For the first time in over a decade there is no first-run Star Trek series on TV. I never thought I would say this but…that’s good news. The final episode of Star Trek Voyager, which aired last week, was a perfect example of how far Trek has wandered from it’s original sci-fi goodness.
#ad#Here is the story arc of the full Trek series. In the beginning, there was a ship looking for adventure in places where no “man” has gone before. Despite some interesting ethical and philosophical debates, it wasn’t in much dispute that human (read: American) civilization was superior to all but a handful of cultures encountered on their “wagon train” through space. Captain Kirk obeyed the Prime Directive (“Thou Shalt Not Back-Seat Drive the Alien Civilizations”) when the aliens were doing just fine. He ignored it whenever the aliens were about to screw up.
Then, a generation later came Jean-Luc Picard’s USS Enterprise (proof of purchase number NCC-1701-D). Unlike Kirk, Picard was no cowboy. It was as if he read Warren Christopher’s opus Diplomacy: The Forgotten Imperative. This of course made sense to the extent that Picard was a Frenchman. Indeed, under his example, it is a wonder that the Romulans didn’t end up sitting in our Terran cafés while our brave human resistance boldly urinated in their wine.
Okay, that’s not entirely fair. In fact I am a big fan of Captain Picard. Patrick Stewart was clearly the best actor among the Trek captains (though this is a bit unfair to captain Pike who didn’t get much chance to show his acting chops: Flash once for yes, twice for no). And in many respects, Star Trek: The Next Generation was the best Trek of them all (some very pale 35-year old just yelled, “Heresy!” so loud his mom knocked on the door to make sure he’s okay).
Still, if the first Trek was — as a zillion underemployed academics have pointed out — the apotheosis of American Cold War chauvinism (Kennedy’s New Frontier was an explicit inspiration for Gene Roddenberry), then The Next Generation reflected a more “mature” embrace of, shall we say, United Nations values (“We can’t do that! The Organian Peace Treaty forbids it!”).
Nonetheless, the new Star Trek still remained loyal to the idea that humanity should “boldly go where no one had gone before” (the switch from “man” to “one” for a society comprised of millions of non-human races always seemed eminently reasonable to me). And, with a few dismaying exceptions, STNG reflected the early Roddenberry’s optimism about the future.
That changed with Deep Space 9. In this series, there was very little exploring. This was Fort Apache: The Bronx moved to the Delta Quadrant border. Exploring was replaced with military sorties and internal intrigues. Now, because I always savored glimpses into the politics of the Trek universe, I was pretty fond of DS9, but mostly because I am an in-the-tank Trek geek. DS9’s later reliance on Klingons and space battles made the show thoroughly enjoyable for anyone who loves that stuff.
But, if you take a step back and look at the big picture, DS9 was more than a small failure. First of all, Benjamin Sisco was one angry dude. Avery Brooks is a wonderful actor. But he is wonderful at acting like an angry black man (he was great as Hawk in the Spenser for Hire series). Of course, I have no problem with blacks in command in the Federation — in fact I think it’s downright racist that there are so few “people of color” in a human society that has conquered inequality, poverty, and scarcity — but did we really need Shaft in a Federation uniform?
Picking up on themes laid down in Next Generation, DS9 focused more and more on the shortcomings of the Federation. It wasn’t quite “Blame humanity first,” but there was a steady drumbeat of episodes about the failings of the Federation and the less altruistic nature of humanity. Quark, a Ferengi, lectured us about how his planet never had racism or slavery (of course, they keep their women naked and locked up at home, but let’s not quibble). As a conservative, I concede this was an overdue dose of realism, but it was also a crisis of confidence in Roddenberry’s optimistic vision of the future.
How many episodes seemed to be inspired by the Iran-Contra affair? Twenty-fourth-century Oliver Norths were constantly freelancing Federation policy, subverting the law and cutting ethical corners. In a sense, the guys who acted like Captain Kirk were now the villains of the series.
Indeed, what began as an intriguing twist and a bit of realism in the Next Generation became an indispensable theme in DS9: open rebellion within the Federation.
The rebellious Maquis were largely comprised of renegade Federation officers. But unlike the Kirk-like Oliver North cowboys, these renegades were often heroes (and we need not dwell on the fact that the French underground called itself the Maquis during World War Two; and after WWII millions of Frenchmen who spent the war cooking breakfast for German houseguests, said they were members of it). Whereas the Kirks had imperialistic motives, wanting to make the Federation a military hegemon. The Maquis were the Greenpeacers, trying to thwart the federation’s cruel ambitions.
And then there was Voyager. Captained by a chick — to the requisite huzzahs from people who care about such things — Voyager was hurled into an unknown and very distant quadrant of the galaxy in the first episode. Due to circumstances too stupid to recount in detail here, the ship was equally manned by members of the Maquis and loyal members of the Federation. Of course, it’s a good thing the ship is run by a woman, because they are so much better at reaching consensus.
Voyager’s theme is simple. The poor babies — now a minority in a strange territory — need to make it home in a “can’t-we-all-just-get-along” situation. Exploring new civilizations is now a luxury or a painful duty but always a distraction from the real mission: getting home.
Meanwhile, every week the Voyager crew would be mired in endless sophistry about the Prime Directive and ethical gobbledygook that virtually nobody found interesting. Do our principles still exist so far from home? Who cares about exploration? Is lieutenant Parris ever going to make nice with his daddy? Will Captain Janeway ever see her dogs again? And of course, no episode could be complete without a tortured politically correct speech about tolerance and a saccharine ode to the Voyager “family.”
Could the original idea of Trek be undermined any more than that? Where we started with a ship and crew dedicated to confidently conquering the unknown and imposing our own sense of justice on the galaxy when necessary, we now have a ship suffering from a constant lack of confidence, desperately trying to get home to mommy. The first Trek crew would have sold their souls to be in a whole new quadrant of the galaxy no one had ever seen. The last line of the first Trek movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, concludes (mercifully) with a helmsman asking Kirk for a new heading. He answers, “Out there…thataway.” This is not a man in a hurry to sleep in his own bed.
Of course Voyager represented all sorts of other Trek failures. The issue of time travel, for example, which has always been problematic in the Trek universe (except, perhaps in “Yesterday’s Enterprise“) was abused beyond recognition in Voyager, particularly in the series finale (which I refuse to take seriously by writing about at length).
But I could forgive time-travel inconsistencies and logical foul-ups, as they are the norm in science fiction, if they weren’t part of a larger problem with all of the modern Treks. Time and again, the producers and actors seemed to conspire to make the show(s) as self-indulgent as possible. Whether it was pet political causes of the cast and crew or a demand from actors to do more “challenging” work, the shows repeatedly subjected the viewers to the silliest of devices.
I am referring of course to the holodeck.
The holodeck more than anything else represents the increasing asininity of Star Trek. Put aside the ludicrous science of the holodeck in which a series of force fields and lighting tricks can so accurately simulate reality that even Geordi LaForge (who sees across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, including ultraviolet, x-ray, and infrared) can’t tell holo-humans aren’t real (if you look at something with x-ray vision and it looks like a human, it usually is).
As a dramatic device the holodeck is an outrage, seemingly conceived for actors and costume designers to indulge themselves at the audience’s expense. Murder mysteries, exotic adventures, intellectual colloquies, and historical period dramas were all played out in the holodeck for no other reason than the fact that the producers knew the fans would tolerate it. Captain Picard as a twentieth-century private dick is not what I signed up for.
Meanwhile the damage done to the internal consistencies — let alone the pleasure of watching — the various Treks was enormous. One small example: Didn’t it strike anyone as odd that in Star Trek: Next Generation, the android Lt. Cmdr. Data was nobly struggling for a minimal level of emotional fluency and recognition of his sentience, while holo-humans were constantly acting as autonomous, sentient life-forms? How is it that Data, with his tenuously robotic grasp on humanity, could at once be the height of technological accomplishment in the Federation, while a rogue character from a Sherlock Holmes story could achieve self-awareness (and, by the way, the ability to use contractions) because of a blown fuse?
By the end of Next Generation, the holodeck had become the last refuge of an exhausted writer. But by the time Voyager came around, holo-technology had become the crutch of an exhausted series. Whenever Voyager’s writers had nothing new or interesting to say they decided to say it — for forty or fifty minutes — on the holodeck. (At least in Deep Space 9, the producers offered a nod to the obvious sexual possibilities of the holodeck. But they never answered the burning question of whether sex with a hologram is masturbation or adultery.)
Every Trek has a character the writers use as a foil to better understand the nature of humanity. In the original Trek that character was Spock, who constantly tussled with his human crewmates and his own half-humanity. In Next Generation, Spock was replaced by Data (and a bit by Worf). In Deep Space 9, it was the shape-shifter Odo. And in Voyager it was the doctor.
The doctor was a run-of-the-mill emergency medical holo-program, and yet from the get-go he had total sentience, a nasty sense of humor, and a haughty attitude. Ignoring the stupidity of making an artificial doctor with such a personality, the treatment of the doctor’s sentience was almost always simplistic, idiotic, or entirely derivative of Data’s storylines — and often all three. I’m sure the good liberals at Paramount thought it was daring to inveigh against anti-hologram bigotry, but that hardly does much to stifle my yawns.
What did stifle yawns was the decision made toward the end of the series to replace the far too-human doctor as the foil character with the recovering Borg, Seven of Nine. It goes without saying that Seven of Nine and her breasts made the show more interesting to Trek’s core audience, adolescent men and men who won’t let go of their adolescence.
Still, while Seven of Nine’s endowments drew in young male viewers, the price we had to pay was another series of familiar speeches about the Voyager family and how Seven of Nine was welcome on board. Adding so many Borg storylines improved the series, and did only minimal damage to the evil coolness of the Borg, but it could do nothing to save the show from its addiction to multi-culti, New Age familial hugging. It was as if every week the show sang “I gave my love a cherry” but a giant John Belushi never materialized to smash the ship against an asteroid. The result was that when the tedious series finale finally arrived, most viewers weren’t saying “How will it end?” but “When — dear God — will it end?”
As die-hard trekkies who’ve managed to read this far already know, there’s a new Trek in the works with Scott Bakula of Quantum Leap as the new Captain. This Trek will take place in the twenty-second century, a hundred years before Kirk’s era. Brannon Braga, the show’s co-creator, told the L.A. Times, “Deep Space Nine and Voyager, while both excellent shows, lost a little bit of that original Star Trek spirit.” He added, “It’s time to get back to the fundamentals of Star Trek.”
I for one will give it a fair shot, as I did with Voyager until it got — like Alec Baldwin at a political rally — too stupid to watch. (I returned when Seven of Nine came on board, for at least two reasons that should be obvious). The show could only be an improvement over Voyager and, besides, having written so extensively on this topic, it’s not like my fiancée will want much to do with me.