Editorial: ‘Star Trek’ Needs its Storytelling Roots to Survive

By January 18, 2015

This is going to sound a little more hipster-ish than I’d like, but its true: I was a Star Trek fan before it was cool.

I was born the same year that “Star Trek: The Next Generation” had premiered on television, and since my dad and brother were both franchise fans, I didn’t really have any other choice but to gravitate towards the adventures of the various crews of the Starship Enterprise. While my brother, five years my senior, had gravitated toward the crew and situations of “The Next Generation,” I found my primary love for the franchise elsewhere: with the original adventures of Captain Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy. Maybe it was a desire to be similar but different from my brother, but its a preference that holds even today: after seeing every Star Trek episode and feature film, along with countless books and video games, the crew of the original Enterprise NCC-1701 is still my favorite. While I may have to objectively say that the best Star Trek series is either “The Next Generation” or “Deep Space Nine,” the original is where my heart as a Trek fan most belongs.

It was a great series to love as a child, because as with anything, perceptions change about it as you get older. As a kid, the bombastic and unflappable Captain Kirk draws you in with his desire to always be on the front lines with his crew, and the pioneering appearances of the likes of the Klingons and Romulans were so full of adventure and intrigue. As I got older, and particularly as I became more politically aware of the world around me, the ingeniousness of the writing and allegorical connection to our own world became all the more apparent. Gene Roddenberry and his creative team of producer Bob Justman and writers like D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold sought to tell stories about real world political issues of the era in which they lived through the lens of aliens and spaceships. Taking that context into account, the 79 episodes of the original series become even more impressive.

The contributions of later series to the formula continue in that basic tradition, while also subscribing to the original’s forecast for humanity in new ways. The best episodes of “The Next Generation” are deeply intriguing because of similarly layered writing and a desire to tell more profound thematic stories. While not as issue-based as the writing of the original series, with celebrated “TNG” episodes talking about complex issues like what constitutes life or how you define your purpose, and “Deep Space Nine” diving headfirst into issues relating to the ethics of war and the balance between society and religion. While later series like “Voyager” and “Enterprise” aren’t as well regarded as the shows that preceded them, their best examples also included similar discussions of very real, resonant, and human issues and situations.

The original "Star Trek" series set a precedent that the best examples of the franchise would follow: talking about real issues that affect people through the lenses of science fiction and humanistic optimism.

The original “Star Trek” series set a precedent that the best examples of the franchise would follow: talking about real issues that affect people through the lenses of science fiction and humanistic optimism.

After the box office disappointment of Star Trek Nemesis in 2002 and the cancellation of “Enterprise” in 2005, the Star Trek franchise went on a a hiatus. When news started to trickle in about J.J. Abrams’ efforts to revive the franchise by reintroducing the crew from my favorite series, I became pretty excited. As time wore on and the film began development, my continuity concerns became secondary to my curiosity about the story. What issue would writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman try to accentuate here? How can Kirk and company be reunited in a relevant context to a post-9/11 world? When Star Trek was released in May of 2009, it was a rousing space-based adventure. It was largely true to the characters, it both sidestepped and fully embraced the continuity of the franchise without being slave to it, and successfully reconnected audiences with the original characters. As a Trek fan, though, something was missing, and it was only later that I realized that it was the substance.

Star Trek Into Darkness was similarly action-packed and oddly reverent to the broad strokes of the characters and continuity, and while there was a little bit more of a larger narrative aim with the introduction of a desire for war on the part of the ultimate villain, it still didn’t have the subtle message of “The Measure of a Man,” the political intrigue of “In the Pale Moonlight,” or even the stark social statement of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” The more surface level action elements of Star Wars had infiltrated the more-thoughtful premise of the Star Trek universe. While I still enjoy both films for what they are, as well as their creative use of Star Trek continuity, its hard not to want…more.

As we get ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek franchise next year, the third film in the new series is on the horizon with director Justin Lin at the helm. Lin, largely known as the director of films in The Fast and the Furious franchise, doesn’t inspire immediate confidence in Star Trek fans who want to see a return to the thoughtfulness that made the entire franchise famous. Still, it’s my hope, and the hope of Trek fans everywhere, that Mr. Lin and the film’s creative team understand that the best examples of Star Trek have always talked to us about something more than mere service to battles in space and big explosions. In order to survive well into the future and to pay homage to the roots of its intentions from the beginning, Star Trek needs to try and remind us how it can be more than an action spectacle: it was relevant and timely, and it can be again.

There’s an odd pride I feel every time I hear the statement that begins with, “Space. The final frontier…” Before, I knew that I was about to embark on a journey of possibility and discovery, and a story that would tell me that humanity’s best days were ahead of us, not behind us. I hope that same promise is true of the Star Trek franchise’s future under these newest custodians. It deserves nothing less.

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Chris Clow
As a former comics retailer at a store in the Pacific Northwest, Chris Clow is an enormous sci-fi, comics, and film geek. He is a freelance contributor, reviewer, podcaster, and overall geek to GeekNation, Batman-On-Film.com, The Huffington Post, and Movies.com. He also hosts the monthly Comics on Consoles broadcast and podcast. Check out his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ChrisClow.