A few days back, I made the following post/piss take on Facebook apropos of Star Trek’s 50th anniversary.
Things we’ve seen in Star Trek after 50 years:
– A policy of non-intervention and neutrality invoked as a justification for moral cowardice.
– Sentient beings (EMH Mk. 1) used as slave labour inside the Federation
– Military courts ruling over the status of artificial life
– Civil liberties subject to the whims of Starfleet
– The death penalty for violation of a Starfleet general order
– Maintenance of monarchy/aristocracy within Federation worlds
– Persecution and imprisonment of genetically modified human beings, presided over by Starfleet and Starfleet Medical
– Decorated Starfleet captains committing crimes against humanity
Things we’ve not seen in Star Trek after 50 years:
– An election inside the Federation
– Effective civilian government
– Evidence of a vibrant political culture among any Federation member race
– Evidence to suggest the Federation isn’t a total command economy with 100% ownership of all property and GNP
– People outside the hetero-normative dynamic
– Contemporary human popular culture
Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Trek. More specifically, I love Star Trek’s “prime” universe. The “Kelvin” universe feels like the IP’s extended and unironic hot take on Highlander 2. In so much as I love Star Trek, I think it’s important to keep a critical eye on an idea that has transformed into a “bankable” franchise.
Star Trek TOS (and sometimes TNG) didn’t shy away from using the science fiction setting as a foundation for morality plays (once, quite literally) and political allegory. Even when TOS steered toward military science fiction or the absurd, there was always a progressive sociological throughline to each story.
Granted, I take a little too much pleasure at perverting the common wisdom of the United Federation of Planets as a liberal democracy; to wit, my endless carping about the Federation as a collectivist, authoritarian nightmare state. I do this knowing full well that the conflicts of an individual episode don’t embody the overall politics of the setting. For example, Sisko carpet bombing a planet with a biological weapon as a means of driving out a Maquis base should not be seen as an indictment against Starfleet and the Federation.
Why then do I bother pointing out the things that Star Trek does wrong? Primarily, to make people think about what Star Trek used to offer its viewers. In the eleven years since Enterprise was cancelled, we’ve lived through three “Kelvin” universe movies, the best of which pales in comparison to the best of the “prime” universe movies (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, come at me bros).
This drought of quality Star Trek, up to and including four years of T’Pol wearing Seven of Nine’s hand-me-downs to Jolene Blalock’s obvious contempt, has left the bar for passable Star Trek excruciatingly low. As such, I fear for Star Trek Discovery. If STD (holy shit, Paramount, you really dropped the ball on abbreviations) offers a mediocre showing, it will probably feel amazing compared to Chris Pine’s James “Let’s have a threesome with some alien babes after violating the Prime Directive and lying to Starfleet about it” Kirk. Yes, I went there. Chris Pine’s Kirk is a turd, even in your precious Star Trek Beyond.
Between turd-Kirk, Star Trek: Nemesis aka “Oh hey, the Romulans are a thing, right?” and the cast and writers of Enterprise mostly acting like they didn’t want to be there, we, as an audience, could be content with Discovery as a mediocre and inoffensive affair. I, however, want the first non-fan produced Prime-Trek of a decade to be more than the science fiction analogue of Paul Rudd. I want Discovery, and all Star Trek, to break through my cynicism and leave me with a sense of wonder.
I would remind my readers that such a thing is possible (surprise, surprise, I’m not totally dead inside). Prelude to Axanar did it, Star Trek Continues has done it. The Expanse did it even after it’s first episode left me feeling rather lukewarm about the whole affair. These are the benchmarks we should look toward for Discovery, and that’s why I am content to cherry pick and point at the worst of Star Trek’s fifty year history.
I like to imagine my piss take will make people think about what they want to see in Discovery, based on the ideals that brought them to Star Trek in the first place. And at the very least, every time someone tells me why my piss takes are wrong, they are thinking about the moments where Star Trek offered them a transcendent experience. Keeping those memories fresh will, hopefully, ensure I’m not the only one demanding better if Discovery proves to be a middling thing that invokes nostalgia to pass itself off as good.