In an open letter to the creators of the upcoming Star Trek CBS series, science fiction author Steven Erikson makes a plea for the new show to embody the characteristics that made the Original Series so universal and posits, “Star Trek will survive on the quality of its drama – not on the special effects, not on the strange aliens, and not, alas, on the legacy of what has gone before.”
Dear Bryan and Alex,
It is no accident that the last two starships (if we take the latest trailer as accurate) named the Enterprise have crashed into ruin on planets. No better symbol can be imagined for the descent of Gene Roddenberry’s dream, and the close, undeniable parallel that is our collective loss of faith in a better future.
This is not an essay pointing a finger of blame at the Star Trek franchise. As influential as Trek is to our past, present and future mythology, it nevertheless more often served to reflect cultural mores, as opposed to guiding them. And yet, in its original manifestation, Star Trek sought precisely that: to guide and instruct. Somewhere along the way, the boldness of that vision, with its blazing optimism, fell away.
The reasons for why this happened are myriad, and probably worth some contemplation before I proceed towards offering a manifesto of sorts for the future of the franchise. If this notion – of a manifesto – seems both presumptuous and pointedly uninvited, that’s fine. I am proceeding from a notion of what Star Trek offered to us all, to what it became, and ultimately, to where it is going, particularly now on the cusp of a new television series within the Star Trek universe. And I am doing all this from the standpoint of a lifelong fan, an undaunted Trekker caught in a cycle of optimism and disappointment with every new ST iteration that comes along.
Every work of art and every creative endeavor is a product of its time. As such, it reflects the world in which it was created, addressing imminent issues, concerns and attitudes. The nature of this reflection can be reactive or proactive. It can recoil towards a stalwart defense of the status quo in times when that status quo is perceived as threatened; or it can advance the shift in paradigm and thus effect, as best it can, social change.
Few would argue the stance Gene Roddenberry took with his original vision of Star Trek. The man was an unrepentant Revolutionary, a humanist of the highest order, and his vision of a distant future civilization of humans united rather than divided, tolerant as opposed to intolerant, enlightened rather than benighted, was the driving force for the original series.
Curiously, at the time of its production, there was no paralyzing consequence when it came to invoking high drama among the characters in the original series: that would come later with The Next Generation.
The original series offered us strong, recognisable characters. So consistent in their traits, these characters became predictable in their anticipated reaction to events in the episodes, and this was not a bad thing, not a weakness but a strength. We knew how McCoy would react. We watched with glee the foil that Spock often provided. We well understood the battles between emotion and reason, and how Kirk bridged the two time and again. We recognised Scotty’s reverence for his ship, Chekov’s nationalistic pride, Sulu’s quiet ambition, Rand’s adoration of her captain, Uruhu’s love of music, Chapel’s unrequited love for Spock…
These may seem simplistic now, but they aren’t. They are crucial in their consistency, utterly necessary in the conflicts they invite for the crew of the Enterprise. They lie at the heart of the natural drama of the Original Series, acting in response to the weekly external sources of conflict or threat. They were the spine upon which the burden of the unknown settled, week after week, out in the depths of space, and the strain and struggle of that burden delivered to us, the viewer, that essential identification and empathy for the crew of the Enterprise.
Contrast that with the crew of The Next Generation. Sure, we had Data in his desire to be human. We had Picard as the reluctant commander, and every now and then, we had Worf doing something other than voicing the wrong opinion on the bridge and having his violent impulses swiftly reigned in by Picard. The other characters? Few had predictable traits, distinct or definitive personalities. Most of their lines could have been uttered by another character, with little effect on the story. Even Troi’s psionic empathy served mostly to advance the story via expository short-cuts, offering up observations that any competent person might surmise based on tone and body language. Riker – who was he? Does anybody know? Dr. Crusher? More robotic than Data. Geordi? Set aside the technobabble and who was he? Oh, right, he was a nice guy. They were all nice. And that was the problem.
I watched the entirety of this series in a state of frustration. Now, Roddenberry himself was responsible for the Happy Camper setting of TNG, insisting that there be no conflict between the regulars. To this day, I do not understand his thinking with this. Any future civilization based upon humanist precepts is actually dependent upon discourse and a participatory role that embraces all points of view. It thrives on debate, on the strength of language in navigating the moral challenges awaiting it. More to the point, there is no conceivable future for us where we have been immunized from internal conflict, from battles of conscience and episodes of soul-searching doubt. The absence of all this in the Roddenberry years of TNG made its cast into a host of zombies, constricted, paper-thin, unified in the blandest sense of the word.
Bryan, you have been quoted regarding your sense of this Roddenberry sensibility, describing his (and Star Trek’s) legacy as one “that is all-inclusive. It’s a world that promises an evolution of the human condition; that had moved on beyond hate and fear, and embraced true Christian values of tolerance, acceptance, and loving thy neighbour, and being inspired by thy neighbour” (Star Trek Magazine, Issue 56). A most laudable sentiment, as much humanist as it is Christian. You go on to say that “Roddenberry was very insistent … that these are evolved human beings, so they didn’t have conflict with each other, they have conflict outside.”
The Next Generation series (and those that followed) revealed the flaw in that thinking. 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. The original series was unafraid of conflicting points of view among its cast of regulars. TNG and those series that followed seemed terrified of it.
“Star Trek will survive on the quality of its drama – not on the special effects, not on the strange aliens, and not, alas, on the legacy of what has gone before.”
In imagining a future humanity that has left social and cultural conflict behind, Roddenberry seemed to have conflated that collective ideal with a homogenized collection of (non)personalities, and now I fear the same for this new series. My heart went out to those actors as they struggled to find out who they were supposed to be; nor was it enough to simply paint layer after layer of experience upon these characters: like the Enterprise itself, no evidence of wear and tear showed itself in those characters (until later in the series), and what did eventually come owed as much to the physical ageing of those actors as anything else.
If the previous commentary on TNG infuriates the fans of that ST series, I do apologise. I mean, I get it. It got better. It acquired gravitas as the years went on. Some wonderful episodes were done and some secondary characters were brilliantly conceived (Q). I don’t deny any of that. But … the original series needed what, four, five episodes, to utterly nail its cast of regulars? By the first season’s end, did anyone doubt who Spock was, or McCoy, or Kirk? No. We knew them. We watched them, avidly, and we were right there with them, in adventure after adventure.
The distinction is important. Television is now the most dominant media when it comes to dramatic visual storytelling: the level of quality has never been higher. Star Trek will survive on the quality of its drama – not on the special effects, not on the strange aliens, and not, alas, on the legacy of what has gone before. Bryan and Alex, don’t handcuff the actors and scripwriters by insisting on the fundamental flaw on Roddenberry’s later thinking. The story needs to reflect diversity of thought, needs to explore the clash of opinions, and above all, needs to tackle issues and subjects where both sides can be right, and no simple solution is possible.
Take Star Trek and stand apart, and we will follow you.
Steven Erikson is the author of 26 fantasy and science-fiction books, including the ten volume epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and the Star Trek-inspired Willful Child series (Book Two out this fall). He is also an inveterate Trekker and has been since watching the original series as it came out back in the sixties.