OK, so I’m sitting at home re-watching Season One of Star Trek The Next Generation and I’m generally finding the experience to be pretty terrible. And yet…and yet, there is something about Star Trek that I find utterly compelling, even when it’s bad. Just about the only incarnation of Star Trek that I’ve actually not really liked was Enterprise, but even that show had its moments.
So now I’m trying to justify what makes Star Trek special. At it’s worst, Star Trek can be overly preachy, indulgently moral and high-minded and sometimes even a bit dull. So what is it that I connect with so much…
IDIC man – it stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, and cleverly outlines the humanist principles that underpin Star Trek. It’s the Vulcan philosophy of understanding and acceptance of differences, be they racial, philosophical or physical.
The original series had a black woman in a position of authority, and the crew were a diverse bunch. The Next Generation featured a blind man flying the starship, this character was named after George LaForge, a paraplegic Star Trek fan.
If you go to a Star Trek Convention, you’ll find a diverse range of people. Sure, there are the socially challenged, the people who dress up (this includes me!), but you will also find people from all social classes and walks of life.
Roddenberry rejected religion, which he saw as a means to take away the power of rational decision. A staunch agnostic, he wrote that:
“We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing all-powerful God, who creates faulty Humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes”
Star Trek may have reflected the above view in some episodes, but in general, the subject of religion is tip-toed around on Star Trek. Religious tolerance is obviously part of the IDIC principal and to that extent, Star Trek characters are generally respectful of religious beliefs. Indeed, it would be impossible to present a utopian view of a better society if it were systematically intolerant of one respect of the human condition.
Numerous Star Trek stories take inspiration from the Bard and characters often reference Shakespeare. Many episodes are titled after his works, such as ‘The die is cast’, ‘Once more unto the breach’ and ‘Thine own self’. In ‘The Next Generation’, Commander Data studies Shakespeare on the holodeck as a means to understand ‘the human condition’. Star Trek uses Shakespeare as a jumping off point to discuss new ideas and to maintain a connection with the future and the past.
Furthermore, many of the actors in Star Trek, such as Patrick Stewart and William Shatner are classically trained stage actors, with a healthy knowledge of Shakespeare. Patrick Stewart has commented that the captain’s chair is not unlike a throne and structurally, many episodes are broken into distinct ‘acts’, not unlike a play. This has dated some episodes quite badly as modern TV shows tend to eschew this rather stagey format.
The repeated use of Shakespeare may serve to combine classic literature and pop-culture sci-fi in a way that results in something unique, that serves to add depth and credence to stories. My favourite Star Trek Movie, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, not only borrows it’s title from Hamlet, but features a Shakespeare spouting Klingon. That said Klingon is played by Christopher Plummer serves to prevent the dialog from sounding forced, trite or pretentious. Instead, it adds depth and meaning to the story by re-articulating Shakespeare to underscore the cultural politics within the film. Star Trek VI is the most allegorical of all the Trek movies and deals with the end of the cold war. Cleverly, the title ‘The Undiscovered Country’ is reinterpreted, not to refer to death as in Hamlet, but to refer to the prospect of living in peace with a mortal enemy.
Kirk and Picard
Sure, you’ll find loads of Kirk vs Picard debates raging across the internet, and all the captains are pretty interesting characters. Kirk is the Kennedy era captain, shoot first, get the girl, Picard is more cautious and a debater.
Both actors have great range and both came to embody their roles in a way that one cannot imagine any other actor succeeding in.
Whilst Shatner is often criticised for a ‘haminess’ and for his admittedly odd word emphasis, but he is sorely under-rated as an actor. Check out the movies 1-6 and you will find surprisingly compelling performances.
There is something wonderfully futuristic about Star Trek, the incredible set design and attempts at scientifically plausibility mark it out from other shows. The Enterprise has complete blue prints and although it does not always succeed, the series strives to be scientifically accurate.
Much of the gadgetry seen on Star Trek has come to be reality. Automatic doors, personal communicators and tablet computers amongst others. The laptops used by Picard and co. now look quite clunky when compared to modern technology. Siri aspires to take the vocal interface of Star Trek and bring it to the real world, and people are hard at work to bring medical (non-invasive) tricorders to reality.
The reason that I mostly read Science Fiction novels is because they offer unique and mind bending/expanding stories. Star Trek isn’t really hard SF, but it does have some high concept stories. Lets take ‘Darmok’, a Next Generation tale in which humans are about to go to war with an alien race whose language they cannot understand. Eventually, Picard is stranded with an alien on a planet and discovers that they speak in metaphor. What other TV show (outside of a documentary) is going to relate one of the world’s earliest literary works, a Babylonian poem entitled the Epic of Gilgamesh to its audience? This episode has even been used by linguistics teachers to aid in students’ understanding of how languages work and evolve.
Spock is a brilliant creation that could only exist in Sci-Fi, he’s half Human/half Vulcan. Vulcan’s have tried to suppress all emotions (they do have them) and behave in a logical manner. The episode (Amok Time) where he has to return to Vulcan, like a Salmon must return to his breeding ground is truly great and another example of a concept that could only be explored in science fiction.
Even the hokey stuff is cool. Aliens that have evolved into disembodied brains, living in jars, kidnap aliens from all over the galaxy, then make them fight, whilst they gamble on the outcome. Brilliant.
Possibly the cleverest Star Trek story is the TNG finale, ‘All Good Things’. It introduces the bizarre concept of ‘ani-time’, where effects are propagated backwards in time rather than forwards. When the audience understands the Paradox (not to mention concepts like a ‘static warp shell!’), we as well as Picard are forced to think in different ways and to open our minds to different possibilities that we hadn’t previously considered.
Star Trek is an optimistic program, it postulates a future where the desire for money and greed is replaced by a more noble desire for education and mental betterment.
“Star Trek speaks to some basic human needs: that there is a tomorrow — it’s not all going to be over with a big flash and a bomb; that the human race is improving; that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them, because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.”
I’m not sure, in reading this back, that I have answered my question (Why do I like Star Trek?). I guess that it’s a combination of all of the above and more. Why Star Trek ultimately works is due to the humanity and the relationships between the characters, augmented by adventure and spectacle.
As JJ Abrams’ second nu-Trek movie comes out, I wonder on the future direction of Star Trek. It is a necessity that the Star Trek Movies are grander in scope and more cinematic than the TV show. I just hope that one day Star Trek can come back to TV, where more intimate and involved stories can take place. It is a difficult proposition to ponder though.
Fringe and the recent Battlestar Galactica remake have shown that there is an appetite for such adventures. However, their low viewing figures and the high cost of producing a new Trek show may prove prohibitive, especially when compared to the low-cost and huge popularity of ‘reality TV’. At its heart though, Star Trek is an optimistic show and I think that the world could do with a bit of that right about now.
Season One of Star Trek The Next Generation is still pretty terrible though ;)