Star Trek: What Discovery Can Take from Its Past

Star Trek is at its best when it aims to be the smartest show on TV, that's why it's endured for 50 years...

For many people who grew up watching Star Trek, it was as much a formative influence as any sermon or religious text. Even now, it still has a timeless quality which has made it a perennial fixture on every entertainment medium over the last five decades, and for good reason.

With another blockbuster film success in Star Trek Beyond and a new series titled Discovery on the horizon for 2017, few would say that after 50 years Star Trek‘s future is looking bleak. Yet what is the source of Trek‘s enduring popularity? Is it as simple as an original idea taking hold in the public consciousness, or is there more to it?

Look at the original Star Trek television series (latterly referred to as The Original Series or TOS): it has passed into such a dominant position in the cultural lexicon that Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and the Enterprise itself sit next to Superman, Batman, Coca-Cola, and Jesus as being instantly recognizable. You would be hard pressed to find anyone that could not name an associated character, gimmick, or feature of the show. It has traversed time as its characters do space to ensure that even the most reluctant science-fiction fan can name some details about it as sure as the most ardent misanthrope can tell you about the Kardashians.

The love from fans is often accredited to the novelty of the production (recently edited into high-definition and reformatted with new CGI) in the same way as plastic monsters and wobbly sets are with classic Doctor Who. It’s a peculiarly British quality to adore that which tries to be magnificent but struggles, but Star Trek, with its iconic moments, literally shaking sets, and Kirk’s legendary lechery, is much more than a dated TV show.

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Star Trek, in all its forms, succeeds best when it surreptitiously challenges us to face the human condition head-on. The setting may well be the future, starships and new worlds, but the ageless consideration of what it means to be ontologically, teleologically and morally human overshadows any anachronistic production values.

Consider Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Released in 1993, it ran for seven seasons and focused on a stationary space station and took what is widely considered to be a ‘darker’ route than the previous incarnations of TOS and Star Trek: The Next Generation. For this reason, it has a complicated love affair with fans: some love it precisely because it is different, others call it a black sheep amongst the vista of optimism that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned.

DS9, however, is arguably the truest Trek to Roddenberry’s vision. If Star Trek is about embracing the human condition, then DS9 is the human condition in motion. TOS and TNG are magnificent productions of intelligence that, on a weekly basis, have their crews encounter new worlds and new cultures which pose an anthropological challenge or a threat which must be dealt with. Often episodes focus on the characters themselves and their quest to overcome what Marx referred to as “alienation,” or the separation of humanity from mechanized labor.

Yet compared to DS9 these are largely consequence-free environments. Decisions and discussions rarely resonate to create emotional and character season-arcs. The episodic structure of The Original Series and The Next Generation is what has largely driven them to be the most successfully syndicated programs of all time. DS9, on the other hand, thrives precisely because characterization is cumulative and developmental rather than episodic. Conflict is rife, as the critics rightly say, but so is friendship, exploration, action, and diplomacy all while tackling the epistemological, moral, and ethical issues which made previous shows memorable and original.

The Next Generation much preferred high-impact episodes to recurring plot points. Lieutenant Commander Data’s bid to become more human, the aftermath of Captain Picard’s experiences with the Borg (the fallout from the show-defining episode Best Of Both Worlds) and Commander Riker’s career plans are the only, occasionally referenced, character threads.

The show’s brilliance, by contrast, rested exclusively with its ability to make a lasting impact. The Measure Of A Man focused entirely on the courtroom drama of proving the sentience and rights of the android Data; the two-part episode Chain Of Command unapologetically portrayed the barbarity and futility in the torture of Picard (11 years before the War on Terror popularised the subject matter); Darmok pits the captain against an incommunicable alien who can only speak in historic metaphor, and The Neutral Zone is a high-stakes game of diplomatic guile and bluff with the Romulans concluded without a shot being fired. “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise” is literally that, with seldom a hark back to what developments have come before.

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Deep Space Nine, by comparison, took the main cast members and guest stars and gave them an evolving, knock on story-arc. Commander (later Captain) Sisko’s recovery from the loss of his wife transforms him from a macabre character into a joyous explorer, rounded by his friends and family but tempered and mellowed by war. He has a breakdown after the death of his friend Jadzia Dax, he lies out of pragmatism, he has a temper, obsessive tendencies, and he makes mistakes but is easily the most human of the Starfleet captains portrayed on-screen. Sisko’s journey from single-parent to religious emissary takes him down myriad paths and encounters with fellow characters, not least his son Jake, which concludes with a remarried war hero and religious martyr who you can believe has taken a journey of seven years.

Character developments and story arcs are not restricted to cast members: The spy-turned-tailor Garak’s murky past and his burgeoning friendship with Dr. Bashir; the cultural conflicts between Jake Sisko and the Ferengi Nog, and Bajor’s recovery from its Nazi-esque occupation are pivotal, to say nothing of the intense, ambiguous moral complexity of the series’ central antagonist Gul Dukat which is one of the best portrayals of rounded villainy ever seen on television. From narcissistic Hitlerian charmer and analogous Nazi oppressor to religious zealot, Dukat tumbles down a character path that sees him stripped of rank, serving as an arrogant military leader and suffering as a bereaved father which, like Avery Brooks’ Sisko, is only believable from Marc Alaimo’s magnificent performance.

What is curious, particularly for those who watched earlier series from a young age, is just how multifaceted they really were. DS9’s contemporary, Star Trek: Voyager, was heavily action focused and it offered a wonderful alternative to what seemed like the ceaseless talking of the other shows. The Voyager two-parter Year Of Hell was a particularly shocking action-centric trial by fire for the crew which saw most of them die and Captain Janeway add another, albeit impressive, on-screen death to the character’s list of demises. 

In retrospect, action ages and computer graphics date. Alternatively, if it’s done correctly, a taut script and innovative story has the potential to tap into eternal debates and resonate long after the episode has aired. By the time Voyager finished, Star Trek: Enterprise (the first Trekshow since TOS to be cancelled) had entirely forgotten this lesson and suffered the consequences of ignoring discussion and talking in favor of action sequences and violence.

What Star Trek needs to remember as it moves past its half-century celebration is that it will always succeed best when it aims to be the smartest show on TV. Viewers may now have an appetite for year-long arcs and hard-hitting, graphic storytelling, but the want for considerate science-fiction has not waned. The popularity of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, helmed by Star Trek alumnus Ronald D. Moore, reminds us that science-fiction works best as a decontextualization of the issues which affect our shared humanity.

Episodic statements about interesting issues have longevity precisely because they can hit harder and faster in a more memorable way. That said, it’s the accumulative and empirical development which holds power and sway in today’s binge age and DS9, more than The Original Series, The Next Generation, Voyager, or Enterprise, should be the model for the new showStar Trek: Discovery.

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Star Trek does not die, but like its other great contemporary Doctor Who, it occasionally needs to take a break to find its bearings and to remember what makes it great.