Those Were the Journeys
It is a question that has vexed scholars, critics, and various cooler-than-thou types for decades: what is the deal with Star Trek? What in the world—any world—is so eternally captivating about this mere television show, so that otherwise perfectly respectable people feel compelled to don outlandish outfits, spend ridiculous amounts of cash, and dedicate their lives to the ever greater appreciation of all things Star Fleet?
The consternation of the uninitiated is quite valid. The whole concept of Star Trek is nonsensical. All of humanity living in harmony—no war, no poverty, no money? Is it at all likely that we denizens of this rock called Earth will one day not only be civilized enough to join an inter-stellar organisation like the united Federation of Planets, but also to lead it? Hardly. And that is, really, the explanation for Star Trek‘s success.
Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) began the adventure, way back in the ‘60s, when the writers’ imagining of a “Eugenics War,” set to take place in 1996, probably seemed a pretty safe bet. Kirk and his intrepid crew sought out new life and new civilizations. They went boldly where no man had gone before, only to discover, when they arrived, that most of the life and civilizations were far older than theirs and that there were plenty of “men” there already, thank you very much. Kirk picked fights and seduced alien women, and his able second-in-command, the Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), would pronounce such human activities “illogical” or “fascinating.” The lovely Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) would open hailing frequencies while engineering wizard Scotty (James Doohan) beamed people up and the irascible Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelly) pronounced them dead, Jim. Their escapades were legion—and became legend. But the viewing public wasn’t quite ready for a TV show so far ahead of its time, and befuddled NBC executives cancelled Star Trek only three years into the mission of that first U.S.S. Enterprise.
That should have been the end of it. But something extraordinary was about to happen. Devotees of the show, having successfully campaigned for the show’s run to be extended to a third season, had enabled it to be eligible for syndication, and in the glorious playground of re-runs, a cult was born. The people of the world began to discover the wonders of Klingons, perplexing time-travel stories, and scantily-clad green-skinned chicks. A passionate, committed, possibly certifiable fanbase developed, and when the first Star Trek movie—aptly titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture—was finally released in 1976, it gladdened hearts and souls throughout Sector 001.
More movies inevitably followed, and then came Star Trek: The Next Generation. Born in the politically correct ‘80s, TNG was a more intellectual take on the original idea. There was more focus on feelings, less on alien ass-kicking. Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) didn’t make decisions, he had discussions, and the ship came complete with a shrink in the nubile form of empath Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis), who spent a good deal of her time stating the oh-so-obvious. The presence of wunderkind Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) was also despised by many a disgruntled viewer. Over time, however, these new Federation faces also became beloved. First Officer William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes), who began as a blatant Kirk clone, developed a personality; Klingon Lt. Worf lightened up a little; Dr. Beverley Crusher (Gates McFadden), though still underused, got some screen time out of Sickbay; and Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), another engineering wizard—but a blind one!—pulled the needed technobabble rabbit out of his figurative hat time and again. It was all good.
So good, in fact, that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and later Star Trek: Voyager, were introduced, in fairly short order. DS9 featured the beleaguered Commander Sisko (Avery Brooks) as new commandant of a giant space mall of no apparent importance… until he discovered a stable wormhole to the other side of the galaxy! Soon, his mall became the hub of inter-stellar activity, as a promoted Sisko and his crew got a purpose, a war, and a ship, and set about making the Alpha Quadrant safe for democracy. Sisko, ably assisted by ex-rebel Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), ex-man Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell), ex-Enterprise transporter chief Miles O’Brien (Colm Meaney), and ex-science experiment Odo (Rene Auberjonois), not to mention the lovely Dr. Julian Bashir (the ex-Siddig El Fadil, now known as Alexander Siddig), managed to thwart evil plot after evil plot, and repel invasion after invasion. Sisko himself was deified and got married during the course of the show, and eventually, he was kidnapped by the Bajoran “gods” for his trouble.
The crew of Voyager were likewise kidnapped, but at the start of their tour of duty and not the end. Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew), a scientist of some repute, took command of the brand spanking new U.S.S. Voyager, and promptly lost it. In the Delta Quadrant, some 70,000 light years (or a good seventy years’ worth of travel) from home and hearth. As a result of the cosmic interference of a being known only as The Caretaker, the crews of Voyager and the rebel ship it was pursuing found themselves forced to work together towards a greater goal: getting home. Dubbed “Gilligan’s Island in space”, Voyager is the Jan Brady of the Star Trek household—insecure, under-appreciated, and always overlooked in favour of its older siblings.
With good reason. Janeway and her First Officer Chakotay (Robert Beltran—a hero to many Trek fans, because of his outspokenness concerning the abiding suckiness of many of Voyager‘s scripts) led a crew made up of initially interesting officers, whose interestingness was gradually sapped out of them. From Lt. Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill)—who came aboard a convict and returned home a father, to the explosive half-Klingon Lt. B’Elanna Torres (Roxann Dawson)—to poor Harry Kim (Garrett Wang), they were turned into caricatures of themselves. While the holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo) and late addition Seven of Nine (Jeri Ryan) retained something of their allure—especially for those who were only watching to check out Seven’s figure-hugging catsuit—as Voyager limped on home, it was a sad day for fans.
Of course, there are those who think Voyager is the best Trek ever. Indeed, every Trek fan has their favorites. Die-hards swear by the swashbuckling Kirk, while a whole new generation venerate The Next Generation‘s Picard. Starfleet officer-cum-religious icon Benjamin Sisko has his adherents, and even the morass of contradiction that is Captain Kathryn Janeway is favored by some. Perhaps one day, the latest addition to the Trek captain roster, Jonathan Archer (Scott Bakula), will be held above all others who came before him. Except they all came after him. ‘Cause he’s from their past. Our future. A future of promise, of wonder and of ever greater glory for the humans who inhabit the third planet of Sol.
And glory, it seems, there will be. Even while Star Trek holds a mirror to humanity’s failings and faults (and there are many), it also panders to our amazing capacity for racial vanity. It compliments us on our creativity, our curiosity, our compassion. All the other races want to be like us. They dress like us. They act like us. They speak our language—it’s even the Federation Standard! They use our sayings, our metaphors and our similes.
Racism, sexism, fascism—many isms—have all been explored repeatedly in Star Trek using the fantastical and futuristic as context. But perhaps the most telling of Trek‘s metaphors is that the manifold races on Star Trek clearly represent facets of ourselves. The Klingons are bloodthirsty and battle-hungry, delighting in death and duty and honor. The Bajorans are religious, the Vulcans are logical, the Romulans sneaky. The Ferengi venerate wealth, the Cardassians enslave whole populations of planets, and Voyager‘s menacing Hirogen hunt living beings for sport and get off on the pain of their captured prey.
And then there’s the Borg. The ultimate in “This Could Happen to You” parables, these half-humanoid, half-machine beings are on a quest for “perfection”, which they believe will be gained by forcibly assimilating others into their Collective. They are emotionless, senseless drones, working as one to achieve the impossible. They come not to convert but to conquer, and though Voyager successfully demystified them to the point of making them boring, they still remain the most chilling of all possibly futures Star Trek has shown us. The warning that a reliance on technology can lead to such a dehumanised society is always a timely one. Plus, they’re really creepy, super-strong and unstoppable, but we can beat them! Humanity—in the persons of Captains Picard and Janeway and their crews—continues to outwit even the fearsome Borg, and that is the essence of what makes this show so endlessly popular. It explains why fans will keep watching, even while griping and whining, and longing for the good old days when the unexpected could happen and still allow the plot to make sense.
The overwhelming theme of Star Trek is “Yay, us!” It is a theme that endures like no other, and is at the heart of Trek‘s longevity. Nothing is more attractive than the idea that even if we of Earth aren’t alone, even if we start the cosmic race at a distinct disadvantage and possibly with our shoelaces untied, that we will be able catch up and beat the Others to the finish line because we’re human, dammit! And as long as we are, Star Trek will always be with us, watched, rewatched, and debated. Trekkers and -ies and those who eschew labels (but really should just get over themselves) will attach the Vulcan ears, and buy Franklin Mint collector plates, and commit reams of information to memory so that they can win an argument about warp propulsion or where the Jeffries tubes are located on the Enterprise-E. It’s also why the debut episode of Star Trek: Enterprise pulled in UPN’s second highest rating ever. It’s okay if there are those that just don’t get it. After all, they’re only human.