The Charm of Star Trek

Kirk Against Gorn (lizard man)I’m not much into science fiction except in as much as it is about the nature of consciousness or is just well written. It is rarely either. I am more or less a Star Trek fan, but that has nothing to do with science fiction. Just because a melodrama is placed in space doesn’t make it science fiction. At its best, Star Trek is fun.

One of my favorite bits comes from Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home. The crew has gone back in time to get a whale to stop some space craft from destroying the earth because the extinct whale is not answering its call. Silly, but that’s not what I love. In present day earth Scotty and Bones go in search of a tank for the whale. Scotty offers this guy the secret to transparent aluminum (if memory servers me) in exchange for building the tank. Bones protests, “Won’t that change history?” To which Scotty replies, “How do we know he’s not the guy who invented it?” It could plausibly be the guy so therefore it is the guy. Of course time travel narratives are always silly. There are lots of other problems with the movie. But it doesn’t matter. The point is to have a fun time with a bunch of actors, their silly accents, and pointy ears.

And then it all went wrong. Gene Roddenberry decided to “fix” the series and created Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is the most tiresome series ever created. It makes me long for the days of My Mother the Car.[1] What made Star Trek work was that the characters didn’t get along. Spock and Bones actively hated each other. In The Next Generation we got a crew of people so well adjusted that I always believed there was a dungeon on the Enterprise where they all tortured sex slaves. If that wasn’t bad enough, the plots were ridiculous contrivances where everything worked out perfectly. Gone were the days of “City on the Edge of Forever” where Joan Collins has to die or “A Piece of the Action” where Kirk leaves a crime syndicate in charge of a planet. No more! The only thing that wasn’t just perfect was Denise Crosby dying in the second season because even she couldn’t take the series anymore.

After that came Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Luckily for it, Roddenberry was long dead and could not “fix” the series. It had conflict and generally worked well enough. It took by far the stupidest species ever created, the Ferengi, and created a reasonable character of Quark. And it had the Irish guy from The Commitments and about half of every other film to come out Ireland in the last three decades. It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t particularly care.

That marked the end of my Star Trek days. I did manage to see the first “new cast” Star Trek film. It shocked me that people thought it was so good. To me, they took the silly concept and kooky characters and made them stale. Then they put them in a typical Hollywood action film that was overlong and under-fun.

The reason this all comes to mind is that earlier today, Matt Yglesias posted, The Greatest Star Trek Movies, Series, Episodes, Villains, and Crew Members. And when he listed the movies from best to worst, I totally agreed with him on the first two: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Now, he may not know it, but the reason these films are at the top of the list is that they were directed and co-written by Nicholas Meyer. And Nicholas Meyer is no Star Trek fan. But he’s a good storyteller and that’s all that matters in the end.

The rest of Yglesias’ list is hit and miss: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (agreed; also co-written by Meyer); Star Trek VIII: First Contact (horrible, stupid movie); Star Trek (as I said, not very good, but probably the right position); Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (lots of fun; good: “Klingon bastard! You killed my son!”; bad: Merritt Butrick); Star Trek: Generations (pretty bad, but I like seeing Kirk ride a horse); Star Trek: Nemesis (never saw it); Star Trek: The Motion Picture (greatly underrated film); Star Trek: Insurrection (never saw it); Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (just wait). It is so easy to put down The Final Frontier. It is a mess. Shatner is at least 50 pounds over weight. And Nichelle Nichols is close. But in its complete failure, it’s an amazing thing to behold. The production designer introduced our first ever glimpse of an Enterprise toilet! Spock has a crazy half-brother who is a hell of a lot more fun than Spock. And he’s searching for God! Plus, would Kirk, Spock, and Bones really vacation together? It doesn’t get any sillier than The Final Frontier and it is definitely better than any The Next Generation episode or movie (that I’ve seen).

Next Yglesias gets to the series from best to worst: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, The Original Series, and Enterprise. Oh my! I haven’t seen even a clip of Voyager and Enterprise. I’ve been told that Voyager is rather good. It probably isn’t. Whatever. But I think that Yglesias puts The Next Generation on top because we all love most the Star Trek of our childhood. And that takes us to an important point. Star Trek is silly and even stupid. But we naturally look back on the shows of our youth in a nostalgic fog. Sure, I can justify why the original series was the best, but the fact is that I remember being four years old watching the Metrons force Kirk to battle the lizard man. And yes, I’m sure from Matt Yglesias’ perspective it’s just stupid. But to me, it’s charming.

Afterword

Yglesias’ top two characters are Spock and Data. What is this guy? A twelve year old?


[1] I don’t think that My Mother the Car is as bad as people say. I was just making a point.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “The Charm of Star Trek

  1. There are different ways people watch things, and nowhere is that clearer than with science fiction or fantasy. "Imaginative fiction" (a term now preferred by many writers") can work in several ways. It can appeal those who like clever escapism and enjoy seeing how an added wrinkle or two makes old cliches seem fresher. It can appeal to ironists, who like the way alternative universes can parody or comment on our own. And it can appeal to the group referred to as "nerds" or "fanboys," who might prefer living in that imaginary world to the real one.

    I’ve been in all three camps. When it comes to "Star Trek," I definitely fell into the "get me out of here" camp for my home situation when I started watching it. I think "TNG" (for uber-fans, the series are referred to that way, like "TOS" for the original series and "DS9") is regarded so warmly because a lot of "Trek" fans fell into the "I hate my life" category, and "TNG" had fewer rubber monsters. (Although, we loved those, too.)

    "TNG" became a radically different show after Roddenberry died and lost script approval of every episode. (Even nerds hated the first 2/3 seasons.) There actually WAS a character who used the "Holodeck" (a virtual-reality thingy) to imagine having sex with all the officers! (Naturally, he came in for counseling, and was a brilliant but socially awkward fellow among all the well-adjusted types.) There was a global-warming episode, where every use of warp speed fucked up the universe a bit more. There’s a masterful one about the use of torture and justifying it under interstellar law. There was even a rather un-subtle one where Riker got into trouble by seducing an alien on a planet where everyone was unisex; the alien was sentenced to having radical surgery to fix the aberration, and while Riker wanted the "Enterprise’ to go in guns-a-blazing and stop it, they couldn’t, because of the Prime Directive.

    (I love the Prime Directive. Especially how Starfleet ignores it whenever convenient.)

    So, the show got MUCH better, which is why hardcore geeks love it — but I won’t pimp it to a non-fan, since there’s an awful lot of dross to wade through. (That’s "Star Trek" for you.) You might look up the torture episode on Netflix; it’s called "Chain Of Command," and in it’s the sixth season. (And yes, I had to look that info up.) It’s not gruesome in the slightest, it’s very PG-TV. Slate had a good, brief article on it here: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2009/05/there_are_four_lights.html

    Hardcore Trekkies (a group I no longer belong to, but still admire, the way I do hippies) like TNG over TOS but hate TNG movies; they were all dumb action, not what the best TNG episodes were about. They/we vastly prefer TOS movies, even the silliest ones.

    They/we are divided on the new "Trek." Happy that it’s rekindling fan interest; unhappy with the product. Consider the use of action in "II" with the action in "Star Trek." The action scenes in "II" are methodically character-driven. Can wily Kirk and logical Spock come up with ways to overcome their ship’s damaged condition by outwitting brilliant megalomaniacal Khan? They do, because Khan ignores the advice of his staff/crew/(offspring?) Those sequences are far more interesting than the "everything blows up everywhere" action scenes in "Star Trek," meant only to blow your mind with the CGI graphics. (I’d suggest that the visuals in "II" are prettier, too.)

    Anyhoo, that’s my "Trek" rant. I’ll see the new one when the library gets it — I’m a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch from "Sherlock" (created by the guy who’s currently rebooting "Doctor Who" for Brits.) It meant an awful lot to me when I was an adolescent, and I’ll always be grateful.

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