There are at least four productions in motion that, in one way or another, carry the torch of Rodenberry’s future. We’re not going to do an in depth look at all of them, but, if our looks at Voyager and Enterprise left you doubtful of the relevance of the Star Trek brand, well… let’s disabuse you of that notion right now.
We start in 2009, with J.J. Abrams and the latest installment in the Star Trek film franchise. Four years after Enterprise went off the air was not too far removed to have built the new film franchise around Archer’s crew but the fact was, Enterprise was never popular enough to inspire that kind of investment. Most of the cast of the other franchises’ casts were aging or no longer available, whether because of other engagements or death. So the Abrams films spun out a new timeline and built it around a time travel story, bringing back Leonard Nimoy and sending him back in to meet his younger self. There was some nonsense about vengeful Romulans and a bit with Vulcan getting destroyed. It worked, to a degree.
The so-called “Kelvin” timeline was a shaky foundation for an ongoing story, working more as a light action flick without a lot of personality or strong characterization to build off of. While Nimoy and Zachary Quinto (as the young Spock) were fun to watch and seeing the original Star Trek setting updated with modern effects was nice, there wasn’t much substance there. The second entry tried to fix that by calling back to the franchise’s greatest film, Wrath of Khan, but wound up stuck in the shadow of its predecessor. It was enough of a disappointment that I never bothered to watch the third film, although the buzz around Star Trek Beyond was pretty positive. There’s been no buzz about further films in the franchise, and I’m mostly okay with that.
While a Trek film every couple of years was scant pickings for long time connoisseurs of Star Trek it was something to remind us the franchise had not been forgotten. Then, in November of 2015, Star Trek: Discovery was announced. Excitement ran high for a many, myself included, but when CBS decided to put it behind a streaming service paywall it was a bit of a disappointment. Exploiting a free trial period got me access to the first two episodes and, while Star Trek has always had rough pilots (DS9 excepted), Discovery was particularly dismal.
None of the optimism that defined the franchise seems present, a lot of poor design decisions were made, many of which ignored long established parts of the franchise (coughKlingonscough) and the characters were uniquely unlikable. I haven’t followed the series since, and the fact that they’ve apparently tied the second half of the season and the backstory of at least one central character directly to the mirror universe isn’t inspiring me to go back any time soon. It’s very possible that the very values Rodenberry hoped for the future – post scarcity economics, racial blindness, harmonious human relationships – no longer resonate. While it’s true these ideas were always silly in the face of human nature they were still things we agreed would make the world a better place. Perhaps now, they’re not.
Or maybe they still are. The third torchbearer to Rodenberry’s vision was so excited by Star Trek he muscled his way onto the engineering deck of Archer’s Enterprise for two episodes. In 2011 he expressed a desire to reboot Star Trek as a director in an updated take on the franchise. But in the end, Seth MacFarlane would have to wield his considerable influence with Fox to get his own scifi tale of optimism, exploration and conflict. The Orville is the most pitch perfect take on this idea of the four battling for the top dog spot in space scifi this decade.
While Discovery has lost the tone and much of the thoughtful, high concept storytelling that defined Star Trek for most of its life, The Orville has seen fit to add a light seasoning of comedy to the classic blend and updated the commentary with critiques of social media and modern gender politics. At the same time, that commentary never gets in the way of thoughtful, high concept scifi – in fact, it blends them expertly in several cases, such as “Majority Rule”. The Orville has secured a second season and promises to bring more of the same. That could prove an issue – as noted before, one episode already bears a very strong resemblance to an episode of Voyager and there’s always the danger the creative team of a show will run out of ideas.
However, changes to modern life and modern production techniques promise to keep the creative juices going well enough. Already the production design of The Orville is light years closer to what we’d expect of Star Trek than Discovery – although it’s not likely to rival the muscle of Abrams and the Kelvin timeline.
Finally, Space Command is the hardest Star Trek related franchise to weigh among Rodenberry’s successors simply because it is still in the planning stages. Announced in 2016 and headed by a number of longtime Star Trek writers and directors, it promises to be a rousing adventure set in our solar system and exploring the challenges humanity will face as it expands towards the stars. While the design looks much closer to 1920s pulp scifi like Flash Gordon the creative minds behind it promise a good, fun and optimistic look at the future.
The fact is, Gene Rodenberry lived at a time when the shape of the future was hard to judge and, if his example is anything to go by, our own guesses as to what the future might be like are likely to be equally off target. His concepts for human development were idealistic, and that was what drew people. But his predictions of the future socially and technologically were wildly off target and tying all the iterations of his dream into a single vision is no longer feasible. While few people believe that his ideals will ever become reality they’re still charming to dream about and, at its heart, that kind of daydream makes for better entertainment than reality so it’s no surprise that, even when the Star Trek brand has lost interest in them, the ideals carry on. I hope you’ve enjoyed looking back at them with me. I’ve been surprised by how much I had to say on the subject, but now it’s time to move on to something else.
Maybe some high concept stuff. Wait. Didn’t this blog used to publish fiction? Maybe we’ll do that too….