EDITORIAL: The Future of Star Trek (an open letter to Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman) PART III

This is Part II of a three part series. Be sure to read Part I and Part II.

Few people these days believe in a better future for humanity. Those that do often see only a technological fix for our myriad careless acts. As for the more venal aspects of our nature, well, they appear to be in ascendance, with no immediate relief in sight.

You can track this evolution of attitude through the Star Trek franchise, as one series gave way to the next. The moral divide got muddy. Virtue became a currency for manipulation (as in Sisko’s deceit to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War, in DS9). Even the stoic, logical Vulcans were exposed as liars (Enterprise).

Every compromise could be seen as the search for drama, for complexity. But, curiously, they all shared the singular characteristic of disenchantment, delivering again and again the same depressing message: we were fools to believe, fools to trust others, fools to stand firm on principle. Ambiguity becomes ambivalence, and ambivalence becomes the justification for any means to an end.

All of this evolved against the real-world backdrop of the War on Terror that has brought with it heightened paranoia, fear and mistrust, leading inevitably to the moral abomination that was Star Trek Into Darkness, where even Spock (both versions) surrenders to the necessity of deceit and then attempted murder. The moral quagmire of that film struck me as the end-run to a sequence of fundamental ethical compromises, until the very characters whose names and roles had become iconic, were now, despite sharing those names and roles, virtually unrecognizable.

No doubt the forces arrayed against the franchise, so disparate and so powerful, have contributed to the loss of faith in the future’s better humanity, and by the same token, Star Trek is not unique in the chorus of despair coming out of Hollywood for the past two decades – with its cycling slate of sociopathic super-heroes and the mass destruction of 911 repeated ad infinitum (although strangely cleaned up in that we see the buildings crash down, we see the dust, but we never see the crushed bodies, the severed limbs, and all the rest of the ugly truth. Massive destruction is now part of our ethosphere, part of our cultural and mythological language – what I find disturbing is the sanitized bludgeoning of the imagery assaulting us from Hollywood. What the hell are they up to?). This seamless conjoining of product is in itself a symptom of Star Trek’s loss of faith, as Star Trek has long ceased to offer a bold vision of a better future. Now it simply runs with the same dystopic, nihilistic crowd arriving in the cinemas every summer.

Surely, we can do better.

I long for a Star Trek that looks back, not in dismissal or sneering contempt, at the ideals of the original series. I long for a new Star Trek that flies in the face of that churning (and oh-so-tiring) blockbuster crowd of cynical, vicious violence-fests rushing towards the box-office every summer, trailing blood and suffering like bread-crumbs before a benumbed audience.

Does this desire of mine comprise a manifesto? Perhaps the word itself was too bold; even, dare I say it, too optimistic. The essay’s title invites Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman – the men at the helm of the upcoming new Star Trek series – to consider my words here. Rumours abound on this new series, ranging from being an anthology set before TNG, to something post-everything else. It seems a strange given that it will feature no Enterprise, no central ship to symbolize the journey into the unknown. If I am to read subtext into that, I begin to suspect an inward turn for the storyline, perhaps an exploration of what already exists in the ST universe. In contrast to that, there have been official statements hearkening back to the Original Series and its core precepts. I perceive a contradiction there.

Tolerance is not simply something externally opposed upon the ‘Other,’ whether that ‘Other’ be alien in physical manifestation or in attitude. The notion of a humanity so united that it has ceased to honor the necessity of tolerance within itself, hardly strikes me as a humanity capable of tolerating any other species or civilization. To use a very extreme example by way of elucidating the absurdity of this idea: Nazis tolerating other Nazis doesn’t make anyone else safer, or, to use a religious context: Christians tolerating other Christians doesn’t help relations with Muslims, does it? Tolerance is an individual virtue not a collective one, and it can only exist when there are a multitude of attitudes and opinions one must then tolerate: a humanity where everyone agrees is not a tolerant one; rather, it is a humanity where tolerance is extinct. Somewhere between The Original Series and The Next Generation, Roddenberry lost the train of thinking on this, creating a situation those who inherited the series after him could not help but fight against. Alas, it was the wrong battle.

At the very least with this new series, I can hope for iconic characters: characters unafraid of confrontation and debate; characters even at odds with one another despite their common goal. I can hope for real drama, characters with convictions, characters experiencing the extremes of human emotion and unconstrained in expressing them (modern thinking notwithstanding, one can actually pose situations where both sides are right). We’re in a world of not-rocking-the-boat, in a world of surveillance-as-threat, where peaceful protesters get pepper-sprayed, clubbed and kicked, and then arrested, where dissent is synonymous with an attack on civilization itself. Wouldn’t it be nice to see a Star Trek peopled by heroes who embody the very opposite of all of that: defiant of oppression, bold in their hard-won freedom to be diverse, to hold disparate opinions, and above all, to espouse the value of each and every one of us?

The idealism and optimism of the Original Series delivered a promise to its audience: it still does, if we care to look. There is no law written in stone that says the future will be miserable, oppressive and dark. If these traits seem to be the only option in the name of realism, then we’re already as good as done. Star Trek does not belong in a grimdark universe. If defies those nihilistic precepts and stands in bold opposition to that ultraviolent array of films and television that exults in the worst we can be.

So Bryan and Alex, here it is: as a lifelong Trekker I humbly ask that you consider doing with this new Star Trek series what the original one did: break the mould. The dystopic visions of the future are getting pale, threadbare and numbingly homogenous, and there are hints that it’s about run its course. Running with that crowd will get you nowhere: choose instead to stand apart. As some recent blockbuster bombs are indicating, what sold last summer is a dubious justification to simply rinse and repeat. Maybe even the money people are starting to get it, but if not I’ll say it plain: we’re tired of a grim and dark future that offers up a promise of more of the same, especially when that promise is as bleak as hell.

Star Trek is not just the names of the races, not just the names of the ships, not just space battles and action heroes. Star Trek is an ethos, and that ethos has at its core unbridled optimism. This was Roddenberry’s original vision, and we need it again. Star Trek is about a better future for humanity. The cynics might tell you that such notions are too naïve, that it will never sell, that you need explosions, and war, and darkness or it will never work. But I have to ask: how many times will the Enterprise have to blow up or crash; how many city landscapes will need to be flattened; how many planets and homeworlds will need to be destroyed, before the franchise simply self-destructs?

Bryan and Alex, you have a chance to be better than that. The Original Series offered us an optimistic vision of the future, and it looked good, without ever compromising the necessity and vitality of dramatic conflict among the crew-members. More than that: the Original Series inspired us. Please offer it again. Invite us into the spirit of hope, embodied by a vision of the future that sees and celebrates the best in us. Now more than ever, we need it.

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Some Trek fans over-romanticize those three years of TOS to the point of a strict fanaticism. It was a sci-fi/fantasy TV program that was on a major network for three years in the 1960s. It became legend in syndication in the 1970s and beyond. It was special and wonderful, and there was a chemistry amongst the actors that made some great stories live on in our collective hearts and minds for generations. Yet, ultimately, this ‘open letter’ is just another “TOS blows all the other versions of Trek away” fan screed. Trek has fans who are equally passionate about the iterations they grew up with, and who find TOS a bit silly, old-fashioned and over-rated. Fifty years is a long time to generalize about a constantly evolving property in an evolving world, except, perhaps to say its latest cinema iteration of TOS is not “Star Trek” at all, but something of lower quality, and alien to the franchise. One thing is for sure, the world we live in now still unstable and is in search of true heroism and some hope in a sea of mediocre leaders and endless violence fueled by big money. Can Star Trek: All Access provide us with an optimistic vision of the future? Will it be as good as the super-optimistic Sopranos or happy-smiley Game of Thrones? Which is the more important question? Can it be both? It needs to be, or else it will fail to garner the next generation of fans it needs to start the next 50 years.

Yes! Very much what I was thinking. The writer of this essay seems to have a very grim and pessimistic view of the current state of the world. While decrying the tendency of future generations to dismiss the ideals of the prior generation, the writer seems to be committing the opposite error of believing that their generation was more pure, more gallant, more valuable than the latter generation.

Star Trek is entertainment. Entertainment that has, does, and will invoke thought upon a myriad of concepts. There is no “right’ way, only ways which individual audience members prefer. If the new show appeals to enough people, it will succeed. If it doesn’t, it will fail. But the question of its success is far removed from whether a single individual enjoys it. If the show is like the way the writer of this wants it to be, they will like it. If it isn’t they won’t.

I want the show to be enjoyable, successful, and make me think. That’s really all I want out of it.

On one hand, I agree that Star Trek should try to be more optimistic and have a strong moral backbone. On the other, I think the author is miscasting some of the examples in his open letter.

For example, “Virtue became a currency for manipulation (as in Sisko’s deceit to bring the Romulans into the Dominion War, in DS9).” No, In the Pale Moonlight was about Sisko coming to terms with the fact that by violating his/Federation principles, he’d prevent the possible mass murder of BILLIONS of Federation citizens. Virtue as currency for manipulation was Star Trek into Darkness, where Kirk’s doubts about his simple black ops mission compromised his judgement and made him vulnerable to Khan’s really lame speeches about family. That ended with hundreds of thousands of people dead in San Francisco and should’ve had Kirk and Spock court martialed for gross incompetence. If you want to talk about moral abominations in that movie, how about Spock wasting time & personnel on yanking Khan’s crew out of their torpedoes, instead of tending to the wounded on his crew and fixing the ship so they had a better shot of surviving?

Even in TNG, Captain Picard acknowledged that the “moral thing to do is not the RIGHT thing to do,” and that’s because sometimes sticking to your morals gets other people hurt/killed. There has to be a balance between morality and pragmatism, and to be honest, most media these days fails at that. Usually it’s either “we’ll stick to our morals no matter the negative consequences, because competence and pragmatism are evil!” or “morality is for the weak, utilitarianism will win the day.”

That said, I’m not sure how well any writers/producers could sell me on the Star Trek universe being optimistic. After years of seeing episodes where whole planets get wiped out because one ship flew by and blew up the population centers, giant space organisms/machines ate everyone, or spatial anomalies wrecked things, it’s easier for me to accept Star Trek as a dystopia because it seems like the Federation are horribly stupid. I feel like the writers and producers don’t get that for heroes to really shine, they need to be competent and face adversaries who are equally competent. It’s not enough for the good guys to win because they’re good – they need to EARN that victory, and in the process, prove that the optimism of the Star Trek isn’t just “we have spaceships and other cool gadgets that make life easier.”

Being tolerant also means being tolerant about people’s perception of the “core” of Star Trek. No one has interpretational sovereignty on what Star Trek really is at its heart. It’s just what people make of it.
And the great thing with Star Trek is, that people can make a lot of things of it. I, for example, was so inspired by the technology in the 90s series. How cool are holodecks? In this matter, TOS just cannot keep up with 90s Star Trek.
The new series is what Fuller and Kurtzman will make of it. As you said, sometimes there is no right or wrong.

Unlike many here it seems, I applaud this article. But I guess it depends upon what era of Trek one was born into, or experienced first. I too am tired of mass special effects destruction in film (and often TV too). It’s so common it no longer means much. The real challenge is in … challenging! Making us think. Making us believe we can have an optimistic future if we work together. Find creative and clever and inspiring solutions to problems. The challenge for the writers is coming up with stories & characters that have the requred amount of intelligence, tension, emotion and so forth that don’t rely in the extremely tired ‘villain of the week’ that’s been done to death now. Trek also contained what Harve Bennet called ‘tap dancing’ in regards to it’s humour; Trek IV is a good example of this. Trek V went way over the line into farce almost. The later shows took themselves far too seriously, and became for me rather boring and sterile. Ultimately, these shows need to be fun to watch – they’re entertainment after all. But like Aesop’s fables, can deliver their messages in entertaining ways. Perhaps Trek cannot be done well again, because to many optimism seems like a dirty, unrealistic word in today’s world. But like the author of this article, I think we need it more than ever. Dare to be optimistic – please. Oh and please let’s have one of the new ships be a character and home again to the crew – not a piece of machinary to blow up or damage as a lazy short-cut to ‘drama’. A sense of geography so we feel at home exploring the universe with all its wonders too. Thank you.

“The idealism and optimism of the Original Series delivered a promise to its audience: it still does, if we care to look. There is no law written in stone that says the future will be miserable, oppressive and dark. If these traits seem to be the only option in the name of realism, then we’re already as good as done. Star Trek does not belong in a grimdark universe. If defies those nihilistic precepts and stands in bold opposition to that ultraviolent array of films and television that exults in the worst we can be. “

I agree! If we think that only darkness is realism, then we have already lost. Kirk and Spock were both too wonderful to be real — they were capital-H Heroes — and that’s why they were inspiring and why we still love them. Give us something to aspire to!

Its going to be a balancing act for the new series… keeping it cool and exciting while also deep and thought provoking. Good writers and actors will accomplish this. The network however needs to provide enough time and resources for the series to establish itself and evolve.

You forget how bad Voyager was? You forget how bad Enterprise got? Do you remember walking out of Insurrection and thinking man…they really f’d up the TNG films. Don’t look at Trek through rose colored glasses…look at it for what it is. It wasn’t all good…and some of it was down right bad.

Well said, Mr. Erikson. I’ve been saying the same thing since 1987. As an original series fan, the journey through TNG…and I watched every episode…was a constant exercise in frustration. What wasted potential. Did Gene Coon, DC Fontana and the host of other behind the scenes talent, along with the great writers contribute so much more than Gene Roddenberry to the overall “feel” and soul of the original series? Witnessing TNG as well as TMP almost 20 years earlier, I would have to say yes. Sadly, all subsequent spin-offs used this “new coke” formula of Trek to hammer out 3 more series…all of which suffered from the same symptoms. I have faith in Fuller and Kurtzman…they, like JJ, understand the differences between the beginning and the rest. I think the new series will reflect that understanding and be full of great characters, imaginative, sexy science fiction, romance, humor and swashbucking action/adventures.

Star Trek Lives!

I was with you until you said “I have faith in Fuller and Kurtzman…they, like JJ, understand the differences between the beginning and the rest.”

JJ certainly doesn’t understand Star Trek, especially TOS, which is these alternate timeline movies are so bad – they aren’t Star Trek.

Sorry, cant agree…these new movies speak to the inner Trekkie in me…which hasnt happened since 1991! Lol These new guys know TOS. They “got it”. Leonard Nimoy understood that they “got it”. He didn’t come out of retirement and put those ears on again because it was crap. And while I respect your opinion, that you’re certainly entitled to…please forgive me if I lean more towards Leonard Nimoy’s VERY informed opinion on the new films. They are very much Star Trek. Very much, indeed.

I think he may have done it in spite of it being crap not because of it.

Agreed. The only thing that Abrams and co. did right was to make them be in an alternate universe, but that may have been more for TV rights being separate from movie rights more than any respect for the fans.

We live in a culture where women hate men and men want to be women. Hard to believe in the future anymore.

Damn dude. Where are you living?

In a major city in the US, I would say. That’s the same impression I get from society in general here in Atlanta.

Testify, Brother Steve! A cogent analysis. Thank you for writing it.

Why in the world was this split into 3 parts? I know it was too long but still, it makes it difficult to respond to and follow the replies. But maybe that is just as well.
I think there are elements of TOS that are the gold standard, to me, at least. There was a pragmatic optimism to it. That optimism is missing from the current Star Trek movies and even from several of the TNG movies also. This is not unique to Star Trek, it is the reason, IMO, that Batman v Superman was crap and did so badly.
TOS showed people who could clash and disagree but they did not beat the crap out of each other: they were on the same team and came together to take care of things. Kirk said that we can admit that we are killers but we are not going to kill today. The people in Star Trek still have all the same drives and flaws that humans always have had but have learned not to be dragged down by them.
TNG was slow and plodding getting out of the gate but had some good things going for it. I think it suffered from people running it that did not get Star Trek. DS9 was OK. Voyager was a pathetic joke. Enterprise was…a real disappointment. I think you can look at the people running each show and match them with what the results were. I guess then you can look at who will be running the new Star Trek and make your opinions based on that. We’ll see what happens.

I don’t necessarily agree with his take on some of the spin off shows like TNG, but the core messages he advances I wholeheartedly agree with. I’m sure some fans feel insulted by the suggestion, but if you grew up with the TOS crew being the only crew when you started watching, then you were indeed there throughout to witness the evolution of the franchise.

I do believe that there has been a gradual weakening of the intelligence and substance of the franchise. However, even during the Berman era there was still some attempt to adhere to Gene’s visions, it’s just that the latter half of the Berman era suffered from poor execution in many ways unrelated to the concept of telling thoughtful stories. With JJTrek the mistakes of the latter Berman era are turned on their heads. Instead we have rip roaring actions, dramatic set pieces and quality talent in a lot of areas. However, what the JJ movies have lacked to date is that intelligent undercurrent. This was excusable for the first considering it was a set up and was designed to get non Trekkies into the cinema. But there really was no excuse for the utter, shallow mess that was Into Darkness…and I have to say that I don’t have a huge amount of faith that Beyond will repair that misstep (although I still hope it does).

I don’t care too much about the effects. I just want the new show to be thoughtful, intelligent drama that just happens to be set in space. If the quality of the writing, acting and direction are good enough then people will watch. The success of many shows in the modern era, from The Sopranos to House of Cards to Breaking Bad to American Horror Story shows this. Hell, even shows like Doctor Who show that you can retain the core essence of a show while tailoring it for a modern audience.

All this said, I am confident that with the addition of Nick Meyer, there will be an influence behind the camera that knows how to bring the brains and drama back to Trek. Fingers crossed.

While I appreciate the thoughts and analysis, and do see some truth in it, I feel this is overblown. What you say is missing since TOS can actually be seen several times in TNG (Silicon Avatar) and even more in DS9 (In the pale moonlight: whatever it may say about the negative potential of humanity, Kirk would have done the same IMHO). VOY, with all its quirks and failings, pushed some boundaries that never got touched on in other series (Parallax: women communicating important parts of the story without the need for a man present… say wot??). ENT showed exactly the kind of conflicts and optimism for solving the conflicts that you keep repeating (Kir’Shara: even if we had to wait for season 4 to see it!). 2009 was a good start, while Into Darkness was a bit of a crash and burn moment (but then remember The Final Frontier… what a depressing storyline that was… and the only way to break into the compound was using Uhura’s feminine wiles?? Really?? Star Trek??). Like anything human, Star Trek has its ups and downs.

But. I will take my own advice and end on a more positive note. You did leave me with possibly an all-time favourite quote: “A world where everyone agrees is not a world embracing tolerance; it is in fact its very opposite, defined by an absolute homogeneity of thought and world-view. A humanity that has reached a point where everyone agrees on everything, has become a species of automaton, and one can only wonder at a civilization-wide education system that hammers out dissent, scepticism, free-thinking and diversity of thought.”

On that note, I don’t want to just tolerate your opinion, I hope it makes Alex and Bryan think hard about this NEW series they are creating (which I think they may very well already be doing), and then go and do their thaang!

(All typos intentional)

Sorry, but I didn’t find much of anything in any of the 3 parts of your open letter than I can identify with. I grew up on the Original Series in its original run. At its best Star Trek was the best science fiction ever made for TV, with likeable characters Kirk and Spock and (eventually) a well defined universe that included Starfleet and Klingons. Nothing more, nothing less. Menagerie, City on the Edge of Forever, Miri, Balance of Terror were all great stories, and the great stories defined the legacy of Star Trek. The alien strangeness (and superior intellect) of Spock and the heroism of Kirk, along with the classic buddy relationship between two heroic, likeable actors, defined the legacy of Star Trek. Most of the topical progressive shows were crap (Way to Eden?). Young people were inspired by a vision of the future that included communicators, tricorders, transporters and warp drive. Including token scenes of racial near-equality was not inspiring because everybody was doing it by then. Wow, a white man kissed a black woman … because evil aliens made him! Who cares? Meanwhile women wore miniskirts with half their tuchis out, or later showed up with ridiculous gowns and hairstyles to serve as objects for Kirk to bonk. Character development? There were 2 characters with depth and 2 more with a two-dimensional supporting role. Sulu’s character was … he’s Asian and he knows how to steer a spaceship! Uhura was the classic liberal’s two-fer, a non-white and a woman, in a position of importance but without any authority. And African, not African-American, because that was how the dashiki and fondue crowd understood black America’s ideals and hopes. Chekhov’s character was cartoonish, the Monkees in space. TNG and ENT at least tried to tell stories about the minor characters that helped define them and humanize them. We learned more about Kirk (albeit a different Kirk) in ST 2009 than in any TOS episode – in the TOS-era movies we did learn that original Kirk grew old alone, embittered and disappointed in his life. Great.

Messrs Fuller and Kurtzman will serve us best by making sure that they cast good, likeable actors and present crisp dramatic stories without whiny soap operas and – please God – no liberal preaching. And action! Even us grumpy old men want to see some good space opera action.

Sadly there is an attitude that’s developed in various social, scientific and political movements in recent years that perceives humans as a ‘disease’ infecting the Earth; that we have no right to life and no right to liberty. It’s a tendency to group us all together like herds of animals and see all humans as bad.

Take the near extinction of elephants. That’s awful, but the human race has not done that. As sentient individuals, a bunch of humans have made the decision to commit the crime of killing elephants for ivory to sell on the black market to criminal collectors, because the ivory trade is basically illegal. So rather than blaming the human race, we should blame the criminals that behave that way. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t own anything made of ivory, nor do my family (perhaps the old piano made in the 1920s that I played when growing up had ivory on the keys, but was an antique and is long gone!)

Gene Roddenberry – at least in the 1960s – had boundless enthusiasm for the potential of the human race. We were shooting for the Moon and it didn’t seem unrealistic to have men on Mars by 2000. Somewhere along the way, a cynicism and indifference set in. The attitude became one of ‘There’s too much to do here first,’ which absolutely misses the point: humans are, by their nature, explorers. We have to explore and learn new things to benefit ourselves here and to move beyond being on one planet.

In my mind, every human life is a wonder of nature. It’s a joy that there are so many people alive right now. Hopefully the new show can capture the joy of adventure and thrill of exploring new places; that feeling when you step off a plane for the first time in a different country on a different continent, the first time you go abseiling, the first time you stand on a surfboard…

Too often these days, when exploring issues with the human condition, we tend to look at what’s wrong, when perhaps it’s time we look at what’s right.

“May you live in Interesting times”… well, it’s always “interesting times”. The world is always on the brink of ruin. There’s always moral decay and politically, things are always tenuous.

What the original show offered viewers was how the question of how we, as individuals, choose to react to situations. Do we arm the rebels as Kirk once did? Or do we not interfere per the prime directive. McCoy’s ID, Kirk’s EGO and Spock’s SuperEgo participated in a weekly episodic discussion about our values as a society. And the response was not always on the right side of history. The characters had flaws…because the writing was so good. It had to be because the special effects were spotty at best.

This is why Star Trek (TOS) was a good show. It held a mirror up to us and asked, “what would you do?”. It was Shakespearian in it’s writing – except in episodes that involved Spock’s Brain of course. And the stories were the focus…not special effects. And I don’t believe the characters were all the important either. They simply represented society. THE STORIES WERE THE THING.

So I agree with the author here that any new incarnation needs to first hire great writers. Write a Great Story, then flesh out the characters THROUGH the stories. It was never about Kirk Spock and McCoy…or the rest of the ensemble. It was always about how these humans chose to address what is happening around them.

My two cents: I agree with the author’s wish for Star Trek to be smart sci fi television, with strong moral characters, optimism, and positive humanistic slant. And I agree that the Original Series did embody all of this. What I can’t agree with is the author’s claim that the later Star Treks didn’t embody this. Leaving Enterprise aside for now, I think anyone who has watched TNG, DS9, and VOY would see that it is clear that the Federation personnel (even including the Maquis crewmen of Voyager for the most part, and detrimentally to the show’s premise) are of the same evolved humanity of TOS. Obviously story quality varies from episode to episode, but saying that Star Trek lost its positivism and evolved humanity over the duration of the 24th century Trek really just shows you have missed the point and possibly have an ingrained view that TOS is the only show that did it right and the rest are pale imitations at best – a bias that is clearly unfounded.

” or, to use a religious context: Christians tolerating other Christians doesn’t help relations with Muslims, does it?” This analogy is rather skewed by the writer’s apparent lack of understanding of the World as it is versus the World as it should be based on said mentioned religious beliefs. I see FAR more intolerance from radical Muslims than I ever have from Christians (not including going to the ridiculous extent of citing the Crusades over 700 years ago). I do not see Christians carrying out terrorist attacks on innocent civilians or crowded markets… other than this glaring obfuscation, I see, understand, and agree with most everything he says.