By M. Pilon
Full disclosure: I was a Trekkie before the term existed. Star Trek: The Original Series, along with the Arthurian myths, allowed me to get through my adolescence fairly unscathed in the turbulent 60’s and changed the course of my life. I got into television because of Star Trek. I became defiantly open about seeking out and supporting diversity because I wanted to live in the future I had glimpsed on Star Trek. And you can’t tell me that those times were not as difficult as the times we are living through now. I was there.
So…what do I think of Star Trek: Discovery from the information that is available at the writing of this piece? It’s complicated. There’s a lot of history to deal with.
A Bit of History
I know when I say that The Original Series changed my life, I get a lot of eye rolls if not straight-up face palms. It’s easy to dismiss Star Trek: TOS – the sets, the props, the models, the makeup, the “special effects” and even most of the acting – as “hokey” and not worthy of consideration when seen through the lens of even 10 years later. But here’s the thing. We all knew it; we weren’t stupid or blind. Yes, it was so unbelievably hokey, but that was the level of cinematic technology available at the time. All the sci-fi shows were like that, in fact, most of the shows were like that. But we all understood that what those things were was a guide, a sort of blueprint that allowed us to build those extraordinary sets, special effects and working props in our imagination. We did it without thinking. Like the worlds we build in our heads when reading a book. And like a book, a show lived or died, not depending on the wow-factor of its special effects, but on the strength of the stories it told. And that is why Star Trek stood out so far apart from everything we’d ever seen. The stories it told were revolutionary on just about every level.
With the advent of the first Star Wars movie, everything changed. I was in my mid-twenties when that movie came out and what made it so extraordinary was this: it was the first time that a visual sci-fi or fantasy entertainment of any kind did not require me to use my imagination to get there. It was all in front of me on the screen. Instead of me taking it all into my head, it drew me out and into the story on the screen. And it was fabulous. It was crack and we wanted more. And we got it. But now that’s pretty much all there is and it’s where the big money is and where the emphasis is. With eyes and minds that are now so attuned to letting the story play out in front of us, it’s hard to watch the old stuff and not snicker.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t want to go back. Innovation like that is wonderful and it’s allowed for some storytelling that would have been impossible otherwise. And I’m glad that, instead of making the majority of us surrendering our ability to think critically and creatively so we can lock in to this matrix of passivity, most were able to take this technology as the foundation to create even more and better stories.
But that also gave rise to an entitled minority who consume this costly but easy entertainment without question or discrimination and have never developed the ability to use any piece of entertainment as a blueprint or starting point for an exploration of concepts, ideas or even interpersonal relationships. Their primitive discourse is loud and drowns out everyone else trying to raise the bar a little.
Because they are so loud in their assertion that they are the only fans and defenders of whatever subject they have grabbed onto, aggressive and relentless in their dismissal of everything and everyone that does not service them, like a virtual mob of torch-carrying supremacists, the money and the official discourse is now aimed at pacifying their constant squawking and feeding them their next shot of wow-factor adrenaline-driven special effects which they receive from the corporate teat like some overgrown marsupials unable to get out of the pouch. This scourge is not restricted to the Star Trek franchise (though the strain is particularly virulent here) but is poisoning vast swats of the entertainment universe. And, unfortunately for the rest of us, most of the executives in charge of financing and producing this entertainment seem to be familiar with only this demographic, or can’t seem to see beyond this loud minority’s whining demands, so it’s a vicious cycle.
The Reticent Fandom
There’s a huge difference between the “fans” who are fully-formed human beings, able to birth an original idea and carry an open and honest exchange of views, who are indeed starving for such an opportunity, and the “fanatics” described above. If network and studio executives, lump everyone who describe themselves as “fans” together as their potential audience and the people to whom they’re addressing their comments, then any attempt at conversation, let alone debate, is doomed to descend into the polemic that seems to surround this show now, even before it airs. We’re not the same. But it doesn’t mean that we like everything just because it’s called Star Trek. You’re free to make your own show and it will live or die on its own merit like any other show trying to attract viewers on any platform. But if you’re going to call it Star Trek: Anything, it’s coming with baggage.
There’s a long history that went into creating the set of circumstances that have determined this franchise’s fans’ default setting at hearing about a new Star Trek anything, especially from “official sources.” The more you, the network and studio executives tell us that this is the Star Trek for this day and age, the more we distrust you. We know it’s about the money, it’s always been about the money since the original series’ third season, the conventions, the movies, the subsequent series, the toys, the stuff, the peripherals, and now this, Star Trek: Discovery and all the ancillary products we’ve started hearing about. This franchise is a huge money maker. We know that, especially since you’re intent on squeezing every penny you can from the fans – seriously, have you had a look at your Star Trek fan film guidelines lately?
Star Trek: TOS lasted two seasons. The network cancelled it at the end of the second season. We all wrote letters to express our great disappointment at their decision and we begged for more. The network renewed it and told us that, to reward us for our loyalty and determination, we would get the show that they felt that Star Trek should have been all along. And it was mostly a big pile of heifer do-do, except maybe for a few episodes, or parts thereof, penned by either of the Gene’s or D.C. Fontana who were forced to write under assumed names as they had been sidelined and contractually forbidden to work on their own show by these same network executives. Viewership plummeted and the show was cancelled for a second time. We then knew better than to ask for more.
That betrayal by the network and studio executives still resonates to this day and is central to the cool reception this show has been getting, especially since it is so heavily pushed and promoted by network and studio executives. We moved on to create our own stories and fanzines and distributed them to our friends. The circle kept growing and conventions were born. But that didn’t last long before the trademark owners swooped in and took over everything, again claiming to be in the best position to give us what we really wanted but it was our money that they wanted. This franchise has had a long and complicated history and, though I don’t know the circumstances of Bryan Fuller’s departure and I realize it’s an unfair comparison but my brain couldn’t help going back to what happened to Gene Roddenberry, Gene L. Coon and Dorothy C. Fontana.
If you think that we don’t matter because it was so long ago, then why are you still quoting adherence to Roddenberry’s canon? And though the series and the movies that followed were pleasant enough, with some high points, and sometimes even had glimmers of the original spirit, nothing ever matched TOS in its power to influence a generation.
The Spirit of Star Trek
Star Trek was never about the money, the stuff, the props, the various aliens or the adolescent male ego (though it did address the subject in one episode and, when said adolescent started to throw his weight around, more evolved life forms mercifully took him away – don’t we all wish real life were like that.) It was never about being given the things we expect so we feel secure in our own little echo chamber like what all the voices I hear decrying the “liberal feminist” takeover of the franchise(s) would want you to believe. Star Trek was never about what is comfortable or familiar. It opened up new vistas and it challenged us. Yes, a lot of it was fun and even gave rise to the design of our cellphones, our laptops and tablets, medical devices, alien subcultures where the disenfranchised could find acceptance and a much-needed home and so much more. But all those things were not the story; they were the tools to tell the story of us – the battle between our insistent selves and our latent nobility to see which would win out and this played out in a universe of infinite possibilities and diversity. It was that battle within us, that battle between us and that battle between what is us and what is not us that made Star Trek so compelling. And we were shown that we could sometimes let our higher selves carry the day.
When I hear network and studio executives tell me this is the Star Trek I’ve been waiting for, and then, at my cold reception, tell me that this iteration will have Klingons and Tribbles and space battles and it’s visually stunning and we’ve hired dedicated, nitpicking fans to check for accuracy so we can stay faithful to canon and, oh wait, we’re deliberately not following canon here, here, here, well, everywhere – STOP! I DON’T CARE! Because that’s not what I want to hear. It just tells me that you’ve missed the point entirely, you don’t trust what you’re doing and you’re reacting.
Star Trek canon (or the Star Trek bible of 50 years ago) was never written in stone and those who claim to adhere to it religiously or who cry foul at departures from the letter of said canon have missed the spirit of Star Trek completely. If Gene Roddenberry were alive today, he would write a markedly different show bible because we’ve evolved in some areas and devolved in others over the last 50 years. How many of you were even alive when TOS first aired? How can you maintain that you even understand said canon. The first two seasons of TOS inspired thousand of my generation to go into space, into science, into technology, into medicine, into engineering, into politics, into film and television and/or to simply be better human beings. You don’t often hear from us because we’re busy living our lives and trying to make the world a better place in our chosen professions and in our daily lives. Has any other iteration had that power, even if the producers clung to everything spelled out in that old show bible? No.
The Star Trek that will channel the spirit of the original, and the Star Trek I’ve been waiting for, will not look like, or be a copy of, or behave anything like the original because it will be a child of this moment in time and space, just like the original was at the time. But it will have the ideas, the mind-blowing ideas and the compelling stories of that eternal struggle between our inherent nobility and our insistent selves (good and evil to put it bluntly), played out across the infinite stage that is the universe. And like the brilliant reboot that was Battlestar Galactica (which was preceded and then first received with vociferous antagonism, if we care to remember) and the equally brilliant and disturbing reboot of Westworld currently airing, it will force us to look at ourselves, ask the important questions about who we were, who we are and who we want to be. And, if it truly channels the spirit of the original, it will also inspire, and yes, at times, it will also make us laugh.
Make Your Own Show
If you’re going to tell me this is the new real Star Trek, then have the courage and the conviction to stand on your own merit. Write your own show bible. Develop your own canon. Make your own show. Do the best job you can. Ignore the loud detractors; accept the fan skepticism with equanimity and stand confidently with the knowledge that you’ve done the best job you can on a show that may or may not follow Gene Roddenberry’s vision. But at least be able to channel his essence – STAND YOUR GROUND! Don’t talk about how good you are and how good your show is or how faithful you are to the original while everything I see speaks to the contrary. Just do it and let it stand on its own merit. Don’t worry about the fans because the more you talk about it, the more worried and skeptical the majority of the fans will become.
So remember that when we fail to blindly jump onto the bandwagon when we hear network and studio executives tell us that this is the Star Trek iteration we’ve been waiting for. We’ve heard it before and it’s a case of fool me once, shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me. I’ll hold my praise till I see what you’ve done. But I will see what you’ve done. I will certainly give you that courtesy. Because this is not about dissing any new effort by all the creative people who labour in this franchise to make something worthwhile in these difficult times. It is to address the tenuous relationship between the fan base and the corporate powers that hold in their hands this thing that’s meant so much to so many people across 50 years.
How to Please the Fans
Here are two things you can do right now to improve the situation:
When you, who own Star Trek, decide to birth a new project, hire the best people you can. These people won’t be the ones who regurgitate what you want to hear as corporate businessmen. They will be difficult to understand and even harder to deal with. Hire interpreters who understand the language of the imagination and also understand the language of money if you must, so you can feel secure that you’ve been heard. Once you give your OK to a project – GET OUT OF THE WAY! Don’t hover like predatory birds waiting for your next meal to hatch.
Save your opinions and speeches about how great you think this new thing is for your boardrooms and shareholders. We don’t want or need your corporate opinion. We will make up our own minds in due course.
Again I ask you to please keep the business and the storytelling elements separate. Don’t compel your cast to do your marketing or damage control for you. While press junkets, photo sessions and interviews are part of their contractual obligations, most of them don’t understand where the fan reticence or even the negativity comes from. They’re between a rock and a hard place. It’s not their job to mediate between the expectations of the fans and the expectations of their employers. It’s not fair to them and it’s not fair to us. Protect them from the storm you’ve created, and even protect them from themselves on occasion. Unless any of them are producers as well, they’re powerless to affect anything that addresses your needs and concerns. Yes, we want to see them and hear them in and out of character in front of us and across all media platforms, and yes, show them off and know that not every cast member needs to have been a long-time fan to be a good, believable and effective member of a Star Trek cast.
And, for God’s sake (yes, I’m going there), let the producers, directors and writers make their own show, make it their way, tell the stories they think are timely. Regardless of what you call it in the end, if they’ve captured the spirit of Star Trek for modern times (and I have to admit to being a tiny bit optimistic if the crossing of the attributes of a couple of the names is anything to go by, see Part II) and are actually boldly going somewhere new and are able to sustain it over 15 episodes, you won’t need to blare it with what’s-his-name’s trumpet – we’ll know and you’ll get our money and meet, and probably exceed, your earnings forecast, your new streaming service will take off and you’ll have a new way to fly…I mean, to make money. If not, well, you’ll probably end up with some of our money anyway as we watch with the stoic resignation we’ve learned to adopt as we’ve watched most of the Star Trek offerings of the past fifty years, while quietly musing that, in another fifty years, it’ll be the sixties again. Maybe then…