Bob’s Review of Star Trek

I know what you’re thinking, “he’s going to say the future isn’t like that.” And it’s not, but that’s also not the point.

Star Trek is an ongoing human science fiction franchise originating in Earth’s twentieth century, featuring a speculative look at a utopian future in which humankind has expanded beyond its home planet and is part of a galactic federation of alien races. It centres around characters in the futuristic military called Starfleet as they seek out new life, explore strange new worlds, and generally engage in a lot of space colonialism, which we’ll get to later.

This review is going to have some minor spoilers for the entirety of the Star Trek franchise, though because I’m covering the whole thing in a short period of time, I won’t go into too much detail about most of it. Also by the time you read this, most of the media I’m discussing will be approaching thirty years old at minimum, so really, are you going to complain about spoilers?

Star Trek first aired in 1966 with the first episode of what is now called The Original Series, and ran for three years. It focused on the crew of the starship Enterprise as they explored the universe and so forth. It’s the worst entry in the televised franchise by far, but only because it came before the major rules and concepts of the series were established, and it’s worth watching because you can see all those things solidify over the course of the three seasons. It’s kind of amusing to me that it’s so dull (not all of it of course, there are some really standout good episodes, especially the one written by Harlen Ellison), because the reasons why it’s often a bit tedious are because it gets bogged down in its premise and forgets to have interesting characters or storylines. More on that later, but this is funny to me because part of the premise is ‘radical socialist equal rights utopianism’ and of course it’s coming out in the midst of civil rights movements and the Vietnam War.

Star Trek was the subject one of the modern world’s first major fandoms. Fans got the series continued for a third season after the network tried to cancel it, exchanged fanfic and fanart, invented modern slash fiction (a term that we used widely until about ten years ago), attended conventions, and were so invested in the idea of Star Trek that eventually they produced more of it. If you’ve ever participated in a fandom, you have Star Trek to thank for that, and especially a bunch of women in their thirties and forties who were really excited about Star Trek in 1969.

This fan presence was so strong that the show eventually came back in 1987 with The Next Generation, bringing Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision for the future into the contemporary period of the late eighties. With the rules of the universe established, The Next Generation is more coherent than The Original Series and has better acting and writing overall. This is where we really start to get a sense of the Federation as a galactic power that interacts with other alien races, and we actually get to see what they really do, which doesn’t seem to be much except for colonizing other planets and occasionally fighting wars with various aliens. Aliens in Star Trek tend to be loosely based on different national or ethnic groups on Earth, but The Next Generation starts to take a few steps away from that, giving the Klingons a culture that isn’t just ‘Soviet Russia’ and the Romulans a culture that isn’t just ‘Soviet Russia but also Rome,’ just as two examples (that said, the Klingons basically never become interesting. I’ve never understood what fans see in them honestly; their episodes are all identical and all boring and their whole species shares one personality). This kind of one-for-one analogues between aliens and human nationalities always kind of falls apart on close inspection, because the more Star Trek stops being pure commentary on the modern world and becomes a story in its own right, the more those simplistic analogies don’t work, so it’s good that you start to see them falling apart over the course of The Next Generation.

The Next Generation was followed by Deep Space Nine, which at the time was less popular but now has been recognized as being very good. Led by the guys who would go on to do Battlestar Galactica, Deep Space Nine is basically Battlestar Galactica but less good, mostly because the network was constraining the writers from telling the kind of story they really wanted to tell. There are a lot of really standout single episodes like Little Green Men and Trials and Tribble-ations, but the serial elements are what make it really great. More than any Star Trek from the 90s era, Deep Space Nine really criticizes the premise of the franchise as a whole, challenging the utopian nature of the Federation. The Federation is repeatedly cast as a colonizing, militaristic presence in the galaxy that seeks to hegemonize every culture it encounters into one. Though the writers can only really do this through either villains (Michael Eddington’s evil speech to this effect at the end of season four comes to mind), or more commonly through the character of Quark, a Ferengi barkeeper who frequently bemoans that his family is being turned human by Federation ideals like gender equality and socialism. The Ferengi sort of start out as a really anti-Semitic depiction of Space Jews, but then get turned into a slightly less anti-Semitic depiction of Still Space Jews But Just Capitalism This Time (because the writers decided to make the Bajorans Space Jews, but also Space Palestinians, hold that thought), and even though they’re a caricature, they’re explored in interesting detail throughout Deep Space Nine. You’re not supposed to agree with Quark, but his worries about his family being colonized are absolutely fair and are also proven right over and over again as his brother and nephew give up Ferengi cultural hallmarks to fit in better with their human friends.

Deep Space Nine is also the gayest Star Trek until recent years, because the actors and writers all just ignored Rick Berman being a homophobic fuckoff and decided to pretend half the characters were gay. Even the ones who aren’t gay are really horny, and it’s actually hilarious to watch the show and just see how much sexual tension is in literally every single relationship. It’s really good, because Gene Roddenberry was going to put some gay characters in The Next Generation, but then he died and Rick Berman took over and was the aforementioned homophobic fuckoff about it, so gay people weren’t allowed to exist in space until twenty years later, but the actors, especially Andrew Robinson, just full on decided they were going to be gay anyway.

Deep Space Nine was followed by Voyager, which is about a ship stranded in the far reaches of space encountering mostly all new aliens, which was a good call to separate it from the other entries in the franchise. It had some really interesting concepts for new aliens who weren’t based on real-world ethnicities, which was nice. Plus, Voyager got to explore a lot more about the super-sinister Borg Collective, who in my opinion are the best villain in the whole franchise. Introduced in The Next Generation, the Borg are wholly alien in a way that most Star Trek aliens aren’t; partially robotic, operating as a collective and only interested in turning everything in the universe into more of them, the Borg can’t be negotiated with and are so technologically superior that fighting them is a bad call. You know they’re evil because their spaceships are giant cubes (fun fact: only two real species use cube-shaped spaceships; one of them is a species of telepathic microbes who only use their ships to go around trying to make people listen to their comedy routines, and the other one is a super racist geometry-based civilization that thinks everything that isn’t a cube is inferior, so Cubes Are Shitty kind of tracks honestly). Anyway, Voyager suffers from too much insistence on a status quo in a show that really could have been about loss and resource scarcity and desperation, but is overall really fun, and also suffers from the far fewest number of Klingon episodes in all of 90s Star Trek (and also has a legitimately interesting Klingon character). The finale of Voyager is probably the best one in the franchise, just as a note.

There were some movies in between Voyager and the next main series entries, but they all pretty much sucked, especially the more recent ones, which tried to reboot the series by forgetting that Star Trek was conceptual, not special effects driven.

In 2001, an attempted reboot of the series came about with Enterprise, a prequel looking at the early years of the Federation and their first starship. Showing humanity’s first forays into a larger galactic community, Enterprise ran for three seasons and was kind of stymied by the fact that it couldn’t really use a lot of the other Star Trek species because they weren’t discovered until later in canon. It did well with its premise (and had a great storyline about a temporal cold war) and was well executed, but the utopianism of 90s Star Trek wasn’t really in fashion in a post 9/11 mindset, and it ran for only three seasons.

Starting in 2017, Star Trek came back with Discovery, another prequel to the Original Series set during the famous Klingon War, with updated special effects and budget and also updated politics such as “maybe there can be more than one Black person” and “gay people are real.” The first two seasons of this are absolutely stellar and are just so well done, especially the villains in the second season. The third season falters a little by delivering an amazing premise (they go through a wormhole and emerge nine hundred years in the future) but failing to follow through on it by actually committing to exploring the future in a meaningful way. I have hope that season four will do this, though. Discovery draws in Deep Space Nine’s critiques of the Federation to remind us that Colonialism Is Bad even if it’s the people we like doing it, which I’m reducing to a punchline but is actually done with a good amount of nuance in the first season of Discovery (the third season does drop the ball on this a little as well with constant affirmations that Starfleet is ultimately a force for good, even though this is demonstrably not true throughout the season). The largest critique I have of Discovery at this stage is that it’s less of an ensemble than Star Trek typically is, and the overt focus on one main character hurts the show a little because the other characters are all so interesting and we don’t get to see them interact with each other enough. But maybe in season four.

Picard, started just last year, follows the retired adventures of Jean-Luc Picard, the captain of the Enterprise in The Next Generation, as he uncovers conspiracies and realizes that yes, the Federation is actually shitty. Only one season in, Picard is all-in on criticizing the Federation as a concept, talking about how poorly they treat certain species who don’t conform to their colonizing ideals. Picard is about the only good capitalization on nostalgia, just letting Picard go around and talk to people from the other shows and check up on how they’re doing. The second season promises to bring back fan favourite Q, an omnipotent alien who is putting humanity on trial for being space barbarians who haven’t evolved and are a danger to the universe. I personally have hope for Q to date Picard, but maybe that’s just me.

There’s also an animated show called Lower Decks that’s about some lower-ranking Starfleet officers having antics while other Star Trek stuff is going on above their heads, which is pretty cute.

Gene Roddenberry imagined Star Trek as a utopia. It’s a post-scarcity, post-racist, post-sexist, post-everythingist society where humanity has evolved out of its violent tendencies and come together to be a guiding hand for the whole universe. The Original Series got in trouble for things like having a Black woman kiss a White man, and that was far from the only intentional commentary on race and gender that appears in the show. It’s why I think it’s so funny that modern dudebros want to say that the first entry is the best one, because these are almost invariably the people who will turn around and say that new Star Trek is crap because it’s so focused on social justice and having progressive politics that it forgets to be good. But that’s what Star Trek fucking is. The Original Series is nothing but social justice and progressive politics, it just doesn’t look that way to us because it’s sixty years out of date now. The same holds true for all the other entries in the franchise, and Star Trek has always fallen down when it forgets that’s what it’s supposed to be about.

Often, that focus is marred a little either by studio interference or just the politics of the writers at the time. You see this most strongly I think in Deep Space Nine, which features a formerly occupied planet called Bajor getting back on its feet after the colonizing Cardassians have left. Cardassians start out clearly as Space Nazis, and though they become more complex later, that pretty clearly makes Bajor Space Israel, except that the fact of an occupation and the oppression based on that makes them also Space Palestine. The writers clearly want Bajor to be both of those things, and it’s often unclear if it’s just because they have retrospectively shitty pro-Zionist national politics or if they’re just genuinely trying to do something that isn’t working, but it ends up making some troubling commentary about Israel and Palestine’s relationship. They also, because of their commitment to peace and diplomacy, end up making a lot of troubling suggestions that Bajor and Cardassia should learn to understand one another, which isn’t by itself terrible, except that the actual person who oversaw the occupation and genocide, Gul Dukat, is a character on the show and you’re supposed to understand his point of view at various points (until he becomes an evil fire alien and tries to destroy the universe, as occasionally happens). Combined with the fact that they made the series’s first Black captain a big old Space Racist, the commentary, probably positive in intention, tends to get muddled. This kind of thing happens a lot throughout Star Trek, where you can see they’re trying to go for something positive and it ends up coming off as a little tone deaf, but at least they were trying, even if, because Star Trek is a TV show, it’s got no choice but to exist in a modern neoliberal identity political framework that inhibits its ability to offer the kind of radical commentary it wants to.

The utopianism of the mid twentieth century doesn’t work for us anymore, which is why you see it crumbling over the course of the franchise. Modern Star Trek isn’t a utopia anymore. It’s a far-future dystopia in which many things are better for most people, but a lot of problems we still have today continue to be reproduced, and lots of people continue to be oppressed and marginalized because of it. There’s a level of nuance there that I think a lot of people miss. People complained about Picard and how negatively it portrayed the Federation, but the point wasn’t that there was no point because even the Federation sucks, it was that even though the Federation sucks, it’s still a better world than the one we have now, and it can still be better. The biggest problem with pure utopianism is that it comes pre-packaged with the idea that there’s an ideal final form to a society that, once it is reached, can’t be improved upon. That doesn’t work anymore and we know it doesn’t. All utopias are someone’s dystopia, and the point isn’t not to try, it’s to keep trying to make things better, which is what the crews of Discovery and Picard are doing. People who don’t get that just don’t get the point of Star Trek and probably never did. And people who think that Star Trek is too focused on social justice and should stop should just shut the fuck up, because they’ve clearly never understood what they’re watching.

One thing that’s been consistent in Star Trek from day one is its critique of modern capitalism. The Federation is also a post-currency society that is fully socialist, they just give food and medicine and shelter and clothing to people who need it. They have technology that can make all basic necessities appear out of thin air, and it’s freely available to everyone everywhere. Any time they run across a species that still uses money, it’s very clearly a problem. This was a really radical thing to do in 1966, and to be honest it’s a pretty radical thing to do in 2021, to just insist over and over again, without exception, that society would be objectively better if capitalism went away. But because Americans are afraid of the word ‘socialism,’ they say it using aliens and starships instead of actually saying the word, because that’s what you do when you write fiction. Whether or not they’ve fully realized their premise’s potential in other regards, this one critique has been consistent and, I think, pretty effective. It shows up with varying levels of subtlety in different shows and episodes, but it pretty much always lands on its prime point: being forced to pay for basic necessities is fucked and nobody should have to do it, especially not in a culture where those things can be freely mass-produced at any time.

The politics of Star Trek are obviously always oriented around whatever is happening in the real world when it was produced. The Original Series is really oriented around racial politics. There’s a lot of gender politics in most of 90s Star Trek. New Star Trek makes sure to critique colonialism and have queer people around. This happens at the micro and macro levels, depending on the issue. Anyone who pretends that Star Trek wasn’t political until recently doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Star Trek was never about the future, it was always and still is about the present and the way the world is now, and the things we can do to make it better. They’re still trying to make the world better in the fictional future. There’s no reason why we can’t at least get a start on that now. At risk of sounding trite and tacky, the strange new world the franchise is actually exploring is our own. Or at least it could be.

And that’s the point of Star Trek.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s