Thursday, March 5, 2015

Commentary: What Was Star Trek?

Just before bed most nights, I like to wind down by watching Netflix. Until recently, my poison of choice was usually House -- until my brother accidentally convinced me that a third full re-watch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was in order.

As I implied in my FANifesto, DS9 was my entry point into the entire Star Trek universe. It also happens to be my favorite "generation" of Trek for reasons that have only multiplied with time. Indeed, after the upcoming Hugo deadline has passed, I intend to share twelve little things that happened during DS9's third - and weakest - season that nonetheless help to explain my passionate affection for Trek's "red-headed stepchild" and illustrate the nature of the show's genius.

Today, meanwhile, I want to address an argument that erupted on Facebook recently regarding the nature of the Trek franchise as a whole. 

It all started when William Lehman, a contributor at the Otherwhere Gazette, made a passing remark in an otherwise unrelated post that seemed, to some, to suggest that Trek's legacy was chiefly technological. I'm not sure this is what Lehman was really arguing, but no matter: Some folks who were involved in the production of the original Star Trek series objected strongly to this characterization, insisting that Gene Roddenberry's intent was wholly sociological and political -- and that the technology was simply an afterthought. "The Original Series wasn't about the engineering as much as it was about the 'Social Justice Warriors Glittery hoo ha' stuff," David Gerrold wrote in one typical response. "I was there. I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned. He went on at length about it in almost every meeting. He wasn't about technology, he was about envisioning a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out. Gene Roddenberry was one of the great Social Justice Warriors. You don't get to claim him or his show as a shield of virtue for a cause he would have disdained."

Far be it for me to dispute Gerrold's authority on the subject. Roddenberry was indeed a mid-century progressive and a secular humanist, and that worldview did influence the entire Star Trek franchise. That's why I happily conceded recently that Trek is not a conservative "text"; any show that presupposes a utopian Earth that has united under a one-world, socialist government is certainly not animated by the thought of, say, Edmund Burke.

But the reality of Star Trek is more complicated than the vision of one man. Even if we concede Gene Roddenberry's likely affinity for the causes of today's social justice warriors (something I do not actually acknowledge, as I'll make clear in a future post), that does not mean the left owns Trek. Sorry, but I categorically refuse to accept such a proposition. Trek was the product of many minds working in concert -- and some of these minds inserted things that didn't exactly cleave to Roddenberry's idea of "how things should be."

Consider, for example, Bread and Circuses, whose script arose out of the joint efforts of Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon. For those who are bad at titles, this is the episode in which the Enterprise comes upon a planet on which a society modeled on Ancient Rome has survived long enough to develop the media tools of 20th-century Earth. Said episode mocks both the Roman Empire and the television studio culture of the 1960's -- but it also has this odd moment at the very end in which the slaves in the featured society are revealed to be following a faith analogous to Christianity. If Trek is all about Roddenberry's fiercely secular, progressive politics, how did that get in there?

Actually, while we're on the subject of Bread and Circuses, let me bring up something else -- something that, I believe, no one has yet mentioned. The aforementioned episode is not generally considered to be one of the original Trek's best, but it happens to be one that I personally enjoy for a reason that is neither technological nor political: Spock and McCoy.

Is there room in Star Trek's legacy for scenes like this -- scenes devoted to the characters and their relationships with one another? In my opinion, this is the most under-appreciated reason why the original Star Trek series endures: Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon, et. al. never forgot the importance of writing people the viewer could care about. We didn't lament the passing of Leonard Nimoy days ago because of Trek's "social commentary" or its gadgets. We lamented his passing because Nimoy portrayed a fictional alien whose rich history, deep relationships, and fascinating internal conflicts resonated with the audience -- and that makes Trek a wholly legitimate example to deploy when we anti-SJW writers make our arguments about the importance of putting the craft of storytelling before the message.


  1. *shrug* Oh it was a progressive love child. Ain't no arguing that. DS9 was also my favorite incarnation.. I'll sit through ST:TNG and Voyager...I'll watch the original and the movies. BUT DS9 is my favorite no holds barred..

    That being BELONGS to anyone who loves the damn franchise.

  2. Sure, David. Because SJW *then* means the same thing as it does *now.* Because the collectivism of the Borg had nothing whatsoever to do with communism, right?

    Then again, in his defense, Gerrold may mean something different, there are differences in the left then versus the left now. Remember, he came out against the SFWA purge, as did Harlan Ellison. So, there's leftist douchebags, and then there's old-school lefties who might be people.

    Gerrold is a person. Roddenbury was a person. Rick Berman, on the other hand, he was a straight-up douchebag. Or just a crappy writer. Not sure if he was political...

    And DS9 is still a blatant rip-off of Babylon 5. JMS pitches a space station show, DS9 comes out a year later with so many similarities, the B5 pilot must be rewritten.

    1. *shrug* I've torn down and belittled Gerrold more than once. It's why I don't call him by his first name, or add a MR, to the Gerrold. I just call him a tone heavily laced with scorn and derision.

      Oh I agree it DS9 was a rip off of B5. Blatantly so. But it was the grittiest of the ST shows and that's why I like it. Okay that and I like Avery Brooks.

  3. One example vis the title of your article: A sympathetic Ferengi quoting Adam Smith *unironically*. It was a part of a really compelling plot, too. That was my dream spinoff, btw.

    While the execs probably wanted DS9 to be a rip off of B5, the writers of the show had other ideas. The boots on the ground NEVER tried to emulate JMS. I don't give a fig what the jerk holes at Universal Studios wanted or didn't want. It's what the writers did with it that counts-- and we all know that notes from above were largely responsible for the disaster festival that was the third season.

    1. That's another post I need to write, actually -- because with all due respect to Declan, it drives me freakin' NUTS when people claim that DS9 is simply a B5 rip-off. While it may be suspicious that DS9 went into development around the time JMS pitched his idea to Paramount, the final products were absolutely NOT the same.

    2. And yes -- Berman may be credited as one of DS9's creators, but it was Ron Moore, Ira Steven Behr, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, Rene Echevarria, et. al. who ran the show and made it what it was.

  4. OK, second try since Blogger ate my first one. (BLOGSPOT DELANDA EST!!!!!!!!)


    At the end of the day, Star Trek in all its various forms and permutations belongs to its writers, its cast, its crew and its fans. All of us. I say "us" because I am a fan and always have been. I literally do not remember a time when I didn't love Trek. Now, onto the other point as listed above:

    The thing that made ST:TOS (or any of the other Treks for that matter) was not the technology or the social engineering. What made Trek is the same thing that makes any story: The Characters. Stephanie is right. Think about it:

    The holy trinity of ST:TOS was Kirk/Spock/McCoy. They worked and played, fought and made up and laughed and cried together. Whatever the challenge of the day was, they found a way to overcome it. All great stories work this way. Whether it's Luke Skywalker and his struggles against the Empire and the Dark Side, Frodo Baggins and his battle to destroy the One Ring or Katniss Everdeen and her fight to survive the Hunger Games it's what works. Characters that the audience cares about plus interesting problem to solve equals good story. Granted, it takes a skillful writer to pull it off, but that's really the core of the problem.

  5. Gerrold was also the dude behind the infamous asterisk/sphincter incident at the Hugo awards so I take whatever self-serving thing he has to say with a grain of salt. Yeah Roddenberry had a progressive mind set. He was also very much a mid century male. None of which actually matters, because Star Trek belongs to those of us who enjoy it for whatever reason we do. The original intent of a deeply flawed (aren't we all?) human should not dictate how we see his creation.

    While I share your love of the characters in Trek, I also enjoyed the technology. Perhaps Gerrold is getting forgetful in his old age, but I seem to remember a lot of folks getting involved in technology because of their love of the show. In any case, it sounds like another variant of Hugo tru-fan thing, where only the correct people are allowed to be fans.