Star Trek: The Next Generation is a show which shouldn’t exist. The Original Series found a new popularity with the movies and was doing extremely well in syndication seventeen years after it ceased production. The biggest difference between the Original Series and the Next Generation is the lack of conflict between the people on the Enterprise. Where Kirk would happily engage in workplace bullying, Picard (the new captain) governs the Enterprise by roundtable. Very rarely do we see Picard make a decision without consulting whoever happens to be on the bridge.
Once again, James has helped me to craft a list of the six episodes from this series that you should watch, although this time we have no episodes in common.
So we’ve looked at James Bond and Batman. There really wasn’t a question of what series of films I was going to watch next. It was always going to be Star Trek.
Star Trek was originally a television series back in the 1960s in a similar genre to Batman, Bewitched, and Lost in Space. It never rated particularly well on television and — it could be argued — was able to find a niche specifically because television companies were more inclined to have these quirky niche products than they are today. By the time of the first movie, the original series had been off the air for over a decade. The Star Trek films have therefore always been framed in terms of nostalgia.
This nostalgic element results immediately in difficulties. How do you satiate existing fans while attracting new audiences? How do you balance the need to present spectacle and action with the fans’ awareness of the absurdities? More importantly, how do you refresh the structure of a Star Trek story to meet changing expectations about the world? Do you update the individual story elements, images, and styles?
Take the example of the Orion slave girls. In a 1969 episode of Star Trek (‘The Original Series’) called ‘Whom the Gods Destroy’, Yvonne Craig (who also played Batgirl in Batman) portrayed a member of this species:
In 2005, the Orion slave girls made a return in a completely fresh, entirely updated, and very modern take on the original:
Or maybe not.
The Orion slave girl example provides an interesting insight into the way science fiction is used as a mirror of society. When the Original Series was on the air, the key political question of the day was the conflict with Russia and distrust of China. In 1967, the episode ‘Errand of Mercy’ introduced the Klingons as an avatar for the Communists. The Federation, on the other hand, has always represented the Anglosphere in Space (even when it’s had Japanese and Soviet characters in Star Fleet). Over the course of the Star Trek franchise, the Klingons would eventually be reconciled with the Federation, but women who were more than mere titillation objects would always be the exception rather than the rule.
This gendered element of Star Trek allowed the series to explore some deeply troubling aspects of society: was there any limit to what could be sexualised? No matter how far away from Earth we flew, we’d always find something that looked hot in skin-tight pants. Although the Star Trek universe is inherently political (what does it mean for a society to be built around a regimented institution of scholar-warriors?), it is — first and foremost — about sexuality and masculinity. (more…)
I went into Star Trek Into Darkness with extremely high expectations. I was not disappointed.
But let’s go back to the start.
Science fiction is a weird, wonderful, and difficult genre. It breaks off into two main schools: the hard science fiction, exploring the limits of known science, and the soft science fiction, exploring social ideas in alien environments. Star Trek has often straddled the line between the two schools. The first Star Trek film even had Isaac Asimov as a consultant and, as a result, the first Star Trek film is a ponderously dull affair — magnificent in scope and vision, but utterly, spectacularly dull. It’s 132 minutes long, and each one of those minutes lasts about six years. I quite enjoy it (I also enjoy the similar 2001: A Space Odyssey which is also spectacularly dull (I went to a costume party as HAL and nobody knew who I was; when I explained, the common response was that people had fallen asleep by that part of the film)).
2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968 while Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1979. I’m always startled to recall that Star Wars — which unabashedly pushes through soft science fiction into the realm of fantasy — was released two years prior to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Star Wars all but redefined cinema and science fiction for the mass market, yet Star Trek: The Motion Picture feels like it was released the fortnight after 2001. Perhaps Kubrick was ahead of his time. Perhaps Roddenberry was harking back to the 1960s. Perhaps both.