Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Star Trek 2017 Wish List

For a while now, I've been trying to write something about my hopes for the new Star Trek series that premieres in 2017. Lots of fans have their wish lists, full of stuff like what timeline the show should be set in (Prime or JJverse) what the characters should be like, and so forth.

I really don't care about any of that minutiae.

What I want more than anything is for Star Trek to return to its roots by grounding itself in reality once again. Now I know what you're thinking: how can a show about people who zip around at faster-than-light speeds and teleport back and forth to alien planets were the natives always speak perfect English possibly be grounded in reality? Well, back in the late Sixties the only other "space show" on the air was Lost In Space, a program that did not take itself or its audience seriously:

Yes, that's a carrot-man

Meanwhile, the Gene Roddenberry-penned Star Trek writers and directors guide contained this important paragraph:

... translate it into a real life situation. Or, sometimes as useful, try it in your mind as a scene in GUNSMOKE, NAKED CITY, or some similar show. Would you believe the people and the scene if it happened there?
Those words are the most important single guideline for good Star Trek storytelling that has ever been given. Sadly, future iterations of the show pretty much ignored them.

A huge chunk of the blame goes to Gene Roddenberry. By the time The Next Generation went into production he had almost totally lost his marbles, and he decreed that 24th century humans had none of the flaws and foibles that every storyteller in human history has used to craft dramatic tales. As I wrote in an earlier article, this led  The Next Generation and its spinoffs (especially Voyager) to lean way too heavily on technobabble to tell stories. Instead of the Man vs. Man or Man vs. Himself plots that drive a lot of dramatic stories to this day, TNG-era Star Trek gave us the Holodeck Malfunction story, the Weird Space Anomaly story, and the Time Travel/Time Paradox story. Any of these stories are fine as one-offs, but towards the end of its run TNG was going back to them more and more frequently.

Fortunately, TNG went off the air before it could really start embarrassing itself (it waited until the movies to do that) but Voyager picked up right where TNG left off. The first episode after the two-hour pilot was a Weird Space Anomaly story. The very next episode was a Time Travel/Time Paradox story. And so it went, for 170 more episodes. Ronald D. Moore worked on Voyager very briefly before leaving in disgust, and in an interview afterwards he had this to say about how technobabble-based storytelling had damaged Star Trek:
"It’s a lot easier to tech your way out of a situation than to really think your way out of a situation, or make it dramatic, or make the characters go through some kind of decision or crisis. It’s a lot easier if you can just plant one of them at a console and start banging on the thing, and flash some Okudagrams, and then come up with the magic solution that is going to make all this week’s problems go away." source
The first season of Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica reboot ran concurrently with the final season of the last Rick Berman-era Trek spinoff, Enterprise, and it's very instructive to compare the two. Although Enterprise's fourth season is its best, it still feels rooted in that 1990s brand of TV storytelling that Rick Berman-produced Trek could never break away from. And while BSG was doing what Star Trek used to do in the '60s--use science fiction to tell stories about current events and the human condition--Enterprise was just checking off items on Trekkie wishlists while awaiting its inevitable cancellation.

The problem was that Enterprise was a spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff. It never did anything original because Star Trek wasn't based on reality anymore, it was based on previously-existing Star Trek. The franchise was caught in a self-referential Irrelevance Loop.

So what are my hopes for the new Star Trek? A clean start. No compulsive references to previous Star Treks, no trips to the Well of Tired Plot Devices. You want to do a show about a group of  space explorers? Then have them actually explore space. Real space is vast and mysterious, lonely and inhospitable. Show that. If you're way out on the edge of explored space, you can't be zipping back and forth to Earth whenever you want. You can't have instantaneous Skype sessions with Starfleet Command. We know so much more about our universe and the phenomena it contains that we did in the '90s when the last iteration of Star Trek was at its peak. Use those discoveries. Show us spaceships that are bound by Newtonian physics, not swooping, diving, and banking like the ships in Star Wars. Use the show to comment intelligently on current events and the human condition with Star Trek's trademark optimism.

Of course the new show will have to take shortcuts for dramatic convenience. Every TV show and movie does that. But that doesn't mean that Star Trek can't reclaim its mantle as sci-fi for thinking people, as the show that inspires kids to become astronauts, scientists, doctors, and engineers.

I hope this is what Bryan Fuller, Nicholas Meyer, and the rest of the Star Trek 2017 team will do. Because if they bow to the wishes of the most vocal members of the fan community, then the new Star Trek will be a tired retread of previous Treks, a spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff of a spinoff.

And it'll remain trapped in the Irrelevance Loop.