Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Same As It Was Then?

Back in December 2015 when I reached 400 posts and celebrated three years of writing this site, I wasn't sure where 2016 would be going. Now we've just shy of 600 I have to wonder what I was worried about!

At that time in December I wondered if I'd I said everything I wanted to say about Star Trek. No; not even a glimmer to be fair and I can't wait for all the stuff we're going to get to talk about in the remainder of this year!

Y'see with all this Nu-Trek and the prospects of a substantial amount more in the next 18 months, I wondered if Star Trek has the same impact now as it did during the days when it aired its original 79 episodes? Is it as cutting edge in discussions of race, politics and sexuality (for example) as it was then? Maybe even more concerning, will that voice be evident in the new episodes?

The Original Series certainly packed a punch when it came to the topics of the day. Legendarily Plato's Stepchildren showed that (first) inter-racial kiss, Miri dealt with the tender subject of puberty and to add a third (and I could pick a load more), A Private Little War dared to speak about the terrible cost of conflict just as the US were making a rocky stance in Vietnam. As these show, while there was humour, action and Vulcans, Star Trek never stepped away from the things that mattered to the people at that time and influenced popular culture; Roddenberry wanted to give a social commentary to his series and make it relevant and definitely made it uneasy for the network to stomach.

In fact in repeat it might not be directly addressing issues of the day but it still carries a lot of weight in the subjects the show chose to discuss and represents the viewpoint, a time capsule if you will, of a generation's thoughts on the events that were shaping the world around them as it truly stepped out of the shadow of the Second World War and looked boldly to the future. It wanted to make a statement, Roddenberry wanted to make a statement and nark off the network but he wanted to be the voice of the people through this little sci-fi show that valiantly fought for its life for three tough years.

My opinion of the show's "edginess" does change when it comes to the series of the '80's and '90's. Perhaps a more conservative era, the Powers That Be continued to use the show to talk about different matters but never took it to the extreme grounds that The Original Series dared to wander. In the UK MiriPlato's Stepchildren and The Empath were all cut from the original run because of their content while The Next Generation had The High Ground skipped from the first run on BBC2 due to a single line referencing Irish reunification in 2026. None of the later shows (Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise) after that suffered episodic removals which either demonstrates a "play it safe" attitude or something else entirely. Look at The Next Generation's first two seasons and you can see that the remnants of The Original Series are still there. Episodes such as Justice might look a bit shlocky but they ultimately had a moral theme at their core. The Voice was still there as the show pitched more on that "anthology" style than looking at the individual people. It looked more at the situation than at the participants. They were merely there perhaps to push events forward. Those early The Next Generation seasons are the closest that latter-day Trek has ever come to embodying the Roddenberry vision through their narratives and scope.

For me the Piller/Berman/Taylor/Braga years that followed those two seasons seemed to play a more audience-friendly game but it might in turn be because we're a more open and accepting society than we were in the 1960's. Roddenberry's old guard were gradually removed and the emphasis turned from situational dangers to a true exploration of the human condition on a more personal level and potentially nodded to a more dysfunctional family environment even though the ship was designed to promote just that factor. Interestingly though does that actually mean it was smoothed out?

Issues that shocked in the 1960's were more freely talked about and the explosion of media certainly means that avoiding touchy subjects has become almost impossible unless you choose to live under a very, very large rock on a very remote island. The crew of the USS Enterprise-D explored issues of gender (The Outcast and to some extent The Host), threats of terrorism, addiction and loss (among a lot of others) but came across as a show which was much more interested in the character and the human psyche than making a fanfare on current global issues. Heck, the doctor was a single mother, the first officer and counsellor were ex-lovers and there was a Klingon (raised by humans) on the bridge firing the weapons. Uhura's appearance as an officer in The Original Series might have raised a few eyebrows in a more close-minded era but no-one really batted an eyelash at any of those from Encounter at Farpoint.

Now that doesn't mean that it too is outdated but its narratives and deeper themes are certainly ones which continue to be very relevant with viewers because it chose to look inwardly more than at a snapshot of events across our blue and green sphere. The Original Series may have those deeper levels too but the shock value and the pressure points they were tapping for inspiration have long since depreciated and the pioneering attitude of Gene Roddenberry hasn't cast a shadow across the franchise in anger since well before his death in 1991.

The same feeling that exists for me around the power of The Next Generation passes into Deep Space Nine and Voyager too. The former did dare to be different and engage openly in religious debate as well as multiple conflicts between its own crew as well as a range of alien races there were only perhaps fleeting glimpses of those more cutting stories that really drilled into deeper material. Certainly Deep Space Nine's Far Beyond the Stars and In the Pale Moonlight nailed home the matters of racial equality and morality between them and off the top of my head Voyager's Counterpoint stands out as a superb exploration of subjugation not too dissimilar to the Nazi "solution" in the Second World War. 

However, you have to consider that the introduction of a catsuit-clad Borg, the arrival of Worf, the Dominion War...were to secure ratings and ensure the longevity of the shows and in today's market that has become more important than addressing the issues. The '60's series was in that same battle for ratings supremacy but Roddenberry chose to battle the network and go for that edge which his counterparts in the '90's perhaps didn't want to risk.

In fact I think Voyager repeated that examination of social division on a number of occasions including Critical Care and Natural Law, both from it's final season. Certainly for a larger proportion of Voyager's time in the Delta Quadrant the emphasis was firmly on the action and adventure aspects of the show rather than deeper personal explorations which were only really tackled through the arrival of Seven of Nine to dive into the "human element" that Star Trek hungrily poked in every generation.

Maybe a critical point on the Star Trek series is that while they do all deal with different issues and relate those specifically to characters within the cast, that perceptive eye has become a little more closed over the years to accommodate the changing audience. While in the 1960's it may have been possible to avoid news by switching on your favourite sci-fi or comedy show, Star Trek managed to bring those issues right back to the doorstep but now that's just not the case because of the "smaller" nature of the world in which we live. 

Avoiding news is near impossible either through a 24 hour news channel, Twitter, Facebook, the papers, just about everywhere you look. The classic series offered escapism but tinged it with relevance while the later shows have maybe tended to look at much more personal points and on a smaller scale, bumping more time towards graphics, space battles and the like which are bigger draws in a more technological age.

Looking to Star Trek Beyond and Discovery, there are a lot of challenges when it comes to storytelling. Beyond was already on the back-foot and while Into Darkness attempted to look at the issues around global terrorism in a post-9/11 world behind the veil of the Khan story it still pushed more for the action/adventure line than the social commentary. Beyond did include a gay character but many saw the inclusion of Sulu's partner and daughter as a bit shoehorned rather than a tip of the hat to George Takei. A mis-step perhaps but one that has attempted to take the franchise in the right direction.

For over 50 years Star Trek has bent the line around the subject and needs to tackle it head on and with dignity; something that Rejoined definitely didn't. The problem is that this won't make it edgy because every series under the sun has a homosexual character in the cast and its part and parcel of today's world so there will need to be a big jump forward to create must-see and must talk about TV.

Discovery meanwhile has hit this challenge head on it seems. They have a gay actor playing a gay character in the form of Anthony Rapp as Lieutenant Stamets right from day one - establishing a new person in the universe with his own backstory and ability to cement a believable character in the Star Trek universe. Certainly another thing that will make Discovery unique within the franchise is the choice to remove the Roddenberry ruling that there cannot be conflict between the characters. This is something that has stifled writers for decades and was a factor in the way that Ronald D Moore developed Battlestar Galactica. This is a huge leap away from the original concept of the show in that humanity has moved past such trivialities but the production team behind Discovery have come to realise that the realism level that exists on TV now is far removed from the way in which Enterprise was written back in 2001. Things have moved on and I think this paragraph has certainly backed that up. 

Discovery may well be more on the nose than any previous Star Trek series if this is the case. Imagine that it will be able to more directly tackle conflict and issues between its main characters rather than having to rely on bringing in guest stars and alien races to create that friction. Whether Discovery will be able to make any comments on current US politics or world issues specifically (ISIS, financial meltdown...Trump?!) I don't know. I suspect that with the way in which the season has been planned it will focus more on a specific storyline that, I would surmise, is more directed at the Klingon Empire. That doesn't in any way mean that there won't be parallels to our current worldly events but Discovery does have to take a firm hold of its place in a very different media world to that of 1987, 1993, 1995 or 2001 even. There is a slightly more "spoon-fed" nature to TV and movies because of the way we consume media around us. I hope that Discovery doesn't "dumb" itself down too much or sink into its own darkness.

What would it need to tackle otherwise to remain relevant, cutting edge and that show that everyone is talking about the day after - and not just because one of the cast got their head blasted open with a chainsaw. The threats of global terrorism and cyber terrorism would be straight to the top of the list. The perspective of a future Star Trek series has to embrace that 21st Century skepticism and uneasiness. But if not for war and terror, what else would it need to speak about? The family unit is much more open than it was in the 60's, we're facing a period of tighter financial controls and distrust for the political system. These are topics that a Star Trek show should relish and would retain the mark of its forebears well into the next decade.

But let's drop back again to the original show. Maybe now it has become so revered for what it produced afterwards that it's relevance is not in the topics it chose but in the nature of the televisual animal that existed in the 1960's. Today dying TV programmes end up as a DVD box set or traded out to one of those channels deep down in your cable or digital numbers. Some of those may even get a bigger audience (notably Babylon 5 did very well on DVD, even better than first run on TV I understand) and some may fizzle away to nothing (Space Above and Beyond - tragic) but with a smaller number of channels and a very much smaller range of media offerings in any form it was a lot harder to escape Star Trek than it would be today. It still exists, it will be reborn but how it will be spun is as yet a mystery. 

Star Trek of 1966 to 1969 now more than anything offers an opinion of the future and a mindset of a decade where the world was finally shrugging off the events of the Second World War and hit very personal and resonating issues head on. Today we're harder to shock, freedom of speech is very free indeed and a new Star Trek series will need to find its own niche in a TV world becoming dominated by superheroes and reality shows - definitely a million light years away from the landscape of the late 80's and 90's. Maybe the show needs to get back to those more personal issues. It doesn't need to be gory, sensationalist but it does need to talk to its demographic about things that matter and be less escapist than, say Legends of Tomorrow.

I look forward to seeing how the new series will comment on this generation and the world as it is and how will be regarded in 10, 20 or even another half century - will it stand the test of time and will it have made an impact? Three months and counting...

Do Star Trek's messages of The Original Series talk to you? Which episodes still have the most resonance in 2017?

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