Why Star Trek’s Version Of The Future Is Flawed
Star Trek's future is often held up as a paragon of utopian virtue, but it's not as perfect as it sometimes seems. Part of the basic premise of Star Trek, from The Original Series all the way up through Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard, is that Earth has become a paradise, with things like disease and famine largely things of the past. Even beyond that, franchise creator Gene Roddenberry posited that essentially all human conflict would be gone by the era of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Criticism of the franchise often focuses on it venturing too far into dark, bleak territory that would seem to fly in the face of Roddenberry's idyllic future.Click the button below to start this article in quick view. Start now
There's just one problem - Star Trek has rarely ever lived up to the idea of a perfect version of humanity. Star Trek: The Original Series featured plenty of arguments - and even occasional fist fights - between its characters, who displayed a number of the vices that were prevalent in the era in which it was made. And while The Next Generation's first two years featured very little in the way of human fallacy, the later seasons - after Roddenberry had effectively retired - would explore the characters and their world in sometimes surprisingly dark ways, adding richness and complexity to the sometimes stuffy seeming crew of the Enterprise-D.
Yet if Star Trek has always featured a less than perfect future, why does that aspect of the franchise so often come in for criticism? The answer lies in the changing currents of television storytelling, as well as the shifting goals of its creator.
Star Trek's Future Has Never Been Perfect
Before buying into his own hype on the convention circuit in the 1970s, Roddenberry's aims were a bit more modest. Star Trek: The Original Series was pitched as "Wagon Train To The Stars," a science fiction show that featured many of the trappings of a Western adventure series. Roddenberry had always planned on prominently featuring social issues in the series, but the notion of a newly enlightened form of humanity was largely backburnered. Indeed, one of the prominent uses of the trope came in the episode "Errand of Mercy," which ultimately came to the conclusion that the Federation and the Klingons were both guilty of warmongering and hatred. It's a powerful, classic episode that admits that while humanity may have evolved somewhat, there was still plenty of room for self-improvement. The enlightenment of Star Trek is the embrace of that self-improvement, not that we're done improving.
Even more so than TOS, Star Trek: The Next Generation is often held up as the true version of Roddenberry's idyllic vision. And yes, the crew of the Enterprise-D - led by the empathetic, intellectual Jean-Luc Picard, who had none of Captain Kirk's lecherous vices - could often come across as perfect people. And yet they still had to deal with humanity's failings constantly, whether it be from outside forces or, on a surprising number of occasions, the Starfleet admiralty, which proved itself corrupt so times that it was flirting with parody by the end of the show's run.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - which was produced wholly after Roddenberry's death - routinely dealt with dark scenarios, and even featured a captain in Benjamin Sisko who was capable of genuine moral lapses, like in the classic episode "In The Pale Moonlight," where the captain allowed himself to be an accessory to murder to save the Federation from the ravages of the Dominion War. DS9 would also be the beginning of Star Trek's relationship with serialized storytelling, which leads into the franchise's next problem with utopia.
Television Storytelling Has Changed (& Star Trek With It)
For the vast majority of Star Trek's existence, the franchise told self-contained, episodic stories. Other than soap operas, that was simply how television was made in the 20th century. Networks wanted episodes to be self-contained so that when they hit syndication, they could be shown in whatever order individual stations wanted without viewers feeling like they missed something from a previous episode. Part of the reason Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was only a modest success in its day was because its moderate serialization made it a major headache for syndication purposes.
This self-contained structure meant that, for the most part, the status quo would be reset at the end of each episode; you simply couldn't have Captain Kirk ruminating about something for five straight episodes. In the age of streaming, serialization is essentially a necessity; viewers need a reason to binge five episodes in a row, and what better way to accomplish that than to tell one, giant story in episodic chapters?
This is where Star Trek has sometimes gotten in trouble with its devoted, loud fanbase. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Jean-Luc Picard could be horrifically assaulted by the Borg, or Worf could lose his family honor, and the consequences would largely fade to the background as further episodes aired. Conversely, Star Trek: Picard had one, overarching storyline to fill all 10 episodes, meaning the darker, bleaker aspects hung over the entire season, not fully resolved until the season finale. Picard didn't go into any darker territory than any other Star Trek series, it just lingered in that darkness longer by its very nature. The same is true of Star Trek: Discovery - though that show's first season was marred by more than just a format change.
Star Trek is often held up as the most hopeful, forward looking genre franchise, and in many ways it lives up to that legacy. It is, in fact, a better future, where people are generally smarter and kinder, less concerned with personal wealth than personal growth. But that can't mean a show full of perfect people who never run into problems; that's the opposite of drama. Star Trek, even now, has the ability to dip its toe - sometimes its entire foot - into dark, choppy waters, and come out the other side having learned something new. Overcoming - not ignoring - that darkness is a vitally important part of Star Trek's version of the future.