I’ve talked at length about several of the stories that influenced me as a kid and teenager. Tolkien, of course, and his relentless belief that the cycle of destruction gets smaller every time it happens so long as good people weather it and try to do good deeds. Pratchett’s endless font of rage at injustice and bigotry that resulted in both the funniest and most touching novels I’ve ever read. Star Wars, with Luke Skywalker as the space paladin that kids need to look up to and a message that kindness wins in the end. Dune, with its endless political machinations and a storyline mashing space opera together with cold war proxy conflict and environmentalism. Stuff that shaped me as a person, as goofy as that sounds.
Since the 50th anniversary has just come upon us, I figured it would be a good time to talk about the other series that has been with me for my entire life.
Few other stories have been integrated into my life as thoroughly as Star Trek. There are some stories I like better, and individual ones that may have had more impact on me than any given Trek episode, but I was raised steeped in Star Trek. My father introduced me to The Original Series when I was maybe six or seven years old. We had a ton of Trek VHS tapes scattered around the den and I used to watch A Piece of the Action, Trouble with Tribbles, Devil in the Dark and other classics on what feels like a daily basis. By the time I was ten, The Next Generation was airing reruns of multiple episodes per day right after school and Deep Space Nine was going full swing. Voyager and Enterprise followed, and that’s before I even get into all the movies that I watched over and over, and the piles of dogeared licensed fiction I accrued.
Out of my thirty years on this place, something like twenty-four of them have been spent with Star Trek. My love of Star Trek is old enough to drink. Old enough to have moved into its own place and had a kid. There are other series I possibly love more (I still consider Farscape one of the finest television shows ever broadcast and I’ll write up a huge post on it some day) but Star Trek is my solid and unshakable foundation.
It’s kind of interesting to look back over the shows and see how they break down and what gave me which things, too. They are definitely unified in purpose and setting but vastly different shows.
TOS is, you know, just amazing as both a product of its era and as something that has aged remarkably well. I know some people have trouble getting into the kitschy aspect of it, but by god, when Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner are running around with spray painted cheese graters and dodging giant styrofoam rocks, I fully believe that they are the last things standing between a space monster and total destruction. There are goofy episodes but the overall tone of the piece is relevant even today. Balance of Terror remains one of the finest things ever filmed, in my nerdy opinion. It perfectly illustrates the worst elements of human nature and tribalism but also gives a breath of hope that we can overcome them. The characters are all great, it went a long way towards normalizing things that we now take for granted like integrated workplaces. I think it’s funny that Kirk has become this kind of frat bro figure in the popular perception, when if you go back and look, the dude is extremely by the book. He just thinks that when it comes to the book, the spirit rather than the letter of the law is what’s important. And Spock? My god, can you name a better figure for me to look up to as a small child? An alien surrounded by humans who don’t quite get him, who approaches every problem from both the broad angle and a focus on minutiae? As an agnostic Jewish kid in the whitest state in America, who did and still does get hung up on the tiny details, his existence as a character was like a statement that yeah, I could be as weird as I fucking wanted and didn’t need to impress anyone and I’d still get to hang out with cool people and do good things some day.
TNG is characterized by being the Diplomacy show. This is for good reason. Jean Luc is a diplomatic figure, someone who is concerned with trying to make both sides as happy as possible instead of favoring one over the other. He genuinely want to make the galaxy a better place than he left it, contrasting his predecessor’s focus on exploration and mapping. It works great, too, it left a big mark on me that you only resort to force when you’re threatened by something that could actually hurt you or when you’re protecting something weaker. It was the show with some of the greyest villains, and everyone had motivation and reasoning behind doing what they did. Even the Borg were not “bad” guys, it’s just that their way of life was antithetical to that of other life forms. They were bordering on a cosmic horror story, they acted without malice and that actually made them scarier. Their presence alone was destructive rather than any cackling villainy. There are also questions of personhood and identity and sexuality that I didn’t consciously catch as a small child but that have stood out hugely going back and watching as an adult.
DS9, now, this is my favorite of the bunch. It’s the one that I literally grew up with, watching every episode as it aired, my parents making special exception to my curfew for the first few seasons when I was fairly young. I consider it a near perfect show. It takes the best elements of TOS and TNG and mixes them together with a beautiful neo-noir aesthetic and eventually the backdrop of interstellar conflict unlike anything we had seen in the universe before. We always heard about warfare in the past or as a background piece, and DS9 was our first example of what happens when a certified utopia engages in total warfare. And the answer is something terrifying. It upends everything Star Trek has established but in a way that broadens the scope of the setting and feels completely organic and, this is the important part, does not lessen the optimism of the story. It accentuates it, makes the good characters stand out even better surrounded by men and women who make the hard decisions and are haunted for the rest of their lives as a result.
It was also one of the most socially progressive things I had ever seen on television, and a large part of that is due to Avery Brooks being willing to throw his weight around on set and make them rewrite entire arcs that would have been damaging. The most famous of these is that he made them redesign the entire character relationship between Sisko and his son because he felt that there weren’t enough loving dad figures on black television and by the prophets, he was not going to send the message that even in post-scarcity science fiction the main black character would end up being a deadbeat single father. The Ferengi are totally fleshed out and made into one of my favorite races, against all odds. The Klingons are expanded far beyond what they ever had been before and really came into their own here, more so once Worf joined the crew and the interplay between him, Dax and the various Klingon military officers heated up. The Cardassians and Bajorans echo conflicts worldwide in a way that is heartwrenching to watch. The Dominion War and immediate paranoia and aftermath of the first attacks were creepily prophetic of 9/11 and its effect on American politics… despite taking place years before. Going back and rewatching it now, I have to remind myself that the middle seasons were not written as an explicit reaction to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
I could go on and on about DS9, I truly do consider it something that anyone with an interest in writing science fiction should watch and study in its entirety, but I’m going on 1400 words and I meant this to be much, much shorter.
Voyager I have less words to say about. I don’t dislike the show, but I feel that while DS9 inherited the best aspects of what had come before, Voyager ended up inheriting the worst. It tries – really tries – to progress but ends up stumbling. There was a sincere attempt to incorporate Native American beliefs and show that these people still existed and maintained their culture in the far future, which is an admirable thing that most scifi doesn’t even consider, but it ultimately comes off as a tired old mysticism trope and the episodes involving spirits guides in the holodeck are beyond cringeworthy. Better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all, but it doesn’t make it much fun to rewatch. There is good in there, I consider it one of the better 90s feminist shows and people forget that it predates Buffy by several years and ran alongside Xena. Janeway is a flawed captain but not because she’s a woman, and it served to normalize the idea of a woman as a commanding officer with male subordinates who did not question her because of her gender, and honestly even into the 90s that wasn’t something you saw very often. It was also a show where women owned their sexuality, at least as much as Dax and Kira did in DS9 if not more so. So there’s good stuff in there and it’s worth watching at least once, but it feels like you need to slog through a lot of not so good stuff to get at it.
Enterprise was even more of a stumble. It took that sexuality and attempted to turn it into something titillating rather than explorative, which soured my views on it from the very beginning. You can do Trek stories about sex without having them feel exploitative. The temporal cold war story was really cool but felt very rushed and shoehorned in when it could have been the focus of an entire series on its own. What I did like was a glimpse at Starfleet as a very militarized organization before the Federation become the more pacifistic utopia we saw even in TOS. The interplay between the scientific/civilian/military elements made for some really riveting episodes. Ironically I think that BSG and later Stargate Universe borrowed these and did them much better, but the seeds for many of those plots were planted by Enterprise so I can’t hate on it as much as many fans do.
Geeze, this ended up being long. I’m going to cut it short here and skip out on doing a book recommendation today, but I will double up on the next update to make up for that and I have some really good ones I’d like to write on, both a new and old example.
I will leave you instead with a quote by Gene Rodenberry that went on to shape the stories of all the Star Trek series and many elements of my own life:
The strength of a civilization is not measured by its ability to fight wars, but rather by its ability to prevent them.