Friday, September 08, 2023

Strange Old Worlds

 On September 8, 1966 the first season of the Star Trek series began.  It explored strange new worlds in the galaxy of imagination as well as in television storytelling.  But 57 years later, I wonder if it is truly exploring anything more than its own mythology.  Star Trek today seems more and more to be about itself.

 The new Star Trek shows display excellent writing, acting, directing and visual effects.  It produces entertaining television. The current series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds seems to have tried to recapture that original innocence, with its premise, its stand-alone episodes and that thrilling variation on the original opening with updated imagery. But most episodes seem to explore mostly the styles of presenting the established (if visually updated) Star Trek universe—comedy, horror, mixing animation with live action, musical comedy.  Star Trek now seems to comments on itself more than any outside world, real or imagined, including the self-consciousness of Lower Decks.

 Discovery tried to push the envelope at times, and bravely explores diversity and the internal life of a starship in a different way, though its obsession with feelings feels excessive at times (in my weaker moments I’ve referred to Captain Burnham as Captain Emo.) While season 4 in particular pushed Star Trek forward, even in this series, Star Trek mythology generated lots of story.

 It’s not that these shows lack values or significant content. And it's not that decades and hundreds of Star Trek stories should be ignored. But maybe the emphasis seems different.  Strange new worlds aren't primary.  At best the new shows are about the characters and their relationships and interactions within the canonical Star Trek mythology.  They seem to be less about exploring the previously unknown, or involved with testing our assumptions against what is found out there.  Character-driven drama with technobabble is not all of what Star Trek started out to be.

 Maybe it’s at least partly inevitable.  When Star Trek began, nothing like it had been done on television before.  The series invented its story universe with every episode, and so every episode was exploring the unknown.  Perhaps it’s impossible to get back that innocence.

 For a lot has happened in 57 years.  Back when it began, Star Trek’s content was shaped more directly by generations of science fiction and not quite two decades of television drama.

  Science fiction that followed Jules Verne speculated on new technologies and what might be found on other planets, both imagined from the basis of known fact and science.  The science fiction that followed H.G. Wells used imagined technologies, phenomena and forms of life as metaphors to illuminate aspects of human life. (This is how Margaret Atwood divides it, and it’s a good starting point.)

 Following either progenitor, s/f writers also explored highly speculative science with cosmological and philosophical implications—everything from alternative archeology and anthropology (some of which has turned out to have some basis in fact) to implications of quantum physics and the additions and alterations over the years suggested by new astronomical and sub-atomic data.

Just as the Star Trek series adapted technologies and protocols seen in earlier sci-fi movies and television shows, the stories followed both Verne and Wells in speculating on a possible future while telling metaphorical tales, some of which applied to urgent contemporary social and political questions.

  While some of these stories came from science fiction writers, a great many were created by veteran television writers, sometimes re-purposing plots found everywhere, from ancient drama and classic fiction to TV westerns and Captain Video.  This was television drama, but westerns and other shows also often told morality tales, and so did Star Trek.

 Yet as the first full-hour network drama set in the far future, Star Trek was also open-ended: everything was possible in locations in time and space where no one had gone before. 

 But seeds of the current situation were also sown back then.  Gene Roddenberry believed that for a series with continuing characters set in the strange new worlds of the future, the show had to create and maintain a self-consistent story universe.

  So besides envisioning the basic template of as diverse a crew as he could get away with (or perhaps as diverse as anyone could imagine existing in a few centuries), as well as assembling talented collaborators and working carefully on how the series would look, GR did what Wells and other designers of alternative worlds knew to do: he made rules.  

Every week would bring a new story, but the technologies would have the same capabilities and work the same way week after week.  There was a chain of command aboard the Enterprise, and a set a standard procedures.  As much as possible for a starship warping through the galaxy, the Enterprise was grounded.

 As writers introduced new planets and new aliens, later writers had to honor the basics of those planets and characters if they used them in subsequent stories.  (There were periods of adjustment but once the template was found—for Klingons, say—it remained consistent.) Events in one story might inform later stories, until a kind of backstory was created for the main characters and Star Trek as a whole.

 Some of the “rules” were set forth in the Star Trek Writer’s Guide, which was revised as the series went on (I have before me the third revision: 31 typed and mimeographed pages dated April 17, 1967.)  It provides character background, technology and capabilities.  Believability in action is stressed, but also meaning, the metaphorical layer.

 The rules were needed because each episode had a different writer and director.  That’s also why actors playing the major roles became caretakers of their characters and what they did and how they did it.  Together they created the Star Trek universe.

 That universe expanded with new crews in a new century, beginning with The Next Generation. A rich storytelling universe supported hundreds of stories for five main crews and sets of characters, over nearly 40 years. 

In the meantime, the Star Trek universe generated other stories, principally in a series of novels.  Though officially permitted by whatever entity owned Star Trek at the time, these novels often went their own ways in terms of story and characters.  It was I believe in connection with the novels that the concept of “canon” was first introduced.  “Canon” was meant to denote all the aspects of the “real” Star Trek universe, at first defined as everything in the television and motion picture stories (but not the novels.)

 Canon is an interesting concept, and today it is a powerful one. While the dictionary defines it as a general law or principle, its second definition is a collection of sacred books regarded as genuine.  The Star Trek rules and guidelines (commonly called its Bible), along with that long history of story, had become canon law.

 Those of us raised as Catholics recognize canon law as the fundamentals of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. Violations of canon were serious stuff, heavily sinful.  Canon was zealously guarded by Church hierarchy. Violating canon was heresy, punished by excommunication (an early version of being blocked,unfriended or ghosted—in other words, excluded and exiled.)  Canon today seems to have become a real factor in what stories are told.

 But the hierarchy in charge of Star Trek is not the only arbiter.  Star Trek’s relationship to the corporate entities that made the shows was always complicated. According to GR, he was constantly fighting against corporate control.  That control seems to have become more pronounced at the end of the Berman era.  Today Star Trek is seen as a valuable “franchise,” and the changes in corporate ownership in recent years has been dizzying.  The switch to streaming is still fluid, as evidenced by recent cancellations and the abrupt changes in access to the catalog. 

 But there is another factor strongly in play, with roots in the original series era.  With GR’s connivance, fans organized to write letters demanding that the original series be renewed after the first and second seasons.  After the original series left the air, fans organized Star Trek conventions.  There had been science fiction conventions where some attendees wore costumes, but there had been nothing the size and specific focus of those Star Trek conventions in the 1970s forward.  With the letter campaigns and especially the conventions, the phenomenon of fandom was born—not just for Star Trek, but for everyone.

 Fandom then acquired new tools for expression. Mostly through the bulletin boards on sites devoted to Star Trek, the Internet started to have influence, especially in the final years of Star Trek: Enterprise and the Star Trek: Nemesis feature film.  The negativity on the Internet, together with low ratings and box office failure, ended in the demise of the Rick Berman era in 2005, and the lineage from Gene Roddenberry through Berman was broken.

 By the time of the J.J. Abrams features, social media was prominent.  Abrams and then the creators of Star Trek: Discovery and other television shows paid closer attention to social media, made producers and stars more accessible, and saw conventions as potent promotional opportunities.

 Meanwhile, fandom (which may be defined as a subset of the more diverse universe of Star Trek fans) was becoming more aware of the business side of Star Trek.  Online discussions were at least as likely to be about production costs and box office as possible meanings in Star Trek stories.  Corporate, producers and fandom were growing more aware of each other, and engaging more directly.

 Today fandom is a real force in Star Trek and its storytelling.  In particular, fandom engages in questions of canon.  Variations are closely debated, and though some are accepted, others are condemned. Star Trek canon is not enforced only by a corporate Vatican but by a hyper-informed and vigilant fandom. This process is not all destructive, but it is consequential.  

All these past Star Trek stories, with their basic consistencies and through-lines, form a kind of mythology, and fandom is deeply engaged with that mythology, its familiar characters and events. Thanks to social media and the structures of the entertainment business today, Star Trek producers cannot afford to offend fandom too much.  They depend on fans who operate in social media, and vote by means of streaming subscriptions.  In this context, it’s all fan service.

 Gene Roddenberry respected fans and interacted with them at conventions.  But he was very direct and firm that fans would not dictate Star Trek content.  Today fandom may not write the stories, but it is one factor that may be limiting the storytelling. 

 These seem to me to be the chief factors leading to my impression that today’s Star Trek is less about exploring strange new worlds or ideas and their implications, and more about itself and its own mythology.

 The apparent emphasis on character interaction over situation and ideas may be another important factor. Taken together, the character emphasis and the self-referencing tendency may help to explain my impression that current Star Trek gives much lower priority than in its formative years to really engaging with urgent concerns of today’s world by means of exploring strange new worlds.  In sometimes awkward but sometimes revelatory ways, that’s what the original series and TNG did.  That to a great extent is what inspired Star Trek fans in the first place.

 Today’s Star Trek shows have revisited and expanded on issues that past Star Trek stories explored, for a new audience. They have dealt to some degree with certain implications of technology, though they seem oddly obsessed with cloning.  

But more powerful technology is no longer the chief source of urgent problems, if it ever was. Many of our concerns and our understanding of the world have changed in 57 years.  We are much more aware of the roles of ecological factors and non-human life, as we are faced with the challenges of climate distortion and the imminent possibility of mass extinctions.  We are more aware than ever of the dire consequences of a planet ruled by a few extremely wealthy individuals and corporations, with everyone else scrambling in uncertainty and insecurity. 

 Engaging in such questions as race, the arms race and the nuclear age, cultural differences and such larger questions as a more complex reading of human nature, Star Trek formed its character: the essence, the soul of Star Trek.  The commitment to retain that character by today’s Star Trek creators as well as viewers is heartening.  It was the motivation for many over the years to become devoted Star Trek fans (whether or not they became vocal members of fandom.)  But that commitment loses its power if it becomes the rote of canon.  It has to be actualized.

  Perhaps I’m wrong about the current shows. My perspective is derived from watching Star Trek for all of those 57 years.  That does not make me (in today’s terms) the target demographic, to say the least.  Perhaps newer viewers see the same kinds of explorations, and feel themselves changed by them as we once did.

 But consider this possibility: at its best, Star Trek once engaged with the strange new worlds that illuminate our world—the world that television drama largely refused to examine. These were the urgent public problems and mysteries that most vexed us as viewers. Now Star Trek seems to live in the no-longer-strange old world of its own mythos.  Mythologies can be defining and healthy, generating new stories and insights, but they can also become stultifying and irrelevant, until eventually they consume themselves.

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