After more than five years, I've finally finished watching every Star Trek film, television show, and... whatever we call Internet-native series like Star Trek: Discovery. At their best, they've been a companion, conscience, and inspiration: at their worst, they're just bad. In the interest of justifying all that time spent, I thought I should write down some of my impressions.
Star Trek: The Original Series
Gene Roddenberry managed to get Star Trek made in 1966; people usually point out that this is three years before we had even landed on the Moon to show how prescient he was. I'd like to point out something else related to that. During the Moon landing, Walter Cronkite interviewed Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, two of the most prominent science fiction authors of the twentieth century. When discussing whether women could be astronauts, Cronkite and Clarke in particular make some remarks that would be considered astonishingly sexist today. They're reminiscent of one of Star Trek's low notes: the final episode of the original series, "Turnabout Intruder."
But consider also that when Nichelle Nichols was considering leaving the show, Martin Luther King, Jr. personally asked her to stay on; he believed that it was important for America to see someone like her in an accomplished position on the bridge of a starship.
That's the legacy of the original series: it's the ideals that were there in the background, often quietly on display or mentioned in passing. Of course there's iconic characters and memorable stories (Tribbles, Kirk's final line in "The City on the Edge of Forever," even the space hippies episode), and those kept people engaged -- but it's the ground rules that Roddenberry put in place that made Star Trek into something aspirational.
Another aspect of 1960s television that fascinates me is that the actors themselves often seem to have more character than their modern counterparts; too often in modern television it's as if all of the wrinkles have been smoothed over, both literally and figuratively. Leonard Nimoy was striking in appearance and voice. William Shatner has made a lifelong career out of his unique way of speaking (and singing). I don't see those traits in the the actors who play Kirk and Spock today, who seem more like machine-made products. I could say the same of Patrick McGoohan's Number Six or any of the Doctors from that period.
The original series is still enjoyable both as an aspirational work and as a cultural artifact of its era; it's well worth actively engaging with it.
Star Trek: The Animated Series
It's much like the original series, only with a worse ratio of garbage episodes to good ones. It's still enjoyable to spend time with the characters.
Star Trek I-VI
These films are the reason that Star Trek is still around today. There's something good to be said about each of them; even the much-maligned Final Frontier gave us the "What does God need with a starship?" meme.
I is too slow-paced; the story was based on an unproduced television episode and stretched out to feature film length. It was rushed into production as a response to Star Wars mania. All the same, it had high aspirations and clearly took its visual cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey. You could do worse.
II: The Wrath of Khan is often considered the gold standard of Trek films; its visual design would set the tone for the next two decades of Star Trek and its narrative deftly weaves motifs of aging and friendship together with a very personal villain. There's nothing wrong with the special effects, which include some of the earliest uses of computer graphics in cinema, but they are kept in the background in favor of making a very human film.
III: The Search for Spock: I remember rewatching this with friends after Leonard Nimoy's passing. That was a good memory. Leonard Nimoy quietly began a successful career as a director thanks to this film and its sequel.
IV: The Voyage Home: I have a friend who can't stand this film. I think it's what Star Trek is all about -- although it might have made frequent use of time travel too permissible for later series.
V: The Final Frontier: Shatner was given the director's chair for this one, and his fingerprints are all over it. He's clearly trying to emphasize that he's still physically capable of being an action hero despite being in his late fifties. It's not a particuarly satisfying film, but I maintain that the plot itself is more plausible and flows more logically than that of the much better VI.
VI: The Undiscovered Country: It's enjoyable watching cast members squirm during contemporary interviews as they try to diplomatically explain why they made a sixth film. The plan had been for V to be the last film featuring the original Enterprise crew, but its critical and commercial failure led to the production of VI. This can only be considered a happy accident, as VI helped firmly establish the old fandom joke that only even-numbered movies are any good. Just like IV, it is an artifact of its time; in IV, it was those "Save the Whales" bumper stickers that were everywhere in the 1980s and 90s, and in VI, it was the period of global optimism engendered by the fall of the Soviet Union. VI doesn't shy away from questions of prejudice, even in its heroes, and the brilliantly-cast role that Brock Peters plays helps drive the point home that this movie is very much about our own situation. I still think Kirk's speech at the end is a bit much, but only Shatner could pull somethign like that off.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
Finally, we come to the series that defined Star Trek for many. By the mid-1990s, as TNG reached its final seasons, Star Trek was so popular that the local Trek club had a float in my hometown's Fourth of July parade. (My mother flashed the Live Long and Prosper sign at them).
Gene Roddenberry is considered the father of Star Trek for good reason, but his legacy is more complex than that. Without Roddenberry, Patrick Stewart wouldn't have been cast as Picard; without Stewart, TNG couldn't exist. It was Roddenberry's insistence on the rules of his world -- that the Federation doesn't use money, for instance -- that kept Star Trek unique. But it was also Roddenberry's death early in the show's run that let it break free of the 1960s Trek formula, pivot to a more character-driven approach, and in the process go from a hokey artifact of the 1980s to a show that still feels fresh today.
Incidentally, as a computer security professional, there's an episode buried in there that might be the first example of phishing popular culture.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
DS9 sometimes feels like a few shows in one. From the start, the writers clearly intended for longer story arcs made possible by the space-station setting; unlike on the Enterprise, the crew of Deep Space Nine couldn't warp away from the consequences of their actions. Competition from Babylon Five drove the series more in this direction as the years went on.
I think that this is one of the few Star Trek series that manages to successfully change the Trek ground rules and still stay Trek. Voyager and Enterprise, for instance, quickly handwave away the technological and human challenges of their situations and become more and more similar to TNG and TOS as time goes on. Not so with DS9.
This is also a series that directly engages with the nature of society and humanity: the Ferengi hold up a mirror to the viewer; Jadzia Dax challenges the nature of gender and sexuality; holographic characters take on their own lives; Benjamin Sisko talks about race; people play baseball. In "Past Tense," we are presented with a 2024 San Francisco that might be Star Trek's most accurate prediction and its most direct criticism of our society. Look for the Gabriel Bell memes in four years' time.
DS9 took the seeds planted by TNG and nurtured them into what they were meant to be. TNG's Ferengi were comical; DS9 made them real. TNG's Worf didn't really mature until DS9. (O'Brien's character just got overrused after his transfer).
I get the impression that DS9 is one of the more controversial entries in the Star Trek canon; people either love it or hate it. It's a show that can require patience at times; it's not perfect. But I think it's well worth watching.
Star Trek: Voyager
Voyager starts off with a command decision meant to epitomize selflessness and set the tone for the series. Janeway chooses the lives of complete strangers over that of her own crew. That first episode is probably best judged by its intent rather than its execution. I think that this first episode probably put many off of the series, unfortunately; like most Trek series, it tests the viewer's patience as the writers find their way in the first season or two.
Kate Mulgrew's portrayal of Janeway as Katherine Hepburn in space was a good choice, I think. She brings the right level of irritation and wit to the sometimes absurd situations she finds herself in; in particular, her reaction to increasingly ridiculous time-travel plots and the subsequent fast-cut are probably unique in Star Trek.
Just like DS9, Voyager helped refine Star Trek. Tuvok is the first ordinary Vulcan to play a major role in a Star Trek series. The holographic doctor leaves the question of AI sentience open without a satisfactory resolution. Several episodes deal with Federation ethics.
But, in order to do so, Voyager had to become TNG. The show quickly breaks its own rules -- we are told at the beginning that they are stranded with few resources, but before long the crew has quietly learned how to manufacture more photon torpedoes and build new shuttles to replace the seventeen that were destroyed over the course of the series. Most of the show's episodes take place in this world; there's only a few times where they are confronted with the reality that their ethics are only sustainable in a world of abundance.
I would've liked to have seen a Voyager that was written according to those rules, where their isolation in the Delta Quadrant had a more meaningful impact on their lives. But I'm not sure how to write that. And I was just as happy to get an extention of TNG.
Star Trek: The Next Generation films
It's really difficult for me to review these. There's very little that stands out to me about them. Each one has a few good moments, and some are better written and directed than others, but they're not iconic in the way that the first six films were. I think that this can be blamed in part on changes in the movie-making industry that have reduced emphasis on acting and dialogue in favor of action and visual complexity.
First Contact is probably the best of them, with Insurrection in second place. Both were directed by Jonathan Frakes.
Many people are unsatisfied with Kirk's death in Generations; if you watch the original cut that's included on the Blu-ray, it's even worse.
Star Trek: Enterprise
Enterprise gets a bad rap; its first season was oversexed to the point of absurdity (and never really shook that reputation completely; why is it that T'Pol doesn't ever wear a standard uniform, and doesn't it seem odd that the male crewmembers all look like they're Arnold Schwarzenneger stunt doubles?) and the characters seemed flat. Many people, including me, never made it past the first few episodes when it aired. That's unfortunate, because there's some good moments in there.
There's also some bad moments. Some of the dialogue is astonishingly hokey; one line in an episode about the beginnings of the Prime Directive sticks out in my head.
Still, in retrospect, Enterprise's influence on the characterizations in the new Star Trek films is significant. Zoe Saldana's Uhura owes as much to Hoshi Sato and Linda Park as it does to Nichelle Nichols.
There's many elements of TOS characters here. Captain Archer is a more reflective retooling of Kirk, down to the way Scott Bakula delivers his lines. I was happy to see the engineer take on Bones's role of the one with an impulsive conscience -- a Southerner, just like Bones -- as engineers too often are portrayed as having little connection to moral reasoning. The most original character on the show is Dr. Phlox, who has little analog elsewhere; he is one of the few people to challenge Star Trek's orthodox views on morality, if in small ways.
But the interesting thing about Enterprise is how it responded to changes in the world. Starting in the third season, a directorial style much more common in 21st-century network TV action shows is used, with shaky camera shots and quick cuts creating a much more kinetic feel. The attack on Earth in season 3 is clearly intended as an analog for September 11; I was especially struck by the episode where Archer almost literally waterboards a prisoner to gain information. The military became a constant presence on the Enterprise for the first time.
Much like Voyager, I also have to complain that the writers couldn't stick to the rules they set out for themselves. Though the series is set decades before TOS, tools like transporters, universal translators, and photon torpedoes rapidly became available to the crew as the writers slid backwards towards the conventions of TNG-era Trek.
(The theme song was also retooled in season 3. It wasn't an improvement).
Enterprise was intended to be a return to TOS, and in that it succeeds: flawed, like the original, but worth engaging with as an artifact of its time. 2000 seems like a long time ago now.
"Kelvin timeline" Star Trek films (2009, Into Darkness, Beyond)
After so many years without any new Trek, the 2009 film was a welcome return -- I just don't feel any need to watch it again. Into Darkness has little substance to it, and Beyond is perhaps the first of the three to feel like it had something of the old Trek in it. I have little to say about them. I think that Star Trek is better suited to television, which is why I had high hopes for Discovery.
Star Trek: Discovery
Discovery's one advantage over previous Trek series is that it was produced for online streaming only: there's no requirements on length or commercial breaks as in previous series. This gives the writers few excuses for poor pacing and enables telling a wider range of stories.
So, then, why did I find myself sighing as I watched another pointless, drawn-out fight scene? If you have Michelle Yeoh in your show, you have to have some Hong Kong-style action. But I felt like I was watching the fight scene from They Live over and over again.
It seems that they've lost sight of the old adage "show, don't tell." Captain Pike travels to a Klingon monastery in order to retreive a "time crystal." He's informed that no-one ever has left with one -- the crystal shows them terrifying visions of their possible future that overwhelm them. Pike takes a few deep breaths, reminds himself of his obligations as a Starfleet captain to steady himself, and leaves a few minutes later with the crystal.
Compare this to Voyager's season four episode "Resolutions." Janeway and Chakotay believe that they will have to spend the rest of their lives together, quarantined on an isolated planet. They struggle with how to redefine their relationship for the full length of the episode: what does their professionalism as Starfleet officers mean, in this situation?
Discovery's writers seem more interested in packing as much visual overload and snappy one-liners as they can into the show, leaving little time for reflection. To do so, they must fall back on well-worn tropes and universal themes to establish characters as quickly as possible. There are plenty of shows that already do this. Star Trek should be better than that.
Similarly, what happened to the Klingons? It's as if the orcs from The Lord of the Rings went into space. They are comically evil; another wasted opportunity.
That being said, there are some great casting decisions: Tig Notaro and Sonja Sohn come to mind in particular. And there's character types that haven't been prominent in Star Trek before, but deserve their turn in the spotlight. Discovery's Spock seems more Spock-ish than in the Kelvin-timeline films. I just can't find any enthusiasm for this show. It's taken the worst parts of Star Trek, like the Mirror Universe, and made them into the focus of the series. Maybe there will be some redemption in the next season, given the dramatic change of setting.
Star Trek: Picard
Patrick Stewart is nearly eighty years old -- only a decade younger than William Shatner. And yet he is carrying this series almost single-handedly.
What happened to the beautiful visual design of the TNG era? Just a few decades later, the Picard universe has backslid into generic scifi settings, inhuman in their color palette. Picard's computers are nothing more than a visual distraction; no-one will ever seek to emulate them the way that nerds have done with LCARS for decades. I realize that the series is supposed to depict a Federation in decline, but this is not what it would look like.
The characters have become more generic as well; instead of Romulans with padded shoulders looking properly cold and alien, we get oversexed Romulans with bad British-movie-villain accents. As it happens, I went to school with one of the actresses on the show, though I didn't know her personally, and I can assure you that her British accent is fake. And then there's the elf. Why is an elf in this series?
The rest of the crew of Picard's little ship is somewhat better, but for the most part it feels like the returnees from the 1990s series still stand out the most. That might change in the next season. I'm hoping for a more episodic approach that gives characters more time to stretch out and grow.
The show also suffers from stakes creep -- the fate of the universe is at stake, yet again. It gets tiring. This seems to be a common problem now that computer effects are so cheap and readily available; Doctor Who has seen the brink of end of the universe -- or even the multiverse -- too many times since its reboot, and Discovery can't seem to tell a human-scale story either.
The plot arc of the first season was questionable at best, especially when it's considered from a philosophical standpoint. Without spoiling things too much, I will comment that many science fiction shows have taken on the topic of extreme longevity -- being able to repair and regrow your body -- and for some reason they usually conclude it's a bad thing. I can't understand this point of view at all. More to the point, simply by introducing the possibility of immortality, the first season of Picard rewrites the rules of the Star Trek universe -- or it would have, if the writers cared to acknowledge what they have done.
Regardless, why wouldn't someone want to live another hundred years -- just think of all the new Trek that could come out in that time!
And with that, I've finished every official Star Trek series -- which only leaves a few more.
Star Trek: Renegades and other fan works
The many fan-made Star Trek films and series are a testament to the love people have for this show. The most notable of these are Star Trek: Renegades and its predecessor Of Gods and Men, which have brought back dozens of Trek actors from every era. They're all working for free; Nichelle Nichols is still contributing to them in her late eighties.
A few years ago, Renegades was released as a pilot, intended as something that could be sold to the Star Trek rightsholders and made into a real series. Set after the TNG timeline and starring Walter Koenig, it started looking too much like a real Star Trek series; the rights holders allowed them to release it on YouTube, but for subsequent films, they've been forced to change the setting to the Confederation, rather than the Federation. Walter Koenig's character definitely isn't named Chekov any more, either.
Renegades is enjoyable to watch; there are plenty of talented actors involved, and the production values are more than good enough to avoid distracting from the story. Unfortunately, the story itself, not to mention the dialogue, could use a fair bit of work. I have to give them the benefit of the doubt; there are challenges professional crews don't have to face -- for instance, they had to continously adapt a plot as actors agreed to join or had to drop out, and they had to find a way to write in as many characters as possible.
Star Trek is now more than fifty years old, and it's as much a part of the culture as the pre-modern, public domain stories that everyone can now freely adapt. When will people be able to make their own Star Trek stories, without asking for permission from whatever Hollywood conglomerate happens to own the intellectual property rights? I think that day should come soon; our laws grant monopolies on our shared culture for too long a time.
They don't have transporters, and they work for the Planetary Union, not the Federation. Otherwise, The Orville is TNG-era Star Trek at its finest.
Seth MacFarlane has been trying to make a Star Trek series for a long time, but when it became clear that the rights holders were interested in pursuing Discovery-style storytelling, he created his own show. It seems clear that it was sold to Fox as a Family Guy-style comedy; the initial episodes are painful to watch. But it has matured into something unique in the modern American television landscape.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
"Oh. Hey there, li'l dumplin'. I just had the most peculiar dream. It was about Grand Pear. Only it wasn't. We were in outer space on some kinda mission to explore a strange new world. And Mudbriar was there, bein' as logical as ever, but his ears was all pointy-like. And then Discord showed up and... well, you know, he was pretty much the same. It was all green, and then Grand Pear looked at me all dramatical and says, 'Where nopony has gone before!' And whoosh! Away we flew!"