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.

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After Voyager’s stint ended in a blaze of low ratings, Paramount decided to reinvigorate the franchise by shifting back in time. Telling the story of the first starship Enterprise—humanity’s first ship capable of traveling at Warp 5—was a way, they thought, of stripping the series of technobabble and gimmicks and putting the focus back where it belongs: on the sheer adventure of space travel.

It’s a neat idea. But throughout its abbreviated run, Enterprise is a show torn between two concepts. On the one hand, it’s a prequel, offering further explorations of the origins of the Trek world that fans have come to know and love. We see the troubled-but-beneficial evolution of the human-Vulcan alliance and the formation of the United Federation of planets. We learn how humans got off on the wrong foot with Klingons and get to enjoy a humorous effort to provide an in-universe explanation for the change in makeup. We come to understand the origins of the Prime Directive as meddling in the culture of a three-gendered species that came to a sad end. We see the buggy, 1.0 version of the Universal Translator, a Starfleet crew that’s not comfortable with transporter technology, the “protein resequencer” (an early precursor of the replicator), and other fun Easter eggs.

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But going back in time was supposed to cut the show off from all that fanboy baggage. In fact, displacing the narrative backward in time only exacerbated such tendencies. If Starfleet crews had been participating in a Temporal Cold War dating back to the maiden voyage of the first Enterprise, how come nobody mentioned this in other series’ extensive time explorations? How compelling is a season-long plot about saving Earth from a Xindi superweapon supposed to be when we’ve already seen many shows set in the future, with Earth alive and well? Low ratings led to the show’s cancellation before its planned end—surely not what the producers had in mind when they spoke of returning to the franchise’s roots.

Yet for all the series’ flaws, its fourth season, at least, is must-viewing for fans of the earlier, better outings. Here we learn, at last, of the actual origins of the Federation and how it came to be centered on Earth despite humanity’s relatively late arrival on the warp-travel scene. It’s a multilayered tale, involving political upheaval on Vulcan ("Kir’Shara"), the Enterprise’s mediation between two warring races ("Babel One"), multi-species cooperation against the Romulans ("United," "The Aenar"), and the eventual facing down of xenophobic elements in Earth politics ("Demons," "Terra Prime").* It underscores the idea that the greatest power in the Alpha Quadrant was forged, from the beginning, through missions of peace and diplomacy, not conquest.

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And then came J.J. Abrams’ reboot film, Star Trek. With the TNG films showing waning box-office appeal, Paramount took the dramatic step of allowing a fresh creative team to simply wipe the entire continuity clean. As a serious fan, watching it was both thrilling and terrifying. Abrams gave us a nice space-adventure romp that, after years of failure, had clear mainstream appeal. But the price was high. Time travel—like all the other technologies of the future—could be terrifying in theory but in practice always ended benignly. Now an entire universe—all the adventures of Kirk and Picard and Sisko and Janeway and the rest—was wiped out for the convenience of a director who, by his own account, is not a dedicated fan of the franchise. And while the movie was great fun, it has no particular connection to Trek’s distinctive themes.

And besides, even if the commercially successful films saved the franchise, Trek’s true home has always been television. The cinema demands what Abrams delivered: action, suspense, drama. But it’s less well-suited to the signature thematic project of the franchise: to depict, in a sustained way, life in a better tomorrow.

Utopia requires moments of peace and quiet. Random episodes about an Android bonding with his cat, say, or a bartender’s schemes to increase his profits. You can’t make a lucrative sci-fi flick about people sitting around in a conference room debating options for resolving the situation peacefully—but something that can be accurately teased as primarily consisting of thrilling space battles is not the real Star Trek. A bunch of friendly folks using advanced technology to help people? That can only be profitable, I suspect, on the small screen.

So I hope the success of Abrams’ movies paves the way for the triumphant televisual return that Trek richly deserves. And I hope that this time they do it right: Put it on cable, where niche entertainment can thrive, and give us sustained plot arcs that stretch across short cable seasons. The highest-rated Mad Men episode ever, the Season 5 premiere, drew 3.5 million viewers—a mark that even the failed Enterprise series beat in the majority of its episodes. It’s a scandal that the golden age of niche television is passing us by without any representation from the franchise that practically invented niche television.

I will continue to dream, at least, that Abrams’ interstellar action movies will bring the real Star Trek back to life. The one in which phaser volleys rarely solve anything, the timeline is always restored, and a ship and its crew wander more or less aimlessly through space to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where—well, where a few men (and women) have now gone before but where we want them to keep going, again and again.

*Correction, May 15, 2013: This article originally referred to proton torpedoes rather than photon torpedoes. An earlier version of the article also said the Enterprise episode "Terra Nova" was about xenophobia in Earth politics. In fact, "Terra Nova" is about the fate of humanity's first deep space colony. The episode about xenophobia is "Terra Prime."

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.