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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

To Boldly Go Away

For the first time in almost twenty years, there will be no Star Trek series in production. I loved the original series, used to have the episodes almost memorized. In later years I found better uses for the brain storage space. And while I liked the subsequent series all right, I thought they never came close to capturing the sense of wonder of the original.

(Remember: the Golden Age of science fiction is twelve.)

Anyway, famed science fiction writer Orson Scott Card weighs in on the loss in the LA Times.

So they've gone and killed "Star Trek." And it's about time.


The original "Star Trek," created by Gene Roddenberry, was, with a few exceptions, bad in every way that a science fiction television show could be bad.

Surely there speaks a man who's never seen Lost in Space, where they headed toward the nearest star and somehow managed to visit a new planet every week or so, without ever getting to Alpha Centauri, and whose idea of cool aliens was space cowboys, space Vikings, space pirates, space Arabs, space royalty, space department stores, talking vegetables, and Satan.

This was in the days before series characters were allowed to grow and change, before episodic television was allowed to have a through line. So it didn't matter which episode you might be watching, from which year -- the characters were exactly the same.

Now this is a good point. It's tough to remember how it was in those days. I remember being thrilled by the brand new thing that was a Next Gen story arc. So when you think about all those chicks that Kirk had, remember that they wouldn't let him have the same chick more than once, or fondly remember a woman who'd already been on the show. For "Shore Leave" they had to dredge up the youthful memory of "Ruth" (who looked, in the way of women of the Sixties, about 45).

As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s -- a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas. It was sci-fi as seen by Hollywood: all spectacle, no substance.

This makes me sad, because I like that kind of science fiction. Not too many people write it these days, people like James H. Schmitz or H. Beam Piper.

But besides that, it simply wasn't true. Here's a sampling of the "deeper ideas" in the original Star Trek, in chronological order:

  • "The Man Trap": A man knowingly lives with a creature who impersonates his dead wife. Is there any relevant difference between the copy, and the original? Between fantasy and reality? (See also "What Are Little Girls Made of?", "The Menagerie", "Shore Leave")

  • "Charlie X": A human acquires superhuman power. Can he remain uncorrupted? Answer: no. (A common theme. See also "Where No Man Has Gone Before", "Dagger of the Mind", "Shore Leave", "The Squire of Gothos" -- not a human in that instance, "Space Seed")

  • "The Enemy Within": A really stupid episode asking the interesting question: Do the darker aspects of humanity have a positive use?

  • "Mudd's Women": An early foray into the powers of self-esteem.

  • "The Corbomite Maneuver": An enemy alien turns out to be misunderstood. (Not used very often in TOS, but ridden into the ground throughout subsequent series. See also "The Squire of Gothos", "The Devil in the Dark".)

  • "The Galileo Seven": Are intellect and logic complete in themselves? Or do intuition and emotion have a place as well? (An incredibly tedious theme, touched upon in many, many episodes. Even at the time I wondered where this came from, because frankly I think we need a lot more exhortation to use our intellects than we do to use our emotions, but maybe that's just me.)

  • "Arena": "Primitive" humans refrain from killing. (Touched upon in "A Taste of Armageddon", used in later seasons.)

  • "The Return of the Archons": If a human society were rendered peaceful by some outside force, would it still be human? Would it grow, and change, and produce? (Possibly the single most common theme in the series. See also "This Side of Paradise".)

  • "A Taste of Armageddon": If we could remove the ugliness of war, would that make war easier to wage?

  • "Errand of Mercy": I think the theme of this episode is supposed to be that people can be so intent on waging war that they lose sight of what goals the war is supposed to serve. But I don't think it's presented very well.

  • "The City on the Edge of Forever": The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Sometimes good people must die to prevent a greater evil. A lesson completely lost on the episode's creator, I'll wager.

Whew! And that's just the first season! I could've gone on (and on). There are also plain old sensawunda episodes which explore questions like, "What if there were an alternate universe in which we were all really different?" ("Mirror, Mirror", 2nd season), "What would a 20th century Roman Empire be like?" ("Bread and Circuses", 2nd season), "What would it be like to be the only immortal?" ("Requiem for Methuselah", 3rd season). (Note: Check this site for all your Star Trek episode needs.)

It would have been difficult to explore some of these themes in an episode of, say, Bonanza, or Dragnet.

Lurching on:

Which was a shame, because science fiction writing was incredibly fertile at the time, with writers like Harlan Ellison and Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg and Larry Niven, Brian W. Aldiss and Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke creating so many different kinds of excellent science fiction that no one reader could keep track of it all.

Little of this seeped into the original "Star Trek."

OK, hold on a damn minute here. Ellison through Moorcock were entirely different types of writers than Bradbury through Clarke. The latter four (not so much Clarke, maybe) were much more into those nasty old 1930s type stories. And while the first six produced many fine works, the nature of some of those works was such that they would not be palatable to a wider audience. (In fact, you can argue that this was the very purpose of "New Wave" science fiction, much of which frankly strikes me as being created expressely to epater le bourgeoisie. Oh, how original.)

Besides which, the original Star Trek had episodes by actual science fiction writers, like Norman Spinrad, Ted Sturgeon, Robert Bloch, and (oopsie!) Harlan Ellison.

So why did the Trekkies throw themselves into this poorly imagined, weakly written, badly acted television series with such commitment and dedication? Why did it last so long?

Here's what I think: Most people weren't reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren't reading at all. So when they saw "Star Trek," primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction. It was grade school for those who had let the whole science fiction revolution pass them by.

Er, possibly. I, personally, was still in grade school when the original Star Trek was dewy fresh, and so would not have been reading The Left Hand of Darkness and its exploration of human sexual roles, thanks very much. (I will confess to you that I was embarrassed enough by the exploration of sexuality in "Amok Time". I was eleven, I think.) Most of Star Trek's fans weren't much older than I (up to college age, say). They probably hadn't had much of a chance to experience the "science fiction revolution".

By the way: eventually, Star Trek led me to Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, et al. But even after I was reading much better writers, I kept watching Star Trek, hoping to recapture the Golden Age (remember: 12). I have to say, none of the subsequent series caught my imagination in the same way as the first one. Next Generation patrolled a galaxy gone too civilized, with the focus on our crew members kicking themselves in the ass to venerate the culture-of-the-week.

Lileks (see below) has oft-praised Deep Space Nine for being gritty, but frankly I get my RDA of grit from daily life, and don't really need any in my Star Trek. TOS promised us that Star Fleet was going to be an organization of bright-eyed explorers, noble soldiers, and dedicated scientists; and the Federation free of the sort of dark governmental machinations that delight the X-Files types. DS9 not only broke that promise, it kicked it to shards and stomped on the remains, laughing maniacally.

I was one of the few who liked Voyager; sometimes it looked as if the sense of wonder from TOS was back. But it was very uneven, and the series lurched from episode to episode without really getting a grip.

Enterprise has been OK, but a bit hampered by having to stay within the history of TOS. Some of the Xindi-chasing episodes were good, and this last season has been darned good.

Now, speaking of Lileks, here he is on the same subject. He gives a capsule reviews of the series (plural), of which the best is:

The Original Series. The gold standard. It was a perfect sixties show--New Frontier optimism, Klingons as Commie analogues, go-go boots, undiluted Shatner in his prime, pointy-sideburn manliness...Overall grade: A. To say otherwise would be like critiquing the Old Testament for narrative flow.

He concludes with:

Give it rest...let it come back when all the accreted expectations have been forgotten and the story feels fresh again. I watched the first "Star Trek" episode as it was broadcast, sitting in my grandfather's living room in Harwood, North Dakota. I will watch the last one in my own home and feel a sense of relief: I don't have to worry whether it's good or bad. Now it's just done.

For the moment. The Enterprise is dry-docked, but that can't last; the show is America itself, and we make Captain Kirks like no one else. It's not "The Scarlet Pimpernel in Space" that has lasted for four decades, after all. It's "Star Trek." Space is still the final frontier, and it'll be waiting when we're ready for it again.

Card's conclusion, on the other hand:

Screen sci-fi has finally caught up with written science fiction. We're in college now. High school is over. There's just no need for "Star Trek" anymore.

This, really, is laughable, as any glance at the Sci-Fi Channel's schedule will tell you. Especially the godawful original movies.

But it's also an awfully dumb mistake for a smart man to make. Something like Star Trek will always be around. It's a retelling of a myth, one that was old when Homer was a pup.

On the other hand, I suspect Lileks is wrong as well. Some of our technology (cell phones, as he points out) has already caught up to Roddenberry's original vision of the 23rd century. As it advances farther, our myths are going to need to be upgraded along with it. What will this myth look like in the 23rd century? Will interstellar travel be possible, or will we still be dreaming of it?

Despite Card, I hope people keep writing space operas until we get there.

And if they don't, I will. And we wouldn't want that, would we? No.

(Card article via Rand Simberg (although it was also in the Houston Chronicle's editorial pages yesterday). Be sure and read the comments.)