Not Yesterday’s Enterprise.
This is one of those columns I wish I didn’t have to write, but I wanted to make a one-stop column addressing much of the simmering, seething anger I see online for just about any Star Trek made beyond 2005—or beyond 1987, for some.
For as long as I can remember, each new incarnation of Star Trek has received its own brand of criticism for one reason or another: “Star Trek: The Animated Series” (“kiddie crap”), “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979) (“Star Trek: The Motionless Picture”, etc), “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987) (“too much diplomacy–needs more fists.”), “Deep Space Nine” (“needs a real spaceship”), “Star Trek: Voyager” (“hate the chick captain”), and “Star Trek: Enterprise” (“no way that ship predates Kirk’s Enterprise”). All of these ‘arguments’ against the post-TOS Star Trek spinoffs are counterweighted by the legions of fans each of those spinoffs have amassed, so there’s no point in rehashing them. Tomorrow isn’t yesterday, nor should it be.
I won’t even get into the hatred for the rebooted Kelvinverse Star Trek movies.
Note: Even in the late 1980s, Star Trek’s own creator Gene Roddenberry refused to validate the existence of “The Animated Series”, until its release on VHS cassette in 1989, when Roddenberry, in failing health, relented and ‘canonized’ it (a point still debated in fandom circles). For me, TAS has always been legitimate Star Trek–it features the voices of the original cast, and it has many of the same writers of TOS as well. I don’t see how it could be any more legitimate, to be honest.
Another topic I don’t want to rehash too deeply here is the tiresome topic of how today’s Star Trek is “too woke,” because, as I wrote in another column, “Star Trek” has been, and always shall be about diversity and social justice. From Kirk and Spock getting schooled on violence by the Organians, or McCoy telling Zefram Cochrane to allow himself to fall in love with an electric cloud, to Kirk taking a stand on contraceptives for the inhabitants of Gideon. Star Trek is all about politics, social justice and contemporary issues. It always has been. The Star Trek that some fans seem to yearn for—a bareknuckled, swashbuckling space opera with no social content— is a Star Trek that never truly existed.
Much of the hatred I see directed at new Trek has to do with the show’s more inclusive casting, which includes several LGBTQ+ cast members. While some fans are okay with inclusive racial casting (so gracious of them, right?), others are apparently less okay with prominent LGBTQ+ characters, like Hugh Culber (Wilson Cruz) and Paul Stamets (Anthony Rapp) being in a steady relationship, or their recent unofficial adoption of their non-binary ward, Adira (Blu del Barrio). What some of these fans don’t seem to realize is that they sound exactly like the bigots who objected to Kirk kissing Uhura in the original series, simply because Uhura was black. Bigotry is bigotry, whether it’s directed at race, religion, body-shaming, gender or sexuality.
The universe of Star Trek was always meant to show humanity acting on its better impulses, but sadly, it was also a commercially-driven art form that was too often bound by conventions of its day. These days, Star Trek isn’t a show reliant upon network ad revenue; it’s a streaming series beholden to subscribers, not commercial advertisers. This newfound liberation means the show can now feature characters and situations it never could within the limitations of network or syndicated television. Some find Star Trek’s new era invigorating—others are frightened by it.
Seeing Past Star Treks Through Rose-Tinted Visors.
I realize that personal tastes in Star Trek vary, but something I see a lot of, particularly in older fans of my generation, is the tendency to view past Star Treks through rose-tinted glasses (or VISORs). Star Trek, for me, has always had a healthy ratio of great, average and mediocre-to-bad. The franchise has reached great heights with stories like “City on the Edge of Forever,” “Trouble With Tribbles, ” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Inner Light,” “In the Pale Moonlight,” and “The Visitor,”; but there have also been plenty of clunkers (“Alternative Factor,” “Omega Glory,” “Night Terrors,” “Sub Rosa,” and “Move Along Home”). We fans often have a tendency to glorify the past simply because it is the past, and when we allow ourselves to be led by our nostalgia pangs rather than true quality.
Being perfectly honest, I would much rather watch just about any episode of “Discovery” or “Picard” over a repeat of “And the Children Shall Lead.” No one needs to see attorney Melvin Belli scaring children while wearing a shower curtain…
Something For Everyone.
Now we have a slew of new Star Trek series; more than any other time in Star Trek’s 55 year history. With “Star Trek: Discovery,” “Star Trek: Picard,” and “Star Trek: Lower Decks,” with others on the way (“Star Trek: Prodigy” “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,”), it’s a new ‘golden age’ of Star Trek–an explosion in output that surpasses Star Trek’s former heyday of the mid-1990s. There is something for just about everyone.
So why are so many Star Trek fans so unhappy? From what I see on social media and in one-on-one conversations, much of it has to do with ‘gatekeeping’–those fans who feel overly possessive of Star Trek. In fandom circles, a gatekeeper is someone who takes it upon themself to decide just who is a ‘true’ fan based on a very specific set of tastes and/or criteria, usually decided by that person alone, or a small consensus.
For full disclosure, “Star Trek: Discovery” (DSC) didn’t always knock my socks off in its first year, either. It had astonishing production value, of course, but I felt that it had many signs of a troubled production with regards to its inconsistent storytelling, just as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” had in its own coltish first two seasons. That said, season two of DSC was much improved, especially with the introduction of Anson Mount’s Captain Pike, but the stories were still uneven, with a few genuine standouts (“If Memory Serves,” “Such Sweet Sorrow,” Parts 1 & 2). It felt like it was an intermediate stage towards something better.
So, I stuck with DSC, and season three has made a dramatic turnaround under new writer/showrunner Michelle Paradise, just as TNG’s third season found a more successful storytelling groove under the late writer/producer Michael Piller (1948-2002). The third season of DSC had a more clearly defined arc, and the secondary characters were given many more moments to shine. The leap into the far future of the 32nd century also shot the show clear of its arguably tiresome prequel status. In my opinion, DSC has finally reached maturity, just as TNG, DS9 and other Trek series all found their respective ways. I was really feeling it when Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin Green) finally assumed the captain’s chair and said, “Let’s fly!”
Note: Once again, my assessments and opinions of DSC are strictly my own; they are no more ‘definitive’ for what makes a ‘good’ Star Trek than anyone else’s. But hey–my column, my musings.
“Star Trek: Picard” offered a nice reach out to fans who perhaps missed some of TNG’s familiarity and wanted to catch up with that beloved character of the franchise. Showrunner Michael Chabon imparted an elegance and poignance to Picard’s journey, which gave closure to 2002’s “Star Trek: Nemesis” as well as Picard’s unofficial role as Data’s advocate (TNG’s “The Measure of a Man,” “The Offspring”). With cameos from TNG/VGR cast members Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, Jeri Ryan and Brent Spiner, the series was a warm hug for 1990s Trek fans, while offering them something new as well.
As a man who’s getting up in years myself, I found the story of an older Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) living past his glory days to be deeply cathartic. Picard is at odds with the current leadership of a more reactionary Starfleet, following his unwavering support of the Federation’s deadliest ‘foes’; Romulans and renegade android slaves, who also have a curious connection to each other. This connection between Romulans and androids is the mystery to be solved, as well as an opportunity for Picard’s own (literal) transcendence; an elegant blending of story and character arcs. In fact, the series could’ve ended for me with its last episode, but next season teases the return of “Q” (John de Lancie), and that’s just too delicious to pass up.
For TOS Trek fans, there is also the promised return of Captain Pike and the crew of the original Constitution-class USS Enterprise and its adventures before he turns the keys over to Captain James T. Kirk, with “Strange New Worlds,” with a heavier emphasis on standalone, episodic storytelling. Anson Mount has already proved himself to be a memorable Christopher Pike in the second season of DSC, as did Rebecca Romijn as Pike’s cool, enigmatic first officer, “Number One,” and Ethan Peck’s Spock, who took a while for me to warm up to, but he made the role his own, and I respect that very much). At any rate, Star Trek’s SNW might just be the longest gestation period ever between original pilot (1964’s “The Cage”) and series (2022).
We also have a new, family-friendlier demographic animated series, “Star Trek: Prodigy” (2021), which sees a young crew of aliens taking over an abandoned Starfleet vessel for themselves and learning what it means to be Starfleet officers with the help/guidance of a command hologram of Captain Kathryn Janeway (voice of Kate Mulgrew). From the trailer below, this series has me intrigued by its gorgeous, near Pixar-level animation and imaginative vistas. A part of me wishes that the 1973 Animated Series might (someday) get this kind of treatment…
Whether one is pining for the past (“Strange New Worlds,” “Picard”) or yearning for something new (“Discovery” “Lower Decks,” “Prodigy”), there seems to be a Star Trek to fit just about every taste these days. As a fan of Star Trek for most of my life, I find such unprecedented diversity in Star Trek offerings to be almost overwhelming. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
“People Can Be Very Frightened Of Change.”
Speaking only to my own opinion, the reason so many Trek fans direct so much hostility and vitriol towards these new incarnations of Star Trek was already summed up in the words of no less than Captain Kirk himself: “People can be very frightened of change.” It isn’t that newer Star Trek is better or worse written than anything that’s gone before—it’s simply different. Differences alienate, and differences frighten.
Another common criticism I keep hearing is that the more recent Star Treks don’t physically ‘align’ with the vision of the future seen in 1966, and I can understand that, and sympathize, since continuity errors have been a major issue within the show since its first season onward (“United Earth Space Probe Agency” “James R. Kirk”, etc). In fact, I once put together my own column on why Star Trek’s continuity is seemingly all over the map; Star Trek isn’t a universe–it’s a multiverse. It changes, just as our own future changes minute to minute. I don’t care if a producer tells me that DSC is the same universe as 1966’s Star Trek; I’ve decided, for myself, that they are all subtly different versions of the same future: The issue of Star Trek and its continuity.
Many of these self-appointed gatekeepers have been fans of Star Trek for decades, as I have, yet their proprietary sense of the show is much stronger than mine. I love Star Trek very deeply, but I don’t own it. None of us do, in fact. We can write fanfic, host podcasts, and make fan films till we’re blue in the face and sore in the fingertips, but it won’t change the fact that Star Trek is the intellectual property of Paramount, not ourselves. Yes, we fans kept the show alive during the lean years of the 1970s, culminating in the release of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”—which disappointed a lot of gatekeepers in those days as well—but we don’t own it. We cheer it on, we attend the conventions, and we buy the merch. But that’s where the line in the sand is drawn.
I am an older fan; in fact, I was born the same year TOS debuted. I grew up with Star Trek. The show has been a part of my life for nearly fifty or so years, and has allowed me to meet many wonderful people, but it’s not mine. I am free to critique, and I’m also free to ignore that which I don’t enjoy.
So, do I like every single series and episode of each Star Trek incarnation? No, of course not. There are swaths of Star Trek I find repetitive, or not personally inspiring or entertaining for one reason or another. I was very honest in my criticism of “Star Trek: Lower Decks” in the last review I wrote for that show, and I watched a few more episodes before I gave up. Ultimately I decided that particular venue of Star Trek was just not for me (“Rick and Morty” is not my bag, either–sorry). That’s all. I won’t knock anyone who enjoys it, and I wish the series success, because its success only brings new fans to the fold, and guarantees more Star Trek down the road.
So, with regard to “Lower Decks”? I’m perfectly okay with sitting out one dance, especially when I see others so enjoying it so much.
If you only enjoy one incarnation of Star Trek, you are still a Star Trek fan. No one can ever tell you otherwise. We are all entitled to enjoy what we enjoy, and no one can take that away from us. If one doesn’t like any new Star Trek after TOS, that’s okay. If one doesn’t like any new Star Trek after TNG or DS9, that’s okay, too. There will also be many new generations of fans whose first gateway into Star Trek is Discovery, or Picard, or Lower Decks, and that’s all okay as well. With over 800 hours of TV shows and movies to choose from, there’s a Star Trek out there for every branch of Star Trek’s fandom.
One of the fears I perceive within fandom is that new Star Treks will somehow ‘erase’ the cherished incarnation of Star Trek that they grew up with and loved. This simply isn’t so. No one has erased my old Star Trek DVDs and Blu Rays. In fact, Star Trek has been very accommodating in preserving its past for all to see, much like the “Guardian of Forever”. Even the remastered Blu Rays of TOS Star Trek, which debuted in 2007, offered fans the option of seeing the series with either the new CGI effects, or with the original opticals.
So the fear that newer Star Trek is somehow undermining or erasing the older series is unjustified. Star Trek has done a much better job of preserving and honoring its past than George Lucas has done with the original Star Wars trilogy, which seems to come out with a new ‘special edition’ each time we see it—even newer versions of those films are now available on DisneyPlus, with even more changes added. Argh….
In the meantime, the only thing I would hope for is that we can all recognize each other’s right to be a fan of all Star Trek or just a corner of Star Trek. In two weeks, I’ll be driving to Las Vegas for the first time in two years to attend the Star Trek Las Vegas Convention, and one of the things that always impresses me most about the convention is the incredible diversity of fandom–there is room in that fandom for just about everyone, and no one has a definitive lock on what constitutes ‘good’ Star Trek, beyond those elements which each of us responds to in our own ways.
While I wouldn’t presume to tell fellow fans to enjoy each new incarnation of Star Trek, I would offer only this piece of advice; if you give DSC, Picard or Lower Decks a try and you don’t like them? Don’t watch them. You shouldn’t force yourself to enjoy something, because in that mindset, you probably won’t. If repeated attempts to enjoy a new series of Star Trek fail, then perhaps it’s best to let go of that iteration of the franchise—the very same reason I voluntarily divorced myself from “Lower Decks” with no regrets. However, that divorce shouldn’t give me, or anyone else, the impetus to rain on another fan’s parade.
Remember, there is no merit badge given for watching every single episode and movie with the Star Trek name on it. Your only obligation is to stick with what you personally enjoy, even if that means ignoring a branch, or multiple branches of the Star Trek tree. When one finds their niche of Star Trek, I’d say enjoy it, and let others be. Let’s all try to remember the Vulcan philosophy of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) by celebrating Star Trek in one or all of its forms–being faithful only to those which strike our fancies. There are plenty to pick and choose from.
To quote Spock, we all recognize that “change is the essential process of all existence,” but accepting the reality of said change is a different matter. One can withdraw from change, or one can choose to embrace it. Whatever one’s choice, 1966 isn’t coming back– but the future of Star Trek is happening right now.
Live long and prosper, folks!
Final Note: I will be masking up and covering the 2021 Star Trek Las Vegas Convention for this column, so stay tuned!
All Star Trek TV series and most of the movies can be streamed on ParamountPlus (aka Paramount+). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 608,400 as of this writing. Meanwhile, vaccines are widely available and inoculations are widespread, though a certain level of vaccine hesitancy (roughly 40% of the US population) is slowing herd immunity and giving the virus room to fester and mutate. The overwhelming majority of COVID-related deaths in the United States are with unvaccinated persons. Even fully vaccinated, it’s still be possible to catch the coronavirus (and its variants), though a fully vaccinated person’s chances of getting seriously ill are slim. So, if you haven’t already done so, please get vaccinated as soon as possible and let us immunize our way out of the COVID pandemic.