I know what people think. Come on. Space travel? Yeesh. Space travel – as something practical – is, at best, an improbable idea. Space itself is much too vast and too dangerous to even think on the idea that mankind could reliably travel through space, so anyone who says that such notions are crazy, well, yes, they are onto something. But fuck it, those very same people are probably typing such thought’s on their PC or their iPhone. It’s only been about fifty years since what they would call a “computer” took up a room the size of a gymnasium and was largely comprised of vacuum tubes and would take quite a bit of time just to do a simple mathematical calculations…
Ah, whatever. This thought occurred to me while watching a first season episode of Deep Space Nine called “Battle Lines,” certainly not the most memorable episode, even of that season. Well, there’s a scene at the beginning where they are ready to depart from the space station in a runabout (small shuttle) we see a few hatches leading to the shuttle that’s set to go into the vacuum of space. Yes, space travel is functional on this show, as far removed from the long, tedious preparations that we have to do today to get men into space as we are removed from those old computers I mentioned in the first paragraph. That’s the time that Star Trek takes place in, where things that are cumbersome and impractical today are made simpler and run of the mill tomorrow. That’s part of creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision. He also imaged that humans would evolve past the need for money, and, by extension greed. That sounds a bit more far-fetched than space travel made practical, I suppose, but no more than the citizens who once believed that women shouldn’t vote. Personally, I, like most people, know that money is rather petty, and is a poor substitute for compassion and empathy, and all the things that allow humans to work together. I might not know how a moneyless society would work any more than one of those brilliant designers would know how a tablet would work, but those designers might surprised to find out that their work eventually led to tablets – and iPhones, and desktop PC’s etc.
Roddenberry had a vision. That’s where it starts. As it turns out, he was more of a television producer than the kind of innovator that could turn his vision in actual practical reality, so, aside from the influence his stories would have, he couldn’t really change the world. And let’s not forget that Roddenberry himself was far from the picture of perfection and could never himself live up the vision altruistic humans he devised for his show, and he was hardly the upstanding man that characters like Jim Kirk and Jean-luc Picard would be. But Star Trek started with his vision, and that’s important enough. Yet it didn’t end with his vision. His vision alone wasn’t enough to sustain the franchise so that it hed the legs to make a 50-year stride. He might have envisioned a future where humanity had gotten rid of poverty and hunger and formed alliances with other planets, but it was other minds like Matt Jefferies who designed the starships the characters could fly around in, and Gene Coon who could iron out the plot in terms of “points of conflict” that allowed actual drama to take shape (Coon created the Klingons, and the Prime Directive, essential aspects that kept Trek stories going on for years). Roddenberry hired some great science fiction writers to work on the show, but he also knew the limitations of the medium; he could not do what George Lucas could do a decade later and push the boundaries of his respective medium. No, Roddenberry was in television, and if there’s one sure thing about television, especially in the 60’s is that you had to color within the lines, so when Harlan Ellison wrote his famous but much too ambitious teleplay for “The City on the Edge of Forever” Roddenberry took out his red pen and dispensed with a lot of it, but in making it more television-ready, it could be argued that he made it better,. He knew he couldn’t kill hundreds of crew members when the beings from the Andromeda galaxy took over the Enterprise in “By any Other Name” and he didn’t have a budget to hold them in some kind of cool stasis chamber, so he looked at a paperweight on his desk and thought about it for two minutes. And thought. The solution: turn the crew (temporarily) into sugar cubes that held their essence, and change ‘em back later. Works just as well, and there was no need to break the budget. He was always budget-savvy because he had to be, and his “gangster planet” episode was born from scouring old studio sets and wardrobe departments as was his “Nazi planet” episodes. All the while, his show – if nothing else but in its messages – was coloring outside the lines of what was possible on television, at least in the respect of what could be talked about. War, racism, tolerance, all taboo subjects for the nervous suits that ran television studios back then, but by setting his stories in the future and using a bit of allegory, Roddenberry hit all those topics.
Trek is 50 years old now, with a lot films, a lot of spin offs, a lot of satires and a lot fans, but it would be pointless for this article to be fifty pages or even fifty paragraphs. Why highlight the best episodes of Star Trek when almost every other pop culture sight is already doing that and there will be a lot of of the same episodes. “City on the Edge of Forever?” Go see it. Now. Watch Wrath of Khan, because there isn’t a frame of that film that doesn’t speak to character or theme. Stay way from from utter tripe like TNG’s “Code of Honor” or DS9’s “Profit and Lace” and you will be happy. What I love about Trek is that I can enjoy almost any episode (those two I just mentioned and a few others, aside), even if they are considered bad. Take TNG’s “The Royale” an episode almost every critic panned because of its overuse of various cliches, and for it’s not quite-convincing production design. I’m not saying this episode is the best Trek episode, but I love it. I mean it’s about aliens who flung some early space explorers from our solar system across the galaxy, inadvertently killing all but one in the trip, and to make the last one feel better,they tried to make him “feel at home” (yes, just like the unseen aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey) by putting him in the setting of the novel the astronaut had with him, not knowing that it was a badly written novel. In order for our heroes from the Enterprise to escape this place, they actually have to take part in the story as it was supposed to play out. The fact that the characters were badly-acted novel cliches was the point, and should not be used against the episode. Put it that way, this “bad” episode is better than you remember. Trek has a lot of episodes like that, episodes where the producers were inspired by the limited budgets they had rather then feeling constrained by them.
And that’s how Trek should continue, by knowing what it’s vision is and by knowing how to work within the restraints. These days, people enjoy binge-watching a 13-episode season in a weekend than watching over twenty-four episodes one at a time, and now Trek will try that format with Discovery. This should be interesting. Yet, I kind of doubt the Discovery crew will beam down to strange planets where aliens have created shoddy casinos with guest characters that are cliched and badly acted, and that kind of makes me sad. I guess today’s audiences are “too good” for cheese.