The story of Star Trek is that of a pioneer. Obviously, as the famous opening lays out, it’s about people who are exploring the galaxy and finding strange new worlds, but its production is that of people who invented a whole new mode of storytelling, and all the show’s virtues and faults are rooted in its pioneer status. Embarrassingly, for a fan of TV space opera, I had never seen more than one full episode and a bunch of clips of the show before setting down to watch it last year*, and it became a true delight to not only get a true understanding of what the show was, but to see how the idea of it was and was not absorbed into the collective consciousness. Space opera in general has become about boldly staying in the one spot – the storyteller invents their own peculiar universe, and they develop its unique rules and customs in intimate detail. Star Trek flouts the very concept of a consistent world and for multiple reasons. On one level, this is show that takes place in a metaphorical space, where we’re not supposed to take all of this literally, but as a moral fable and an attempt to correct how history actually went – the characters regularly come across ‘alternate Earths’ and take it for granted that every planet has to go through a Greco-Roman era and a cowboy era and a, um, Nazi era, and what we’re supposed to do is look at how the highly moral futuristic characters deal with the situation and learn from it.
(*Though I have fond memories of watching The Next Generation with my family before Stargate: SG-1 became our space opera of choice when I was six, I remember my Dad putting on both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home on a fair few times before DVD supplanted VHS, I picked up Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan on DVD for my collection, and for a few months in 2013, I settled into a habit of putting Deep Space Nine reruns on in the background while I taught myself how to draw. Don’t ask me my take on that yet, because I missed a lot of episodes and wasn’t paying much attention anyway.)
The other level is that this is the product of a Sixties Liberal, constantly trying to chase the divine and finding it in novelty. The space opera I describe makes the unusual into something mundane; to make words like ‘turian’, ‘Jaffa’, ‘mass relay’, and ‘event horizon’ mean clear, specific things. Clarity is the opposite of what Star Trek is interested in* – the characters regularly meet godlike aliens that would, if not wreck the galaxies of Mass Effect and Stargate, would at least radically change the nature of the plot moving forward (Rick & Morty gets away with it by virtue of also existing in a metaphorical space). The show is practically giddy whenever it comes into contact with anything inexplicable and impossible, and indeed that’s often fun to watch; my favourite is the giant green hand appearing in space, though I also like the weird buzzing that turns out to be super-fast aliens. There are two problems with this: firstly, like any pioneer entering a new space, it doesn’t completely know what it’s doing and often either a) comes up with a crappy, boring idea or b) fails to spin a satisfying plot out of the image, spending what feels like fifteen minutes talking about the problem rather than solving it.
(*This is best seen in the Klingons. The franchise would develop them into a very specific honour-and-glory-in-battle culture, but here they’re just generic bad guys with no characteristics outside of being evil and treacherous – in other words, being the opposite of ideal humanity.)
The second problem is that the two levels of the show have a kind of oil-and-water quality where both halves had their own fairly predictable formula; at their worst, they just felt like the writers putting on a costume of History and God without taking us anywhere interesting with them (this is most obvious with the gangster episode, where it was clearly just setting things up so we could see Shatner chew the scenery with a classic gangster voice in the climax). It isn’t the worst episode, but “The Conscience Of The King” is the episode that annoys me the most to think about, because its recreation of the past is the most masturbatory – the alien ex-bounty hunter hiding out with civilians is a cool idea totally steamrolled by the show’s pointless, boring recreation of Shakespeare plays in a way that feels like an attempt to imbue the proceedings with Shakespearean gravitas, and it’s all the more infuriating considering how the best parts of the show point to how to do that more effectively – one of my favourite episodes was season one’s “Balance Of Terror”, which shows a chase between the Enterprise and a Romulan ship that both Kirk and the Romulan captain escalate further and further. This was the first appearance of the Romulans, and so we have an unfamiliar image that is imbued with archetypal power; the basic plot recalls Moby Dick and Shakespeare’s revenge tragedies, and the Romulan monologues like a Shakespearean character, but this all feels like its own thing – a refreshing update on old ideas. The one regular aspect of the show that has this same feel to it is the main characters.
The second most influential aspect of Star Trek (after the idea of a spaceship travelling to a new planet every week) and the most influential idea original to the show is the Kirk/Spock/McCoy dynamic, and it’s definitely the greatest pleasure I got from watching; no matter how dire the show got, I was always pleased to be able to spend more time with them and delighted when all three were bouncing off each other. The one recurring theme the show has is the relationship between logic and emotion, and its biggest achievement is selling that true Goodness is achieved by combining the two ideas simply through the dynamic between the main characters without selling any individual character short. I remember beloved Soluter scb0212 once observed (and I may be misremembering slightly) that Spock is wrong, and that living a life of ‘pure logic’, if such a thing is possible, is simply ignoring the emotions of others and causing unnecessary chaos that could have been avoided. I found that this was a perfect description of the people who came in Spock’s wake – both the fictional characters that ripped him off and the nerds who idolised him – but not the man himself. Spock is deeply aware of the emotions of others and himself, and he has a genuine morality that does, in fact, begin with the phrase he uses in The Wrath Of Khan: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. It’s best shown in my all-time favourite episode, “The Galileo Seven”, in which Spock leads a scientific expedition that goes awry and tries to preserve as much life as possible every step of the way; he refuses to send a man out to rescue another because he has every reason to believe the other man is dead and he’d rather accidentally lose one man than deliberately lose two, so it’s hard to walk away from this episode thinking of Spock as not moral and it’s easy to see that morality in the rest of the series. The funniest gag is in “Space Seed”, when he’s genuinely scandalised by the human crew expressing admiration of murderous dictator Khan, and conversely he expresses a sincere and endearing interest in people who present an internally logical worldview, like the space hippies in “The Way To Eden”, even after he concludes their leader is insane.
(Also, unlike many of the nonhuman characters that followed him – including Star Trek characters like Data – he has no interest in being human and often expresses withering contempt for the idea, which both hilarious and often a good salve for the warm optimism of the series; he often points out the brutality of human history, which makes the famous optimism of the series more aspirational than smug to me.)
McCoy never quite gets an episode on the same level (though “The Tholian Web” is pretty great for him), but he’s so charming that he tends to brighten even the dullest episode. McCoy isn’t stupid, he just has a very clear and rigid idea of how the world is supposed to look, and he tends to jump to conclusions – one of the best bits of characterisation is that Spock has a much more realistic image of McCoy than McCoy does of him – but the flipside of that is that he has an easy Southern charm and a fierce righteousness that makes him a good friend; he often acts as cheerleader and emotional support to the rest of the crew, if one that’s willing to berate you into doing what needs to be done. Kirk sits between the two, an authority figure that uses both men as inspiration for solutions to the problem o’ the week. One of the things that makes the show interesting is that it’s paternal, but sees itself as in the position between a Youth and an Elder; Kirk’s authority and heroism isn’t an inherent trait, but a responsibility he must understand and live up to, and while I can’t agree with that, I can respect the consistency of the idea; there’s a moment where Kirk wonders if he’s made the right decision, and McCoy assures him that asking that question is what makes him a good person, and I’m inclined to agree. Star Trek doesn’t always sell me that it believes in the magic that comes with diversity of opinion, but it absolutely works with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy’s relationship.
Which is probably a good jumping off point for the ways Star Trek fails itself. One of the things the show has become in the public consciousness is a symbol of Liberal Hypocrisy, and the show was frequently sexist and racist in ways that undermined the messages of tolerance it tried to preach; the infamous ‘aliens that are black on one side and white on the other and argue over who is on the wrong side’ episode isn’t just bad because it’s preachy, it’s bad because it takes the rhetoric of white racist power structures and black liberation groups at face value, with one alien saying “we uplifted you from barbarism and taught you culture and reason!” and the other saying “yes, but then you enslaved us!” when, in fact, black people were just straight up enslaved and any ‘uplifting from barbarism’ crap was a false rationalisation given to justify it after the fact. I watched it the same week I saw Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and imagined a group of Panthers watching the episode after the murder of Fred Hampton, seeing their words twisted to make them look like pedantic upstarts who can’t let go of a grudge, and turning the television off in disgust. You can see it in the day-to-day treatment of characters, too. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy work so well because they can be easily reduced to their philosophical position and their role on the ship – Spock believes in Reason and serves as ship’s science officer, explaining the weird shit of the week; McCoy believes in Humanism and serves as the ship’s doctor. Sulu is the ship’s navigator and Uhura is ship’s communication’s officer, but what do they believe in? Both get some good moments, but no real coherent personality or views. It’s even more embarrassing when the white Chekov is introduced in the second season saddled with a full brash, arrogant Young Person personality.
(I also noted how, in terms of guest stars, men of colour are capable of being anything – geniuses, idiots, friends, and tragic villains – while, outside Uhura, women of colour occasionally show up as technical officers but the only guest star is a stereotype of an entitled princess that Kirk manfully subdues. Also, the Klingons look like Asian stereotypes in blackface.)
Further, one of the most basic questions any Star Trek discussion turns to is ‘was Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopia fundamentally incompatible with good storytelling?’. One of the way’s Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica was a response to the Trek ethos was that it would have the characters argue with each other all the time and often fail to come to an agreement. I believe this to be an oversimplification of Trek in a number of ways, missing both what it did well and what it did poorly. On the one hand, it misses how often the characters did actually argue and fight; there’s your classic Spock/McCoy arguments I talked about above, of course, but also, for a show that preached peace, the characters punched and killed its enemies, like, all the time, and it only barely managed to justify this in a ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’ way (come on, either violence is acceptable or it isn’t – don’t pretend you’re above violence when you use it at least three times an episode). But it also misses that this isn’t a show about Man vs Man, it’s a show about Man vs Falsehood. Watching the show, I could see in my head something that worked much more like Law & Order, with a team of people working together, scene-by-scene, to break down the truth behind a mystery, just driven by a hippie’s awe at the magic potential of the universe as opposed to an upper-middle-class disgusted outrage. I’m going to move onto the rest of the franchise, and my instinct is that they’ll take the basic idea this show sketched out and develop that L&O-like process, turning a cool idea into a functional world.
I want to end by looking at the echoes of Star Trek in all the space operas I love or study. Mass Effect really does put you in the role of Kirk, not just in the sense that you go out into space to resolve moral dilemmas in the way you see fit, but in that you have a crew that serves as inspiration for your decisions through both their professional role and their particular philosophical outlook. There’s also the way that it takes the long way around to finding that Trek divinity; the ME galaxy is so quantified and so mundane that it can eventually find the true cracks in reality and see that weird alienness that hides underneath it; the reveal of the nature of the Reapers strikes me as a very Trek scene. Meanwhile, I can see how all the worst parts of the Stargate TV franchise comes from poorly imitating so much of Trek in ways that don’t often fit their own morality; they do throw divine creatures like the Ancients into the story, but without any real wisdom or awe, and the characters generally respond with indifference and sarcasm before they’re very, very gradually phased out (the show’s real enthusiasm is in developing how the aliens and technology work, which is also cool but far more mundane). Although the best aspect of the show is also lifted from Trek – the Kirk/Spock/McCoy influence is very visible in the banter between the characters, with arguably the franchise’s greatest creative achievement, Rodney McKay, being an excellent riff on guys who think they’re Spock but lack his humanity. What’s really strange is realising the one true successor to original flavour Star Trek is Futurama. It has literally all the same impulses; it explores the inexplicable and recreates the past with equally exuberant glee, it riffs on a single concept before moving on, and it philosophises without taking a clear, rigid position. It’s as if committing to being a comedy gave it a singular purpose that Star Trek could never quite find that snapped all these impulses together.