The Joy of Treks (Or What You Will)

OK, so I just watched Star Trek. Like all of Star Trek. No, literally all of Star Trek.

Over the last couple of years I’ve done everything right from The Original Series through The Next Generations, Deep Space 9, Voyager and, finally, Enterprise.

With new series Discovery on the horizon (long-term listeners to the podcast will know I have my reservations) it’s interesting to take a look at how different each one has been so far.
The benefit of being now able to binge whole series on Netflix brings a new perspective to each of the franchise’s five incarnations, along with some insights on the evolution of entertainment itself.

So here, spoiler free, is my breakdown, series by series, in stardate order.

Enterprise 

(2001-2005)

When the prequel series first hit TV, I had a fairly dim view of it.

I was a teenager at the time and not quite the seasoned nerd I am today. In fact, I hated the costumes, the design, the characters…. Everything.

And while some of these observations still hold, I must admit that, after my viewing this year I appreciate what they were aiming for much more.

do like the approach of going back to the origins of Starfleet and some of the reverse-imagined future tech is quite satisfying; the use of a magnetic grappling hook in lieu of a tractor beam, polarised hull plates rather than shields etc. These make the action feel more immediate, as does the general subtext of getting to grips with all the nascent innovations that make trek trek.

Translating alien languages, and figuring out the neighbourhood of systems around them, there’s a real sense of exploration for the crew. Also, not having the biggest, shiniest starship around has its advantages story-wise.

Another thing one notices, going back now, is that Enterprise has real series-long story arcs, something that the previous four iterations rarely achieved in quite the same way.

This, of course, makes it a lot more suited to a modern viewing pattern. The fact that Earth itself is placed in the centre of peril is a bold but exciting move, something only hinted at in TNG or DS9.

Giving it my full attention, I got used to the jumpsuit uniforms and really began to enjoy the fleshed out world of Vulcans, Andorians, Tellerites, and such.

One thing the series does really nicely is going back to the well of Roddenberry’s creative flair and revisiting species and concepts that ToS never gave much time. The work the writers put in with this back catalogue is inventive and gripping. And the villains of the series seldom let us down.

Enterprise may have been the crowning glory of the Star Trek Franchise were it not for one simple thing…

The bridge crew are just so damn boring.

The stories may be good but the characters themselves are designed so poorly that there simply isn’t one memorable personality among them.

Performances like John Billingsley’s Dr. Phlox, and Jeffrey Combs’ fantastically entertaining Shran make for some great viewing but, on the whole, the main cast fail to hold interest. It seems that in places they’ve gone for ‘enigmatic’ with Malcolm or T’Pall, but compared to, for instance, the Next Generation crew they come off flat and uninteresting.

Captain Archer is a bland leader at best and I can’t help thinking that the part was miscast. Given some of his story lines; arguing his place with the Vulcans, striving to save earth, resorting to torture and acts of extreme risk, the feel of the character still manages to underwhelm.

Scott Bakula has his place but, for me, Captain Archer was not it.

It’s no surprise that Enterprise lasted only four seasons. In less time, the original series had delivered some outstanding episodes. To my mind there are no Enterprise episodes quite on par with this standard.

Star Trek: The Original Series

1966-1969

Star Trek was ahead of its time but also very much of its time. In a way, one can’t compare it to the far more evolved kind of television produced today. Some people even call it unwatchable now (they’re wrong), but I feel it just needs a bit of an adjustment n the state of mind of the viewer.

There’s a lot of dodgy continuity, men slapping women at the slightest provocation, and that one time the murderer was Jack the Ripper’s ghost all along… But one must remember that 1966 is now a long time ago. and as one might expect, the world has changed.

With that in mind, though, Star Trek did an amazing job of holding up a carnival mirror to the society in which it existed.

It did a lot to further the discussion of civil rights, gender equality, philosophy, and so on, and so on, throughout its run of just three seasons. This is even more an impressive feat when you consider that some of it was written almost on the fly, with production deadlines looming throughout.

The worst episodes are full of holes, true, but the best of them will always be held up as classic drama. It must be noted what Sci-fi on TV and film looked like before Star Trek. It gave the public consciousness a format to take the genre seriously.

The talent of the actors, the chemistry and camaraderie between them is simply wonderful.

The idea of world peace as a given, and an international crew were groundbreaking and important and haven’t really been continued in the same way in Star Trek since. The look of the show was the best in its class. The costumes and environments were, in some cases, a masterclass in design.

The sheer inventiveness of the show is what I think ensured its legacy. The warp drive, the transporter, these were the things that dreams were made of. The challenge was, in a ship full of computers, communicators, and phasers, to ensure peril and drama. If anything, that contributed all the more to the diversity in plot that the show had over the years.

Sure there were a lot of unexplained phenomena, planets that looked ‘just like earth’ for no reason, things of that ilk, but there were also fantastic moral dilemmas, windows into issues of the day, some of which we still struggle with now. At the end of the day Star Trek was about people being the best they could be, defying risk, overcoming not only antagonists but their own inner demons.
The films that came later are still some of the best loved cinema among genre enthusiasts and I think that remains undeniable proof of the cohesion of the world that Roddenberry built.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

1987-1994

TNG is the Star Trek that I fell in love with. My Star Trek.

Bias aside though, I still hold it up as the gold standard of all the series.

When it first aired there were serious doubts about resurrecting the most iconic sci-fi show of all time, but it turned out to be a show which, again, transcended and redefined the entertainment standards of its time.

TNG’s enduring modern aesthetic still holds up even now. It looked so much newer and cleaner than the filmic, more used future of something like Return of the Jedi (1983) only four years before or the rain soaked dystopian cityscape of Blade Runner (1982). TNG is the ultimate in utopian design and for me that’s partly why it was so inspiring.

The show is more relevant now than it’s ever been.

In real life we selfishly squabble over borders, threatening each other with missiles and the gap between rich and poor simply increase as we tear apart anything that begins to bring us together.

We need a vision of utopia amid the dark themes that constitute so much of our film and TV.

Of course, the show has dark themes aplenty itself but it’s never afraid to show us the brighter side of life,  even with something as simple as a conversation or a concert.

It can take you to a place where anything can be accomplished, so long as we are true to ourselves and to each other.

This series was responsible for introducing the cream of what has become the Star Trek universe.

Apart from a few classics; Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, etc, it developed almost all the major alien species used in the franchise going forward. The Ferengi, the Cardassians, the Borg… and the encompassing continuity started here too. Star dates and warp factors, all the little geeky details we love to scrutinise were now set in stone.

If you listen to our podcast then you know I like to see a show stick to its own internal logic even if fantasy takes the lead. And, as often as it could, it stuck close to actual science as well, dipping into cutting edge concepts in a sort of ‘what if’ manner.

Let’s face it, they got the cream of the crop when it came to acting talent as well.

A cast of brilliant actors portraying a diverse set of fully embodied characters is far more than you can expect from even some of the best shows, even now.

How often does a show like this really explore what is means to be an android, a warrior, a diplomat? I’ve always held that the different races and cultures are allegories for the human condition, presented in ways unfettered by existing cultural biases.

Piccard to me is not only the best captain by far, but also the ultimate expression of the ideals of Starfleet. Courageous, compassionate, intellectual. In fact, the very embodiment of the warrior nerd.

One need only look to the two part episode ‘Chain of Command’ in season six for one of the greatest acting performances ever to grace the screen. One can see him not only excelling, but also constantly striving in small ways, to be better, to overcome any obstacle within himself. In the course of the show, he deals with more adversity and torment than the rest of the captains put together. Captured, tortured, sent to exotic dimensions, pestered by weird beings; he takes it all with dignity and indomitable courage.

There’s just no stopping Next Gen. Seven seasons, four films, a stellar cast, and a huge cultural and mythological impact; Next Gen is surely the most successful series of Star Trek, possibly of any scifi series, ever.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

1993-1999

If TNG showed us the shining utopia at its best then DS9 let us see the frays at the edges of that world.

At the edge of the federation the nuts and bolts of interstellar politics provide the backdrop for the only branch of the Trek tree that stands apart thematically.

The community aspect opened up the story potential and gave the show a more relaxed space in which to develop. This space facilitated some of the most detailed world building in any universe. The Bajoran, Cardassian, and Ferengi races especially were woven into fully realised cultures, added to layer by layer, year by year, with continuing devotion.

Quark, played by pop culture favourite Armin Shimmerman, is a brilliantly witty and well developed character and the intricacies of Ferengi politics represent a masterstroke of light entertainment.

That’s not to say that DS9 didn’t have it’s share of action, in fact the sheer scale of some of the conflicts were epic by any standards. Generally though, the episodes skewed more toward mild peril involving two or three characters at a time, and often no life threatening consequences were implied.

The show explores a host of controversial themes, far too many to list here, both in terms of sci-fi conjecture, and real world relevance. Any US series tackling the topic of religion for example, as DS9 does, can’t be entirely blamed for being a little passive. Wrapped as it is in its futurist setting a sci-fi show can occasionally go places where other forms of entertainment cannot.

The ‘senior staff’ (here an ‘Ops’ team rather than a bridge crew) are represented by skilled actors who make for very watchable content though, for me, there has always been a little something missing.

Commander (later Captain) Sisko is, from the start, a pretty poor officer. He lacks the confidence of a great leader and though this could have proved interesting for his character’s development, it merely made most of his story fairly forgettable.

Although it boasts fewer outstanding episodes per series than its contemporaries, I don’t feel it very often produced a bad one either.

Bolstered by the strength the world it built, one could always rely on Deep Space Nine.

Star Trek: Voyager

1995-2001

Voyager often lacks the discussion exposure that previous incarnations of Star Trek enjoy. For me, though, this faithful continuation is a perfect addition to the post TNG world.

It treats the crew as not only a group of professionals but also as family, and a combined family at that. The initial premise of a stranded ship trying to fold a group of former freedom fighters into a disciplined unit never actually wears thin. The characters are not just their jobs but are real people too. This approach ended up combining the best parts of what made TNG and DS9 tick.

I’d also like to point out that the Voyager opening theme is a fantastic piece of music and probably my favourite. The entire opening sequence is a triumph of music and design.

A ship lost in space, trying to get home creates an ongoing problem for the crew to solve.

The other series’ struggled sometimes to create legitimate drama and credible risk, but this was never a problem with Voyager’s mission. They were always low on some critical resource or facing a hitherto unknown danger without any hope of backup form the federation.

There was always a real sense of urgency, and community to Voyager, consequences somehow always felt more real.

The acting talent here has no weak link. Kate Mulgrew’s performance brings to life an indomitable and brilliant captain, a scientist and a compassionate leader. She’s more open minded too, we really see her in the process of making decisions, learning as she goes.

As the Doctor, Robert Piccado is a proven hurricane of entertainment. He and Ethan Philips’ Neelix both help keep the show light even within the more serious storylines. Tim Russ’ Tuvok encapsulates the Vulcan experience, at least Leonard Nimoy’s equal if not his superior.

As well as representing the overall best suite of actors in all the franchise, the way Voyager deals with the traditional Star Trek themes is superb. Exploration, curiosity and scientific endeavour take the lead.

In the end, Voyager is always about the people more than whatever the particular peril of the episode presents. We see them grow, endure, and even flourish.

For seven years they dealt with some of the most well crafted external threats in the franchise, the Borg in particular, but we also see the characters develop across that time. Seven of Nine and the Doctor quest together to lead fuller lives, characters learn new skills and form new relationships. There is much more in flux than there was in TNG or even DS9 really.

This series tends to get a bit of hate for some reason but I’ll defend Voyager to anyone who fails to fully appreciate its charms. It’s funny, exciting and well rounded. In fact it’s a real shame they never got a movie out of it as I reckon it would have been something really special.

 

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