The little show that could. Representing more than entertaining science fiction and sensationalized outer space adventures, there is some credibility to the notion Star Trek means a philosophical approach that lays out a blueprint for humanity’s future. Star Trek started without great expectations but became one of the biggest and most popular pop culture phenomena that have engendered a cult-like devotion from fans that has lasted for over fifty years and spanned generations.
With Star Trek Strange New Worlds’ arrival and Star Trek Discovery’s third season, a show clearly reset the bar for excellence in science fiction on TV. There is more in the form of live-action and animation on the way, quickly expanding Trek-verse. So it seems like as good a time as any time to re-examine all things Trek, the way it’s getting treated as a whole, and if, overall, we approve. Also, I am asking, as a fan, what’s your favorite Trek?
First, a little history.
Once upon a time, back on September 8th, 1966, when most people still considered science fiction kid stuff, a little science fiction series appeared on TV that was met with a lukewarm reception (the Nielson ratings were low) and canceled after three seasons. It was an adventure series about humanity’s interstellar exploration of “the final frontier” The crew featured a diverse group of humans and one pointy-eared alien. That show was, of course, Star Trek. The series was produced from September 1966 to December 1967 by Norway Productions and Desilu Productions, and Paramount Television from January 1968 to June 1969. Gene Roddenberry created the series based on a more optimistic and hopeful vision of humanity’s future among the stars.
Years after its relatively short run on network television, the show attracted a loyal fanbase following syndication. It became a pop culture sensation and phenomenon that blossomed into an entertainment industry juggernaut. It developed into a franchise unlike any other and more prominent than just about anything previously created for television or even movies. It has had an immense impact on modern culture in many ways. Phrases like “The final frontier” and “beam me up” have become accepted as part of the lexicon of our current language, no matter what language one speaks. They are part of something greater than the sum of its components that crosses borders without restriction and is a universal part of modern life that unifies people everywhere.
Why does everyone gripe about Star Trek? That brings us to the question of what is Trek exactly and what it isn’t? While it is difficult to pin down what Trek means to everyone in a definitive sense that a is specific, there are common denominators we can explore that might help narrow it down. Star Trek is different from Star Wars because while Star Wars is essentially a space opera about the classic fight between good and evil, Star Trek is more about human nature and our need to explore the unknown. At its core, Star Trek is and is an important, optimistic story about humanity’s future evolution while studying the stars.
Star Trek is more than being only about ray guns and spaceships, but at the same time, that’s also a big part of what Trek is. It’s a classic portrayal of humanity’s use of future technology in its exploration of the final frontier. One of the main reasons Trek has always been so famous is the creative art direction used to bring the Trek-verse to life. I think most fans would agree there’s a distinct and definite Trek-style and look, a particular way of portraying and presenting these events, a style all its own. Since the low budget original series, the look and feel of a Trek movie or show are synonymous with top-notch productions. Trek style is sophisticated and understated.
Star Trek focuses largely on its crews, what they do, how being part of the Federation system affects them, and how they interact as people. The crews’ popularity is essential; the more popular the teams are, the more popular the series. The same could be said about the ships, another irreplaceable aspect of a Trek production. Evolving like their human counterparts, from all the Enterprises to the Defiant and beyond, the ships are an essential part of Trek lore and have always been a big part of the Trek appeal. Essentially, at its core, Star Trek is a depiction of more enlightened humanity in the future, its expansion into the universe, and the technologies that help us get there and survive and thrive. At its core, Star Trek is about human evolution and tells the stories of what we encounter there, with a mostly optimistic mission of learning and exploring guided by a message of peace and reason and the premise of living in harmony with those we encounter. There is also a legitimate darker side to the Tek-verse, and some of the series mainly explore the darker side of what’s possible, what happens when peace and harmony are impossible. Just because a series chooses to explore this darker side of possible futures does not mean it’s not Trek. As long as specific standards are adhered to, this flexibility for interpretation of Trek is part of what makes it great.
With each incarnation. to distinguish itself, the Trek brand has changed to some degree or another. This evolution has slowly redefined, over time, what Star Trek means. Usually, when It did, those changes were and continue to be met with resistance by a specific type of fans of the original series. It really surprises me sometimes the degree of unhappiness that so-called fans of the Trek brand express about the shows and movies they claim to like and even love so much. To me, Trek is like a good friend that when he screws up and pisses you off with what they do, you acknowledge the problem and move on because they are your friend. I have never subscribed to this way of thinking because, first of all, to resist change is an act of futility and a waste of time. Often, It’s that sort of flexibility in the DNA of the Trek universe, and the ability to edit the history and events of what’s canon and what isn’t helps keep the franchise thriving and alive. It’s an organic, natural process that usually works out well. Still, admittedly there have been a few missteps like the theme song and casting choices made for Enterprise and the first season Klingons in Discovery. Some Trek fans need to remember Trek does not belong to you but is for everyone.
Star Trek inspired many imitators both on television and in movies. It also served as the basis for books, comics, animated TV series, games, merchandise, fan conventions, and more. The original series gave birth to four spinoffs, Star Trek The Next Generation, which revitalized the franchise nearly 20 years later in 1987, Star Trek Voyager, Star Trek Deep Space Nine prequel series Star Trek Enterprise. Now, at long last, with the arrival of Star Trek Discovery, and the imminent arrival of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, and that series about Section 31, there is a good reason for me to think that the Trek brand is in good hands, for now.
The various editions of Star Trek all have their strengths and weaknesses, while each appeals to us in different ways for many reasons. Some of us love them all, and some not so much. We have our reasons for which we like more and which we like less. As a fan of Star Trek, with so many to choose from, your favorite Trek?
Star Trek TOS (The original series 1966 -1969): The series that started it all became the foundation for everything that followed. The role did a considerable amount of heavy lifting in being the genesis of mythology that eventually took on a life of its own. The stories help establish a universe as much as the iconic characters they introduced; James T Kirk, the all too human natural born leader who preferred to be on the front line with the crew he commanded. His outside-the-box and unorthodox way of seeing things were as intuitive as the result of a keen intellect. A man of action can think on his feet and improvise solutions at a moment’s notice. His qualities set the standard for all the Captains that followed. Kirk was as much of a swashbuckler as a diplomat. Spock served as a constant reminder of our nature’s emotional part and irrationally intuitive part of our makeup and eventually evolved into an enduring symbol of friendship, loyalty, and what they truly mean. Doctor McCoy, a part brilliant scientist and part cowboy movie cranky doctor trope; and Scotty who had a way with machines and technology that was simply in his blood. Portraying lesser, yet vital roles in Trek mythology, also deserving mention, are crew members Sulu, Uhura, Chekov, and others (not to mention all the red shirts). It’s likely the show’s writers did not realize they were creating a crew of immortals.
TOS also introduced the Enterprise. More than a means of transportation, an essential part of the show that fans loved and still do, a ship that came to symbolize adventure and futuristic outer space action. Enterprise was as much a part of the crew as those she protected. This magnificent ship changed and evolved to keep pace with her crew’s adventures.
Star Trek TOS also introduced many firsts like the Federation, an uneasy alliance of planets and their people. Future technology included the transporter, the food replicator, the phaser, communicator, and other futuristic gadgets, as well as the show’s most enduring symbol, the Enterprise (NCC-1701). The show’s early primitive, pre-CGI practical effects were a part of its charm and the hair and fashion choices for the series. Star Trek TOS was one of a kind.
Star Trek TNG (The Next Generation 1987-1994): Nearly twenty years after the original series, The Next Generation picked up the torch and carried it forward into the future. Using many of the same tropes and parameters established in TOS and taking place one hundred years after, the show was a sleeker and more stylish version of the series it replaced as a sequel. In place of Kirk was Jean Luc Picard, more of a thinking man’s Captain. The ship’s crew seemed organized in a more formally militaristic fashion in sharp contrast to TOS’s more casual approach.
The series introduced some updates in style and other ways; it introduced the holodeck, such as the still-developing technology of using CGI on full display. The series was revolutionary in other respects. Also, it introduced Worf, the first Federation Klingon officer, and Data, a sophisticated android with artificial intelligence who was also a fleet officer. The series also introduced the Borg and the Q continuum, both fabulous science fiction creations. While organized in a more formal military-style, the ship included families and children as part of its complement. While still incorporating the same elements of drama and adventure, TNG was, at its core, a mystery series. The show’s stories often revolved around finding a solution to a puzzle or solving a mystery of some kind.
Star Trek Voyager (1995 -2001): Based on the classic Greek Odyssey mythology, Voyager was a series that told the story of the long voyage home for the young, inexperienced crew of a Federation training ship. Voyager has transported thousands of light-years away from the Milky Way’s human-occupied regions by advanced alien technology. The show was unique in that it was the first to feature a female Captain, a big deal then but not so much now. Like the Odyssey, it featured adventures along the way that included meeting strange new alien races and cultures, as well as mysteries and a myriad of setbacks to completing its journey. The series introduced the first borg to be deprogrammed and returned to more human existence in Seven-of-Nine, a female human who the Voyager crew rescued from her Borg captivity. The series chronicled the ship’s journey and adventures along the way until settling into a good old-fashioned catfight between a Borg queen and Janeway, the ship’s Captain, near the series end.
Star Trek Deep Space Nine (aka DS9 1993-1999): Another show that included all of the qualities of the other Trek series, Deep Space Nine was a complex and engaging story rich in science fiction concepts, including its chief protagonist being the subject of alien intervention in his life since before he was born. Benjamin Sisko faces the complicated situation of becoming a highly regarded Bajoran religious figure known as the Emissary while also carrying out his duties as commander of a space station located in the storm’s strategic eye in a coming war. The aliens dwell outside of time and in another dimension connected somehow to a rare astronomical phenomenon, a stable wormhole. The aliens are also the basis for the religious beliefs of a planet and its people. Bajor, the planet in question, is also the subject of a recent war story. Their world was conquered and occupied by the Cardassians, a militaristic warlike humanoid aliens race. The mix of elements in the series made for rich, engaging storytelling. As if that was not enough, the series developed into an excellent and compelling story about an interplanetary war involving the Federation that also included several species such as the Romulans, The Klingons, and another shapeshifting species known as the Dominion. DS9 also introduced the first Federation ship built for war, The Defiant.
Star Trek Enterprise (2001-2005): Is Enterprise the most underrated Trek series ever? This prequel series did not seem to connect with many fans as much as the other Trek series, but I thought there was a lot to like about the series. For example, Enterprise challenged many of the established Trek-verse norms. It turned them on their traditional collective heads, most notably, including the entire concept of Vulcans being the “superior-always logical” race, as well as our relationship with them. It did some other interesting things, including Commander Schran, an Andorian played by JeffreyCombs, who establishes an unusual connection with the show’s chief protagonist, Captain Jonathan Archer, who commands the first edition of the starship Enterprise (NX-01). The show got lost in a time travel subplot to some degree (never a good idea) but also introduced one of the best story arcs of any Trek series in its story about the Xindi and the resulting war. The series also included a female Vulcan, T’Pol, who interestingly sided with her human crew on several occasions when faced with ethical decisions involving blind loyalty to her Vulcan superiors or doing the right thing. The show was also impressive in showing the development of technology with early examples of gadgets that would become commonplace in the Trek series later.
Star Trek: Discovery (2017- ): While admittedly, in its first season, to distinguish itself as all Trek series do, Discovery made some questionable choices and got off to a shaky start. This show was obviously, and sometimes blatantly, designed to appeal to a more modern demographic. With her mostly female bridge crew, Discovery’s 21sst century feminist sub-text and the decision to cater to the LGBTQ community are sometimes distracting. Still, in the end, IMO, they are parts of TV here to stay. Perhaps symbolically, the show now rests in the future. I figure we may as well get used to seeing a more touchy-feely Trek, at least some of the time. Although I’m afraid I have to disagree with some of the decisions regarding the future of this series> The decision to make Burnham’s catchphrase ‘let’s fly!’ i think it is not a good one. The phrase sounds a great deal like a commercial slogan to me.
All that being said, I have a very high opinion of this series. As I said earlier in this article, I believe this series reset the bar for excellence in sci-fi TV. Star Trek: Discovery is currently the best science fiction on television. Also, anybody with the opinion this series is not ‘Trek’ enough is dead wrong. This may be a new breed of Trek we have not seen before, but it is definitely Trek.
Unquestionably, one of the main things that make a Trek series popular is the different crews and characters. I liked most of the key characters in this series almost right away, and I am finally warming up to the rest of Discovery’s bridge crew following watching season three. It’s interesting to note that the first three seasons of this series have all been dedicated to building a slightly different Trek-verse and its characters. Like those maintenance robots, I like most of the little additions the current writers have added to the Trek-verse. Those three seasons may have been a long setup, a preface to finally getting around the crew’s adventures in the future. Trying something new, the story of veritable superwoman Michael Burnham’s eventual rise to captain’s rank, although similar to Capt. Sisko’s is a first for Star Trek where we are familiar with the character’s life story, instead of having a back-story filled in later. I personally like the character and the actress that portrays her and the rest of the cast.
Discovery put the science back in science fiction, and the series devotion to portraying a crew of science nerds who love math and science is delightful. The series’ first season alone had a nearly overwhelming number of scientific premises: Discovery’s biggest fan and cheerleader for math and science is Tily. Tily was obviously designed to represent those who are not as socially skilled or comfortable in their own skins. The ugly duckling in a world seeking perfection, overcompensating because she’s not attractive and knows it, and that hair! Tilly is a nerd, living a nerd’s dream on a space ship full of nerds. She desperately wants to fit in and make friends. Tily is easy to relate to. She is all about self-confidence.
Star Tek Discovery has been renewed for season four. Plans are in place for a rapidly expanding Trek-verse as the franchise continues to thrive, outlasting us all, achieving a kind of immortality. With the arrival of Star Trek’s: Picard Season 2, Star Trek: Lower Decks Season 2, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, Star Trek: Prodigy, etc. You get the idea. I feel very optimistic about the state and future of Star Trek. Live long and prosper.