I listened to a Becky Chambers interview recently and she got a question about Star Trek. She said she was a big fan of the franchise, and immediately had to field the next obvious question – which series? Paraphrasing here, the exchange went something like this:
Interviewer: Star Trek TOS or Star Trek TNG?
Becky: Star Trek Yes.
When Becky Chambers says she likes the franchise, she means it. She goes on to say that the hopeful attitude of a better future is what always made it stand out for her.
For me, I think it’s the same. I watched Jean-Luc Picard boldly go where no person has gone before in The Next Generation, then I watched Ben Sisko boldly stay where no person has stayed before in Deep Space Nine. Paramount, I am in for another Star Trek set on a space station instead of a space ship. After the Seven-of-Nine section of Voyager, I skipped ahead to Discovery and Picard. I’ve spoken to a lot of people about how much they miss the classic episodic approach and the new shows are too heavy and self-important. I never got lost comparing one to another. It’s really interesting to me, actually, people looking with nostalgia at a show all about embracing the future and shunning its new entries. I see the new shows and enjoy looking where a new generation of writers in a new social milieu decide to take the venerable story of humanity as the beneficent leaders of a socially-advanced intergalactic alliance.
That’s not to say that I don’t have my gripes. Everything about the Kowat Milat is annoying. Warrior Nuns that use katanas in a world of phasers feels like something that belongs either in Star Wars or Dr. Who. On the other hand, I wish everyone practiced the way of absolute candor, and Elnor has some of the best lines in Picard. “Choose to live” is not one of them.
Michael Burnham’s grand journey to collect all her mothers (The adoptive mother she shares with Spock, her deceased former captain and mother-figure Philippa Georgiou’s evil twin, and her birth mother who turns out to be a time-traveling warrior nun) was… ok it was kind of awesome. Yes, it was ridiculous, no I can’t complain, although I wonder if the showrunners may have had some mommy issues they were working through in that season.
Through it all, I think about Star Trek’s legacy. The franchise famous for the first interracial kiss on television has a lot to live up to. The latest installments certainly try. Oh, do they try. In the latest season of Picard, his crew time-travels to 2024 and contends with overactive immigration enforcement. I could blog for a month on how hard Discovery tries to stay socially groundbreaking. Transgender trills, woke computers, Stacy Abrams for president of the world. A doctor used a medical procedure to extract somebody’s imaginary friend and make them a real person. I don’t know if it’s controversial, exactly, but it bears mentioning. One more subtle note I liked was in Season 3, when the desperate head of the hyper-capitalist Emerald Chain Osyraa offers an alliance with the seriously weakened Federation and Fleet Admiral Charles Vance tells her that after all the war crimes she’s committed he can only accept if she agrees to go to trial. I want to live in a universe where the powerful face consequences for their actions.
Are these things bold or are they merely pandering? What does it mean for a television show to be bold in 2022? Is it possible? My guess is that in the time that Star Trek: The Original Series was making history, television was more limited. Producing and distributing TV was expensive, audiences were plentiful. Each show sought to capture a large portion of the market so controversial takes like an interracial kiss that might alienate some of that broad base were rare. Today, it’s cheap to make TV and easy to put it online, but it’s hard to get attention. By pushing the envelope, you may lose a lot of people, but it’s no big deal if no one was going to watch you anyway. If you push it the right way, that’s paydirt. Bridgerton put a black queen of England in an alternate 19th century, and became Netflix’s biggest series ever. When risk taking is cheap, people take risks. When everyone is taking risks in television, risky television no longer seems like the huge deal it was in 1968.
Star Trek: The Original Series pushed the envelope in a big way when that was not the norm. That is why we remember it, and that is why, no matter how boldly Paramount Plus goes where no man/woman/nonbinary has gone before, it will never stick in our minds quite like Gene Roddenberry’s original masterpiece.
That’s my hot-take. What do you think?