In the last few months, there has been plenty of talk about Star Trek. Whether it is the news that Simon Pegg (Star Trek reboot-verse Scotty) has been hired to make the franchise less “Star Trek-y” or Popular Mechanics’ wonderful “8 Things a New Star Trek TV Series Must Have,” or the legion of fan films, or Adam Savage’s construction of the Enterprise’s Captain’s chair, or the frequent talk about how Trek has influenced the real world — all this, but there is no Trek property. No show. No amusement park. No decent toys to speak of. Just speculation, scuttlebutt, and rumor. Yes, there is a new film coming sometime in the future, but do we really need it?
J.J. “I’ve got flare!” Abrams rebooted the cinematic Trek franchise to the detriment of the franchise. Instead of giving us the experience that so many of us know and love, Abrams and crew — in the first film — gave us an intergalactic Clearasil commercial in Star Wars drag.
It was glacial and sterile like an IKEA catalog. Time-traveling Romulans, red matter, Spock meeting an alternate version himself, Zoe Saldana’s permanent misty puppy-eyes…pure travesty. The less said about Star Trek Into Darkness, the better. Aryan Khan Noonian Singh, over-the-top military evil personified in Robocop, gratuitous underwear shots of Dr. Carol Marcus. It was like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Victoria’s Secret had a baby that overdosed on bootleg Starlog magazines. Despite their financial successes, these films are everything that Trek shouldn’t be.
Brief aside: Karl Urban was incredible as Dr. Leonard McCoy. Chris Pine was good, albeit a little too fratboy-ish as Captain Kirk. Zachary Quinto didn’t give me Spock, just as Simon Pegg didn’t really give me Scotty.
Star Trek isn’t some borderline space-opera swashbuckling adventure. Nor is it about galactic dogfights and bad people with big bad machines who want to do bad things. At its best, Trek is about ideas. And for a property as rich as Trek, the cinema is too small of a container for it.
There is something that all Trek fans have to come to terms with: Star Trek should not be a film franchise. Never. Ever. The evidence is out there.
Including the two Abrams-fails, there have been twelve Star Trek films. And out of these twelve films, how many of them were good? Two point five?
And maybe Star Trek: The Motion Picture because who would have ever thought Trek would ever be on the big screen? Two point five out of twelve is a pretty crap average. Trek has fared infinitely better on television.
My disdain for both Star Trek: Voyager (which has the best opening theme music) and Enterprise are well-known. Lackluster acting and writing tanked those shows. But at their best, they had some episodes and story arcs that were better than anything any of the films had to offer. When you bring in The Next Generation (TNG) and Deep Space Nine (DS9), you’ve entered another level of the purely amazing. It would be too easy to name all of the great episodes of TNG and DS9, but the following examples exemplify why Trek needs to live, breathe, and grow on television:
TNG’s “Chain of Command.” The tenth and eleventh episodes of the sixth season was masterful television. I won’t spoil it for you, but if you haven’t seen these episodes, stop reading this, get on Netflix, and thank me later.
“Far Beyond the Stars” is one of the most important episodes of television in my life, regardless of show or genre. Lucky number 13 in DS9’s sixth season — what’s up with Trek and season six? — was an atom bomb of an experience. Same instructions apply. Watch this now.
I’ve used Trek in the classroom to teach high schoolers about military occupation and provisional governments — thank you DS9. I’ve used the TNG episode “The Measure of a Man” (2×09) to discuss morality and artificial life with university students. I also used the TNG episode “The Drumhead” (4×21) to provide another lens at which to look at McCarthyism. Trek’s ideas allowed me to engage my students in a way that few other SF properties have — aside from the BBC’s Black Mirror, but that is an entirely different conversation.
The reason I was able to do this is because small screen Trek is thoughtful, quiet enough to experience levels of nuance, and best of all, it can explore an idea for several episodes or for an entire season. Big screen Trek has been routinely spectacle-driven to the point that all intelligence, ideas, myth-making, and “big” ideas were fatally compromised by explosions and a sense of shame at being something other than Star Wars.
For Star Trek to survive, thrive, and influence generations to take real world action from fictional inspiration (tablets, 3-D printers, non-invasive medical technologies) it needs to breathe its last cinematic breath with the new Abrams-verse film and reemerge on television. While there, Paramount or whoever controls the property, needs to stop being embarrassed by it. Let it be the techno-babbling, idea generating, intergalactic sociology course so many of us adore. Treat the franchise with the respect it deserves: establish and cultivate an expanded universe, give us some decent t-shirts and accessories, develop teachers’ guides for particular episodes and storylines, and for goodness sakes, adhere to the Vulcan credo: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.
Unlike most sci-fi, Trek’s greatest gift was to present a future where all colors, cultures, and species were able to find a common goal and collectively work towards it. And with the intense racial polarization and animus of our current society, we could really use a vision of an aspirational future.