Star Trek Guide

Comments and Commerce: A Note

It may seem odd to ask at this particular moment if Star Trek has stopped.  After all, the second season of a Star Trek television series is soon to begin, with rumors of several other television projects, including the possible return of Jean-Luc Picard.  The fourth feature film in the current series is reportedly getting itself organized, with another feature in the planning stages. There hasn't been this much Star Trek activity since the 1990s.

But in the way I mean it, Star Trek did stop shortly after that. On television, it stopped in 2001 when the last episode of Star Trek: Voyager aired.  At the movies, it stopped a year later with Star Trek: Nemesis. That's when Star Trek stopped exploring a new future, moving ahead on the timeline of tomorrow.

It stopped in the 24th century (Voyager in 2378 and Nemesis in 2379. The 24th century backstory for the 2009 Abrams film is said to have happened in 2387. Arguably, scenes of various series episodes projected a little further.)

 Since then it's been backwards to the future: a prequel series to the Kirk era with Star Trek Enterprise, alternate universe stories but in the 23rd century in the Abrams movies, another prequel series to the Kirk era currently underway as Star Trek:Discovery.  Though the time frames of projects now in the works haven't been announced, everything said about them suggests they are mostly 23rd century stories, with perhaps a 24th century TNG era limited series in the mix.

But Star Trek started with a future imagined from the ground up.  Gene Roddenberry consulted with science fiction authors (notably the ABC giants: Asimov, Bradbury and Clarke) but he also consulted with scientists and futurists.  In fact, the one book by Arthur C. Clarke that Roddenberry said he'd read was Clarke's nonfiction Profiles of the Future, which helped ignite the futures studies movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Roddenberry and his team created a self-consistent, credible 23rd century future, with new technologies--and new ways in which humans had to interact with technology--and a new society.  It envisioned a future in which individuals weren't restricted by race or gender, and that kind of equality was accepted.  It posited a united Earth with world government, a United Federation of Planets, and a Starfleet with a new ethical foundation.

Almost two decades after this original series was broadcast, Gene Roddenberry was given the opportunity to create a new Star Trek series.  He didn't do a sequel or a prequel.  He and his team imagined a new future, of the 24th century.  We saw how the original vision developed and met new challenges in the next century.

In those intervening years, Roddenberry spoke at conventions about mistakes he'd made with the original series, things he wanted to do but couldn't, and where he saw the Star Trek future going.  From the very first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, he began exploring that farther future.

We are more than 50 years into the actual future from the original Star Trek series. Future possibilities from this perspective are quite different than they were in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.  The kinds of technologies we can envision are different, as are the issues involved in their use.  Scientific knowledge, or at least theories and informed speculation, about the universe are greatly different as well.

If Star Trek were true to its original mission, it would envision a post-24th century future that better reflects what we know and what we think about now.  Instead, Star Trek is stuck in its own past.  It is no longer an enterprise of exploration.

At best, it has become a static myth, like King Arthur or Robin Hood. New stories are woven with old cloth.  At worst, it is what people most often call it: a franchise, a Kentucky Fried Chicken of space opera.  As long as it keeps familiar elements and pushes the old buttons, it can generate stories and cash flow.

I don't have a bad word to say about Star Trek: Discovery or anyone associated with it.  I haven't seen it.  (Okay, one personal observation: mirror universe stories are almost invariably evidence of lack of imagination.  The only one that meant anything was the first one.)  I don't envy the difficulty of creating anything under the intense pressure of omnipresent social media.  Star Trek was probably the first story universe to be kept alive because of its fans.  Its ideals and exemplary characters had deep meaning to its most ardent viewers.  But Gene Roddenberry explicitly said he would not allow fans to dictate creative decisions or direction.

New Star Trek stories may well be taking on issues of our present, as Star Trek stories always have.  But that's only half of the mission.  The other half is envisioning and modeling a future.  A brand new future might be expensive to create, but even more, it would take research and imagination.  But that's how Star Trek started.  Has it stopped?