In a recent article on Vox, Todd Van Der Werff proposed a solution for returning Star Trek to the small screen by turning it into an anthology series in the style of True Detective. I’ll let you read the article on your own, but while its a well-intentioned and thoughtful piece, it misses the point pretty much completely. The show Van Der Werff has in mind has merit, but it’s not Star Trek. Now, there are rumors that the show may yet return to TV. I don’t hold out much hope — but it’s enough to get this Trekkie thinking!
Star Trek wasn’t about mystery-box puzzles or intricate arcs. It was about an ensemble cast — a crew, a family — exploring the galaxy and the limits of human morality and ingenuity. When it dipped into long-form storytelling, it was only to allow consequences to ripple forward, to force our heroes to participate in the construction of a crucible that would test them further; see the classic Deep Space 9 episode “In The Pale Moonlight”.
More importantly, though, it’s about a quality that is sadly underrepresented on television in 2015: hope. In the world of Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Mad Men — and looking back to Battlestar Galactica and Breaking Bad — we’re accustomed to tragic arcs, to fleeting moments of peace and happiness being extinguished, and the constant grinding down of optimism in the face of petty cruelty and injustice.
Star Trek was a vision of the future that offered hope, and explored humanity’s potential without easy cynicism and cheap brutality. What would a new Star Trek series look like?
In TOS, we explored a galaxy rich with the unknown, and met it with fortitude and principle. In TNG, we continued those voyages, raising the stakes still higher and building a richer sense of the galaxy as a living, vibrant, difficult place; in DS9, we doubled-down on that idea and challenged our integrity under the most trying of circumstances; in VOY, we explored what happened to our ideas of society and ethics when removed from immediate consequence (and then pretty much whiffed on it, but that’s a story for another time); in ENT, we reframed the discourse from the perspective of a vulnerable people making their first mistakes in a wider world. The show has always been about the decisions we make, the boundless potential within the human spirit, the compromises we’re unwilling to allow, and — particularly as the show grew older and got darker — the costs of that integrity.
A quick disclaimer: I appreciate that it’s now impossible for a new Trek TV show to be set in the original Enterprise-to-Voyager timeline; the movie reboots have been far too popular with audiences to go back. Unfortunately, the new movies have always strayed a long, long way from what Star Trek is and should be, both tonally and philosophically. I’m going to use the original timeline as a source of inspiration and a reference point, but there’s no reason the show couldn’t be set in the movie universe, if the tone could be tweaked and emphasis put back on thoughtful science fiction, rather than bombastic fantasy.
So, if we’re to reboot Star Trek, what would it look like?
I love long-form storytelling on television, and I’m committed to the idea of putting a single story at the heart of the new series — but it should be a story that reflects what actually matters about Star Trek, the humanist philosophy and sense of optimism that I discussed above.
A possible solution can be found in another Gene Roddenberry show, Andromeda, which ran for five years in the early 2000s. In that series, a mighty starship is trapped near the event horizon of a black hole, and when it emerges, centuries have passed and the Federation-esque society they knew has long since fallen. The captain of the Andromeda Ascendant decides to rekindle the light of civilization in this new dark age, and sets out on a quest to do exactly that.
Unfortunately, Andromeda didn’t have the clarity of vision, the worldbuilding, the tone or the production quality to really catch on — but the central idea is a good one. Imagine a Starfleet vessel that finds itself amidst the wreckage of the Federation. How would one ship, the last embodiment of an old philosophy, begin the process of building a new society? We can even reflect and explore the development of our own moral development over the last half-century, comparing the shiny, plastic idealism of TOS with the indefatigable self-belief of the TNG era, and the decline into darkness and doubt that marked, to greater or lesser degrees, the later series. It allows us to engage with the social and cultural ideals that underpin the Federation, and each of the constituent races; it also allows us to explore and discover without pushing further out into the universe; it gives us some of the independence and loneliness that should have been a fundamental part of VOY; it also allows us to re-examine some of the basic elements of the Star Trek universe from a new perspective.
The other key element is the ship: it needs to be large enough that we have a rich pool of stories, but small enough that we can get to know the crew, and it still feels vulnerable. The USS Defiant had a crew of forty, but lacked the facilities for long-term survival, and we don’t necessarily want to turn this into a grim Battlestar Galactica story of scraping by; the USS Voyager had a crew of one hundred and fifty, which may be a little too high for a real sense of community. Now that I think of it, the Enterprise NX-1 (Captain Archer’s ship) had around eighty officers and crew, which seems like a good number. Let’s give them the usual sensor, communications, propulsion and weapons systems, and even throw in a small holodeck — but let’s keep it very low-key, lest we fall into the Voyager trap. It’s a ship that’s been around, possibly a generation behind the state of the art; perhaps it has played some minor roles in some major events, but its definitely not the flagship of Starfleet.
So, let’s get to our pitch. The USS Phoenix (if we’re going literal), or the USS Lamplighter (if we’re going a little more playful), or the USS Enkindler (if we’re going for the Mass Effect fans) passes through a random, uncharted wormhole; when they emerge on the other side, decades have passed, and the Federation has fallen to wars from within and without. The society that they knew has disintegrated, possibly because the Phoenix, itself, was lost at a key moment in history. Wars ravaged across the alpha and beta quadrant, and terrible weapons were deployed on the stellar level, annihilating entire systems, including several homeworlds of the races we once knew: the Cardassians, the Klingons, the Betazoid. Those wars, quelled by the ferocity of the stellar-grade weapons, have faded now into belligerence and antagonism. Our heroes resolve to restore the Federation, one alliance at a time, beginning with Earth — but it’s a long, dangerous voyage from the fringes of the old Federation to the cradle of humanity, and the ruins of Starfleet HQ.
Along the way, our heroes will solve problems, build alliances, make friends, and, inevitably, attract the attention of the warlords, despots and fanatics who want things to remain just as they are. They will be tested in their skill, their dedication and their principle… and somewhere, out in the darkness of space, they may yet find the man — the Vulcan — who begin this new dark age, and brought down the Federation.
I don’t know about you, but I’d watch.
There are countless stories to be told in the universe of Picard and of Janeway, and still more to be told in the universe of this new Kirk and Spock, and countless ways of telling them. This is just one — and not a terribly sophisticated one, I’m the first to admit. The important thing is that we remember that our science fiction doesn’t need to be grim and brutal; there’s still a space for hope, for a belief in the future, and for Star Trek to boldly go where no one has gone before.