To Boldly Go

The Future of Star Trek

By Tom Bennet. Published .
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Into Darkness is the worst Star Trek film ever made.

This was the verdict of the dedicated fans attending the 2013 Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas. Even the much-maligned Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, William Shatner’s 1989 directorial debut, was better received by the Trekkie crowd than JJ Abrams’ recent sequel to his 2009 reboot.

And yet, Into Darkness was a huge critical and commercial success. Brandishing an enviable 87% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and generating a respectable $460 million at the global box office, the film’s broad appeal is difficult to reconcile with the vehement disdain of the enduring Star Trek fanbase.

All six Star Trek captains
From left to right, six captains: Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, Archer, and Kirk (again)

Such striking discord makes the future of Roddenberry’s seminal science-fiction franchise - now approaching its 50th birthday - an interesting question. Paramount’s decision to relaunch Trek as a series of mainstream, action-oriented movie blockbusters did more than rile some Trekkies; it arguably disconnected the series from its central tenets.

This editorial is not a comprehensive retrospective of the Star Trek franchise. Instead, we’ll be exploring two of the most beloved moments in the Trek canon, considering what they might mean for the future of the series, and examining the themes and principles that - until recently - made the show’s various incarnations such staples of sci-fi pop culture.

With that in mind, let’s start with a brief reminder of how we got here. Our purpose, if you will; our continuing mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

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All Good Things...

At the time of its cancellation in 1994, Star Trek: The Next Generation was the highest-rated syndicated drama in television history, and boasted an average of 20 million viewers a week. Its success was unprecedented; indeed, the show was initially conceived of as a way to capitalise on the lucrative Star Trek brand without hurting demand for the popular film series. By reincarnating Star Trek as a TV show with a cast of relative unknowns, and with chronological separation from the original, Kirk and Spock could continue their adventures on the silver screen and leave plenty of space on the final frontier.

In looking back on the adventures of Captain Picard & crew aboard the USS Enterprise-D, it’s easy to dwell on those aspects of the show that haven’t aged well (and we’re not talking the now-laughable special effects). Episodes from the first season in particular frequently rely on contrived plot devices, hackneyed allegories, and hammy, stilted dialogue. These shortcomings are attributable in part to the creative stranglehold of series creator Gene Roddenberry, who dogmatically enforced his pollyannaish vision of the future on the other writers.

The show didn’t fully hit its stride until the third season. Whilst the quality of these later episodes is still variable (the show delivered the occasional clunker throughout its seven year run), some are demonstrative of Star Trek at its finest. “The Inner Light”, a Hugo Award-winning episode from the fifth season, in many ways epitomises the best aspects of The Next Generation.

The real power of science-fiction lies in its ability to contemplate serious issues through the lens of a deceptively remote setting. As Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, observed of the genre: “you’re not talking about the future. You’re talking about the present.”   The best sci-fi stories escape their future trappings to tell stories that are timeless.

“The Inner Light” does just that.

The plot is deceptively simple: a mysterious probe attaches a telepathic beam to Picard, who falls unconscious on the bridge of the Enterprise. He awakens in a small village on a planet called Kataan, where everyone knows him as Kamin. He wife Eline and close friend Batai - of whom he has no memories - inform him that he’s been suffering from a fever, and upon hearing his talk of starships believe him to be delusional.

As the crew of the Enterprise try in vain to disconnect the beam, years go by on Kataan. Picard accepts his new life as Kamin, eventually building a family with Eline and watching their children - and grandchildren - grow up. He never loses his passion for science, though, and studies both the soil (ruined by a prolonged drought), and the skies. Watching the heavens fastidiously through his telescope, he recalls a distant memory, or perhaps a dream, of his past life as a starship captain.

“Seize the time, Meribor - live now! Make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”
Picard, as Kamin, to his daughter
Picard / Kamin (Patrick Stewart) and wife Eline (Margot Rose)
Picard / Kamin (Patrick Stewart) and wife Eline (Margot Rose)
Picard with the Ressikan flute, back on board the Enterprise
Picard with the Ressikan flute, back on board the Enterprise
“The Inner Light genuinely explored the human condition, which this franchise does better than any other when it does it well.”
Michael Piller, writer and Executive Producer on the show

As the decades pass, the crippling drought on Kataan gets progressively worse. Kamin, now an elderly widower, watches his friends and loved ones pass away as his planet slowly dies. Finally, on the day of a long-awaited spacecraft launch, Kamin learns the truth: Kataan has been gone for millennia, destroyed by a supernova its residents were powerless to prevent. The probe was launched in a desperate attempt to preserve something of their civilisation for future generations. This interactive time-capsule contained the lifetime experiences of a single person: Kamin. The interstellar message-in-a-bottle eventually found Jean-Luc Picard.

When Picard awakens on the bridge of the Enterprise, having accrued over 30 years of memories as Kamin, he struggles to comprehend that just 25 minutes have passed on the ship. Visibly shaken, he retreats to his quarters and is visited by Commander Riker bearing a gift. The probe, now disabled, contained one final keepsake for Picard: the flute that had become Kamin’s lifelong pastime. Riker departs, and Picard clutches the relic to his chest. In the episode’s wordless final scene, Kataan’s sole emissary puts the flute to his lips and begins to play.

“Now we live in you. Tell them of us, my darling.”
Eline’s last words to Picard

Taken too literally, the story of “The Inner Light” is an easy target. One might point out the implausibility of a primitive civilisation (facing its own extinction, no less) managing to beam a 30-year-long interactive life simulation directly into the brain of whichever space-faring alien happened upon their probe. Or, you might take issue with the sci-fi trope of white, English-speaking, humanoid extraterrestrials. But these criticisms are largely irrelevant to the central thrust of the episode, which is a beautiful twist on the Enterprise’s mission to seek out new life and new civilisations.

“The Inner Light” is a hauntingly significant contemplation on our own mortality, and - crucially - on the importance of storytelling to our culture. In a scene cut from the final episode, Data manages to decipher the inscription on the outside of the probe: Inside each of us lives an entire civilisation. This was inspired by a Talmudic proverb to the effect that killing a single person (and thereby his or her descendants) is like murdering an entire people.   Faced with their own extinction, the people of Kataan sought to preserve their existence - not with genetic samples, as suggested by Kamin - but simply by finding someone who could walk in their shoes and tell their story.

“I always believed that I didn’t need children to complete my life. Now, I couldn’t imagine life without them.”
Picard as Kamin, father to Meribor and Batai
Picard explores his personal ‘road not taken.’
Picard explores his personal ‘road not taken.’
“It demonstrates the potential of genre fiction to astonish us and move us ... it manages to be beautiful, hopeful, and devastating all in its final scene.”
Zack Handlen on the power of “The Inner Light”
Jean-Luc Picard, sole carrier of the dead civilisation’s culture
Jean-Luc Picard, sole carrier of the dead civilisation’s culture

Like many of the best episodes of The Next Generation, it’s also a character study. Jean-Luc Picard, the serenely stoic starship captain, explores his personal road not taken - he falls in love, starts a family, and nurtures an introverted passion for music. Picard’s quiet life on Kataan in some ways mirrors that of his reclusive brother Robert, as seen in “Family”, the final part of the “Best of Both Worlds” trilogy. This isn’t the first time Picard has had the chance to explore the ‘what-ifs’ of his past - the omniscient super-being Q gave him a similar opportunity in the sixth season episode “Tapestry”.

However, therein lies one of the biggest flaws with “The Inner Light”, and it extends to The Next Generation as a whole. The episode is, in many ways, the epitome of the perfect science-fiction short story - it’s thoughtful and moving within its limited runtime, but largely a self-contained entity. The consequences of Picard’s experience - which would surely have been profound - are left almost-completely unexplored, a failing demonstrative of the show’s reluctance to capitalise on the serialised nature of television.

In the show’s defence, The Next Generation was never conceived of as a serial. As writer Michael Piller explained, “We try to tell stories that can be told in one hour, and that’s what we do very well.”   In practise this means that the so-called ‘reset button’ is hit at the end of every episode, and the events of the preceding hour - no manner how momentous - are largely forgotten, the next episode thus starting on a clean slate.

What’s more, “The Inner Light” is actually bestowed with more in the way of follow-up than most episodes. “We were after a good hour of TV,” explained series producer Ronald D Moore. “The larger implications of how [Picard’s experience] would really screw somebody up didn’t hit home with us until later.”   As such, the show’s production team contented themselves with a spiritual successor in the following season (“Lessons”). Episode writer Morgan Gendel actually published his own webcomic sequel when his idea for a follow-up episode was rejected, on the grounds that The Next Generation “didn’t do sequels”. Eagle eyed fans might also spot a few trivial references that might pass for easter eggs: the Ressikan flute makes a background appearance in a deleted scene from 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis.

Picard’s sojourn on the long-lost world of Kataan feels like it should be the start of a much grander story. Beautifully acted and wonderfully written though they may be, episodes such as “The Inner Light” feel somehow lacking when viewed as part of a larger Trek universe.

Indeed, watch The Next Generation today and one cannot help but imagine a Star Trek with the rich, sprawling, interweaving plot-lines inherent to a heavily-serialised TV drama.

There’s just one small problem... it’s already been done.

What You Leave Behind...

January 2013 marked 20 years since the first episode of Deep Space Nine aired. Despite achieving modest ratings and a warm fan reception throughout its six-year run, the show never approached The Next Generation’s heights of popularity. With both Paramount’s preferred series Voyager and three Next Generation feature films jostling for attention, the Star Trek franchise approached market saturation in the mid–1990s. As the syndicated television landscape shifted and viewers grew tired of the final frontier, Deep Space Nine became - and remains - startlingly underrated.

Many of the show’s strengths lie in its premise. Shunning Roddenberry’s vision of ‘a wagon train to the stars’, Deep Space Nine was set on an eponymous space-station near the fringes of Federation space, rather than on a starship. With individuals of every species mingling on the station, itself a hotbed of interstellar trade and political power plays, the writers were free to craft long, sweeping story arcs that developed over multiple episodes.

This simple shift meant Deep Space Nine could go where no Trek had gone before. The show engaged with challenging themes such as war and religion, and was lauded for its intricate characterisation, moral ambiguity, and original, complex plots. The result is a powerful sense of verisimilitude, a quality sadly absent from much science-fiction. Whereas all previous Trek shows focused on the Federation’s quasi-military outfit Starfleet, Deep Space Nine explored what it was actually like to live in the supposedly-enlightened 24th century.

No single episode better demonstrates these qualities than “In The Pale Moonlight”, a particularly dark instalment from the show’s penultimate season. The story centres around a plan hatched by Captain Sisko to draw the Romulans into the Dominion War, in a desperate bid to save the Federation. The episode contemplates the depths to which men and women sink in times of war, and scrutinises the old aphorism that if one’s goal is moral, then the ends justify the means.

“My father used to say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. I laid the first stone right there. I’d committed myself. I’d pay any price, go to any lengths, because my cause was righteous. My intentions were good. In the beginning, that seemed like enough.”
Captain Sisko, personal log

Indeed, that Sisko’s intentions are good is largely indisputable; with casualties in the Dominion War running high, he realises that the Federation’s survival hinges on securing assistance from the powerful Romulan Empire. The Dominion, however, have signed a non-aggression pact with the Romulans, who - as Jadzia Dax points out - therefore have no motivation to enter the bloody conflict. In light of this fact, Captain Sisko begins a clandestine hunt for evidence of Dominion intention to conquer the Romulan Empire.

Elim Garak, a former Cardassian spy whose help Sisko enlists, suggests that rather than continuing their fruitless search for proof, they instead manufacture it themselves. From here, the scheme rapidly escalates as the stakes get higher; Sisko cheats, bribes, and forges his way toward a declaration of war, lying to his closest friends and conspiring with criminals along the way.

“People are dying out there, every day! Entire worlds are struggling for their freedom, and here I am still worrying about the finer points of morality! No, I have to keep my eye on the ball. Winning the war, stopping the bloodshed, those are the priorities.”
Captain Sisko, personal log
Romulan Senator Vreenak confronts Sisko about his deception
Romulan Senator Vreenak confronts Sisko about his deception
Captain Sisko, resigned, offers a toast to the ‘good guys‘
Captain Sisko, resigned, offers a toast to the ‘good guys‘
“[Deep Space Nine] took chances in a franchise that could play it safe. We challenged the characters, the audience, and the Star Trek universe itself.”
Ronald D. Moore, producer and screenwriter on DS9

The episode is told via flashback, and it is Sisko’s feelings of doubt and self-recrimination that drive the story. Even when Starfleet Command gives the plan their blessing (itself indicative of the Federation’s desperation) Sisko wrestles with his personal involvement in the deception, dreading the moment at which he must present Garak’s forged evidence to Romulan Senator Vreenak.

But it’s all for nothing - the Senator quickly detects Sisko’s ersatz evidence and departs the station in disgust, vowing to expose the Federation’s deception. His ship, however, is destroyed shortly after leaving Deep Space 9. Sisko, enraged, accuses Garak of using him to planting a bomb on Vreenak’s shuttle. Garak confesses that he never expected the forgery to pass inspection, and that the ultimate goal was always the murder of the Senator in Dominion space. Moreover, the damage to their evidence caused by the explosion would mask any signs of forgery, further implicating the Dominion.

Sisko is wracked with guilt, but Garak - who also murdered their sole co-conspirator to cover their tracks - argues that the captain’s actions may have saved the entire Alpha Quadrant. The Federation’s future was safeguarded, and all they had to sacrifice was the life of one Romulan senator, one criminal, and the self-respect of one Starfleet captain. “I don’t know about you,” Garak muses, “but I call that a bargain.”

“In The Pale Moonlight” is far from a perfect episode. The dialogue can be a little heavy-handed at times, with both Worf and Dax providing unnecessary commentary throughout: “A Romulan Senator has been killed? This changes everything!” Like much of 1990s Star Trek, it could also be accused of leaning a little too heavily on the crutch of technobabble, with ‘optolythic data rods‘ and ‘bio-mimetic gel‘ contrived of as plot devices.

However, the episode is also a perfect demonstration of how Deep Space Nine challenges not just viewers, but the Star Trek universe itself.

“I lied. I cheated. I bribed men to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But most damning of all, I think I can live with it. And if I had to do it all over again, I would. A guilty conscience is a small price to pay for the safety of the Alpha Quadrant. So I will learn to live with it... because I can live with it. Computer – erase that entire personal log.”
Captain Sisko, personal log

In contrast to the darkness of much of today’s science-fiction, Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future was built on the vision of a better tomorrow. With poverty, disease, war, and prejudice all but eradicated in the 24th century, humanity could aspire to greater things. As Picard rather pompously puts it in Star Trek: First Contact, “the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives… we work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity.”

These utopian leanings are undoubtedly part of the series’ enduring appeal. John De Lancie, who played ‘Q’ in The Next Generation observed that “Star Trek is about something… people actually have a sense it might presage a better future.”   Deep Space Nine, whilst not rejecting Roddenberry’s vision outright, tested it to its limits.

People who come from different places - no matter how honourable or principled - will inevitably have conflicts. And when put under pressure, they will sometimes make bad decisions. These truths are inherent to the human condition, and to claim that Roddenberry’s perfect vision could survive the horrors of war unscathed is hopelessly naive. Deep Space Nine takes a far more nuanced view, and explores the idea that even the most moral person will sometimes forsake their principles for a perceived greater good. For Captain Benjamin Sisko, this meant dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight.

These Are the Voyages...

Since Deep Space Nine’s finale graced our screens in 1999, two further Star Trek shows have wound up, three feature films have been released, and the franchise has been rebooted. And yet…

“Star Trek is broken.”

That was the verdict of an editorial by Joseph Dickerson, written shortly after fans’ unsparing assessment of Into Darkness at the aforementioned Star Trek Convention. Echoing the common sentiment that Abrams’ 2009 film Star Trek was actually quite promising, Dickerson argues that whilst the reboot ‘re-established the franchise as a cultural phenomenon’, Into Darkness effectively broke the series by pursuing all the worst excesses of its predecessor. Whether or not you agree with his verdict, upon looking back at some of Star Trek’s finest moments from the last few decades, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that the current incarnation of the franchise is not quite working.

Perhaps it lies in the film’s premise, which - to put it mildly - lacks the subtlety common to our two chosen episodes (the Enterprise is on a manhunt to find and kill a terrorist without trial). Or, perhaps it’s Abrams’ insistence on bombastic space battles, notably absent from the particular adventures of Picard and Sisko we’ve explored today. Whatever your verdict on this bold new direction, one must admit that it’s a far cry from the Star Trek of twenty years ago.

“Beware of spaceship battles. They cost enormous amounts of money and are not really as interesting as people conflicts.”
Item ten in Gene Roddenberry’s original ‘writers bible’

With Paramount currently pushing ahead with a third film in the action-oriented blockbuster series, things seem unlikely to change anytime soon. But given that we’re discussing a science-fiction show that has historically concerned itself with the vision of a ‘better tomorrow’, it seems somehow befitting to ponder the question of Star Trek’s ideal future.

We’re currently living in what is widely being referred to as the golden age of television. Whilst Hollywood continues to churn out big-budget destruction and spectacle in two hour chunks, television has experienced a remarkable creative renaissance in recent years. Series such as Breaking Bad, True Detective, House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black are pushing the boundaries of the medium that cinema once sneered at.

“They call it the golden age of television [...] and it’s where all the most interesting characters have gone.”
David Fincher, director of Se7en, Fight Club, and The Social Network
Leonard Nimoy and Gene Roddenberry on set, 1964
Leonard Nimoy and Gene Roddenberry on set, 1964
Shatner and Nimoy, still laughing on take six, 1969
Shatner and Nimoy, still laughing on take six, 1969

Empowered by the serialised nature of television, those long, sweeping story arcs championed by Deep Space Nine in the 1990s are being taken to extremes. “TV is where a writer can write their novel,” argues screenwriter Richard LaGravenese. “You can have ambiguity in television that you are not allowed in film. You can have episodes that are purely character-driven, that are just about nuances and shades of the human condition.”

This is where Star Trek should be.

Our hypothetical TV reboot would have to strike a delicate balance between old and new. It should embrace the franchise’s rich heritage, certainly; it should emphasise science-fiction over science-fantasy, and bring back exploration as the central premise. The thoughtful, character-driven storytelling that typifies the best Star Trek episodes (a la “The Inner Light”) could be honoured by commissioning acclaimed science-fiction authors like Neil Gaimen and George R. R. Martin to write individual episodes. This is hardly a far-fetched idea; The Wire was famously penned by a number of award-winning crime-fiction writers.

But it must also break with the past. In his editorial, Dickerson argues that this means saying goodbye to the Enterprise, which has been exhausted as a setting. With literally hundreds of hours of Trek set aboard the ship, continued reliance on the Enterprise (and recasting of its old crews) is simply lazy. Just as Deep Space Nine scrutinised established Trek conventions - “In The Pale Moonlight” being a prime example - our new show must boldly go where no Trek has gone before.

“Just as the original series broke from convention to tell adult stories, Star Trek needs to once again break from the past and stop being about the Enterprise and crew. [...] We need to look at a new ship, a new crew, and explore new ground. Star Trek needs to move forward.”
Joseph Dickerson

The Star Trek franchise - with its rich mythos and entrenched norms - has become overly derivative. Indeed, those Trek shows we haven’t covered today are a particularly good demonstration of this. For all their countless merits, Voyager was basically a twist on The Next Generation (itself a twist on the original 60s Star Trek), and Enterprise - once hugely promising - was often hobbled by studio pressure to stick to the established formula.

Let’s go somewhere new. A smartly written, character-driven TV serial, set in an unexplored region - or time - of the beloved Trek universe, paying tribute to the best elements of The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Truly, this would represent the best of both worlds.

Make it so.

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Credits

Written and designed by Tom Bennet, and published in November 2014. Section header images are courtesy of The Light Works Digital Imagery, with the exception of ‘These Are The Voyages’, which appears courtesy of foundation3d.com. Unless otherwise indicated, all other images, videos, and quotes are courtesy of CBS / Paramount.

Custom long-form responsive design, utilizing Knight Lab’s TimelineJS, the Skrollr Javascript library, the DivPeek jQuery script, and a pinch of CSS3 animation. Special thanks to all contributors to these projects.

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