Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Saga's Sagging Arc

But what of the grand arc of the Star Trek saga? That’s the most accidental arc of all, as the saga went on, at first in fits and starts, always threatening to end, and then in a great rush of many stories told at once (more than a decade with new episodes of two series on TV and new movies in the theatres), and then the slow fade to a sudden stop with the cancellation of Enterprise.

As a prequel series, Enterprise of course complicated the arc by giving it a new beginning. Fans were disturbed by some of the failures of “continuity” with later Trek they thought they saw, but it may also be argued that Enterprise tried too hard to accommodate familiar “races”—even the Borg, not encountered again until the 24th century.

But in its simplest sense, the Star Trek saga arc might go like this: after terrible warfare and the reversion to post-apocalyptic nightmare of violence and superstition, a scientific breakthrough---the discovery of warp drive—changes everything, when it attracts a passing science vessel of Vulcans, and humans learn they are not alone in the universe they now have the power to explore.

The earth unites and banishes poverty and war. Starfleet is formed. But after a century humans are chafing at their limitations, and at the Vulcans’ insistence they are not ready for true interstellar exploration. But Captain Archer and the first Enterprise begin that process. This leads to the founding of the Federation.

In an as yet undramatized period---possibly the subject of the proposed “Star Trek: The Beginning” movie---earth is at war with the Romulan Empire. It ends and the neutral zone is established. By the 23rd century, Captain Kirk’s Enterprise is exploring farther, by now governed by the Prime Directive. It is also exploring the nature of humanity, through contrast with the civilizations of other worlds it encounters.

Human progress continues in the 24th century, not simply in new technologies but in better understanding of humanity, a greater commitment to self-knowledge, and a richer sense of the ethical behavior necessary for relationships with beings different from themselves.

But new enemies test both the inventiveness and will of the Federation, and the depth of its ethical understanding. In encounters with the Borg and the Dominion, once again humans must face their inner demons as well as their outer enemies, and deal with feelings of anger and vengeance, and the self-perpetuating emotions of war. Some falter but recover, stronger in soul than before (Picard.) Others fall into the sentimentality and shadow emotions of earlier eras (or of earlier war movies.)

Under this pressure, the Federation falters in its principles. Evils of the past return---political expediency over practical principle, shady deals, violation of the Constitution---I mean, the Prime Directive, secret police, licensed murderers for the state, the use and (if novels are included that take the narrative past the "canon") defense of torture. It seems that only Jean-Luc Picard is left to defend the Vision of GR, I mean the Federation, and that’s before Picard’s story is taken over by novels.

Obviously, the arc was influenced by 9-11 and current warfare (although it reverted to recycling old war movie drama and cliches long before that), but that's hardly an excuse: the arc started in the midst of Vietnam, Civil Rights, government provocateurs in anti-war groups and spying on individuals, a presidential Enemy's List, subversion of the Constiution, etc. Star Trek provided both rational and idealistic alternatives, and convincingly dramatized them.

In short, the arc of the Star Trek saga has left its reason for being in question, with a deeply conflicted Federation and a compromised Starfleet. Not a pretty picture. A new movie might help. If it’s the right new movie.

No comments: