Why Star Trek Matters, (Part 2)
As discussed in the last column on Why Star Trek Matters, it might come as a revelation to people watching movies and shows that have “expanded universes” that it can be about more than find Easter eggs hinting at past or future adventures, that simply knowing that the characters have shared histories – regardless of whether the viewer had actually seen them – deepens the relationship between the characters.
Another aspect that makes Star Trek such a unique franchise is that it has formulated it’s own style of storytelling, one so unique that the kinds of adventures in Star Trek that have become overused and cliche are still the kind of adventures that are only used in Star Trek and not in other shows or movies. Star Trek is replete with it’s own recurring plots or stories, but they are still different from the kinds of stories that other franchises might tell. The crew might find another god-like being, and learn it’s failings are actually petulant and human. The crew might find seemingly formidable AI’s that will fall when confronted with logic. In other adventures, the crew must decide to step back even it could save entire civilizations.
But is Star Trek‘s brand of storytelling still relevant?
Right now, the superhero genre is continuing to grow. It has taken over film already and now is making a lasting mark on television. It’s a lot of fun to watch superheroes on screen. Many of these heroes are iconic, and each one of them has his or her own story. Yet, let’s boil it down a little bit. Let’s risk making a generalization. Aren’t, at their core, all superheros about the same thing? There might be an exception or two, but seems pretty clear that the superhero genre revolves many of its stories around one question: Am I strong, or responsible, enough to be the hero that everyone needs? Only if I am – that’s when I put on the costume. Think about this: at the very core, all of the superhero films deal with this question to some degree. Even Thor, already granted his superpowers by design, hesitates for a good long moment in The Avengers before mounting up the mental courage to pick up his own hammer in a moment of inner crisis (during which, we presume, he;s asking himself these very same questions).
Star Trek’s story-telling scope is a bit broader and, at times, more complex, and with over seven hundred hours of live-action media to consume, it would take a long time to examine the different kinds of stories being told. This column could never cover it all. One such thread is the idea that these characters are already heroes, that they, in fact, aren’t filled with that angst of whether they should be heroes or not. These characters are heroes because they are trained to be. They are heroes because they are out there on missions to do the right thing. Heroism is their job!
The most chilling aspect of the heroism of Star Trek characters is that, at times, they must allow the innocent to die. They’ve logged enough hours out there in the final frontier to know that they can’t save everyone, and there are times when they shouldn’t even try. In some ways this goes hand-in-hand with any television show or movie based on military command structure. You know how it goes: The captain must make tough orders at crucial times that will cost the lives of some of the crew members that serve under him. Indeed, some of the best Star Trek moments have been all about those kinds of difficult moments.
But then, in the nearly fifty years it has been on, Trek has taken this further, thematically with the ultimate exponent of this conundrum: What if a whole civilization must be left alone. What if a whole civilization must be left to die?
Now we reach discussions of the Prime Directive, the story point in Star Trek that confounds its loyal fan-base as much as it confuses those looking in from the outside. The Prime Directive is a very simple plot point that has given the franchise a set of dramatic teeth that makes it more formidable in a dramatic sense than other space fantasies. The Prime Directive is the general order that a Starfleet crew must, no matter the costs, not interfere with the natural development of a indigenous culture. Had no such directive been made at the outset, advanced starships would helping primitive cultures and hastening their development far more quickly than they’d normally be.
This column has to stay relatively short, so to go over the all of the episodes wherein the Prime Directive had played a part would be (in a word) futile. To even highlight some of the best episodes that have incorporated the Prime Directive into excellent stories would be too big a task. Needless to say, there are many great episodes that have used the Prime Directive to great effect, and they all sprung from this rather original creative wellspring that is Star Trek.
And, just as there are as many great episodes that have done this, there are as many, ehhhh, not-so-great ones that have done this as well. As stated above, even with the Trek episodes that continue to pound the most overused and most cliched themes into the ground it can still be said that these overused cliches are nonetheless unique to Star Trek. Even the bad and even the over-wrought episodes and films are bad only on the terms of Star Trek’s own style of storytelling, and no one else’s.
Take the episode “Homeward,” a delightfully cheesy episode that aired late in the run of The Next Generation, when the show was clearly running out creative steam. The episode involved a planet that served as home to a primitive culture who, thanks to an atmospheric calamity, was going die off. The episode’s first few acts deal with crew reflecting upon its inability to help this culture. After all, to save this culture would mean to break the Prime Directive, thereby interfering with what would normally happen to that culture. The episode doesn’t make it easy at all for the crew to simply watch as this primitive culture is destroyed but they do it anyway. The controversy of the Prime Directive is no easier here than it is in a better episode. (Let’s be clear, there are many better episodes than “Homeward.”)
After this rather grim and contemplative opening, “Homefront” then delves into some whacky storytelling ideas that can and has only been done on Trek. As it turns out, Worf’s foster brother, Nikolai, who is human (played by the great Paul Sorvino of Goodfellas fame) takes great sympathy with one of the primitive villages. Instead of allowing the people in the village to die on the planet, he brings them on-board the ship, into a holographic simulation of their planet and concocts a plan: The crew will find a new planet for the village, and the hologram will change as if to simulate the idea that these people are walking to an area that is safe from the deadly storms.
This is a ridiculous premise, supported by some very amusing scenes where the hologram malfunctions, a villager makes his way into other parts of the ship, or the fact that the engineer must create weather patterns as if he is a god. Nikolai must fight with Worf throughout the episode on matters of principle, at times coming across as a bit too earnest. Despite a downbeat opening where the Prime Directive weighs heavily on both the characters and the viewer, this is far from a heavy episode. It’s also far from a four-star episode. What it is.. is a Trek episode. Take the good, take the bad, because both the good and the bad work entirely on Star Trek’s terms and no one else’s.
Once you’ve explored the universe of Star Trek, it’s easy to be forgiving of some of the less-than-stellar outings, and even most of these can be enjoyed as guilty pleasures. And, like “Homeward” they can still contribute scenarios to the franchise’s most heavy themes.
More to come in the series of “Why Star Trek Matters.” Hang in there….