So You Think You Can Trek: Part I

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47 years. 726 episodes. 12 feature films. A plethora of action figures, toy spaceships, fan fiction, and professional paperback novels. Only a tiny handful of other franchises can even begin to compete with the entertainment behemoth that is Star Trek, and none of them can boast as rich a spectrum of creative storytelling as the intrepid sci-fi adventure claims. With two series in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and four more airing consecutively from 1987 to 2005, Star Trek has the sole honor of being an ubiquitous presence in American entertainment for nearly as long as mainstream television programming itself – and, against all odds, the adventure continues.

So, you, who has perhaps never watched the show, or has only caught an episode here or there, or perhaps even just dabbled in the recent films done by J. J. Abrams: why should you care? Trek is, after all, reserved for the nerdiest of nerds; you know the sort. Trekkies live with their parents still, don’t have relationships, can all speak Klingon, and go to conventions dressed as their favorite obscure character from the shows (I’m looking at you, nearly naked middle-aged woman in green body paint pretending to be an Orion slave girl!). In short, these are probably not your sort of people, and Star Trek is certainly not something you’d want to be caught talking about in public. It’s just too…nerdy!

Yet the success of the franchise speaks for itself, demanding a simple question: What is so special about Star Trek? To answer that question – and then provide the reader a brief guide on where to begin as a new viewer – I offer the following: consider it my long overdue love letter to a franchise that shaped my life and the lives of many others.

Much has been written and said about the visionary man behind Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry. Envisioning a sort of “wagon train to the stars,” Roddenberry labored tirelessly to bring Trek to fruition in the 1960’s. He deliberately set out to create a different sort of show, a show that was well ahead of its time in terms of social awareness. He wanted Star Trek to be a show thoroughly grounded in modernist principles: that mankind, with great effort and collective virtue, could transcend the petty greed and selfishness which is the human condition and build a utopian society of Enlightenment. It is, perhaps, the French Revolution gone perfectly right; or perhaps humanity bereft of sin. Implausible? Absolutely. But in the world of fiction and entertainment, the plausibility of the premise is irrelevant so long as the characters deal with human problems in a morally inspirational fashion.

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The original Star Trek, which gave us the pop culture icons of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, was never particularly successful; it only ran for three seasons, and even then the third only came into being after an unprecedented fan write-in campaign. Yet, for the lack of initial visible success, Star Trek did succeed in putting powerful moral and social messages on the air. Each episode was a morality tale in miniature; indeed every one creatively envisioned a difficult or vexing situation that would require the cool logic of Mr. Spock, the compassion of Dr. McCoy, and the balanced, bold leadership of Captain Kirk to solve. Star Trek was a show that still believed in good and evil, and its writers were well-read enough to tell interesting stories built on classical archetypes that nonetheless entertained an audience.

Beyond the regularly excellent, occasionally corny, and always engaging storytelling, Roddenberry’s moral convictions were also clear in his choice of a cast. No other show in the 1960s – the height of the Civil Rights movement – dared place a black woman on the bridge of a military vessel, let alone as one of that ship’s senior officers and fourth in command. A Japanese man was at the helm, a Russian at tactical, a Scot ran engineering, a Southern doctor in the medical bay, and a half-breed alien was the first officer. It was absolutely radical. Thus, when the series aired episodes that dealt specifically with racism, weapons of mass destruction, unfair imprisonment, and even the first interracial kiss ever aired on television, these decidedly 20th century issues were elucidated by the diverse cast. Star Trek, more than just fantastic and well told television, was a bold and unique statement of social equality in a time where the message was never more needed.

The potential for moral education in a time of moral dissolution – The Hippies Strike Back – is not to be underestimated. Thus, as American culture continued down the path of moral relativism, Star Trek continued to strike a note of decidedly progressive, classically liberal moral rigidity. As its popularity exploded in syndication, the potential for a new, second series was often considered. The initial result was a series of films with the original crew, which were wildly successful and validated the longevity of the franchise sufficiently to warrant Star Trek: The Next Generation, which began airing in 1987 and is perhaps the most popular series of the franchise. With a captain more Shakespearean actor and explorer than womanizer, TNG built upon its heritage to include greater dramatic storytelling and soul-searching plot lines that taught a new generation of viewers about morality in an increasingly post-modern world.

While TNG was still on the air, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was introduced in 1993. Darker in tone than its predecessors, DS9 introduced serialized storytelling to the series. Further, reflecting the changing culture of America, its stories often delved into the grey areas of morality and ethics, and episodes often ended with unresolved conflict and unclear moral decisions. To its great credit, DS9 incorporated serious consideration of religion in society, and in general fleshed out the Trek universe to feel more like a world we recognize. Two other series followed: Star Trek: Voyager debuted in 1995, and featured the first female captain in a series. In 2001 Star Trek: Enterprise premiered, a prequel series boasting a more traditional approach reminiscent of the original show.

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That’s all a great deal of information, but what does it mean to you? Why should this make you care about Star Trek? Simply, because it’s smart television; perhaps the smartest television there is. Because Star Trek paved the way for every genre television show that came after it; if you like Lost, or Buffy, or Battlestar Galactica, you have Star Trek to thank. If you’ve grown weary of reality television which, using real people, only ever manages to parody actual reality, then Star Trek is a great alternative. If you’re sick of crime dramas, and the plethora of shows that deal with increasingly sick and psychotic ways to kill someone, then the bright eyed optimism of Star Trek is the perfect panacea.

Perhaps you are worried about the corniness, or the sometimes dated appearance of the earlier series. Fair concerns – but with the recent release of both The Original Series and The Next Generation in completely remastered blu-ray format, you can enjoy the older shows in a whole new way, complete with updated effects shots. And even then, the effects are pleasant in a retro fashion; they are old, but rarely unwatchable. What shines through, always, is the sheer quality of the storytelling.

At the end of the day, if you are open to stories that expand the mind and, more than a few times, move the heart, then you will love Star Trek. If science, technology, ethics, law, religion, or just good and evil interest you, you will love Star Trek.  If you love literature, and classical stories, you will love Star TrekTrek may be for geeks, but if the likes of Dante, Shakespeare, Thomas Aquinas, and Tolkien are in that category, it is illustrious indeed.

Next week: So now you’re interested. Where do you begin? Come back for my guide to the entire Star Trek empire.

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