Why Star Trek Matters Part 3: Dom-Jot Hustler Special
In the first part of the series, the case was made that an expansive universe is important not for the purposes of Easter eggs and continuity, but give a series like Star Trek a bit of it’s heart. Just knowing that the characters had been through a lot together is sometimes more important than having to watch each and every adventure along the way.
In the second part of the series, a case was made for the idea that the franchise’s less-than-stellar stories have still helped build the universe. Even when an episode keeps turning back to the well, it is often using cliches that are unique to this franchise.
And now: we have part three: Really good science fiction!
One of the reasons that Star Trek has always mattered – and why it will always be important – is that it can be the source for both good science fiction or social commentary. Not every episode tries to reach for either of these – as some are meant to be simple comedies or straightforward adventures – and some of the ones that do make the attempt have actually failed miserably. Yet, there may not be another franchise around that has been able to cover more unique science fiction concepts and do it so well. The best science fiction films that are not a part of Star Trek have to spend the requisite time to introduce its characters and set up the parameters for how it’s “universe” will work: will space travel be relatively simple for the characters to achieve? Will there be sound in space? What makes the world of the story different from our own world, and what makes it the same? Yet, with Star Trek, both setting and the characters are often established ahead of time, so the episode or movie can tell whatever story it wants without the need for a lot of time spent setting it all up.
We know that Star Trek takes place at least two to three centuries in the future. We know that the United Federation of Planets is an alliance of worlds similar to the United Nations, and they have starships that are tasked with the defense of this alliance as well as the exploration of space. With just the faintest knowledge of even these basics as a backdrop, new viewers can enter a random story rather quickly. Add to this is he fact that a great many episodes begin with “captain’s logs” which are used to set up the basic premise as efficiently as possible, so more screen-time can be spent exploring the issues that are raised.
We all know that Star Trek has had it’s share of less-than-memorable episodes, but has it ever really produced those that might be considered “great” science fiction? Absolutely. All of the Star Trek series have had more than a handful of episode that have had “profound” science fiction concepts at the core of the storyline, and each series has had those stand-out episodes implementing concepts and actually pulling them off in ways that would make Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick green with envy. What’s more, the various writers and producers that worked on Star Trek were able to do this with the limitations of television. You know, things like the limited time allotted to tell a story, or those miniscule budgets..
Yes, despite dated special effects and cheesy music, the original series was certainly able to make some genuinely good science fiction. Look at the morality tale “The Devil in the Dark” in which a mining colony is in a state of crisis as a mysterious creature is attacking the workers. This lean-and-mean episode, which takes place almost entirely on the planet, feels much like a classic horror film before Spock is able to discern the fact that the strange alien creature is merely defending its own offspring. This is classic sci fi, paced perfectly for a very fast 50-minute run-time. Or how about “All Our Yesterdays,” a time travel outing that is more thoughtful than you’d expect? Here, the citizens of a planet decide to escape the coming nova of their own star by time traveling into various points in history. Forget all of that talk about contaminating the present: when the whole world is about to go, why not jump through a portal into the past?
Perhaps no episode is more well-regarded in the original series than “The City on The Edge of Forever” in which the crew learn that decent young woman who only promoted peace must, in fact, die, in order to preserve history. Why? Because if she had lived, she would have convinced the United States government ton delay its entry into World War Two, resulting in a version of history in which Hitler would have been able to get the “bomb” first. This is one of the most profound ideas ever attempted in live-action science fiction, and it was executed with aplomb.
While The Next Generation concentrated largely on cold war-style diplomacy, they were able to sneak in in a few hard science fiction concepts that are quite profound in themselves. There’s “The Inner Light” in which a wandering probe links with Picard, and he finds himself living the life of man on another planet whose civilization had died decades before. Did he actually experience all of those memories? Viewers are left pondering the clues as they try to decide for themselves. There’s an episode called “The Nth Degree” in which a timid and rather average crewmen is suddenly bestowed with super-intelligence, and we see how his relationship with the crew suddenly changes as he purports to know the best course humanity should be taking. There’s the stand-out sixth season episode “Frame of Mind” in which Riker’s part in a disturbing play is that of a man committed to a strange mental facility, and then – quite suddenly -Riker finds that he himself is in a mental facility nearly identical to the one depicted in the play, only this one feels very real.
Deep Space Nine might have been more concerned about the daily lives of its before and during a full-scale galactic war, the series also delved into some of it’s own “hard” science fiction concepts. In “Destiny” a specific ancient prophesy foretelling great doom seems to be coming true despite all attempts to actively keep it from coming to fruition. The episode was brilliantly structured so that we go to a commercial break each time something new is discovered that is actually a part of the prophesy as written in the ancient texts. Who says there are no new ideas anymore? There is also a brilliant episode called “Hard Time,” where an alien society inflicts punishment by implanting memories of incarceration that can’t be removed. Both Voyager and Enterprise got into the game of profound science fiction as well. Though the episode as a whole is below average, Voyager’s “Death Wish” has a stand-out scene that depicts what “life” would actually be like for an all-powerful and all-knowing being, and the illustration is both haunting and profound. Enterprise’s “Observer Effect” illustrates how humanity’s own morality has provided it with the one key to a fulfilling existence – true empathy – a trait that a much more evolved species had admonished thousands of years before as it ascended to a non-corporeal status.
And – for each series – there’s more where that came from. Star Trek isn’t just about dry peace-keeping missions, character dilemmas or phaser battles (we’ll get to all of those things in future Dom-Jot Hustler columns) but it’s about science fiction in its purest form: those things that make you go hmmmmmm. There’s a lot of franchises out there today that aim for being average so that they are easily-digestible by the lowest common denominator, but Star Trek began life as an honest-to-goodness science fiction show, and it has kept to that tradition even as the shows themselves went off into every conceivable direction.