Star Trek: The Eulogy's Premature
Not that I don't love the Jedi Knights. But the Trek franchise looks a little creaky in contrast with the gorgeously rendered worlds of Naboo and Coruscant. When you contrast a handful of pallid Borg drones with the unearthly military precision of Star Wars battle drones, it might be easy for naysayers to claim the Star Trek franchise has come to a spluttering halt. The latest movie sucked, thereby proving again that odd-numbered Trek movies are usually bad. Deep Space Nine is coming to a less-than-satisfying finale, and the poor Sisko kid still hasn't finished puberty yet. Cast members on Voyager keep threatening to jump ship. And here comes George Lucas, with a fresh new set of movies.
To which I can only say, yeah, it's easy to be great when you take twenty years off from directing. Star Trek has been plugging along near-continuously, in one form or another, since the 1960s. And unlike other long-running SF franchises, it hasn't devolved into an embarrassing parody of its original universe. Rather, it's continued to hew to a few simple principles, even if it means enduring some awkward growing pains in full view of the Trek skeptics.
How else can you explain Deanna Troi's hairdo in the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Or Ally McTrill, the newest cast member on DS9?
But even when you're looking at the screen and wondering how many more nose-and-forehead prosthetics the makeup department can think up before someone finally snaps, you have to admire what the creators and sustainers of the Trek universe have done.
They've created an entire future galaxy that ends up being a reinterpretation of today's small Earth, replete with its problems and fears. Where the genius in Babylon 5 lay in how ultimately alien the series felt, Trek shows have always been the most affecting when they strike closest to home. The original Star Trek series tackled racial prejudice by -- literally -- painting the issue in black and white and pointing out how futile discrimination is. TNG began by having to defend humanity in an alien tribunal, and the show closed when the alien Q wanted a verdict delivered. DS9 has devoted most of its most involving plotlines to assorted inter-species struggles that echo everything from the Cold War to African colonization to the aftermath of extended Balkan bloodshed. But it's Voyager, probably the most hotly-debated show in the Trek canon, that has pushed the envelope furthest.
Founded on a laughable premise -- Star Trek meets Gilligan's Island -- Voyager has become the most thorny branch in the Trek family tree. Whereas most of the other Trek shows focus on solving problems they didn't create, the crew of the Voyager are given an extra burden of responsibility: they're creating all their problems as they go. One particular example stands out: the season finale last year had the ship falling into a trap set by an alien whose entire planet had been destroyed by the man-machine hybrid collective called the Borg. The Borg's destroying people's homeworlds is nothing new; what was new is that said alien's planet was assimilated because of a tactical move Janeway had made in trying to elude both the Borg and species 8472, a bizarre bug-like race. The alien was leading Janeway back to the Borg as revenge for what she had done to his world.
And that's when it hit me that Voyager really was the show that's carrying the Trek franchise forward. Captain Kirk? Probably has fifty green-skinned kids scattered across the galaxy, but we never got to see any of the consequences. Captain Picard? He's a hero. Captain Sisko? He's a religious icon. But Janeway? She's doing her job, and getting screwed for it coming and going. Trek is finally showing us that the universe isn't black-and-white.
As Voyager matures, the show has become less about getting the crew back to Federation space and more about how to apply the best of human principles in decidedly non-human territories. That Prime Directive every Trekker carries on about? Tossed somewhere in Season 2. Most of the time, Janeway has to balance the greater moral debates against the well-being of her crew. A recent episode had her doctor resurrecting one of the galaxy's greatest xenobiologists to save her chief engineer, only to find out the doctor-scientist had obtained his knowledge by doing experiments on prisoners of war -- prisoners that happened to belong to the same "side" the engineer fought on. By the end of the episode, all three chief characters had made compelling arguments for their stance on medical knowledge, how it's obtained, and how it should be used. And there was no clear "right" answer.
This ambiguity will be why the Trek franchise continues to thrive. We don't need to "fix" Trek; it's continuously adapting to our society. We're a more technically advanced society than the one which saw the original series; we rely on networks and information tools that were literally science fiction ten years ago. The science in science fiction is closer to reality, but we still haven't figured out how human we're going to be in response.
Trek illuminates the human condition as it is, and as it will be. That's why the shows will always have someone like Mr. Spock, Cmdr. Data, Odo, the HoloDoc: it needs observers of humanity to explain us to ourselves. And because we're a species that seems to learn slowly, we need to keep seeing, over and over, who we are and why that matters.
So it's okay to explore the world of the space-age samurai in Star Wars: George Lucas based his stories on myth, and that's venerable way to tell a tale. But don't discount Star Trek. Star Wars is ultimately about the past and why it matters. Star Trek is about our uneasy confrontation with an all-too-human future.
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