A Place Amongst The Stars : New Trek and the Sci-Fi CanonBy Caillan Davenport
Posted at October 15, 2000 - 11:36 AM GMT
The "Star Trek" name is destined to go down in history as one of the most visible and influential works of science-fiction ever. The original series was light-years ahead in storytelling and sci-fi concepts alike, managing to tell intelligent, thought-provoking stories within the space of one hour. Even today, generations of science-fiction fans return to the series that started it all for inspiration and encouragement. Perhaps one of the reasons why "Star Trek" succeeded in gaining a loyal following was because it was so progressive, and yet so resonant. Even today, when special effects and set design may seem less impressive, the stories and the key characters of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy still stand out as strongly as ever.
The beauty of science-fiction is that it isn't always about the science. Sure, the "out of this world" concepts are often interesting; indeed some are tantalisingly intriguing. However, I think that the most endearing part of science-fiction is the human stories it enables us to tell - stories that resonate beyond the confines of space and time. If you look at the science fiction canon as a whole, you can't find a series that more aptly fits this description than "Star Trek".
The original series has cemented a place for itself in science-fiction history. It looks like the case may be rather different for the three spin-off series, however, and although each may be well-remembered by Trek fans, their place in the "big picture", is beginning to look a little smaller.
When "Star Trek: The Next Generation" premiered, it was really one of a kind. A bold series, determined to strike out on its own, whilst still preserving the spirit of the original. However, the wave of new science-fiction series that emerged in the wake of TNG may have sealed the fate of the newer Trek series. Series' such as "The X-Files," "Sliders," "Babylon 5," "Farscape," "Earth: Final Conflict," "Stargate SG-1," and the upcoming "Andromeda," to name a few of the more 'reputable' ones, have vied with the Trek staples of "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager" for their own niche within the genre. When we look back on the nineties, will we only see a pile of sci-fi series, with Trek sandwiched somewhere in the middle?
J. Michael Straczynski, creator of the critically acclaimed series "Babylon 5", recently posted the following in his introduction to the widescreen debut of the series on the American Sci-Fi Channel:
"Recently, I was asked to speak at MIT, in the presence of many of the academics involved in the prestigious MIT Media Lab. The general consensus of the PhDs and others present was that there are three seminal American science fiction series: the original Star Trek, the original Twilight Zone...and Babylon 5."
This statement says a great deal about the state of science-fiction today. Whilst "Babylon 5" has succeeded in cementing its place in history, will the newer Trek series be buried under the infamy of the original? In terms of the Star Trek legacy, they are fitting contributions, but what about the big picture - in terms of science-fiction as a whole?
"Deep Space Nine" certainly pushed the envelope, and changed the traditional conditions of the Trek series. Previously, many of the episodes had been morality based, dealing with pertinent real-life issues that forced the crew to confront their own humanity. Most of the time, however, the Federation, "our heroes", turned out to be the ones in the right - often imposing their will on alien races or civilians. Indeed the whole Maquis issue could be seen as evidence of a more repressive Federation. "Deep Space Nine" sought to deal with the "darker" issues; not always presenting everything in such a positive light.
However, this new way of looking at the Trek universe had mixed results - winning the series legions of new fans, whilst quickly shedding others. The "Dominion War Arc" certainly upped the stakes in story-telling terms, with long-running plot lines and three dimensional villains. After a phenomenal fifth season, however, the arc started to crumble in later years - it seemed as if the creators didn't quite know what to do with all that set-up. The reduction of the final episode to a straight "Good vs Evil" showdown was a big comedown for a series that prided itself on its shades of grey.
Nevertheless, "Deep Space Nine's" optimistic episodes such as the Hugo-nominated "The Visitor", mixed with more controversial stories, such as "In the Pale Moonlight", succeeded in cementing its place as a powerful contributor to the Trek saga. This time, Trek had succeeded in going boldly by sitting still.
"Babylon 5" is often compared to "Deep Space Nine" in terms of story content. I think, however, that the rivalry between the two series is best pushed aside, as they both succeeded in furthering the boundaries of sci-fi in their own respective ways. "Babylon 5" however, distinguishes itself from the majority of science-fiction series by its tightly-plotted story arc that was pre-planned from the beginning. Although it did fall apart in places, the arc was a new experience for viewers of science-fiction, and in that respect, J. Michael Straczynski really did succeed in going where no creator has gone before. If Gene Roddenberry was the master of the standalone, Straczynski nailed the story arc. And the series has two Hugo awards to prove it.
And now we come to Voyager, my dear beloved Voyager. There's no doubt the series has continued the fine standalone tradition of TOS and TNG, with individual sci-fi greats like "Remember" and "Living Witness", but in the great canon of science-fiction where will it stand? Even now it divides the Trek community tremendously, a great shame in my eyes. The schism within Trekdom has reduced the impact of the later series, whilst the original stands on a mythical podium, never to be topped.
Where does this leave us today? "Farscape" has built up a loyal following, in attempting to create a hipper, more contemporary sci-fi series. Although it is clearly not for everyone, it is a distinct break from the more regimented Trek/Babylon 5 style of storytelling. And unconventional is quite often a winner - the high profile use of puppets has drawn scorn from many, whilst others have proclaimed it a courageous move. Whatever the final fate of the crew of Moya, the series has certainly set itself apart. Other series, such as "Sliders" and "Earth: Final Conflict" have had mixed fortunes - no doubt due to the proliferation of science fiction on television at the moment.
"Andromeda" remains an unknown quantity for the time being, but the presence of Robert Hewitt Wolfe, responsible for many excellent "Deep Space Nine" episodes, has inspired great confidence in the fledgling series. The previews seem to indicate that the series is stylistically closer to "Farscape" than to "Trek", again attempting to present a break from the tradtional. Whatever the outcome, Trek's newer series, especially the even more mysterious "Series V", will have to fight for their place amongst the stars.
In creating the fifth Trek series, Rick Berman and Brannon Braga need to look beyond the Trek franchise to create a show that really does go where no series has gone before - the standalone morality tale has been the focus of three series now, and even the DS9 route would seem tired. What is it to be then? A series set on a space station, commanded by a crew of puppets, in which there is a long running story arc about a war, oppressive aliens, alternate universes and some standalone morality thrown in for good measure? None of the above would be the answer - "Series V" needs to be markedly different to hold its own amongst the wealth of science-fiction series out there.
We stand at a cross-roads, just like the original "Star Trek" series did when it was created - there is a chance here to push Trek back to the forefront of original science-fiction once again. Berman and Braga need to pull off something akin to what the Borg did to "The Next Generation" - rescued a series that could have floundered. What will be our "Best of Both Worlds"? Whatever it is, it needs show the other series that resistance is indeed futile.
Caillan Davenport writes reviews and articles at the Australian site Voyager Extreme, as well as being a prominent member of the J-Team. He can be reached for feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.