Saturday, May 12, 2007

How Star Trek Lost its Soul

by Frank Jones

There has been so much speculation about "what went wrong" with the Star Trek franchise as it descended from the heights of popularity in the early-90s to cancellation in 2005. Fans have blamed countless "culprits," such as UPN, the prequel format, and market saturation. Executive producer Rick Berman believed that there had been too many "trips to the well," with 10 movies, 5 series, and hundreds of recycled themes and plots. Other Trek insiders, such as Brannon Braga, remain perplexed, constantly forced to answer contradictory questions: Why is Trek so popular, and why was Trek cancelled?

The rise and fall of Star Trek cannot be explained by a single factor. Yet, perhaps the words of the late Gene Roddenberry are still relevant:
"Although Star Trek had to entertain or go off the air, we believed our format was unique enough to allow us to challenge and stimulate the audience. Making Star Trek happen was a bone-crusher, and unless it also said something and we challenged our viewer to think and react, then it wasn't worth all we had put into the show."
-Gene Roddenberry (Whitefield, 1968)

So, even in 1968, Roddenberry had a clear vision: Star Trek "said something" and that something was meant to challenge viewers' perceptions. Episodes like "Let that Be Your Last Battlefield" could border on the downright preachy, but various "messages" of the show permeated nearly every episode, even "Spock's Brain."

Yes, the Original Series could be campy and choked-full of mind-numbing action/adventure fluff, but, in the end, it was still a morality play that intellectually challenged viewers. The show and its writers had something thoughtful and provocative to say, and they said it unflinchingly.

Remember those debates and discussions among family and friends after an episode of TOS, TNG, and DS9? Is Data sentient? Is Kira a terrorist or a freedom-fighter? Should Kirk have destroyed that planet's god? Did the Prime Directive apply? What does that say about our colonial past?

Can you remember having similar debates following Star Trek: Enterprise? Certainly, there were episodes that fit well with Roddenberry's quote: "Stigma," "Cogenitor," and "Chosen Realm" for example. Yet, overall, what was the message, and where were the morality plays? Where was the commentary on the human condition? Where were the "gray areas" when morality and truth seemed far from clear cut? Where was the soul of Star Trek?

The season 3 Xindi arc, for instance, visually and metaphorically paralleled our post-9/11 world without saying anything remotely meaningful or relevant about 9/11 or the War on Terror. When it comes to debates about terrorism, religious fanaticism, and the "third world," Deep Space Nine was far more relevant than Enterprise. Even Star Trek: Voyager dealt with serious issues such as the Vietnam War, the Holocaust, and the morality of using Nazi science. For Christ's sake, the episode "Critical Care" was a thinly disguised Marxist critique of the U.S. health care system.

What happened to the soul of Star Trek? While the Original Series broadcasted several episodes relating to the Vietnam War, the post-2000 franchise became too skittish to comment on contemporary or historical events. Trek stopped challenging viewers entirely, preferring catsuits, laser fights, and Vulcan zombies in space to intellectually challenging and provocative social commentary. The writers and producers treated the morality-play aspect of Trek as if it were just another component. "Hey we need a Hoshi episode, and we should also do an AIDS episode this season!"

That is not Star Trek. Nearly every episode of the earlier series centered on a moral dilemma, social problem, or provocative debate. Comet snowmen and Tits and Ass were not plotlines. That was the soul of Star Trek: a social commentary on the human condition, thinly disguised by rubber masks and laser fights. Yet, it was tossed out the air-lock amidst efforts to cater to the lowest denominator.

Review and Discuss