idealist. In truth, though, the core themes of progressive optimism run through both series.

On DS9, the coming together of Bajoran collaborators and resistance fighters is a key theme, as is sympathy for individual Cardassians. There’s also a focus on the importance of maintaining civil liberties even in the face of very real security threats. The war is devastating to many planets but ultimately serves as an engine of social progress that spurs reform in both the Cardassian and Klingon empires. In a two-part episode detached from the main narrative thread, Sisko and two crew members travel back to early-21st-century Earth, where they help shake the powers that be out of their complacency about mass unemployment. Even the Ferengi come around by the end and start adopting gender equality and a welfare state. The social and political stakes were generally higher and more explicit on DS9 than on either of the Enterprise-based shows—but sunny optimism still reigns.

And when it was at its best, the core Trek values ring through on Voyager, too, even if it was hobbled from the start by ill-conceived characters. The show made a statement with its lead, Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Katherine Janeway, a woman finally given command of the ship and leading it with quiet workaday competence and moral rectitude. Janeway’s crew is the most diverse ever featured. The writers just forgot to make them interesting. B’Elanna Torres reduces the Klingon character to nothing more than a bad temper while Tuvok devalues Vulcan logic into little more than sneering condescension. First Officer Chakotay progresses from non-entity to flat, Native American stereotype who occasionally solves problems with spirit visions. (There are no practicing Christians, Muslims, or Jews remaining in this time period, but Native American culture seems oddly frozen in amber.) Harry Kim is perhaps the least interesting character in the entire franchise.

Over time, the show improves considerably. Boring characters are sidelined. The Emergency Medical Hologram unexpectedly pressed into full-time service starts playing a larger and larger role. Seven of Nine joins the cast. Lieutenant Reginald Barclay, a neurotic genius featured on a couple of TNG episodes, is brought into the action as a lead scientist in the Alpha Quadrant working to get in touch with Voyager. But to the bitter end the series offers far too many holodeck episodes and can never quite shake its legacy as a misguided venture.

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