Star Trek Guide

New Star Trek Has Lost What Made The Show So Great

Modern Star Trek has forgotten the optimism that made the franchise great. There's a sense in which modern society has never felt so pessimistic. Gone are the days when humans looked to the future with a sense of hope; now, there is a sense of fear. The future is a place full of unknown, half-formed terrors, while at the same time, we are gradually becoming aware the evils of the past are still with us - prejudice and intolerance, bigotry and hatred - and the new Star Trek series' ethos seems no longer confident humanity will be able to beat these challenges.

Science-fiction has always served to hold up a mirror to contemporary society; sci-fi worlds may be fantastical, but they allow viewers to understand contemporary issues. Symbolic of this, the last decade or so saw the rise of dystopian futures, particularly geared towards young-adult audiences. Oddly enough, these still seem to be performing better in the written form than they do in film and TV franchises. These stories are actually quite subtle because they present bleak futures that seem all too believable, and yet they typically show a new generation confronting these ominous world-systems. They are a strange blend of darkness and optimism because they at least suggest broken societies can be changed.

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Given this context, Star Trek should be one of the most crucial sci-fi franchises of all. Gene Roddenberry knew how sci-fi worked, and he believed his franchise had the power to confront and even transform society. Unfortunately, the current writers and showrunners have struggled to present that same optimism.

The Optimistic Heart Of Star Trek

Gene Roddenberry was a humanist, and his optimism shaped Star Trek. "I believe in humanity," he famously observed in one interview. "We are an incredible species. We're still just a child creature; we're still being nasty to each other. And all children go through those phases. We're growing up, we're moving into adolescence now. When we grow up - man, we're going to be something!Star Trek was intended as a vision of our potential future, one where humanity had grown beyond petty divisions and self-interest. Racial tension was a thing of the past, women could serve on starship bridges and ultimately star as captains, and even alien civilizations had allied with humanity in a galactic Federation. The Vulcan philosophy of IDIC - "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations" - wasn't just a slogan, but rather was a way of life. Starfleet didn't just acknowledge differences; they celebrated them.

Roddenberry's Star Trek declares humanity's best days are not behind us; they are ahead of us. Star Trek does not harp back to a romanticized, overly nostalgic view of yesterday; the values of tomorrow do not include nationalism, financial prosperity, or power fantasies. There are still issues, but they arise from individual humans who have not become enlightened, rather than from the system itself. This runs completely counter to our modern pessimism, our fear of the future, our nagging doubt about society's development. Star Trek is science fiction as counter-culture.

Star Trek Has Forgotten Its heart

Unfortunately, modern Star Trek appears to have forgotten this optimistic heart. Star Trek: Discovery's central character is Michael Burnham, and the first season began with Burnham triggering a galactic war at the Battle of the Binary Stars. This was driven by her own fear and prejudice, her deep-rooted refusal to truly embrace the principle of IDIC, or at least to apply it to Klingons as well as Federation members. As Star Trek: Discovery season 1 progressed, it showed the Federation at its worst, essentially modern society writ large. The idea of development and growth was gone, to the point the Federation considered an act of genocide. Worse still, the end of Star Trek: Discovery season 2 saw the USSDiscovery blasted into a future timeline that looks a lot more dystopian. The United Federation of Planets is diminished, apparently reduced to just six members; Starfleet itself appears to have been long since wound down. As great and good as the Federation may have been, it did not last and is gradually being consigned to the history books.

Meanwhile, Star Trek: Picard season 1 was at heart a story of nostalgia - with a corrupted Federation viewed as villains at worst, antagonists at best. Jean-Luc Picard had dreamed of doing good, but he had failed and instead had retreated to live and die in his chateau in France. Even when Picard finally took to the stars again, he was driven more by a desire to do one last good thing than by a belief in the Federation. Star Trek: Picard ended with Jean-Luc and his crew heading off on new adventures, but they appear to have been independent from the Federation, perhaps still reluctant to trust an organization that had been compromised by anti-synthetic prejudice for decades.

There are hopeful signs. Star Trek: Picard season 1 may have dined out on nostalgia, but that cannot continue, and Burnham and her crew were given a much-needed shot of optimism in Star Trek: Discovery season 2. And yet, the problems remain. Many viewers assume the USS Discovery will help usher in a new golden age of the Federation in the 32nd century, but the philosophical message inherent in that concept runs counter to Roddenberry's vision too. Roddenberry believed in the slow march of forward progress; he  did not believe the future would flourish if we looked to the past, and Discovery and her crew is - in the 32nd century - a symbol of the past.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Could Be Just What The Franchise Needs

All eyes are now turning to Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, a Star Trek: Discovery spinoff starring Anson Mount as Captain Pike, Ethan Peck as Spock, and Rebecca Romijn as Number One. Fans fell in love with these characters in Star Trek: Discovery season 2, largely because they embodied the kind of optimism that should be central to Star Trek. In one early scene, Captain Pike told the crew of the Discovery he understood what they had been through, but that he was not Captain Lorca; he was Starfleet. It was hardly a subtle speech, and it seemed as much addressed to critical fans as to the crew. CBS has claimed Strange New Worlds will continue in this vein, giving loyal viewers the real optimism they so long for. If that is the case, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds could well be the beginning of a reset, helping Star Trek play the kind of counter-cultural role Roddenberry hoped for all those years ago.