But let’s set Roddenberry’s TNG mis-step aside. He lost his direct input during the Next Generation series, and those creators who followed seemed to flounder in the man’s legacy. With DS9, Voyager and then Enterprise we saw efforts at invoking conflict or at least divergent opinions among the cast, although more often than not these original set-ups soon lost their edge: establishing premises that invited such conflict (Voyager) quickly ironed them out (the revolutionary freedom-fighters of Chakotay and his Maquis crew, the anti-authoritarian origins of Paris – imagine a Voyager series where both the USS Voyager and Chakotay’s Maquis ship ended up in the Delta Quadrant, where they were forced to travel together out of mutual protection, even as they fought each other for the moral high-ground. Now that would have been an amazing series).
While DS9 established a complicated political and historical scenario, initial tensions slowly drained away (with some notable exceptions) for the main cast. I will grant that DS9 achieved a higher level of drama than any of the other series, thanks to a host of ambivalent non-Federation characters; although I would suggest that even Sisko’s enmity towards Picard was at its core unreasonable, given that the death of Sisko’s wife was a consequence of Borg activity, and an assimilated Picard could hardly be responsible for the Collective’s actions. If anything, DS9 supports my argument that Roddenberry’s TNG philosophy handcuffed drama, but here I find myself edging away from the main thesis of this essay.
My real concern remains with what followed Roddenberry’s departure from the helm of the franchise, not with respect to the dramatic necessities of television, but more to do with the slow decline of the core ideal of the Star Trek universe, at the hands of producers with a vision some might call more realistic, but which I would characterise as lesser in stature, weaker in resolve, and ultimately sounding the death knell to a vision of a better future, peopled by people better than we are (or, at the very least, displaying, faults and all, a striving to be the best we can be in the face of a hostile and indifferent universe). This progression is a decline, and the decline has, to this point, seemed terminal.
The original series was produced in America in a time of great social change and all the chaos and uncertainty that comes with such fundamental challenges to the status quo. It was also a time of great optimism. The Kennedys had awakened the nation to the notion of a greater good. Space exploration was ramping up, well-funded and riding a surge of collective determination and the stubborn refusal to bow in defeat, despite the terrible risks, the lives lost.
As so many scientists of that heady period have since professed, Star Trek delivered a future straining at the seams with that optimism, that determined will to adventure in the face of unknown dangers, and that was inspiring. Yes, it was jingoistic and ethnocentrically American, but even these traits were definitive of the country at that time: the clash of its internal mythologies, its old institutions under siege, its global role suddenly stressed and its sense of pride under assault from both within and without. In other words, the America of the Sixties was immersed in a frantic, at times savage, dialogue with itself. All was in in flux, and central to the debate was the question of where the country was heading and what awaited it in that imminent future. Into this tumult arrived Star Trek, showing us a future world that might have seemed impossible at the time: a world of united humanity.
This was no small thing.
One can mock the hokey elements of the Original series; the instances of bad writing, the over-acting, the dud episodes. One can even, if utterly uncharitable and perhaps ignorant of the budget constraints imposed upon the series, mock the bad special effects. And one can, following that, summarily dismiss the series and its import. Or, conversely, one can point to the resistance of the network to the series, especially with respect to its bolder postulations, and one can certainly highlight the conservative backlash that eventually killed the series, as being emblematic of a production too far out front, too ahead of its time, and fighting a battle for tolerance in an intolerant age.
And, in each instance, the observations are viable: but none invite a dismissal of the importance of that brief three-year window on possibility.
Star Trek’s survival post-original series was a testament to an audience refusing to be led by the nose by dismissive, often contemptuous networks. To this day, that audience still battles monolithic distributors who again and again display no inkling of what it is and was about Star Trek that simply refuses to go away. For obvious reasons: these are the minds incapable of the necessary imaginative leap, and these same minds see fandom as something to be exploited, as foolish victims serving no greater function than comprising a target for sucking dry. In other words, fandom’s love is seen as a weakness, a vulnerability, a chink in the armour of that amorphous mass of customers with disposable income.
Is it any wonder the franchise has gone off the rails again and again?
But the industry’s lack of understanding and its inherent cynicism (and contempt for its audience) comprise only the external pressures on the franchise. A similar cynicism had already infected it from within, and that cynicism was a reflection of its time, a time of growing disenchantment, of authority revealing its corrupt visage, of the degradation and subversion of ideals in the name of whatever political agenda or flavor one happened to espouse. It was a time of dismantling civilization’s service to and responsibility for its own people. If the age had a spirit it was a dispirited one. If it had dreams, they were mostly dead in the water.
The Next Generation in the latter years, and more pointedly, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and then Enterprise, all abrogated the original sub-textual premise of the original series: namely, that in the future we would be better than we presently are; that we would be the products of a more mature civilization; that we would be enlightened and no longer driven by base prejudices. Insofar as a nod was given to such notions, there was occasional commentary on how things were in the Earth’s past (environmental destruction, racism, sexism); and of course in the casting of actors, something of Roddenberry’s original intent showed through. I am the first to acknowledge such efforts, and yet I find, again and again, that my overall sense of the post-original series, in terms of episode plotting and background universe-building, all of the virtues of the main cast/crew existed against a backdrop of cynicism, betrayal, deceptions and corrupted authority. It is generally held that the ST universe got darker as it went on, and I believe that to be symptomatic of the loss of faith I have been discussing.
Many have argued that the growing ‘darkness’ of the Star Trek universe was necessary, and indeed a virtue, all in the name of realism. That the idealism of the Sixties was now but a quaint by-product of a generation that was somehow more naïve, more innocent, than we now are. As if this concept of generational regard (by those generations that follow) was somehow unique to our modern age (it was and is not: every generation holds that attitude towards the one that preceded it, and if that reflects anything, it is each new generation’s belief in its own exceptionalism).
Thing is, I remember the Sixties. We weren’t more naïve. We certainly weren’t innocent. If anything, the fundamental difference between then and now is back then, being pissed off got people off their asses. It was a decade of ferocious protests, of crucial battles for equality and liberty. The sense of disenfranchisement did not take a short-cut to despair and apathy. People had a sense back then that they could change the world; that they had agency and efficacy.
These days, most would hold such ideals as unrealistic. Not only are we feeling disenfranchised, we are also mostly ineffectual. Cynicism is a self-defence mechanism in the face of helplessness. Whatever seemingly amorphous forces are driving modern civilization, there’s no stopping them. And these forces have surrendered any optimism for the future. I have often wondered if the race to space wasn’t deliberately derailed and subverted towards the end of the Seventies (and again in later decades, especially following the last Space Shuttle mission). Humanity settling the solar system is humanity no longer under the thumb of an Earth-bound hegemony, after all. More likely, the gradual and invidious infection of neoliberal policies applied on a global scale not only emptied government coffers, they also crushed the dream of civilization’s collective progress towards a better life not just for the select few, but for everyone – a notion at the core of the original Star Trek and its United Federation of Planets.