Modern fandom really began with Star Trek back in the 60s and 70s. (Mostly female) Trekkies, created fanzines and the first real pop culture conventions. People liked the Star Trek universe created by Gene Roddenberry so much that they wanted to live in it and discuss it with people who understood why the camaraderie of multicultural nerds in space meant so much to them. The fans fought to keep the original series from being cancelled. They failed, but the show remained popular in syndication and spawned thirteen movies and six more TV shows: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise—and then, in 2017-2018, Discovery, a show so odd, so off-putting, so vicious and violent and militaristic that it seems like an invader from another universe entirely. Then, in 2020, Picard said “hold my replicated beer!”
Before the CBS All Access shows arrived, previous Trek narratives all shared a common penchant for exploration and cross-cultural understanding. While Starfleet has always been a military organization, its functions have tended to the diplomatic, scientific, humanitarian, and logistical. The main characters—human and aliens—more or less got along, learning to accept (if not always understand) each other’s cultural practices and idiosyncrasies, like the Vulcan belief in the primacy of logic, or the often bloody Klingon code of honor. Interspecies tolerance—while frequently rendered in problematic ways—was a critical component of the Star Trek philosophy.
Reflecting on this underpinning ideology, and why it resonated so much with viewers, Roddenberry said:
We believed that the often ridiculed mass audience is sick of this world’s petty nationalism and all its old ways and old hatreds, and that people are not only willing but anxious to think beyond most petty beliefs that have for so long kept mankind divided…What Star Trek proves, as faulty as individual episodes could be, is that the much-maligned common man and common woman has an enormous hunger for brotherhood. They are ready for the 23rd century now, and they are light years ahead of their petty governments and their visionless leaders.
We’re not much closer to a united brotherhood of mankind than we were in the 60s, yet Star Trek somehow remains as popular as ever. All the old Star Trek shows are available on Netflix, where The Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine enjoy especially high viewing figures. Three movies debuted in the last ten years—and okay, maybe they were a bit too action oriented and dumb, and mostly consisted of Chris Pine twitching at the camera while planets blew up behind him, but as mindless action movies go, they were kind of fun.
In keeping with Trek’s enduring appeal, the new show, Discovery, was billed as a return to the old Trek universe and the old Trek thoughtfulness. Showrunner Bryan Fuller, who wrote for both Deep Space Nine and Voyager, promised a show that was true to the philosophy of Star Trek, particularly its focus on diplomacy and mutual understanding. Set a decade before the original series, Discovery was supposed to chart the development of Trek’s cheery egalitarian ethos; a growth arc that couldn’t be too steep, given that Enterprise, set in the 22nd century, had already laid the foundations of a diplomatic, socialist Federation.
“Star Trek” has always had a progressive vision of the future, but in modern politics, progressivism has run out of optimism. It doesn’t sell you hope for a better world but fear of your current one.
- Trump. Always Trump
The most optimistic thing modern “Star Trek” tells us about our future is that when we’re left to fight a genocidal war of attrition against Neo-Nationalist terrorists, we’ll at least be doing it with a diverse group of people.
The show’s creative team confirm how much the Trump Era guides their hand.
“We are creating a world that we would like to see,” series co-creator and executive producer Alex Kurtzman told NBC News about the newest “Star Trek” shows like “Discovery” and “Picard.” “We’re creating it in the literal world that we surround ourselves with the cast, the crew and the writers and we’re creating it on screen and we’re hoping that people can follow.”
When Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek in 1965, he had a vision for the future he wanted to express. He crafted a televised future where humanity had successfully conquered the worst aspects of its nature. He offered mankind a vision of the future beyond petty modern issues like racism, poverty and war so that people could look forward to it.
“Star Trek” is a beautiful dream. It’s not technically a communist paradise as some would claim because the future it portrays is a post-scarcity future. Humanity in the 23rd century has developed the Matter Replicator and human need has dissolved. Resources are now infinite. Money isn’t even necessary. People join Starfleet just because they have a passion for diplomacy, science and exploration.
The optimism for man’s nature and future that precludes these ideas is intoxicating.
That hopeful vision for mankind gave the original series, its successor “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the original 10 films a voice and vision for human prosperity. This is what the world could be if human beings could figure out how to fix our limitations.
Over at Legal Insurrection, Tyler penned the following regarding how the political landscape in America completely changed the tone and the outlook of the franchise:
Star Trek has always been a fascinating gage of politics. Starting out as a utopian futurist series, Gene Roddenberry’s vision was always decidedly slightly to the left of wherever society was at any moment. This has brought about good and annoying things alike.
While the show gave us positive societal developments like television’s first interracial kiss, there are many such examples of the series delving into outright progressive activism such as Star Trek IV’s preachy anti-whaling message, Star Trek VI’s globalist themes which directly alluded to the fall of the Soviet Union and Star Trek TNG’s anti-interventionalist themes.
The recent films and TV shows didn’t initially have a consistent ideology given that they were more focused on action and character drama. Considering their violence and content though, they certainly disregarded Gene Roddenberry’s beliefs of peace and hope.
And the moment things changed, in Tyler’s assessment, was following Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 election cycle:
Among the fanbase, there have been plenty of criticisms for Star Trek: Discovery on numerous aspects of its story and production design. The Klingons look nothing like they do in any other Star Trek series. The technological development in this series doesn’t line up with TOS which is set 10 years later. Setting up a step-sister character for Spock who is never alluded to for the rest of the canon was a strange decision.
These complaints never bothered me. Star Trek has always been janky and has retconned several key story details. Consider that the Klingons got a new makeup job between TOS and The Motion Picture and the fanbase’s response to their change in appearance was to create a convoluted idea about the species developing a degenerative condition during the time jump. The truth is that they had more of a budget for the movies and wanted to improve the costumes.
What I find more interesting is the implicit meaning of the story and how the fanbase has reacted to it. Star Trek has always been liberal but with Star Trek: Discovery, the fanbase had contended that the series has become overtly and radically far left. As a conservative, I’m prone to ignoring progressive pandering in television shows. I wouldn’t have any television if I couldn’t enjoy liberal shows. For many fans however the show is pushing a lot of buttons.
The producers of the show have gone on record to say that the Klingons in this season are representations of white nationalists. With their battle cry of “Remain Klingon”, the combatants of the show are clearly intended as avatars of the most rabid and violent version of Trump supporters.
The Effects of 2016
It’s fascinating just how much the tone changed in the year between Star Trek: Beyond and Star Trek: Discovery. In that time you see the radical change from a movement hopeful about the future, worried that conservative militarism would destroy their utopia, to a bleak vision where the only way to stop that militarism is through drastic violent measures.
In light of it’s failure to keep its politics in check, I suppose some will still find Discovery to exciting, but only in the way that watching online clips of car crashes can be exciting. And in spite of J.J. Abrams’ penchant for light flares and explosions, destruction and devastation is not Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry’s cheerful post-scarcity utopia, which is supposed to be just ten years down the road from now, is nowhere in sight on these shows.
The war with the Klingons apparently destroyed the Federation’s socialist economy in a few short months along with their high-minded ethics. When did Starfleet officers deliberately inflict pain on other sentient beings in order to accomplish their military goals? Where are the fun and joyful parts of Trek? Even the Orville occasional focuses on what the crew does after work! Nobody on the starship Discovery seems to have any free time, let alone any fun. And Jean-Luc Picard is flying around space (finally) with a crew of killers.
This isn’t my Star Trek, and it isn’t Gene Roddenberry’s either. And yet the appetite of modern audiences for that bygone era of Star Trek storytelling still exists. Just consider the popularity of The Orville. Originally pitched as Seth MacFarlane’s parody of Star Trek-style sci-fi, it instead revealed itself as sincere Star Trek: The Next Generation fan-fiction. Its aesthetics are similar, its stories are similar, and it is clearly based around Roddenberry’s ethos of exploration and optimism. It even boasts even episodes written and directed by 90s Star Trek writers and directors and the occasional cameo by a Next Generation familiar.
Right now, more than ever, the world needs optimism about the future, not anger over a Presidential election loss. But, sadly, all we are left with is a choice between Star Trek that doesn’t really feel like Star Trek at all, reqatching the classics, or checking out this pretty good cover band playing the greatest hits. Alas, a once-great franchise has killed itself.