The Subspace Cafe is a semi-regular publication about recent (or not-so-recent) developments in the world of Star Trek and other science fiction-related issues. Check back often for reviews and commentary, musings about (fictional) politics and ethics, rants about inconsistency and idiocy, or any other sort of soapbox material! Yes, it's another blog.
Since the start of the global Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the shameful death of George Floyd, I’ve been trying to process my feelings on the subject. And as an introverted, middle-class, white male American, I didn’t feel it was my place to speak up at first. But this nascent awakening of our society can only succeed if everyone participates. That means speaking up and sharing my thoughts and support, even when it might feel trite or hollow. Because good words can help. That’s where ideas begin.
Over the decades, Star Trek fans have had a mostly well-earned reputation for being open-minded and accepting. From classics like “Devil in the Dark” and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” to the heartfelt relationship between Paul Stamets and Hugh Culber, the philosophy of embracing other cultures, other people, and other ideas is deeply ingrained in the franchise. This philosophy is best summarized by the Vulcan principle of Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations, better known as IDIC. Propounded by Gene Roddenberry himself, IDIC incorporates many ideas, but at its core it is “an ideal based on learning to delight in our essential differences as well as learning to recognize our similarities”.
Though not explicitly defined in-universe until several years later, the core of IDIC was evident from the very beginning of Star Trek—not only in the racial diversity of the main characters, but in the stories which emphasized peace, understanding, and coexistence. This was part of what made the show so special, demonstrating by example that Humanity need not be doomed to a perpetual cycle of hatred and violence, as seemed likely in the 1960s. Over the decades, the manifestation of this message evolved to fit the times, but it was always present. Our definitions of what might constitute “life” expanded to include vibrant new characters like Data, Odo, and The Doctor, and as always, Star Trek showed how accepting those new people could enrich everyone around them, too.
IDIC is a principle that is simple in concept, but difficult to identify and practice. For one thing, the sheer concept of “infinite” is difficult for us Humans to comprehend. But let’s try to dissect the name. “Infinite diversity”, to me, refers to the incredible variety of life that one can find in the universe—or even just on Earth. There are people, creatures, and inanimate objects of vastly different shapes, sizes, colors, experiences, and beliefs. Each one has qualities that set them apart from the others... and just as importantly, other qualities that they share with others. “Diversity” does not just mean “different.” True diversity refers to the spectrum of both similarities and differences.
Then there’s “infinite combinations”, which takes the idea of diversity even further. As you take diverse elements and then combine them together, you come up with something new. This is basically the core of all Human artistic creativity, but it’s applied to our culture and society. How many beautiful and interesting things have been created because of the combination of different things? Like mixed media art, or odd but delicious food combinations, or memorable partnerships between people? In many cases, it’s the differences in each contributor that enhance the other.
Taken together, “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” means that not only does diversity strengthen us, but creating ever-newer combinations from that diversity results in things that can be beautiful, unexpected, and better. We can only do that by actively seeking out and embracing things that are different in some way.
There are so many different examples relating to IDIC that could be selected from the fifty-plus-year history of Star Trek. Some of them are blindingly obvious, because Star Trek has rarely had a reputation for subtle allegory. But there are other examples that are more understated, yet no less impactful. I’ve chosen three examples that resonate with me concerning the present state of affairs.
Perhaps the most obvious example is the second season Enterprise episode “The Breach”, in which Phlox encounters an Antaran patient who refuses treatment based on centuries-old wars with the Denobulans. Of all the crew on the NX-01, Phlox always seemed to embody the ideals of IDIC the most. He reveled in experiencing different cultures, meeting new people, and trying different foods. Yet we learn through his intense dialogue with Hudak that Phlox didn’t effortlessly develop his open attitude. He had been raised on stories about the “evil” Antarans by family members who were clearly afraid of other cultures. Yet Phlox rejected those stories, and tried to teach his children to embrace other cultures as well. His determined earnestness convinced Hudak, perhaps not to overcome all of his prejudices, but at the very least to overcome his fear at being cared for by a Denobulan doctor. And at the end of the episode, Hudak was willing to at least be on the same ship with some Denobulan passengers, and Phlox reached out to his estranged son, hoping to reconnect and share his experiences.
The second example is from the first season of Voyager, particularly the episodes “Parallax” and “Eye of the Needle”, in which Kes develops a friendly relationship with, and becomes an advocate for, the Emergency Medical Hologram. The EMH was originally only viewed as a non-sentient computer program, despite his (admittedly abrasive) personality and vast knowledge. Yet Kes, who embodied pure innocence, immediately treated The Doctor as a thinking, feeling being. She encouraged him to speak up for himself, and raised awareness of his treatment by the crew with Captain Janeway. By the third season, The Doctor was effectively a fully equal member of Voyager’s crew. How different would Voyager’s journey have been without his contributions? He literally saved the entire crew on multiple occasions, with the episodes “Basics”, “Message in a Bottle”, and “Workforce” being the most notable examples. If Kes hadn’t intuitively treated The Doctor with empathy and respect, he might never have discovered his potential as a sentient being.
The third, and possibly most impactful, example is the ongoing and eventually romantic relationship between Kira Nerys and Odo, most deeply explored in the seventh season Deep Space Nine episode “Chimera”. I argued in a previous blog entry that Changelings could be seen as among the most alien beings encountered in Star Trek, due to their fundamental nature as shape-shifting, liquid-like life. Yet despite their notable physical differences, Odo and Nerys formed a meaningful personal relationship, which over the years became an unlikely romance. This relationship was not entirely symmetrical; each person had needs that didn’t quite fit with what the other could fill or provide. Their relationship was challenged by the presence of Laas, another Changeling who had been sent out to explore the galaxy like Odo. While Laas seemed jaded (at best) about his interactions with non-Changelings, Odo reciprocated the trust, loyalty, and love that he had been given by the rest of the crew of DS9. The image of Nerys standing in the middle of a glowing cloud of energy (the form that Odo has taken) demonstrates how meaningful and emotional their connection is, just as powerful yet completely different from biological sex. In the end, I believe those positive experiences are what gave Odo the ability to convince the Founders to end the Dominion War.
These three relationships have many differences between them, but they also carry a thread of similarity: the willingness to embrace that which is different. Furthermore, those relationships are demonstrated by actions.
Applying IDIC to Life on Earth
From its very conception, Star Trek has always been intended to teach by demonstration: to show a world where differences are accepted without hesitation, or even without consideration at all. Part of the need for this is that our world, sadly, does not embrace differences in the way that many of Star Trek’s characters do. The message that most people seem to have taken from Star Trek is that such a world is possible. But that’s an easy, passive lesson to take. There are also lessons in what we can do to make our world one where IDIC is more prevalent.
(If you’ve been reading other opinions and reactions to this month’s Black Lives Matter protests and demonstrations, you’ll probably find a lot of similar ideas. I offer no pretense that these ideas are original. But they need to be shared, again and again.)
First, it’s easy to embrace IDIC when everyone around you embraces it too. What’s harder is to encourage it in others, and to look out for times that you may not exhibit it yourself. Phlox had to fight his antipathy and anger, despite his generally accepting attitude, when he first spoke with Hudak. His behavior was not uniformly pleasant, but he fought his instincts to share his personal experiences and encourage just a small change in the beliefs of another. Similarly, Kira had to recognize how difficult it was for Odo to reach out to her and maintain an unequal relationship.
Second, we must take the time to observe and listen. Listening is not a passive skill. It’s active. That means observing, asking, and prompting. Sometimes it means just being present, to demonstrate that you’re available and engaged. Kes took the time to ask The Doctor what he needed. Kira and Odo had numerous conversations about their feelings and needs, especially about Odo’s conflicting wishes to be with others like him and his feelings for his friends and loved ones.
Finally, don’t accept things the way they are. Little problems may seem unimportant, but lots of little problems are just as harmful as one big problem. Addressing a little problem is still meaningful. And for one person, your actions could be a lot more meaningful. Phlox didn’t change his whole species’ perspective, but he made a momentary connection with one other person, would had the opportunity to share what he learned with others. Kes’ connection with The Doctor inspired a sentient being to recognize his potential, and he became an important member of his crew. Little changes and little actions can still have huge impact.
I’ve struggled to do these things myself over the past three weeks. I’ve been fortunate to have been in multiple conversations with friends and coworkers, in an open and welcoming environment hosted by my employer. These conversations have still been very uncomfortable for me, but when is change is ever comfortable? I need to be aware of the problems in the world before I can start to help address them. In some ways, I feel like Kes, who never seemed to consider The Doctor as anything other than a fully-sentient being, yet was taken aback by how many of the rest of the crew treated him. I am certainly nowhere near that innocent, but recent events have snapped me out of my silence.
I’ve always treated the philosophies of Star Trek as perfectly natural. Maybe I learned the lessons so well I was able to overlook some of the injustices in the world today. But thanks to current events, it’s provided an opportunity to gain some awareness of the world. I can’t change the whole world, but I can change how I behave, and hopefully inspire a few others around me in the bargain. And to do that, I need to seek out people and ideas that are different from me. That’s an ambitious goal, easier said than done, but important nonetheless. And when more people choose to reach out to each other, to explore our differences and our similarities, and to learn from them, we all benefit.
From what I’ve seen over the past few weeks, there are a lot of people who feel this way. The more we speak up and actively profess our beliefs in IDIC and similar philosophies, and follow up those beliefs with actions (both big and small), the more we’ll be able to change our world for the better. Because it’s never too late for self-reflection and change.
“If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
— Gene Roddenberry
Postscript: A Non-Exhaustive and Highly Subjective List of Episodes to Watch
I’ve gone back and taken a second look at some of my favorite episodes, and found a couple new ones that I’d overlooked. (ENT’s “The Breach” being a good example of a meaningful episode that I’d completely forgotten about.) Here’s a good (but certainly not exhaustive) list of shows that exemplify some aspect of IDIC:
I’ve been a Star Trek fan for close to 25 years now. For most of that time, one could easily divide the history of the franchise into two eras: the “classic” era encompassing The Original Series, and the “modern” era encompassing The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and Enterprise. Thanks to the drought of new shows after the cancellation of Enterprise, fans have basically lived in the “modern” era of Star Trek ever since. Even the Kelvin timeline movies felt more of an offshoot or diversion than a whole new era.
With the premiere of Discovery, with its new (to Star Trek) season-long serial format, the franchise has clearly entered a new era. As with any period of change, there are always fans who prefer the old to the new. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But just as Discovery has demonstrated the benefits and drawbacks of late-2010s storytelling, there’s another show that’s gotten a lot of attention from fans: Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville.
Warming Up to The Orville
I was very, very skeptical when I first heard about The Orville. I’ve never liked of any of Seth MacFarlane’s shows; I always figured I just didn’t like his style of humor. So, although I knew that he was a fan (thanks to his walk-on appearance on Enterprise), I really didn’t expect to enjoy his Star Trek parody.
But I wanted to give it a shot. The pilot episode may have been a bit clunky and formulaic, but it was clear that the humor for the series derived from the characters and the sci-fi format, not from forcing a formula comedy into a sci-fi setting. The overly extended exposition dump at the research facility was the high point of the show for me, because it both moved the story along while clearly poking fun at Star Trek’s tendencies to do walk-and-talk scenes and to have characters dramatically say “you’d better see this” rather than just explaining the situation.
Each episode after that got progressively better, and by the fourth episode, I was hooked. But I was also pleasantly surprised at how the show developed: although very clearly a parody, very few of the characters were outright caricatures of their Star Trek counterparts, but fully-realized people in comedic situations. Furthermore, many of the stories clearly had messages and ideals to convey. The Orville started to feel less like a parody and more like a comic, affectionate tribute to Star Trek.
I came to like many of the characters, too. Of course, every show lives or dies by its lead character, and Seth MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer is a hilarious, more-casual take on the traditional, heroic starship captain. He’s clearly competent but not too formal, and it’s his interactions with the rest of the crew that make the show work.
I didn’t like the prominence of Mercer’s relationship with Commander Grayson at first. After the first two episodes, I was afraid that the awkward romantic comedy angle would be more prevalent than it turned out to be for most of the rest of the season. And Grayson turned out to be an effective, well-realized character on her own. Thankfully, when the relationship was revisited in the last episode of the season, it was approached in a tasteful and realistic fashion.
The rest of the cast was excellent, too. Some characters were developed more than others (Alara Kitan stands out the most), but all of them deftly combined both sci-fi clichés and reasonably realistic personalities.
Practically every episode had great jokes that derived from the affectionate tributes to Star Trek (and other sci-fi). While Star Trek’s humor was almost always restrained, The Orville was clearly willing to push the envelope, like when Malloy taught Isaac about practical jokes, only for Isaac to amputate Gordon’s leg... and then have that leg come crashing down from the ceiling at a very awkward moment. Or trading advanced aliens old Earth reality TV show recordings for the crew’s freedom. Or LaMarr outright proclaiming himself “a space man” to an uncontacted culture. Or Bortus and Klyden’s hilariously familiar domestic squabbles. The list goes on.
That’s not to say that The Orville felt perfect to me. Because it so effectively recreated the feel of The Next Generation and Voyager, it felt at times like the show was revisiting old weaknesses of past Star Trek series. Most notable, to me, was how the main cast, as leaders of their departments like most Trek crews, did pretty much all the work themselves. Since the main characters seemed to do everything, there was little opportunity to meet prominent secondary characters. One big reason why shows like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones have been so popular is their huge supporting cast, allowing a more engaging and realistic set of relationships to develop in the story.
Essentially, by so effectively and affectionately recreating the tone and style of past Star Trek series (right down to reviving the technique of motion-control photography), The Orville feels like a throwback, a deliberately retro show. Is that bad? Of course not... I love it! But just as there are many great things that made 90s-era Star Trek great, there are many things in 2010s-era TV that are better.
Contrast, Not Competition
Aside from its excellent stories, characters, and humor, I think a big part of what has made The Orville so popular is that it feels so familiar. Some vocal fans were unhappy with Discovery. So what made The Orville so enjoyable for the fans that were disappointed by Discovery?
The biggest difference is the prevalence of optimism and pacifism in the setting. While Discovery chose to explore idealism versus pragmatism (to oversimplify it), The Orville essentially accepted idealism as the only option, like The Next Generation. I think a lot of people mistook Discovery’s setting of a war with the Klingons for a rejection of pacifism. Yet if you look at the whole show, there’s plenty of optimism and a heartfelt endorsement of idealistic, but not naive, pacifism.
Does The Orville feel retro because it’s so idealistic? Or because of the episodic plots? Or both?
I’m glad Discovery didn’t go retro, because it would be easy to criticize the show if it followed the same formula as series of the past. Discovery is pushing the boundaries of Star Trek and telling a new kind of story in the same universe. But I’m also glad to have The Orville, because it lets me both enjoy and make fun of those stories I loved.
I learned long ago not to trust my first impressions. Whether it’s a movie or episode, a shiny new tech gadget, or even a new acquaintance, I know that I can get caught up in the moment and miss important details. And although I try to be thoughtful and analytical, when it comes to watching shows, I also prefer to just sit back and enjoy the ride. So rather than thinking too much about it in the moment—and possibly distracting myself from significant events—when it comes to entertainment, I like to save my thoughts for after I’ve had some time to consider what I’ve seen.
(And then I procrastinate, and never actually write my thoughts down, but that’s a whole different discussion.)
Despite my frustrations with the distribution of Star Trek: Discovery, I always expected to enjoy it, and it was mainly a question of when and how I would watch it. Despite my vow to wait, I ended up compromising a little. I signed up for CBS All Access when the first half of the season was almost done, watched all the episodes in less than a month, then cancelled the subscription. When there was less than a month left in the second part of the season, I did the same thing. That let me watch most of the episodes in a semi-timely fashion, and at less than half the cost of just streaming week-to-week.
I won’t mince words: As I watched Discovery, the nitpicker in me was raging. What’s up with the Klingon makeup? When did Starfleet get holographic communications? Since when did Sarek have yet another (foster) child? And how could there possibly have been this incredibly destructive war that was never mentioned nor even hinted at before?
But as the season progressed, I learned to look past these discontinuities and look at the show as a whole. Unlike all previous series (even my beloved DS9), Discovery’s first season was basically written as a single, 15-episode-long story. Details like the makeup and technology are window dressing. As much as I’d love to see a show that stayed literally faithful to past series, it’s really not practical to expect a 2017 television series to recreate the look and feel of the 1960s. (Even though Enterprise successfully pulled it off with “In a Mirror Darkly”, that was just two episodes, not a whole series.)
The most important part of any story is its characters. And the crew of Discovery definitely drew me in. It took me a while to warm up to Michael Burnham, but Sonequa Martin-Green’s subtle portrayal of the character won me over. It may feel a little derivative, but a Human who was raised by Vulcans allows us to explore yet again the balance between logic and emotion. Doug Jones as Saru eloquently carried on the Star Trek tradition of an alien outsider character. Tilly, Tyler, Culber, and Stamets all found their places in the story quickly. And though I’m pretty sure we were supposed to be suspicious of Lorca from the start, Jason Isaacs did a fantastic job keeping us guessing until the big reveal.
(And I have to give special mention to Rainn Wilson as Harry Mudd. I do not like his appearances in TOS—I can’t get past the blatant sexism, even if he was supposed to be “charming” for his era. But Wilson’s perfect blend of sinister comedy absolutely stole the show in both of his appearances.)
There were definitely parts I didn’t like as much. Shazad Latif did an incredible job portraying Tyler/Voq, but I was saddened to discover (having willfully ignored spoilers and speculation) that the Tyler character was effectively a fake. I’m still not sure just what Voq and L’Rell were trying to accomplish with their machinations. From a storytelling point of view, Tyler was such a strong character on his own that he didn’t need the extra twist of being a sleeper agent; his PTSD and relationship with Burnham made him a wonderful character already.
Although I liked the visit to the mirror universe, I ended up a bit disappointed in the development of mirror-Lorca. Throughout the first half of the season, we were kept guessing about his motives and goals. It was clear something was up, but what? Even the revelation that Lorca was from the mirror universe didn’t disappoint me in and of itself. In the original “Mirror, Mirror”, the alternate characters were unable to blend in on “our” Enterprise for a day, yet Lorca was able to stay undiscovered for months. He clearly had the capability to understand, if not accept, Starfleet and Federation values. Yet once his identity was revealed, his shades of grey completely disappeared, and he suddenly turned into a cartoonish villain. His interest in Burnham was never really justified, and his claim to the throne was basically that Georgiou wasn’t evil enough.
And worst of all: the resolution to the war, and the final mission to Qo’noS, sanctioned by Starfleet Command. I was gradually getting used to the idea of a war with the Klingons that had never been mentioned before, based on the skirmishes and raids that we saw in the first half of the season. I could accept those as part of the ongoing conflict with the Klingons we saw in TOS. Yet the conclusion passed far into the realm of the unbelievable for me. I still can’t really accept that a quarter of the Federation was conquered (and then apparently given back!), that Sol system and Earth were directly threatened, and no one ever mentioned it.
But that’s nitpicking again. I might have trouble understanding how the writers expect some of these events to fit in with the larger Star Trek universe, but the characters were compelling and relatable (well, some were relatable), and the stories were exciting and relevant.
Variations on a Theme
Just as important as the characters, though, are the stories they explore. And there’s one character—or rather, two—who is central to the theme of the season: Phillipa Georgiou.
After watching the first two episodes—which in retrospect aren’t even a proper premiere, but rather a prologue—I lamented the death of Captain Georgiou, as the only character who seemed to truly represent the ideals of Star Trek. Georgiou’s warm charisma instantly established her as an exemplary Starfleet captain, one who I could easily see standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Kirk or Picard. (It doesn’t hurt that Michelle Yeoh is an amazing actress, too.) As the first half of the season progressed, it seemed that Georgiou’s character had been there to establish a baseline for what Starfleet should represent, only for the rest of the season’s stories to seemingly ignore it.
Then we met the incredibly badass Emperor Georgiou (she of the many titles). Like Lorca prior to his unmasking, she demonstrated some moral shades of grey, especially through her relative tenderness with Burnham. Significantly, for all the time spent in the mirror universe, Georgiou is the only character with whom we spend time getting to know both versions of her. Burnham is clearly looking for similarities (and there actually are a few), but thematically, the differences between Captain Georgiou and Emperor Georgiou are a microcosm of the entire season’s story.
Discovery’s story starts with a noble leader who refuses to fire first, unintentionally triggering a massive war. It ends with a depraved leader who offers to commit genocide as a means to end the war. Pretty much everything we see in between is about Michael Burnham’s journey from making a logical decision that is morally questionable, to making a moral decision that is logically questionable.
Is the tension between ethics and pragmatism that original? Of course not. But it’s still a good story.
...But Is It Star Trek?
It’s sad that this question even has to be asked. For me, then answer is “unquestionably”. But I understand why people ask, because it’s tough to justify the answer.
Fans have been asking “what is Star Trek?” since 1966. Entire books have been written on the subject. But if I were to tersely answer the question, I think the hallmarks of Star Trek are stories that convey optimism for the future, and that present conflicts that relate to contemporary society. Discovery has both of these.
It’s certainly hard to spot the optimism, though. Discovery is even darker than DS9, and it’s easy to miss the optimistic elements when you’re looking at all the pessimistic, pragmatic decisions that were made in the middle parts of the story. I attribute this, again, to the format change: that Discovery is telling a season-long story rather than a collection of shorter stories. But the optimism is definitely there. And there was more optimism than Burnham’s “bonk bonk on the head” message (to steal a phrase from the excellent Mission Log podcast) in the season finale. There are tons of little moments scattered throughout the season: Burnham’s compassion for the tardigrade and the gormagander; Stamets’ and Culber’s quiet and caring moments in their quarters; and most of all, Tilly’s infectious, adorkably positive attitude.
And that’s what Discovery is about: holding on to your values, your ethics, and your optimism in the most trying times. No one can stay completely positive all the time, but at some point, we all have the opportunity to make a conscious choice. Do we stick to our optimistic values, or do we take an easier path? It’s a message that definitely applies in the context of today’s troubling social and political upheaval.
If you’ve followed Star Trek Minutiae for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve got a lot of great ideas, but I’m not exactly timely at finishing any of them. The best example is (still) my History of the Earth-Romulan War, which I started an outline for shortly after the site launched in July 2000. But there’s another project—not strictly part of STM—that I’ve been slowly but steadily working on for almost as long: The Starfleet Museum: The Print Edition.
In the fall of 2006, I was learning how to use Pages, a word processing and layout design app for Mac. I wanted to focus on the formatting and editing tools (to better teach them to clients and colleagues at work), so I grabbed the text and images from an article on Masao Okazaki’s Starfleet Museum. The goal was to create a six-page spread with text, info boxes, inline images, and large images.
After finishing that project, though, I needed to learn more: how to save styles and reuse them in other parts of the document; how to reuse a page as a template; better ways of using text boxes and layout settings instead of brute-forcing new lines with the return key. And so the six-page document ended up growing pretty quickly. After about the third article, I figured, why not do the entire Museum?
I gradually added more pages to the book, and by 2009 or so it was effectively complete as far as basic text and layout was concerned. But just like I’ve done so many times with my website, I decided I could do things better! (See the image at the end of this post for comparison.) So I started over with some more advanced techniques. I never really had a goal or deadline in mind, but this naturally reset the clock. Also, although there were a ton of images available for many ships in the Museum, there were a few ships that didn’t have many renders at all. Once I’d decided to make a printed book, I wanted to get at least one color image on every page, to make the expense of printing a 200-plus-page full-color book worthwhile.
I’d gradually collect more images as other artists created them (and graciously granted permission to use them in the book). But every so often, Masao would post a new ship and article; then I’d add it to the book, and the process would start again, slowly collecting more images. It was slow going, but very worthwile!
Now, after 12 years of off-and-on progress, I’ve decided to call the book “done”! I ordered a proof copy to make sure everything came out right, and it passed with flying colors. I only ever made the book for myself, but I know that Masao’s ships are very popular in certain corners of the internet. So, I’ve made it available to buy through Lulu—at the cost of printing, with no profit markup.
It’s an exciting time to be a Star Trek fan again. After a 12-year-long hiatus, our favorite science fiction universe is returning to the medium where it really belongs, television. Except… it’s not. As any self-respecting fan likely already knows, Star Trek: Discovery will only be available for streaming on the CBS All Access service. (At least, in the United States. Most other countries get it through Netflix.)
On one hand, this isn’t entirely surprising. The Next Generation pioneered the era of first-run syndication, and Voyager launched the UPN network. The immense popularity and visibility of Star Trek means that it can bring considerable weight to the chosen format. The question is, are we at the start of a new age of television programming (like with The Next Generation), or are we looking at an ill-advised experiment in a new network that will drag down the Star Trek franchise (like UPN with Voyager and Enterprise)?
For now, the question is mostly rhetorical. I can’t predict the future. Obviously CBS has made their choice, and they’re hoping that many fans will eagerly sign up for their new streaming service. But I won’t be one of them.
Hopes and Expectations for Discovery
It has nothing to do with lack of interest. Quite the opposite, I’m very excited to see what Discovery is like, and I’m willing to give the writers the benefit of the doubt. There have been so many concerns and complaints aired—many of them valid. The Klingons look completely different! How come Spock suddenly has a foster sister that we’ve never heard of before?
We went through similar concerns with the reboot movies. And there were many vocal complaints about the look and feel of the NX-01, both internally and externally, when we first got to know it. I imagine there were similar feelings about the different style of the ship and crew when The Next Generation first aired. How could all of these differences in setting, lighting, costuming, and effects fit in with the established universe that exists in our heads?
Many other fan sites have naturally pored over all the details. (Bernd Schneider’s Discovery Blog is a great place to get news and thoughtful reactions from a die-hard fan.) But as much as I love those details too, they aren’t what makes it Star Trek. It’s about exploration, optimism, and tolerance. It’s about people learning to embrace differences in each other.
And so, even though Discovery might not fit all of my preconceived notions of how to tell a story set in the 2250’s, I’m very intrigued by the direction the writers are going. It seems like the Klingons are going to serve as a catalyzing antagonists in the story, but it also seems that there’s going to be a major focus on the classic ideals of Star Trek, too. I’m more than interested in watching it. I’m definitely going to be watching it.
Divide and Multiply
“I believe he means television, sir. That particular form of entertainment did not last much beyond the year 2040.” — Data, “The Neutral Zone” (TNG)
…But not on CBS All Access.
There was a time when people were clamoring for “a la carte cable”, a system where we could pick only the channels we wanted to watch. That idea always struck me as foolish, because shows are often divided among different networks. In 2017, with the bourgeoning streaming networks, we are stuck with a new, equally expensive problem. If we want to watch one show on a service, we have to sign up for everything! Among the biggest, most popular shows of the year are Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, House of Cards, and The Man in the High Castle. Each one of those shows is on a different service, so I’d have to pay for all of them if I wanted to watch those four shows! And that’s just for television… don’t get me started on the situation with movies! You need websites like GoWatchIt or Can I Stream.it? to figure our where to watch your favorite movies.
I hate to sound like a Ferengi, but it comes down to money. Discovery is going to be released (I can’t say “air”, can I?) between late September to sometime in March. Even if I cancel the subscription during the November–December hiatus and renew in January, it would cost $40 to $50 to watch the show… once. I’d have to pay for the streaming service again if I wanted to watch the show again in the future. But if I buy the show on Blu-ray or iTunes, I can rewatch the show as often as I like, indefinitely.
I fully expect that I will enjoy Discovery. So why should I shell out $10 a month** to watch the show once, when I can wait a little while, pay for it once, and watch it as often as I like? Is it worth $50 to get to watch the show immediately? It’s not worth it to me.
I don’t object to the idea of streaming services. I just object to paying for an otherwise worthless streaming service to watch just one single show. The selection on CBS All Access is terrible. The only thing I’d be remotely interested in—the catalogue of past Star Trek series—is worthless to me because I already own every show on Blu-ray or DVD.
I’m eager to see how Discovery adds to the rich Star Trek universe. But I can wait a little while.
Aside: Yes, I know there’s a $6-per-month option, but I think it’s ridiculous to pay for a streaming service and still have to watch ads. ↩︎
Everyone has a passion in their life: something they love to learn everything about, something that makes them fanatical. Most fans only ever watch their favorite television shows, or sports teams, or other activity. Some seek out like-minded fans who share their passions at conventions and other social gatherings. Meeting an actor or writer who helped create the stories you love can be a highlight of your year. But a few—a lucky few—get to create part of that story.
I never thought that I would actually get to create a small part of the canon Star Trek universe.
Since the very early days of my fandom, I’ve always been fascinated with the rich background and technology of the Star Trek universe. My parents gave me a copy of the first edition of the Star Trek Encyclopedia for Christmas 1994, and over the following years I eagerly read and re-read every single entry it contained. I learned about many of the details of Kirk’s and Picard’s missions before I even saw the episodes in reruns, but knowing those little details only made me want to see the episodes even more.
I was also fascinated by computers, and I used my dad’s copy of FileMaker Pro to create a personal Star Trek database, which I used to record all the details I saw in the shows I watched. I started out with a list of starships (cross-referenced by which episodes they appeared in), and eventually added lists of episodes, characters, planets, and more. In some ways, this database was even better than the Encyclopedia, because I could update it the very same night that I saw a new episode. But due to the limitations of the internet at the time, I couldn’t share that database with anyone else.
In the fall of 2003, I saw a message from Harry Doddema posted on the Flare Sci-Fi Forums. He had found this new site called Wikipedia, and it had a pretty radical concept: it was an encyclopedia that anyone could edit. He noted how most Star Trek fan pages were limited or incomplete references, and you needed to browse multiple sites to find the information you were looking for. He wondered if the Wikipedia concept could be applied to a Star Trek reference site. With my existing interest in building my own database, I jumped at the chance to build something like that. We named the site Memory Alpha, after the Federation’s central library from the TOS episode “The Lights of Zetar”.
Harry and I poured a lot of time into Memory Alpha in the early years, assembling lists of episodes to set up the structure and writing example articles that others could build from. I particularly enjoyed writing articles about historical events like the major battles of the Dominion War, because I could recount the events of the episodes in great detail but also connect the events together in a way that the Encyclopedia’s necessarily terse entries couldn’t. I think this style is what made Memory Alpha stand out, and it quickly gathered a thriving community of contributors.
I gradually stopped contributing to Memory Alpha after the first few years; I’d gotten a little burned out from writing so many articles, and I also got promoted to a full-time position at work, so I had less time to waste writing and editing articles. I also fell out of touch with Harry, as we stopped posting frequently at Flare and moved on with our lives.
I continued to visit Memory Alpha, though, and was very pleased to see how it continued to thrive—thanks to the efforts of all the other fans who contributed their time, thoughts, and energy into creating the most comprehensive Star Trek reference in the world. And over the years, Memory Alpha got noticed: Mike Sussman, co-producer of Star Trek: Enterprise, contributed fascinating background details about the stories that he wrote. Many authors of licensed novels thanked Memory Alpha in their acknowledgments, too.
I was proud to have helped this invaluable resource and thriving community to take off.
An Incoming Hail from Scotty!
Stardate: April 14, 2015. It started as just an ordinary, lazy day off for me. I was sitting at my desk around lunchtime, catching up on some news on my iMac. I spotted the red notification badge that an email had arrived. I switched over to the mail app and read the subject line: “From Simon Pegg”.
No way, I thought. I opened the message in growing disbelief and geeky exhilaration. It truly was from Simon Pegg, with a personalized photo attachment and everything! I already knew that he’d been co-writing the next movie. The email, addressed to me and Harry, thanked us for starting Memory Alpha and described how he’d been using the site as a resource for writing the new movie. But more than that, he was looking for a little help with with creating an element in the story!
What he was looking for was a Vulcan mineral with some unique properties: a stone or gem used in jewelry, which transmits a harmless energy field that could be detected by a scan, and was uniquely identifiable to Vulcan.
(If you’ve already seen the movie, you know exactly where this is going… but those were all the details that we had to work with.)
Naturally, Harry and I exploded with excitement and jumped at the chance to contribute to our favorite show! For the next few hours we furiously emailed back and forth, pitching ideas. Harry thought of trininite, a real-world radioactive mineral created during the Trinity atomic bomb test that was briefly used in jewelry before the consequences of radioactivity were fully understood. Vulcans were known to have detonated atomic weapons during the Time of Awakening, so a similar mineral could easily have been created from the desert sands of their planet. It would be very slightly radioactive (and have become less so over the 1500 years), giving off an energy signature that could be detected by a scanner. And as a physical relic of Vulcan’s illogical wars, it would hold deep meaning for them, justifying its use as a memento in jewelry and similar artifacts.
So, what to call it? We dove in to a bunch of references, starting with Memory Alpha (of course!). I found a few promising words: vokau (“remember”, from “The Forge” [ENT]) and heya (“mountain”, from the novel Spock’s World). This felt like a perfect starting point for a name, since this stone would be a physical reminder of the memory of Vulcan’s past. We tried a few different variations, but the translation was always meant to roughly be “remembrance stone” or “memory stone”. I suggested vokau-heya as a tip of the hat to other hyphenated Vulcan words (like koon-ut-kal-if-fee), and we eventually shortened it to vokaya.
I was lucky it was my day off, because I was so excited I dropped everything to work on this—and I’m pretty sure Harry did too. We did all our research, brainstorming, and discussion in about 5 hours, and then sent off a reply to Mr. Pegg with our ideas.
We heard back the very next day, and if we were excited before, we were thrilled when Mr. Pegg loved our idea! We had a nice little email chat, sharing some feelings about the reboot series in general. It was refreshing to hear from someone so closely involved in making Star Trek, and to hear that even a fan who helped make the films might not have liked every single plot and detail (the Enterprise hiding under the ocean was mentioned), yet still was proud and excited about the movies. I’d been a little bummed about the future prospects of Star Trek after seeing Into Darkness, but this brief conversation reassured me that my favorite fictional universe was in excellent hands.
The first trailer for the now-named Star Trek Beyond came out in December 2015, and it was a pretty discouraging trailer for a Star Trek fan. Plenty of comment threads raged about the motorcycle, the rock music, the destruction. And in retrospect, all of these elements were certainly present in the movie. I reassured myself that this teaser was edited to attract the general public, not Trekkies. Based on my experiences with Mr. Pegg, I was still confident that this would turn out to be a good movie. But I couldn’t tell anyone else about that yet!
I saw a few interviews about the writing and production. It was exciting to read about our contributions to the movie, even if we weren’t mentioned by name. Mr. Pegg described how he’d used Memory Alpha, and gotten help from “the Memory Alpha guys”. I think it was reassuring to other fans who saw these interviews, as Harry and I had been reassured in conversation, that the writers, actors, and director were invested in making a Star Trek movie, not just an action-heavy sci-fi film with the words “Star Trek” slapped on it.
I was definitely looking forward to seeing the movie in July!
A Surprise Away Mission to San Diego
Stardate: July 9, 2016. The release date of Star Trek Beyond was getting close. It started as another ordinary work day for me. At lunch, I checked my email on my phone, and saw a message waiting. As I read it, it slowly dawned on me that my life was about to get even more exciting. Folks from Paramount and Wikia (the host of Memory Alpha) had heard about Harry and my contributions to the movie thanks to Mr. Pegg’s interviews, and were inviting us to attend the world premiere at Comic-Con in San Diego!
My reflexive reaction was, I can’t possibly go! It’s only 10 days away, I’ve already got my work schedule for that week! And I wasn’t sure I’d want to go, even if I could—I’ve seen pictures of the crowds at Comic-Con, I would be overwhelmed. I started to write a reply, graciously declining due to the last-minute timing. But on a whim, I asked one of my managers, Steve, a semi-hypothetical question: “How much trouble would it cause if I needed to take a last minute trip in 10 days?”
Now, I’ve always known that I have amazing managers and co-workers, some of whom I count as close friends. I knew that a sudden absence would place a bit of a burden, but they’d support me if at all possible. And I’m also rather introverted in person; even though I work at a fairly busy store, big shouting crowds are definitely not my thing. But I was still a bit surprised—though I shouldn’t have been—at the enthusiastic outpouring of support from everyone I talked to. Steve immediately looked into the schedule to see what changes could be made. When he heard that I was still uncertain about going due to the crowds, Fred threatened to beat me up every day of the rest of our careers together if I didn’t go. (But that’s Fred for you—he means well, he’s just sarcastic!) Becca was more productive, she checked out the location with me, and helped find a few candidate locations for booking a room. Ultimately, I realized that I’d probably regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t go!
Harry, sadly, couldn’t make it. He lives in the Netherlands, so it was a longer trip, and the obstacles were more difficult to overcome. I promised to video chat with him if anything interesting happened.
I am not an impulsive person or a last-minute planner. The next week will be interesting… hopefully in a good way. To Be Continued?
It was a nerve-wracking week making preparations. I was more nervous than I’d been in a long time. Some of my comments on Twitter made it sound like I had some major upheaval in my life. …Well, it was a major upheaval, it was just the good kind. I had to arrange time off from work, book flights and lodging, find other activities during the trip, arrange for my cats to be fed… I’m not very comfortable making last-minute plans. But I got some help, and I got it done.
Picking a friend to go with me was a little tough. Several of us at work hold a semi-regular “Star Trek Night”, where we either watch old episodes and movies, or play games like Fleet Captains or Five Year Mission. I didn’t want to pick favorites, but this wasn’t a group trip! I decided to ask Becca—she’d been very supportive in convincing me to take the trip in the first place.
I don't usually set my wake up alarm for 3:30 AM, but when I do, it's for a very interesting reason. Stay geeky. 🖖
Our flight departed Philadelphia airport at 6:30 AM on Tuesday. I was barely awake, but I was naturally incredibly excited. Because of the last-minute nature of the trip, we’d decided to keep it short—but we still managed to pack a decent amount of fun in! We landed in San Diego in the early afternoon, spent a few hours at the San Diego Zoo, slept like the dead that night, and visited the aircraft carrier USS Midway Museum on Wednesday morning. Then, it was time to rest up and get ready for the big night. As if to prove that the universe really does have a sense of humor, we grabbed dinner on our way to the premiere, and the bartender’s name was… Scotty! (Yes, really.)
The World Premiere
Stardate: July 20, 2016. I really didn’t know what to expect at the premiere. I’d been in contact with Brian and Brandon from Wikia, and Mr. Pegg’s assistant Claire, but due to the busy nature of the event, a lot of the planning was last minute. I was told to text them when we arrived at the park, and to be there around 5:30 PM. Becca and I scouted out the park the morning of the premiere when we picked up our tickets. There was a certain irony in our being in San Diego just as Comic-Con was about to start, but we weren’t too disappointed at having to miss it. (I’d tried, but there was no chance in Gre’thor of us getting tickets so close to the convention. And frankly, as cool as it would be, the crowds were a major drawback for both of us.)
So we threaded our way through the crowds lined up for the preview night of Comic-Con, then past the long line waiting to get in to the Beyond premiere. I met up with Brian at the head of the line, and… they let us right in. Becca was shown to our seats—they played “The Corbomite Maneuver” for everyone who was already in and seated. Meanwhile, they gave me a press pass so everyone knew I was supposed to be where I was, and then I was taken over to the red carpet.
The red carpet. Was this actually happening?
Sure, my place was the very last spot at the end of the line. I was completely out of sight of the exciting photo ops that everyone sees. (In one of the photos below, you can see the reverse side of the black backdrop that’s in all the promotional shots.) But I didn’t care. It was the freakin’ red carpet.
It was a long time waiting for all the stars to arrive. Luckily I had a great time hanging out with Brian and Anthony from Wikia. We chatted about the reboot films, our favorite stories, the proper way to pronounce “Wikia” (it’s “Wih-KEY-ah”, for the record), and other fun stuff. Somehow, we three became the guardians of the bottled water—mainly because it was just an ice-filled bucket on the corner of the platform, and we happened to be standing right next to it. I didn’t mind.
We heard cheering as the first stars finally arrived at about 7:00 PM. Unsurprisingly, it took a while for everyone to slowly make their way down the whole red carpet. I saw plenty of familiar faces as they filed past. I didn’t get a chance to actually talk to any of them—I could tell the whole thing was fairly tightly scheduled. Still, it was amazing to actually see Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoë Saldana, and all the others walk past!
I called Harry on my iPhone, and got the video chat started. I’d already been in touch with him by email, and we both agreed that this definitely qualified as “something interesting”! Simon Pegg was getting close… and then he was pulled away! Fortunately, it was just for a group photo, and then he came back. My heart was pounding in my chest. I was this close to turning into a stereotypical blabbering fanboy.
Then, it was suddenly happening. I was talking to Simon Pegg, so glad to meet him in person after chatting over email. It was a short, but friendly and sincere conversation. He really is as cool as he appears in the interviews. I’m so glad that Brian and Anthony were there to record it on video, because the entire thing was a blur! And Harry got to join in too, even if it was only on a video call.
After that, I had just enough time to make it to rejoin Becca at our seats. I felt a little drained, but the excitement was far from over. Conan O’Brien was his usual witty self as MC, introducing the cast and producers.
Then there was an absolutely spectacular laser and fireworks show, accompanied by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. There are some photos available, but frankly they don’t do the show justice. It was simply 10 minutes of pure geeky awesomeness.
Finally it was time for the movie itself. On an outdoor IMAX screen. With the soundtrack played live by the orchestra. Yes, it was amazing. (They said it was the very first time there had ever been an outdoor IMAX screen.)
Despite having spoken with Mr. Pegg, I didn’t really know how our idea was going to be used in the film. Harry and I had seen a promo clip that we strongly suspected featured vokaya, but we didn’t know for certain. And so, when Spock started talking about modifying the Franklin’s scanners, my ears perked up. This was it… and then I heard it said aloud, “vokaya”! The scene itself was funny, as Bones and Spock discussed the utility of the mineral. I laughed at Bones’ quip—“So… you gave your girlfriend a tracking device?”—followed by Spock’s hilariously subtle look of shock as he realized the implications. And then the scene was over, and I sat back to enjoy the rest of the movie.
(I’ll save my thoughts on the film as a whole for another post. Suffice to say, I loved it, and it was everything the Star Trek fan in me had hoped for. And I could tell that everyone around me enjoyed it too.)
After a night of excitement, it was time for one more surreal moment. Mr. Pegg had suggested that it was coming, but I’d never heard anything official, so I’d never quite believed it was going to happen. But Becca and I were watching for it, and then, there it was:
There was my name, and Harry’s name, in giant letters on a giant screen, thanked by the producers in a major movie. A Star Trek movie. Becca cheered and I clapped, grinning from ear to ear.
We slowly filed out with the rest of the crowd, grabbed our gift bags with lots of cool swag, and headed back to our room. There had been mention of an after-party, but I’d never gotten any details on exactly where it was or how to get in. It’s my one—very slight—regret in the whole adventure. But Becca and I didn’t mind much, our bodies were telling us it was after 2 AM (those pesky time zones get you every time).
The next morning, it was time to fly home. Less than 48 hours on the ground in San Diego, but what a trip!
As I said before, I’m a fairly introverted person. But I’m so glad that I got to take this trip, and to contribute to my favorite sci-fi universe. I couldn’t have done it alone. I’m grateful to so many people who helped me along the way:
Becca, who joined me for my surprise away mission. It was a little scary to take a trip at the last minute, but it was so much more fun to have someone to share it with.
Steve, Fred, and Mary, who were all so encouraging in their own ways, and helped convince me that I had to take the trip. And Scott, who can say “I told you so!”
Simon Pegg, Doug Jung, Justin Lin, and the entire cast and crew, who made a fantastic Star Trek movie. It was an honor to be included, even in such a small role.
Brian, Brandon, Anthony, Claire, and Casey, who arranged the invitations and helped me once I got there. It was a bit overwhelming, but I made it through with their help.
Harry and I may have set up the Memory Alpha website, but we only wrote a tiny fraction of the articles that can be found there. Memory Alpha is a true group effort, and I’m grateful for everyone that has contributed to it over the years. We always were aware of the potential in the project, but I never really thought that it would become the single most authoritative Star Trek reference in the world. It wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without so many diverse contributions.
Star Trek has been a part of my life for years, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my chance to be a part of the Star Trek community.
(Or if you like a clichéd title, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Reboot”)
I’m not exactly a prolific writer these days. (Or ever, depending on your point of view.) As we approach the premiere of Star Trek Beyond, the third movie in the reboot franchise, I think it’s high time to speak up and explain why I’ve enjoyed the story so far.
I’ve been a Star Trek fan for 23 years now. That’s not even half the life of the franchise itself. As television and storytelling has evolved, so too has the series. Looking back on the 50-year journey, each series has been distinct from its siblings, a reflection of the time in which it was made.
Let’s start with the obvious: I think that reboots have gone overboard in general. It was a relatively interesting idea when Ron Moore launched the new Battlestar Galactica, which I think was a compelling story and a great exploration of the original premise. (Though my sister was a fan of the original, and to this day refuses to watch the reimagined series.)
What can make a reboot good or bad? There’s three general elements to a story: characters, setting, and plot. A reboot basically reuses at least two of these elements—usually the characters and the setting. This can be both a shortcut to get audiences involved in relatively new characters, and a way to establish a universe without having to spend valuable screen time focusing on lots of background details. I think the problem is when reboots reuse too many elements from their predecessors—the shortcut has become a crutch.
I have to admit my sister has a point, too: if there are enough differences, why even reuse the title at all? I think that sadly, that’s not up to the writers, but it’s driven by the executives who would rather have an allegedly sure-fire blockbuster by building on the success of an existing franchise. This can result in great stories, but is certainly still a cheat.
For the first 43 years, Star Trek was a constantly expanding universe, always adding new crews and ships (and a station). The decision to go back and explore the same familiar characters was certainly something that bothered me. We’ve learned plenty about Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the others—why can’t we get to know someone new?
New characters would have been preferable, but J.J. Abrams and the other writers came up with a clever in-universe justification: the alternate timeline. This device allowed them to take well-known characters and settings and transform them into something that is both familiar and different at the same time. I think this is what bothers most long-time Star Trek fans: I know I’m watching Kirk and Spock, but it’s not MY Kirk and Spock!
Does this make the new characters better, or worse? No, it just makes them different.
Getting to Know Old Friends Again
Star Trek came out in 2009, and it’s been 7 years since I first watched it. The opening scene drew me in and then immediately blew me away—as it was clearly meant to. It was an emotional and dramatic demonstration that Star Trek would never be the same. And yet it’s taken me almost 7 years to truly accept the lesson that I told myself I’d learned watching the trailer for that movie: that the franchise has evolved and changed.
I could nitpick all sorts of details all day. Fans always love to do that. I think the biggest flaw was the conceit of ensuring that Kirk, and Kirk alone, was qualified to be Captain of the Enterprise. This was a flawed assumption, in my opinion, but they made it work. Mostly.
Then came Star Trek Into Darkness. I very much enjoyed watching the movie the first time, but as I walked out of the theater, I was already starting to second-guess my feelings:
A great movie is one you like more when you think about it afterwards. Does that make a movie you think less of upon reflection a bad one?
I wanted to like Into Darkness. I could get over most of the plot holes, and I could even accept the villain turning out to be Khan. (It didn’t help that Abrams and others outright lied to the fans before the movie came out.) But Kirk’s death scene didn’t feel like a homage. It felt like an outright ripoff. Spock’s “dramatic” shout was inexcusably out of character, even for such an emotional moment. It just felt like a joke that was too clever for its own sake. And Kirk’s resurrection, though technically justified by the plot (and amply foreshadowed), still felt like a complete cheat.
And now we get to the real reason, I think, for a lot of the die-hard fan backlash. We’ve only had four hours to get to know the new variations on these characters so far. That’s hardly a fair comparison to the 80-plus hours with the original crew! We grew up (literally or figuratively) with Shatner’s, Nimoy’s, and Kelley’s portrayal of the Enterprise crew. Now, all of a sudden, we’re introduced to people who are almost, but not quite, the same. We’re still in the getting-to-know-you phase.
Feature films are by definition short, distilled action and character development. We get two, maybe two and a half hours to develop connections with the characters. That’s a tough challenge for even a normal story to overcome, so how can we expect to fall in love with Chris Pine’s or Zachary Quinto’s characters when we’ve barely just met them?
Feature films also can’t tell the same kinds of stories that we got in our beloved television shows. Feature films always deal with the extreme, the dire, the extraordinary, and a thousand other superlatives.Star Trek is popular now, maybe even mainstream, but it still can’t draw blockbuster crowds with a two-hour discussion of the consequences of immortality, or an introspective journey to discover the values of emotion versus logic. Mainstream blockbuster movies are about action first, story and character second. Good blockbuster movies should strike a sufficient balance between all three—while certainly favoring the action, still including meaningful character development and insightful thoughts.
The first Star Trek was clearly plot- and action-heavy. I easily forgave this when I saw it, because it was all about establishing the characters and setting. The first and most important task was to create this new alternate timeline.
In some ways, Into Darkness was actually a huge success for developing character: it explored the consequences and implications of Kirk’s cocky, overconfident leadership style when he runs into a situation that he can’t handle. And it explicitly addressed the age-old friction between logic and emotion that Spock has dealt with, but in a different way than past stories. This Spock is far more in tune with his emotions (though he might not admit it). Does that make him better or worse than Leonard Nimoy’s Spock? No, it just makes him different.
And so, I may not have liked all of the plot elements in these movies, but do I like the characters? Yes.
Star Trek is About the Infinite
Is this like the Star Trek that I grew up with? In many ways, the answer is clearly no. But is that really a bad thing?
Nostalgia is a very powerful feeling. Everyone longs for the familiar, but there’s an inherent paradox: you can never recapture the same feelings again. No show will be exactly the same. Besides, why would it be worth making a new show that is exactly the same as one you’ve already seen?
This is why I continue to appreciate the genius of the alternate timeline concept. No matter how you argue the minutiae of temporal mechanics, it’s perfectly reasonable to most fans that any changes in characters and circumstances can be explained by the different sequence of events in the alternate timeline. Sure it’s a cheat, but it’s a damn clever one.
Star Trek has always been about diversity: diversity of culture, diversity of belief, diversity of life itself. The reboot movies are not the same as the stories that came before. They may not be perfect, we may have different favorites, but the core philosophies are still there. Star Trek has changed, but it hasn’t lost its identity. We are still exploring the final frontier.
And that final frontier is infinite… as long as there are more stories to tell. I can’t wait for the next one.
“I am pleased to see that we have differences. May we together become greater than the sum of both of us.” — Surak of Vulcan, “The Savage Curtain” (TOS)
I’m slowly trying to get a sense of my conflicted feelings about Star Trek Into Darkness. I definitely enjoyed watching the movie, but I’m still not sure if I think it was a good movie or not. I want to like it, but I’m very leery of this trend of turning Star Trek into an action franchise.
In the mean time, I think that my uncertainty is made worse by this gem of a quote (he wrote sarcastically) from J.J. Abrams in an interview earlier this week:
I never liked Star Trek as a kid. My friends loved it, and I would, like, try, and I would watch episodes. It always felt too... philosophical for me.
I couldn’t help but exclaim to an empty room, “Are you out of your goddamn mind?!” I had to stop and rewind the video to make sure I’d heard that right. I’m so glad I missed seeing this clip before I saw Into Darkness, because it definitely would have colored my reactions to the film. Even so, this quote has started to epitomize the problems I see in the entire reboot series.
The entire point of Star Trek is its philosophy. Gene Roddenberry’s goal was to tell stories about contemporary society by couching them in terms of a fantastic future. If you just wanted to watch exciting stories in a futuristic setting, you watched Lost in Space. If you want to see stuff blowing up in an absolute good-versus-evil contest, you watched Star Wars.
Star Trek may have been “just” a television show, but it strove to be more than that: it wanted to show that the problems of the present could be overcome, that the things that we think divide us can instead unite us, and that the things which are unknown or different should not be feared. Classic episodes like “A Taste of Armageddon,” “A Private Little War,” and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” were compelling precisely because they lacked nonstop action, yet presented a futuristic but recognizable interpretation of modern and important issues which seemed impossibly huge.
As I already discussed a few weeks ago, making a successful summer blockbuster movie is very different from making a successful television series. Previous Star Trek films—even the most popular and best-selling ones—were generally less action-oriented. Maybe that’s the reason the 2009 movie was so fantastically successful by comparison. But given a choice between being popular or being intelligent, I’d choose intelligent any day. (...Oh, the classic choice of any geeky Trekkie while growing up, right?)
It's becoming clear that Abrams doesn't really understand what made Star Trek a great series in the first place. While he was looking only at the explosions and cool ships (and honestly, we all love those aspects!), the very “philosophical” aspects he’s dismissing are what made the series special. In which case, it seems that Abrams is in the process of reviving the Star Trek franchise by destroying its identity.
My only hope and consolation in all of this is that the popularity of these movies will bring renewed interest into the previous series, where new fans will discover the fascinating stories that are both exciting and insightful at the same time.
Ron Moore recently wrote a very interesting response to a question about Star Trek on film versus television. He made a very good point, something that I’ve felt was wrong with the “reboot” series... that a Hollywood blockbuster film can never tell the same kinds of stories as a television show.
The features are very big action-adventure movies, lots of spectacle, run and jump, shoot-em-up and blowing things up. The fate of the Earth, or the universe itself, is always at stake. It’s always about the captain, and one other character has a strong B-story, and everyone else sort of has very small roles beyond that. But Star Trek, as originally conceived, and as you saw play out in all the other series, was really a morality play every week, and it was about an ensemble of players. They were exploring science fiction ideas, sociological ideas and moral ideas.
That’s a very big part of it. People who go to the theater are a very different kind of audience; they want action, excitement, sex. They don’t want to see the captain living 50 years of another man’s life, or a man trying to find his place in a world he no longer recognizes if he’s been “asleep” for 75 years. People want to see the fate of the universe at stake, they want to see exciting or affirming stories where they don’t have to question anything, or even think very much.
But I think the problem goes deeper than that. Star Trek’s spirit can be summarized by a sentence that has almost passed into cliché, such that it gets ignored despite its meaning: “...to explore strange, new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
I don’t think we’re going to see that in Star Trek Into Darkness. But then, we didn't see a lot of that in many of the other movies, either.
The essence of Star Trek can be boiled down to one single word: optimism. Most of the first ten movies were infused with it. Even—no, especially—the most popular, action-packed films. First Contact was a life-and-death struggle against the Borg, but it was also about witnessing the promising beginning of everything good in the Star Trek universe we know and love. The Undiscovered Country was about coming to terms with the possibility of peace with a previously implacable foe, summed up with a simple statement, “People can be very frightened of change.” And The Wrath of Khan...where should I start? The very threat of armageddon was from a device that could create life, not just from a simple destructive weapon. Kirk rediscovered his calling, and (re)discovered his family. And finally, Spock’s sacrifice was one of the most meaningful deaths in science fiction, in a bittersweet but uplifting way.
There was none of that in 2009’s Star Trek. Just an angry man out to blow shit up. We didn't see Kirk and Spock become friends, they just developed mutual respect through adversity. (Sure, I know true friendship takes time to develop.) The entire conclusion was treated as a fait accompli, because we knew that Kirk should be the captain, and so what if he’s only one day out of Starfleet Academy and hasn’t proved himself to be a capable commander yet? (No, leading one fight doesn’t count. That just means he’s a good tactician, not a good leader.)
I want to hold out hope. There are glimmers of future greatness: I love the cast, the effects are awesome, the story itself looks exciting. I know that a trailer can’t give away the whole story; it’s designed to get people excited to watch it. But I’m afraid that I will sum up Into Darkness in the same way that I sum up the last movie: It’s a great movie, but it’s not a great Star Trek movie.
Well, we’ll see in about three weeks. In the meantime... Optimism, captain!
I still find it hard to believe that I’ve been a Deep Space Nine fan for almost twenty years. And like anyone else on an anniversary of note, I want to take a look back and find my favorite moments. It’s pretty easy to pick the best episodes of DS9. Most fan lists I’ve seen contain all the classic standbys: “Duet,” “The Visitor,” “Trials and Tribble-ations,” “The Siege of AR-558,” and “In the Pale Moonlight.” Those are my favorites too.
But DS9’s strength was the depth of its characterization, the depth of the story itself. Some early critics mocked the show’s premise for “boldly staying” rather than “boldly going.” How could it be Star Trek when you weren’t seeking out new worlds each week? But the stationary nature of the show gave it the opportunity to find its own voice by developing an impressive roster of recurring guest characters, and allowing the actions from one episode have consequences in later stories.
None of this is news to any true DS9 fan. But when many lists of favorite episodes are so similar, that minimizes the impact of all the other episodes. Sure, there were plenty of notable stinkers (which shall go nameless here, we all know the ones). But there were lots of episodes that added to the richness of the story, which weren’t quite as memorable, but were nonetheless great stories.
These are my favorites, ones that never show up on the list of DS9’s best episodes.