Star Trek: The Teetering Foundations

By the time Star Trek: Enterprise premiered in 2002 the Star Trek franchise was facing two serious obstacles that it has never really overcome. Both, ironically enough, relate to technology.

The first was the changing face of television. Cable television had rewritten the face of TV, making dozens and dozens of entertainment options available to most people at any given time. When broadcast TV was limited to a handful of channels TV shows didn’t have to instantly enrapture their audience in order to hold their interest, there just weren’t that many places they could go to find alternatives. Star Trek shows rarely hit on all cylinders in their first season but as one of the few TV scifi franchises available to viewers it got some leeway. Now there are dozens of options available to audiences and securing an audience is difficult if you don’t grab them immediately.

In truth, this has been an obstacle to all aspiring TV shows for the last twenty years or so, but the market for science fiction is smaller than most genres and the Star Trek franchise is not cheap to produce either. Overall, by the turn of the century there were just more scifi options demanding the attention of potential viewers and Enterprise would have to compete with them. Ultimately it had a hard time, due in part to the very sporadic quality of episodes in its first season and a half.

The second problem is more pressing. The fact is, the future is now. The look, feel and capabilities of 24th century technology was set in the late 80s by NextGen and hadn’t been significantly updated since. By 2002 many people had flip cellphones, undoubtedly inspired in part by the look and feel of Original Series era technology, and even more advanced technology was constantly on the way. By the end of the Enterprise run the iPod line of music players was in full swing with four options to choose from and the first iPad was only five years away. If the appeal of Star Trek was its vision of the future one of its biggest drawbacks from the beginning of the twenty first century would be how present day much of it looked. Sure, we don’t have replicators, warp drives or tachyon scanners, but we have smart phones that accomplish more than the average tricorder, tablet computers more powerful than Starfleet datapads and a whole host of software that Star Trek never even dreamed of.

When combined with the previously mentioned reality that our history and the history of Rodenberry’s future look nothing alike – we haven’t fought a third world war yet, for example – the factors that made Star Trek relevant for so long were starting to slip away. Timeliness was abandoned in Deep Space NineVoyager was the last hurrah of futuristic technology. Something had to be done.

The franchise had a couple of options. It could jump forward in time once again, moving the story forward and introducing a bunch of new technological concepts to keep the futuristic feel fresh. That was risky as there was a number of speculative elements in Star Trek already and each such element added moved the stories closer and closer to space fantasy rather than science fiction. The other alternative was to turn backwards and play with simpler concepts and add some commentary about why the Federation we knew and loved looked so different than what we would expect based on what we see today.

Star Trek: Enterprise opted to try both. In many ways, the show was a prequel to Kirk’s era, showing how humanity’s space exploration force became the lynchpin of an interstellar alliance that would shape the course of a quadrant for generations to come. At the same time it introduced a concept interesting in theory but failed in execution – the temporal cold war, where people from times after Picard, Sisko and Janeway tried to meddle in the past or prevent said meddling. (Voyager played in this space as well when 29th century timecops showed up every now and then, but the idea of organized malicious elements at work was entirely an Enterprise creation.)

This incarnation of Star Trek revolved around the Enterprise NX-01, humanity’s first Warp 5 starship, first deep space starship and first legendary starship. While the show would make several very questionable decisions in the first season, including devoting some ten minutes of screen time to the ship’s crew answering questions for an elementary school class on Earth as a way to impart totally unnecessary information about how the ship works, it still did an excellent job showing us a possible transition point between our present and Rodenberry’s future. Most of the past that hasn’t happened, like the Eugenics Wars, is glossed over and an emphasis is put on exploring the changes First Contact with the Vulcans had on Earth and how Vulcans have been changed by humanity in turn. It’s not the most timely cultural commentary but it is still cultural commentary and, especially after the more ham handed attempts late DS9 and Voyager indulged in it was nice to see a certain degree of subtlety restored to the franchise.

Enterprise would also experiment with longform storytelling by turning its entire third season into a single story arc, an experiment that had some good and some bad in it. The best came in the form of Degra, a very balanced and interesting antagonist turned ally, and the multi episode run where the Enterprise was pounded by enemies and left adrift, limping on barely functioning systems for five or six episodes. The worst came in the rather lackluster execution of the Sphere Builders, which were never explored to my satisfaction, and Commander Dolim, a lackluster, cookie cutter villain if ever there was one.

The fourth season kicked off by ending the frustrating and very unsatisfying temporal cold war story and then proceeded to go on one of the longest runs of high quality scifi story telling in the franchise. In truth, while Enterprise is pretty maligned in the fanbase, if the fourth season had been the first it might be remembered as the franchise’s perfect incarnation. Sadly, Enterprise was on the ropes by that point and even that excellent run couldn’t save it. Enterprise wasn’t renewed for a fifth season and turned in a very disappointing series finale, “These are the Voyages…” While the idea of framing the end of the Enterprise’s career through the eyes of Will Riker looking back via a historical holodeck program gave the episode a great feeling of continuity, the actual story Riker frames is pretty pedestrian. And the climax of the episode features the senseless death of one of the show’s best characters, so it all ends in a pretty sad way. Although hearing three different captains of three different Enterprises speak the classic Star Trek voice over is a moment that will give you chills…

Characterwise Enterprise is fairly typical. While Captain Archer, T’Pal and Tripp form a triad similar to the classic Kirk, Spock, McCoy group other members of the crew get substantial character development in the show, particularly Comm officer Hoshi Sato and Conn officer Travis Mayweather. And no starship is worth its salt without a good doctor, so we get Doctor Phlox. Protecting them all from the dangers of deep space is Armory officer Malcom Reed. After the many and shifting roles played by aliens, holograms and shapeshifters over the last two entries in the franchise the crew feels almost pedestrian.

In honesty, there’s nothing wrong with this. The unusual circumstances that led to Deep Space Nine and Voyager having unorthodox crew compliments are not present on Enterprise so it makes sense for the crew to be straightforward. And T’Pal and Phlox are aliens, in fact Phlox is Denoblian, making for an entirely new entry into the show’s cannon. Unfortunately, there are no truly outstanding characters among the core crew of this Star Trek run.

This isn’t the fault of the actors, who rival the NextGen and DS9 casts for personal charisma, but rather the character writing. The only really accessible characters on the show are Tripp and Mayweather, both of whom represent the kind of salt of the earth, workingman characters that we don’t really see in Star Trek often. They have optimism and skills but they also have some street smarts and they take the dangers of the galaxy seriously.

Captain Archer has some interesting quirks, and his slowly going from hating what he views as the Vulcans holding humanity back to standing in the same place for other, less advanced aliens they meet along the way is a good character arc. In fact, in the hands of better writers he could have been the best Starfleet captain in the franchise. He’s less high strung than Kirk or Janeway, not as likely to fly off the handle, less preachy than Picard, not given to speeches unless they’re part of his job, he is almost as good a mentor as Sisko, holding together a ship and crew that was not as prepared for deep space as you might hope. He even has a favorite sport (water polo) and a pet dog. Scott Bakula has that happy gift of exuding charm and goodwill even when he’s just sitting and listening and his acting makes Archer come alive even in the simple act of eating with his crew. Unfortunately, Enterprise developed into a show more about setting in motion things to come than exploring the characters on hand at the time, and little of the potential these characters had was mined.

However, there are two other characters, outside the crew, that bear mentioning. The first is Commander Shran. If it was just Jeffrey Combs back on Trek again it would have been nice but unremarkable – they could have just let him reprise his role as a Ferengi and had done with it if all they wanted was a throwback to previous series. But Shran presents us with a very deep, complex character who has to be both ally and enemy to Archer. Though Shran starts as an enemy Archer’s sense of fair play quickly wins Shran over to the position of wishing to be an ally – except their governments and alliances don’t always make that practical. It’s nice to see Shran and Archer struggle at trust, freindship and eventually even mutual aid as the story goes on.

The other character is Doctor Arik Soong. Again, this could have just been a chance to get Brent Spiner on the set again. But Arik is such a wonderful, complex character, struggling against his society for a dream of improving it, and instead driving it towards war and destruction. Soong is a driven man, blinded by his own hubris, but still driven by a deep and abiding love for people and a desire to improve their lives. Arik Soong could have been a boring caricature like Dolim if written badly, he could have been a flat and unconvincing sideshow if played by a less formidable actor than Spiner. But the pieces come together for the few episodes he’s around and make for one of the best character studies in any Star Trek series, ever. The franchise has no character quite as complex, outside of perhaps Dukat. If you can overlook that Pah Wraith nonsense in season seven. Sadly, that kind of deep character writing rarely surfaced among the main cast, which it really should have.

Enterprise has the feel of a smaller, intimate gathering after the main event has wound down. It has none of the grand scope of Voyager or Deep Space Nine. It wanted to go back to basics, it wanted to enrapture us in the concept once again, but this time in a deeper and more personal way. The captain’s table, where Archer would eat with his senior officers in an attempt to know them and the workings of his ship better, is very much the venue for the show. It defines not only the very personal way the characters interact with each other but the way the show tries to interact with us. That such personal contact might not be the best fit for a high concept scifi show is a drawback, and ultimately probably what brought the show to an end.

But before that Enterprise would air some really killer episodes. A handful of noteworthy episodes include “Broken Bow” Parts 1 and 2, “Shuttlepod One”, “Shadows of P’Jem”, “Dawn”, “Cease Fire”, “Regeneration”, “Proving Ground”, “E2”, “Home”,  “Observer Effect” and “United”.

“The Andorian Incident” marks the beginning of the strange friendship between Shran and Archer. It’s also a pretty intense hostage standoff with Archer’s crew struggling to formulate a rescue around an important cultural icon. It also marks a deeper understanding of the Vulcan culture at this time, how it annoyed Archer and what impacts Vulcans and Archer would have on each other. While any episode with Shran was pretty good, this is one of the best, and where everything starts.

Along the lines of first meetings, “Carbon Creek” tells the real story of Vulcan and Human first contact through the eyes of T’Pol’s grandmother, who she claims landed in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1950s after an accident caused their ship to crash. If true, it’s an interesting glance into the past and a great high concept scifi story. If it’s a tall tale it’s an equally interesting glance into the mind of Star Trek’s most complicated Vulcan character. Either way, the episode is well worth the watching.

“The Catwalk” pushes the idea of more intimate storytelling Enterprise espoused to the furthest degree when it packed the whole crew into cramped quarters to weather out a radiation storm. In addition to showing us how a crew might react to such confinement it adds the twist of an alien search party stumbling across the ship during the storm, forcing Archer and company to contend with opponents not only more advanced than them but better suited to the environment. It’s both funny and suspenseful.

While more than one or two episodes, “Borderland”, “Cold Station 12” and “Augments” do all make for something that feels like a single story. This is the arc that brings Arik Soong into the story, which would be enough to warrant a mention. But it also sets up a bunch of other Star Trek concepts that other series explored, like smooth forehead Klingons (expanded even further in other episodes), the Eugenics War and genetically enhanced humans and, of course, Data. These three episodes were probably the apex of storytelling in this incarnation. But there’s one other pair of episodes that bears mentioning.

I’ve said that I don’t really care for what’s been done with the mirror universe. But “A Mirror Darkly” Parts 1 and 2 may be the best take on the concept there’s been. Rather than emphasizing the way characters react when pulled into this mirror universe, the show throws the “standard” timeline out the window entirely, to the point where the show even has a new opening emphasizing the dark nature of this universe, and just shows us what Archer’s crew is doing in this timeline. While nothing you see dispels the notion that any society run by totalitarians of that caliber would implode in months, if not weeks, it did serve as an entertaining and very well produced look into a fan favorite world before the end of the franchise for the foreseeable future. It was a good pair of episodes and it sealed a couple of plot holes from The Original Series that people had always wondered about.

In the end, Enterprise gets a lot of flack. Honestly, it could have been just as good as Deep Space Nine or The Original Series if it had premiered a few years earlier. But the truth is that the changes in the surrounding culture were against it, and may be against any further continuation of the Star Trek IP. The underlying concepts are still strong but the well-trod lore and feel of the franchise may stand in the way of making something that resonates with our culture as futuristic and adventuresome. That doesn’t mean Enterprise was a bad show. Far from it. It was entertaining enough in the time it ran, and it left us with a promise, which I still hope to see fulfilled. As Archer turned his ship towards space dock, he speculated it wouldn’t be long before another ship took up the name Enterprise. We’ve waited thirteen years to see it happen. Hopefully we won’t wait many more.

But whether they carry the name or not, Gene Rodenberry’s legacy lives on, and, in fact, is spreading. Join me next week as we wrap up this crazy retrospective with a look at where the Spirit of Trek has gone in the last few years, and where it may go in the future.

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Star Trek: The Long Road Home

In January of 1995 the fourth installment of Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek franchise started out on what could have been the franchise’s greatest installment. The idea was ripe with promise but, by the end of its run, Star Trek: Voyager would prove great ideas don’t always translate to great shows. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Voyager for what it was. But it could have been more and some of us will always wonder at what could have been.

Voyager started by throwing a lot of the playbook out the window. The starship Voyager wasn’t just a ship on a mission of exploration, it was a ship lost in space. A series of events left it on the opposite end of the galaxy from Earth, with an eighty year trip home in front of it. Captain Janeway would have none of the prestige of the Federation’s name to back her or the threat of Starfleet reprisals to deter danger. No one in that sector of space knew what a human was, much less whether their government was worthy of respect. Gone also was any attempt at relevance to the current political situation – it didn’t even exist in slight nods like we saw in DS9 with the Maquis or the Cardassian occupation. The idea was to bring back the hard driving captain, a la Kirk, and the danger of the unknown and surprising.

With DS9 on route to the Dominion War and a bruising, exploration free future Voyager was something the franchise badly needed. It sought to keep Rodenberry’s dream alive while presenting us with new and exciting vistas and cultures for the franchise to explore. It succeeded only in part.

The first two or three seasons of Voyager present us with a section of the galaxy that looks an awful lot like home. There are analogs to the Klingon in the Kazon and the Ferengi in the Talaxians – and that’s just in the first episode. We even see analogs to the ancient Iconians later on in the series. If the hope was to take us to a new and fresh section of the galaxy it sure started off feeling a bit old and stale. But there were new cultures and cool new ships and new planets and new problems and Voyager tackled them all with vim and gusto in spite of its rocky start. That part was fine.

What was less fine was the attempt to shoe horn in some nonsensical interpersonal squabbling in the form of the Maquis. You see, Voyager was not the only ship stranded in the Delta Quadrant. The Caretaker, a very powerful alien who brought them to the Quadrant, had pulled in many different ships and one of them belonged to the terrorist group Voyager had been chasing. The idea was to combine these two groups and let personal conflict erupt. This was a bad idea for a couple of reasons. First, the Maquis were all Federation colonists or former Starfleet officers estranged from their government by a peace deal with the Cardassians. They had very few philosophical or moral differences from Starfleet – the conflict arose almost entirely from differences to political circumstances that, once both groups were a galaxy away from home, no longer existed. As a result there were only a few avenues for good story conflicts to explore without venturing into the realm of the truly ridiculous. Once they were all mined out the idea was dropped and Voyager functioned as a Starfleet ship for the rest of the series. The idea of two crews with shared goals but fundamental differences in morals or methods that made working together hard would be explored again, but much better, in the episodes “Equinix I & II”.

But the biggest misstep in Voyager was the Caretaker itself. Not it’s inclusion, but discarding it so quickly. The Star Trek universe has a number of mostly forgotten civilizations that travelled huge swaths of its galaxy long before humanity took to the stars. The Preservers and Iconians both controlled large chunks of the galaxy, according to the lore. But no take on the franchise has ever explored them in depth. It would have been nice to see the Caretaker tied to one of these civilizations – or perhaps even a new one – that Voyager could have encountered on a recurring basis as it made its way home. The Voyager crew as travelling interstellar archeologists would have been fun. As it was, Voyager only encountered one other Caretaker in a fairly forgettable episode. While Enterprise would play with the idea of a powerful civilization scattering artifacts throughout a section of space in its third season even the Sphere Builders wouldn’t receive that much in the way of development. It was a missed opportunity that could have really made Voyager distinct, possibly even a standout in the latter half of the franchise’s life. Alas, it was not to be. The Caretaker served as a MacGuffin to get the crew away from the Federation and was promptly killed off and ceased to be of much relevance.

Voyager did expand on the lore by adding three new antagonistic species that were interesting and fun. The Hirojen are basically the Predators for the Star Trek universe and seeing how Janeway dealt with them was pretty interesting. The Malon introduced interstellar junk haulers to the clean and tidy Rodenberry future and added a very unique spin to a number of situations that could have been very generic. And Species 8472, also known as the Undine in later spinoffs, added a new juggernaut race to the galaxy for humanity to worry about.

The showrunners also decided to bring back two big NextGen antagonists in a totally new way. The Borg returned in a big way, acting as a recurring obstacle from season 4 onwards. Everyone knew this was coming, Picard met the Borg in the Delta Quadrant after all, but the necessity of dealing with the Borg on a semi-regular basis and the fact that the series couldn’t ever let Voyager get caught stole some force from the menace of the implacable Borg. Add in the fact that the writers applied the (aptly named) Worf Effect to them in order to build up Species 8472 and the fact that we tend not to fear things we understand (rightly or not) and the Borg overall lost some of their sense of danger as the show went on.

Q also made a return, this time dealing with the internal politics of his race and the problems that come with phenomenal cosmic power. While the change to the way the Borg were portrayed probably had to come if they were to continue being an antagonist in Star Trek, the shift in Q was not necessary, needed or even very good. Once he was no longer the face of the impersonal weight of the universe bearing down on humanity he ceased to be a useful antagonist and just became a cosmic powered nuisance. It was an interesting line of thought but ultimately the story itself went nowhere.

In short, it seems as if the showrunners behind Voyager weren’t quite sure where they wanted to go. The show has no strong theme, and thus no quintessential venue. It feels much like actual exploration, in fact. We saw many things, and they were interesting. But they didn’t always connect.

After Next Generation and Deep Space Nine it may have been inevitable that the cast on Voyager wasn’t quite as strong as we were used to. They were all fine actors and had many good scripts to work with but nothing we ever saw from them equals the incredible talents of a Spiner or Stewart or the longform character development of Nog or Odo. Never the less, Kate Mulgrew as Janeway, Jeri Ryan as Seven of Nine and Robert Picardo – probably the best actor in the series – as the EMH did get to show a broad range of acting talent that was greatly appreciated.

It helped that these three characters were the most interesting on the ship as well. Star Trek has a history of putting characters who struggle with humanity in the show to help push certain kinds of stories along. Seven serves that role from her appearance at the end of season four until the show’s conclusion. It’s interesting to see Star Trek, a franchise normally very vested in multiculturalism and leaving things as they are, push so hard into the realm of cultural deprogramming and reindoctrination. And make no mistake – that’s what Voyager’s treatment of Seven amounts to. In the process the show makes a sound argument for why such actions might sometimes be necessary, high minded ideals not withstanding.

The Emergency Medical Hologram, a holographic emergency stopgap that the crew activates when their living doctor is killed, is another interesting take on the “what is humanity?” shtick scifi in general and Star Trek specifically loves so much. He struggles with the very narrow scope his original programming gave him and getting the crew to think of him as a person, rather than a convenient tool. Unlike many of the characters chasing humanity in the franchise’s history, the Doctor does not have a flat, emotionless disposition. Rather, he’s abrasive and overconfident, saddled with his creator’s personality – not something particularly conductive to his job. He also struggles early on with being confined to specific parts of the ship, another kind of handicap the show has never explored before.

Last but not least comes the captain herself. I’ve always found it interesting that, even among fans who don’t consider Deep Space Nine the best incarnation of the franchise, Benjamin Sisko is considered the most human Star Trek captain. This is not at all intuitive. Both Kirk and Picard are larger than life figures, to be sure, and little time is spent with their flaws. Sure, Sisko had a hobby in his baseball obsession and a son, then later a steady girlfriend and a wife. And those were very appealing parts of his character. He also made morally questionable choices. But he tended to get away with his lapses of character without consequence, or even much in the way of guilt, which hardly qualifies as believably human in my book. Then there’s the whole religious icon thing and the Sisko as the everyman captain starts to fall apart. Especially as there’s two other contenders for the title.

Captain Archer of the NX-01 Enterprise was a much more humble man, with prejudices and moral failings. He has a hobby and deals with a fair amount of romance, although never a long term relationship. But, as you may guess given the subject of this post, I don’t give the title to him.

You see, as a captain Kathryn Janeway is a bit of a trainwreck.

Other than Kirk, no captain shows quite the same level of disdain for Starfleet regulations as Janeway. For the good captain, survival frequently came first. She wasn’t afraid to meddle in local affairs or skirt the Prime Directive to get the crew closer to home. She was also remarkably vengeful for a 24th century starship commander, occasionally persecuting vendettas against certain aliens – or even Starfleet commanders – to a degree that worried her crew. She came from a scientific background, rather than a pure command career, and her priorities were often towards the immediate care and safety of her crew rather than long term principles. But most of all, Janeway’s moral decisions are in constant doubt. While most captains made one or two difficult calls they tended to get left behind very quickly.

Janeway’s most questionable moral decision was the one that permanently stranded her crew in the Delta Quadrant to begin with. She could have gone home, you see, but that would have required leaving the Caretaker’s technology in the hands of very brutal and amoral people. Staying in the Delta Quadrant was the only way to ensure the Caretaker’s array was destroyed without any part of it falling into the wrong hands. The very harsh consequences of that decision dog her every step of the seven year journey home. That kind of heavy weight is something truly human, and it makes Janeway interesting and complex – even if I wouldn’t exactly want her to command my starship.

Like the other two shows of its era, Voyager ran for seven seasons and produced its fair share of good episodes. It also had some of the weakest episodes of the franchise, particularly in the first season or two. But even so, the good outweighed the bad. Episodes to watch include “Message in a Bottle”, “Future’s End” Parts 1 and 2, “Relativity”, “Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy”, “The Year of Hell”, “Living Witness” and “Deadlock”.

“Blink of an Eye” is a masterpiece of high concept scifi like the franchise hadn’t seen for a while. It features Voyager getting caught in orbit around a planet with a different subjective time than the rest of the universe. A year passes on the planet for every minute that the crew lives in orbit. They watch civilizations rise and fall from above and, in turn, those below look up and wonder what the light in the sky means and what the people there might want with them. The concept was so good that it would get reused again in the first season of The Orville.

On the other hand, “Life Line” tells a very personal story about the Emergency Medical Hologram visiting his creator, legendary hologram engineer Louis Zimmerman. The clash of two such very similar, overinflated personalities is a tour de force, fun and witty but still emotional enough to resonate. It features the return of Reginald Barclay and Deanna Troi, veterans of The Next Generation as well used guest stars. It also features a masterpiece of acting by Robert Picardo, who plays opposite himself in most of the important scenes. Star Trek acting doesn’t get better than this unless Spiner and Stewert are on the screen.

“Timeless” and “Endgame” Parts 1 and 2 both feature the same basic premise. Members of the Voyager crew get back to Earth but try and bend time so that the dead left behind can make it home too. “Timeless” features Garrett Wang’s best performance as Ensign Kim in the series and deals in the kind of classic, high concept scifi that made Star Trek great. “Endgame” is the series finale and, in spite of the similar premise, has several key differences. For starters, this time the gambit works and Voayger gets home. Also, it features Janeway as the viewpoint character rather than Kim, and it goes to great pains to wrap up most of the loose plot threads the show left behind, making it a slightly messier – but still satisfying – tale. In a nice bit of self reference, future Harry has a ship commanded by Geordi LaForge show up to stop his time travel attempt in “Timeless” then, in “Endgame”, another future Harry shows up as Janeway starts her Both stories are worth watching for Trek fans, but “Timeless” will probably suit the general scifi viewer not interested in watching the whole series better.

The Borg always had a limited lifespan, as mentioned before, and I think the showrunners had realized that. As I said two weeks ago, the decline of the Borg really started with “I, Borg” back in NextGen but they still had some legs left in them. “Scorpion” Parts 1 and 2 sent them fully into decline with a bang, introducing a new race that even the Borg couldn’t handle and adding Seven of Nine to Voyager’s crew. This is a pretty light episode in terms of scifi but it’s solid space opera with good production values for TV of its era, and the decision making in the episode is both tense and fun to watch, even if you guess what’s coming before it happens. Seven would become a good window into the new Borg status quo, allowing us to discover all the cracks and weaknesses the Borg always had as she did, and coming to understand how an unstoppable force can actually be a stampeding herd one step ahead of disaster.

“Equinox” Parts 1 and 2 is the epitome of what many people wanted Voyager to be – two crews, each with supposedly shared values, but one turned sour by years of merciless peril. When the Equinox and Voyager meet it seems like a bright spot in a long string of trials – for both crews. But the revelation that the Equinox was under constant attack because the crew had decided to deal in genocide in a desperate bid to get home… that was a horror in itself. The punishing conflict that results is tense and marvelously acted. “Equinox” is Voyager at its best – but unlike many it’s not what I feel the entire show should have been. Still, a very clever scifi plot and a great piece of drama as well.

Voyager went off the air in 2001 with the good ship and its crew home at last. It was the last offering of the franchise’s heyday, a great concept that wasn’t everything anyone wanted from it but still acquitted itself well, packing new ships, races and spacial phenomenon into Star Trek lore with reckless abandon. It probably has the smallest enthusiastic fanbase of any entry in the franchise, at least before Discovery, but ideas introduced in it were staples of the expanded lore during the long, twelve year drought between the end of Enterprise and the beginning of Discovery. The Delta quadrant would be better realized as a location than the Gamma quadrant, and the seeds of technological innovation Voyager brought back with her would spin off into several novels. However, even with all that potential, the decisions made at the beginning of the next installment of the franchise showed how Star Trek was beginning to creak under its own weight…

Star Trek: Visions In Conflict

In 1992, for the first time ever, there were two iterations of the Star Trek franchise airing at once. As Star Trek: The Next Generation hit the zenith of its popularity and story-telling prowess a new, very different kind of Star Trek was taking shape. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine stands as the last take on the franchise to have any input from Gene Rodenberry and the first iteration to eschew the name Enterprise. In many ways, the show was a complete departure from form, replacing a starship with a space station and tightly written and powerful stories with sprawling and engaging sagas. Far more thought was put into the grand narrative of the series than any Star Trek show before or since. Unfortunately, in many ways the smaller details that made the greatest Star Trek episodes so great faded just a bit.

It’s unclear whether it was a deliberate choice from moment one, just something that happened over time, or a direct result of Rodenberry’s vision departing from the show but the world of DS9 has little of the direct parallels to current political tensions. It’s possible that this is because, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the United States as the only global superpower, the showrunners felt there were few noteworthy parallels worth telling stories about. The 1990s were a pretty slow time on the geopolitical scale, although there were social patterns and smaller regional conflicts that could have served as jumping off points as well. Or perhaps – and I find this most likely – the writers just wanted to go off and explore their own ideas more than what already existed.

That suspicion is reinforced by the fundamentally different tenor of DS9. Most takes on the Star Trek formula are somewhat introverted. They focus on one ship in one situation at a time, with very few characters outside of the main cast to keep track of. DS9 is fundamentally extroverted, focusing on a crossroads where many people come and go regularly, full of recurring side characters and unfolding situations that must be tracked carefully over many hours worth of content. If the original Trek centered around the bridge as a metaphor for humanity in the driver’s seat, and the follow-up put them in the courtroom to weigh their actions, then this iteration sought to place them in the town square and see how they would live when the rubber met the road. It’s no accident that the most used set on the show was not the station’s operations center but the station’s Promenade, the business center for the residents.

No other show was as much about the people who came into contact with Starfleet as was Deep Space Nine. This is part of what has won it such a large and loyal following. There are four whole series worth of Star Trek dedicated to the basic premise of a crew in space solving the problems of space. People who want stories about a city in space have only one Trek series that caters to them. It’s not my cup of tea, or at least I prefer the other blends more, but I don’t begrudge this blend its fans. It certainly earned them.

Characterwise DS9 is an interesting mix. It boasts the strongest cast across the board of any series in the franchise. Spiner and Stewart were standouts in NextGen but are almost the baseline for cast performance on DS9. Of course two actors, the formidable and excellent Michael Dorn and the personable and fun Colm Meaney, joined the DS9 cast from NextGen. But beyond these two Rene Aubejonois, Armin Shimerman (an occasional guest star on NextGen), Andrew Robinson and Marc Alaimo deliver stunning performances of deeply nuanced characters. Notably, none of those characters wear Starfleet uniforms. The rest of the cast was very good, but these men cast very, very long shadows.

Deep Space Nine also wins the coveted “Most Attractive Women in the Franchise” award, but that is neither here nor there.

From it’s very first episode the character writing for DS9 was very, very strong. Unlike most other Star Trek series it struggle to find a place for its characters in only two cases – Dr. Bashir and Dax. This strong writing shows from the pilot episode – another best in franchise award that DS9 walks away with – and continues to the very end. And it’s in this series that we also get the most meaningful character development for the core cast. The character arcs of the cast are pretty varied and could probably support multiple essays on their own so we’ll treat them very lightly in the next paragraph or two and then touch more heavily on the two most important – those of Captain Benjamin Sisko and Gul Dukat – later in when we look at story and themes.

My favorite character arc was Nog – a Ferengi who decides the archetype of his native culture is a poor fit for him, as much as he would like it to be otherwise, and decides to join Starfleet. Nog goes from craven and singleminded to overzealous and cocky to mature and seasoned with comparatively little time spent on him through the course of the series. Odo was the series’ take on someone struggling to understand himself and the addition of his shapeshifting nature and connection to the series’ primary antagonists made his character arc very touching and interesting, even if it was not particularly groundbreaking. Doctor Bashir became a sort of man for all seasons, his weak characterization early on giving way to a shrewd but good natured genius character who doesn’t become too much of a plot convenience. Once he joins the cast Worf is given an expanded role in leadership and new responsibilities as a married man. These arcs were all handled well and made for fun and engaging characters.

On the flip side, my favorite characters don’t have arcs at all. Plain and simple Garak, Cardassian tailor and retired spy, is his same enigmatic self the whole way through, lying to stay in practice and dedicated to his nation and his work. There’s a delightful cunning to the man you can’t help but love and an awkward, roundabout way of helping his friends that is almost endearing – but winds up being a little sad. Chief O’Brien is the pillar of the station, an unchanging force of good natured optimism. Even when episodes focus on him they mainly boil down to a series of punishing emotional trials that the Chief endures until he can go home and see his wife and kids. And Quark… is the perfect businessman. He loves his job, his customers and his home and he defends them with a fierceness and determination that puts most of Starfleet to shame.

Then there were the characters I didn’t care for as much. Major (later Colonel) Kira is an interesting idea, an officer from the nearby planet of Bajor, put there by the Bajoran government to see that Bajor’s interests are observed by the Federation – as Bajor is not yet a member planet. In practice she spends a lot of time in the first several seasons as a shrill nag, dogging Captain Sisko to explain how the Federation’s interests and Bajor’s coincide. Eventually this tension boils down a bit as it becomes clearer and clearer that Bajor needs Federation support in the times to come but, in my personal opinion, this theme is dragged out too long and, more than anything, her constant antagonism towards Starfleet impedes her growth as a character until about season four.

Dax is treated as a sort of get out of plot trouble free for a good stretch of the show – which is to say, she’s a convenience for the writers not the crew as the long life of the Dax symbiote allows its hosts – first Jadzia and later Ezri – access to a plethora of skills and connections that will drag her into and out of weird situations.  Worse, with all those personalities jumbling around in her head it’s hard to pin down who, exactly, Jadzia is. Ezri is written better, with more of a clear identity, but she’s only there for one season so it makes her only a little less muddled. The idea of Dax may work well in a franchise where it’s front and center, like Doctor Who, but as a part of an ensemble it was more of a question mark than an exclamation point.

Sisko is a mixed bag. Much of his character progression I found lackluster, but more on that once we talk themes. His position on the station is quite interesting, as he functions as much as the mayor of a small town as a starship commander. A large portion of his crew is Bajoran and not technically under his direct authority. Plus he has to deal with a large contingent of civilians like Quark and Garak who are outside the reach of all but the most direct and dictatorial exercises of his authority. Undoubtedly his greatest asset as a character is that he’s a family man. He has a son who he has to help grow up, and a dead wife who’s loss he has to get over. He falls in love again and even gets married, all things that make him distinct from other Star Trek captains and make him feel more organic to the frontier town feel of DS9. He’s a good character and a good leader, even if I feel the writers didn’t always serve him well.

Thematically, DS9 tackles fewer ideas than its predecessors but goes at them at greater length. As with many of its creative decisions this is a mixed blessing. It works fantastically for characters like Garak, Dumar and Gul Dukat who’s conflicted and evershifting relations to their strict, nationalist culture make for fascinating character studies. By the same token the deep dive into Ferengi culture the show takes is both hilariously entertaining and fairly insightful, although a little less evenly handed than the Cardassians. But for the central themes I feel like it’s more of a miss.

At the heart of the show, Deep Space Nine attempts to tackle the morality of Star Trek at the edges of the story, where the many luxuries of the core Federation worlds are not available. Where NextGen gave us a moral mosaic of contrasting situations and outcomes, DS9 gives us moral grays. The problem with pictures of all gray is that all the shapes bleed into one another leaving a drab, blurry boring stretch of canvas. Nothing illustrates this more than Captain Sisko’s role as the Emissary of the Prophets and his character arc for most of the show.

The Bajorans are a deeply spiritual people, worshiping a group of deities called “The Prophets” who turn out to have a stable wormhole built a good ways out from the planet of Bajor. Conflict over this wormhole is much of the plot of the show and it all starts when Ben Sisko flies out into it to find the missing ship of the Cardassian officer Gul Dukat and stumbles on the wormhole and the Prophet’s sanctuary. From that moment on Sisko is considered a voice for the Prophets in the mortal realm. Periodically Sisko will be given some insight on a problem the station is – or will be – facing and he must trust the Prophets and work out the situation. At first he’s reluctant, both to trust the Prophets and act as their Emissary, but by seasons four or five he’s settled into the role and is actively using its influence.

The problem with this arc is that there’s no real meaning to the Bajoran religion. At least, not that’s shared with us. The Prophets are basically powerful beings who kinda want to do something about some evil things and Bajor is somehow involved. But what the codes the Propehts demand of their followers, what their morality is and how it might intersect with Sisko’s loyalty to Starfleet or his personal code of conduct is pretty sketchy.

The Prophets behave much like the stereotypical god put forth by atheists and agnostics – every so often they put forth an edict and expect it to be carried out even if there’s no rhyme or reason. Problem is, even pagan deities, hardly at the pinnacle of systematic theology, had a logic to them. Apollo was god of poetry and music, as well as prophecy, so his myths revolved around story and song as much as predictions of the future. Tyr was god of valor and personal combat and he valued those who faced such adversity with the Nordic spirit of honor. They had a wheelhouse that made them understandable to their followers and useful as storytelling devices – which is undoubtedly why they creep up even in modern story time and time again. The Prophets have no such domain and thus, generally just serve as plot conveniences to drive stories.

That fact really starts to show when the evil counterparts to the Prophets, the Pah Wraiths, show up and take Gul Dukat as their leader. Not only does this destroy Dukat as a character, going from a deep, meaningful and charismatic (but untrustworthy) man to a shallow half of a lazily drawn good and evil conflict who mouths platitudes about love that he clearly doesn’t understand; it underlines just how empty the Bajoran religion is of meaning or driving purpose. Neither side of this battle has a philosophy clear enough to prevent Bajor’s religious leaders from slipping back and forth from one side of the conflict to the other. Sisko himself trusts the Prophets only because they’ve never been wrong – right up until they ask him to not do something he wants to, namely get married. Of course, the Prophets end up correct about that as well – the decision does put Sisko and Cassidy through more emotional pain than they probably would have suffered if they hadn’t gotten married – but it still doesn’t change the fact that the Prophets clearly don’t stand for anything in the minds of those who trust them.

It’s very hard to wield religious figures in fiction, in part because the act of having faith actively works against the kind of emotional conflict that leads to character arcs. Faith is a stabilizing force in a person’s life and stories need instability to be interesting. Thus religious figures work best as antagonists in storytelling, hence the prevalence of the Devil in fiction but not the Christian God or Jesus, or as side characters that provide emotional stability, thus the trope of a supporting priest the protagonist can confess to (or however that works for the religious tradition in question). This is why Q worked in NextGen as the glimpse of humanity’s objectively low place on the galactic totem pole, a pinprick to the hubris of humanism’s centering of mankind in the cosmos. It’s not even that Q disliked humanity – he often seemed to be doing them favors in the manner of a drill sergeant or older brother who torments to toughen people up – it’s just that Q understood how much danger they were getting in to and how best to make them see it.

The Prophets, by contrast, don’t do much of anything for anyone, other than sealing up the wormhole for the last couple of seasons to keep the Dominion from pouring through.

Which reminds me of the other pantheon of DS9, the Founders. These shapeshifting masters of genetics lead the Dominion, the show’s primary antagonists. They’re treated as gods by a handful of races they made via genesmithing and programmed to revere them. The Founders, at least, behave as actual pagan religious figures might. Unfortunately we never see more than a couple of Founders, counting Odo, and we learn little of their philosophy beyond their general distrust of creatures who can’t shapeshift. There is one incident that explains a bit of why that might be – Founders communicate with each other in a sort of telepathic merging that causes them to distrust the vagueness of verbal communication while humanoids distrust creatures who can change shape at will – but what that kind of thought process might imply for their culture is never addressed.

Another theme of DS9 is supposedly the imperfections of human society. But again, it doesn’t show that very well. While there is an attempted coup on Earth during the run of the show and we see several people turn traitor and abandon Starfleet for the Maquis, there’s still one major problem in all this. Ben Sisko is always right. He’s never wrong.

Not once in the show’s whole run does Sisko make the wrong bet when sorting out these problems. Even Picard, the most conscientious and fair minded captain in Star Trek, missed a bet once or twice, as in “Chain of Command” or “Best of Both Worlds”. To say nothing of Ro Laren. But Sisko never gambles wrong, and in time it becomes clear that the moral standard in these “morally gray” situations still exists – it’s just embodied in a single character. We no longer have a moral mosaic where we have to measure the situation, the players and our principles all together to find out where the right of things lies, now we can just wait to see what Sisko does and know that this will be the win. It’s boring, dull and muddled – just what I’d expect when everything is painted in shades of gray.

The epitome of this muddled sense of standards is the constant visits to the mirror universe. It is fun to see the characters with inverted morality – but not everyone’s morality is flipped and the whole string of episodes, stretched over the show’s full run, never goes anywhere. It’s disappointing and a waste of resources that might have been spent better developing other ideas. Like Bajor, that planet that was right next door to the station but that we saw maybe once a season. Missed opportunities there. Or maybe more than just two highly specialized, genetically engineered Dominion races.

The final thematic element of DS9 is war. Now, the Star Trek galaxy was always on the brink of war and perhaps that shouldn’t surprise us. The political situation was based on the real world for both The Original Series and Next Generation and the world was kind of on the brink of war that whole time. On the other hand, the world was not at war during the 1990s.  It’s almost as if the showrunners wanted to do World War Two in space, with Star Trek sensibilities, rather than address ethnic cleansing or the other geopolitical struggles of the time. It’s not that I don’t understand that – in fact it was probably a wise decision – but it did cost the show some of the timeliness the first two takes on the franchise were known for.

In the end, DS9 isn’t undone by its flaws of character or theme. It’s a different kind of Star Trek story but not necessarily a worse one. One outcome of the changes in format and approach that I’m not sure was fully appreciated was how high impact moments in the story would get spread out. Deep Space Nine has fewer truly standout episodes than any take on the franchise beyond its contemporary, Star Trek Voyager. That’s because many of the best moments happened in episodes that were otherwise just average for the show. In fact, if I had to characterize DS9 in comparison to the rest of the franchise I’d say it was of stronger overall consistency but lacked the highs and lows of other takes. That said, there were a number of very good episodes worth watching. Also, the final half of the last season makes for one of the stronger modern space operas although that hardly counts as “an episode”.

“Duet” comes early in the show’s run and highlights the evils of the Cardassian occupation. The station’s crew has arrested a man who used to run a work camp and Major Kira must lead the investigation, which she does with vengeful intensity. But along the way they discover the Cardassian is an imposter – in truth he was the camp’s file clerk and has taken his old CO’s identity. This episode shows the struggle for redemption and the toll that even adjacency to evil can cause. It also shows how attempts to reconcile cultures long at odds can be easily undermined from either side, even if one of those sides seems to have a clear moral high ground.

“The Magnificent Ferengi” features Quark pulling together a team of crack Ferengi commandos for an impromptu rescue mission. The naturally conflict averse disposition of the merchants supreme is overridden by reward money offered and the galaxy’s most devious minds all come together to thwart the aims of the Dominion. It’s every bit as fun as that sounds, only more so.

Supposedly the British Navy believes that any action worthy of receiving the Victoria Cross is not a sound basis for tactical doctrine. “Valiant” takes a crack at showing that true in the Star Trek lore. The Valiant was a small ship on a training cruise when the Dominion War broke out and they were swept up in hostilities. The three commissioned officers were killed in an initial attack leaving a crew of cadets to repair and run the ship. Rather than going home their commander decides to try and carry out the orders that came in for the ship’s late captain. Along the way they pick up DS9′s Jake and Nog, who were going to Ferenginar, the Ferengi homeworld. Over Jake’s protests the Valiant continues on its way, eventually biting off more than the crew of inexperienced and emotionally unstable cadets can handle. At the end, as one of the cadets defends their now deceased leader, Nog speaks the most memorable line of the entire series. “He was a good man. Maybe even a hero. But he was a bad captain.”

“Waltz” is the single strongest performance of anyone in Deep Space Nine. Both Avery Brooks and Marc Alaimo act their hearts out to deliver the ultimate confrontation between Captain Benjamin Sisko and Gul Dukat. The two spar in a battle of wits, each with a crippling handicap. Sisko doesn’t know what the game is and Dukat lost his wits when he watched his daughter murdered. It’s tense, nailbiting and heartbreaking all at once. Good stuff.

Deep Space Nine went off the air in 1999 and it marked the beginning of the franchise’s decline. Unlike previous series the show would never make the leap to films so that aspect of the franchise would lapse in 2002. While Voyager was still on air, and would be until 2001, and Star Trek Enterprise would carry the torch onwards for another four years, Star Trek was beginning to show it’s age. In fact, by the end of Voyager the real history of Earth would have officially divulged from the history Rodenberry proposed. Many people talk as if the decline was because no one ran with the storytelling techniques DS9 introduced to the franchise, or that it was because DS9 was the peak of what the franchise could aspire to and decline after that was natural. I disagree, and I’ll speak more about why that is in a couple of weeks, but for now I’ll just say I attribute that to their love for the show. As I said, DS9 is unique in the history of the franchise and thus its chunk of the fanbase is very dedicated. And the series did do a lot to explore the cultures of the Star Trek galaxy and raised the art of character writing in the franchise to its peak. It was fresh, fierce and fun, and for that I confess I love it too.

Deep Space Nine was an experiment but the core of Rodenbery’s future lived on. In 1995 the USS Voyager departed Deep Space Nine‘s docking pylons and headed into the Badlands and out into the franchise’s next adventure far beyond the reaches of human knowledge. Because space is one journey that will likely never be over…

Star Trek – The Future for Future Generations

Around the time the movie Star Trek: The Journey Home was entering production Paramount set out to translate Gene Rodenberry’s vision of the future for a new generation. The result was Star Trek: The Next Generation and it has defined science fiction for an entire generation. It started weak but finished strong and, for myself in particular, the future will always be tinted by its aesthetics and dreams, for better or for worse. In 1987 Jean Luc Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D departed for Farpoint and once again took us where no man had gone before.

The captain and his ship set out into a much more chaotic, unpredictable age than his predecessor. This incarnation of Rodenberry’s vision for the future would see the end of Lennin’s with the fall of the Berlin Wall and eventually the Soviet bloc. The nature of many of the political institutions of the time would begin changing radically as a result and the timeliness of the Star Trek universe would sometimes wobble but, by and large, still had a strong resonance. The Next Generation still had a lot to say and people were still in a mood to hear it.

If Star Trek: The Original Series was defined by the bridge then Star Trek: The Next Generation was defined by the courtroom. From the very first episode the theme of weighing our decisions in the most objective, most all-knowing way possible, and whether we should be judged by intentions or outcomes would be was a big theme of the show. The world and culture had changed in twenty years. People were no longer just interested in what decisions we should make – decades of foreign intervention to counter the Russians had made us wonder what the consequences of our decisions would be.

NextGen addressed the political issues of its time in its own way, with the Romulans serving as a stand in for the continued danger of communism, and the addition of the Bajorans and Cardassians becoming proxies for the issues of religious and ethnic tensions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. The Maquis stand in for the terrorist groups that result from political jerrymandering – but in this the showrunners failed to account for the reality of the situation as they have no religious or ideological component to their crusade. Perhaps to the showrunners terrorism is no more than politics but the fact is that doesn’t ring true to the situation on the ground in real life. At least not for most people, myself included.

Like its predecessor, NextGen has no overarching plot, although it does introduce two of the greatest antagonizing forces in the history of the franchise: The omnipotent Q and the all-consuming Borg. Both threaten the crew repeatedly throughout the show’s seven season run and stretch beyond the end of it to meddle with other crews in Starfleet.

The Borg are a pretty simple take on the issue of whether we will drive our own advancement or allow other forces to supplant our free will and control us like sheep. They could be a metaphor for any number of social phenomenon – or even social media! – or a very literal take on the dangers of letting technology too far into our lives. People can enter or leave the collective, although only with difficulty, and they served as an interesting metaphor for the line between groups and the individual. But, while menacing, the Borg were not particularly deep and suffered from over exposure before their time was ended. Like the mirror universe, they probably shouldn’t have been given as much screen time as they eventually were.

But Q. He was a different matter. The franchise’s second greatest villain (arguably its greatest) Q is the uncaring, impersonal perspective of the universe. He dares the crew to try and examine the universe from a perspective other than that of optimistic explorers, to take human goals out of the equation and try and accept the universe and human nature for what they are, typically placing the crew in danger to prove some point about human frailty. Q is a contentious figure in the fanbase. He’s arrogant and high-handed, free with the flaws of those around him, but that is to serve as a foil to the attitude of the cast who – by all accounts – are free with the flaws of the people they meet in ways that can easily come off as arrogant and high-handed. Q bookends the series and meddles in some memorable ways along the way, including introducing the Federation to the Borg.

The whole show is full moral mosaics, playing a sort of Othello with the conscience, where a situation that seems one way will flip to another with the addition of just a few pieces of the puzzle. Two episodes in the fourth season, “The Drumhead” and “The Mind’s Eye”, highlight this. In one, McCarthyesque paranoia about Romulan operatives nearly convicts an innocent man. In the other, Chief Engineer Geordi La Forge is brainwashed as a Romulan operative and caught only through carefully applied paranoia on the part of the crew. It’s only clear principles that keep the good ship Enterprise from foundering in the treacherous waters.

The cast of NextGen is… well, larger than The Original Series, although not necessarily as strong. Stand out performances come from Patric Stewart, as Captain Jean Luc Picard, Michael Dorn, as Worf Rozhenko and Brent Spiner as Data (who is an android). But the show spreads character development across a good seven or eight characters per season, leaving plenty of time spent with other members of the cast. While actors like Jonathan Frakes, Marina Sirtis, LaVar Burton and Gates McFadden did well with their characters they aren’t in quite the same league as the top three actors on the show – or the core three of The Original Series. On the other hand, the greater variety of stories in a greater variety of posts around the ship add a much needed dimension to the show.

Again, only Data gets much character development over the course of the show. Like Spock, he struggles with understanding humanity. Unlike Spock he has no emotions at all and he gets an evil twin brother and mad genius father to go along with his struggle! This is good from the crazy space adventure side of the show as well as the character development side.

With seven seasons of Next Generation you’d think there would be more stand out episodes than The Original Series and you’d be right – but oddly, not as many per season. One thing the show did get right was it’s season finale cliff hangers – many of the best episodes in the series were two part episodes with one half aired at the end of one season, forcing us to wait on tenterhooks for months for the conclusion. Great episodes include “The Naked Now”, “Elementary, Dear Data”, “Ship in a Bottle”, “The Measure of a Man”, “Q Who”, “Lower Decks”, “Qpid”, “Relics”, “Tapestry”, “Timescape”, “The Redemption” Parts One and Two, “Descent” Parts One and Two and “All Good Things…” Parts One and Two.

“Yesterday’s Enterprise” unites the crew of Picard’s Enterprise with the previous ship of that name in a time travelling incident that shifts the nature of the timeline for a brief moment and leaves the ships with a difficult choice to make. It’s an endearing throwback to “The City on the Edge of Forever” and gives early core crew member Tasha Yar a proper sendoff and sets up several interesting elements for the future.

“Chain of Command” Parts One and Two throw everything out of the window – Picard isn’t on the Enterprise! The crew has a new CO and they hate him! The Cardassians are terrible people! Okay, that last one is nothing new. The real strength of this show is the second half, as Picard confronts his Cardassian interrogator in a battle of wills to shake the heavens. The ending, where Picard brushes aside dystopia and affirms that There! Are! Four! Lights! is the stuff of legends.

“I, Borg” fleshes out the Borg when the crew rescues a drone from a crashed Borg ship and find that, with time, he evolves into an individual no longer bound by the dictates of the Collective and leaving them with an ethical dilemma… what with they do with Hugh the drone? The consequences of their decision would be felt years later in the two part episode “Descent” but more than anything the episode is a testament to the fact that you can’t know your enemy until you’ve lived with him. It also marks the beginning of the end for the Borg menace, as a narrative device if not in universe.

“The Chase” shows that many of the major humanoid races of the Alpha Quadrant are struggling to piece together a message encoded into their own DNA resulting in the revelation that they are all descendants of another progenitor race, making it one of the most important myth building episodes in the franchise and serving as an excellent metaphor for the senselessness of human racism, given the shared heritage our own DNA points to.

Of course, the two greatest episodes of Star Trek ever made are “The Best of Both Worlds” Parts One and Two. The first conflict with the Borg, the Battle of Wolf 359, rewrites the situation in the Alpha Quadrant from top to bottom and leaves the crew of the Enterprise reeling. In fact, the entire history of the franchise can be dated by its place before and after “The Best of Both Worlds”. It marks the beginning of a shift in the franchise from the strong single story, high concept scifi format to the more grandiose, space opera story telling of that would dominate the franchise in more modern incarnations. That doesn’t stop it from being the greatest moment in the franchise for here we see all the strengths of both sides of the franchise firing at full force. Truly, the best of both worlds.

Like Kirk and Co., Picard and his crew would go on to feature films. They’d blow up an Enterprise, travel through time and generally get into mischief. The very first film was a crossover with Kirk, and not a bad one at that. Sadly the next generation of Star Trek films didn’t hit the heights of the first, the only way in which the follow-up didn’t measure up to the original. The only truly great NextGen film was Star Trek: First Contact, pitting Picard against the Borg one final time, but this time with a new ship and in the past as the Borg try to change history and assimilate humanity before they achieve faster than light travel. We also get to see the first contact between humanity and the Vulcans, a major point of the mythos that we’ve never seen before.

“Encounter at Farpoint” was a pretty bleh pilot episode for a sequel series to a TV show that failed in the ratings after only three years. But The Next Generation gained steam as it went and became a scifi juggernaut on the backs of solid writing and a great cast. The show was so successful two further series were added to the franchise running almost simultaneously but it’s my humble opinion that nothing has quite matched the greatness of the franchise in this era. But the very nature of Star Trek calls us to boldly go to new places and the franchise traveled onwards to the orbit of Bajor and the edge of a wormhole into unexplored space, all under the watchful eye of of a new crew and facing new problems…

Star Trek: Gene Rodenberry’s Wagon Train to the Stars

In September of 1966 a man named Gene Rodenberry set forth a vision of the future that was unlike anything people had advanced before. It was utopian, a little silly and not particularly popular at the time. After three seasons Star Trek would go off the air, but not before giving a whole generation of science fiction fans their first glimpse of the wonder and possibilities of space. Not that Star Trek bears much semblance to reality – it was the dream that mattered to most of them. The dream that there was more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of in our philosophies.

Since going off the air Star Trek has spawned five follow-up TV shows and more than a dozen feature films. Not bad for a TV show that – arguably – failed on initial release. Star Trek came at an interesting time in American life. Man was on his way to the moon but he hadn’t made it there yet, in fact Star Trek would go off the air a little more than a month before the Apollo 11 landing. Space was still a long way off when Captain Kirk first beamed up to the Enterprise. The Star Wars franchise was still a decade away and space wasn’t a huge part of popular culture either.

Humanity was locked in a very tense, hostile position as the Cold War rose from the ashes of Korea. There was something going on over in Vietnam, had been for a decade, but resistance to it was only really starting to form in the US. This is where Star Trek was born, lived and died.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Star Trek is how much like the show’s present the future Rodenberry presented was. The United Federation of Planets – a loose parallel to democratic organizations like NATO or the UN – stood at odds with the Klingon and Romulan empires, two loosely allied superpowers that resembled the USSR and Maoist China in political situation if not culture. Old wars had exhausted all three superpowers until they no longer wanted to fight wars but no formal peace existed and small skirmishes were fought along the borders through political maneuvering or via proxies.

But for all that Star Trek resembled the present, it was built somewhat on the past. Rodenberry frequently compared the show to another TV series called Wagon Train, an old western series about settlers headed out west. Kirk led his small band of travelers ever up and outward into the unknown, stopping with friendly settlers and fighting off – or talking his way out of – any hostilities that took place. It was a blend of the old and familiar with the new and unexpected that worked very well in illuminating what Rodenberry thought of the present and where it should go.

The core of Star Trek in the original incarnation is three fold: Kirk, Spock, McCoy. Each of these men represented a force driving human development. Spock, the cool, rational and scientific mind, was passive and tended to observe with an eye for the simplest and most beneficial outcome. McCoy was driven by relationships and emotions, seeking outcomes he could accept and spurred to action by his sense of empathy and justice. And Kirk, riding herd on them both as the spirit of moderation and purpose, made sure that their goals were never thwarted by either inclination.

Of the three characters only Spock got anything like character development – that kind of thing was done very little on television in those days. Most of Spock’s growth involved him coming to grips with his dual Vulcan and Human heritage and trying to find a balance between the Vulcan need for emotional control and the human need for emotional expression.

The basic venue for the original Star Trek is the bridge. While many stories took place away from the Enterprise much of what needed to be said or decided was said or decided on the bridge of that venerable Constitution-class ship and the bridge itself served as the perfect metaphor for the show. We are in the driver’s seat, Rodenberry tells us, look sharp and mind your stations and we can get through this.

There’s no large plot to this run of Star Trek, instead it focuses on a number of short, concise and typically exciting high concept stories that inspect the human condition in ways both timely and timeless. Many have the feel of Twilight Zone episodes with a consistent cast. Surprisingly this run of the show, while the shortest of any incarnation of the franchise, has one of the highest memorable episode counts – undoubtedly due in part to its emphasis on strong individual stories.

Notable episodes include “The Trouble with Tribbles”, “The Day of the Dove”, “Balance of Terror”, “The Enterprise Incident”, “The Doomsday Machine”, “Where No Man has Gone Before”, and “Journey to Babel”. The episode “Mirror, Mirror” introduces the “mirror universe”, a timeline where the Federation went terribly wrong and the Terran Empire has locked most of the sentient species in the Alpha Quadrant of the galaxy in a tyrannical fascist regime. Spock finds himself stuck with a party from the mirror world while the same party from the main timeline winds up on the mirror Enterprise before hijinks ensue. While seeing the crew with swapped personalities is interesting and serves as a great look into the darker side of the cast, this idea became something of an obsession among the fans and some of the writers, rarely leading anywhere good. More on this in weeks to come.

A more positive influence on the cannon comes in “Space Seed”, which introduces the franchise’s greatest (or second greatest, depending on who you ask) villain, Khan. It also gives some history on the Eugenics War and humanity’s dark history of genetic modifications. Khan is a simple villain but an effective one, sure in his breeding and power and the natural right of rulership he believes stems from those things. Khan returned in the franchise’s second feature film, resulting in one of the tensest scifi battles of wits in cinema history followed by one of the genre’s greatest death scenes.

The most memorable episode of Star Trek is “The City on the Edge of Forever”. When McCoy accidentally travels back in time he saves an American peace advocate from an accidental death and winds up delaying the U.S. entry into the Second World War to the point that the Germans cannot be defeated, instead winning through wanton use of atomic bombs and leaving Kirk and Spock with a terrible task – let a virtuous and compassionate woman die as she was meant so a brutal and selfish man can be denied his prize. It’s a brilliant twist on the “would it be okay to kill Hitler before his rise to power?” question that demands we look past the immediate consequences of our actions. In fact, if you wanted to pick an episode of Star Trek that perfectly encapsulated the themes of the show in a single hour of viewing time, “City on the Edge of Tomorrow” might be the perfect choice.

After going off the air Star Trek lapsed for about a decade, then revived in 1979 with the first of six motion pictures. The Wrath of Khan is frequently cited as the best, with The Undiscovered Country and The Journey Home vying for second place. These films broke new ground in a lot of ways, destroying one Enterprise and building another. A whole film was spent with the crew in a captured Klingon ship. There was time travel and nearly omniscient space entities and wonderful science fiction adventure. Star Wars gave Americans a taste of modern myth but Star Trek gave them an idea of what the work of the future might be, and they loved it. William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Deforest Kelley and the rest would find their names forever tied to the characters they portrayed in a way no other actor really had. And a new breed of scifi set out for the stars, to boldly go where no one had gone before.

Super Sons: A Fortress of Attitude

Last week we talked a little about DC comic’s latest take on Superman and how they’ve changed their take on him for the worse and for the better in the last ten years or so. To be honest, that was all set-up for what I really wanted to talk about: Super Sons.

Super Sons is a new comic line from DC that focuses on Jonathan Kent and Damian Wayne, the sons of Superman and Batman, as they strike out on their own and try to establish themselves in the family business. Many consider it to be one of the best ongoing series DC is publishing and, after reading the first collected volume of many of the DC Rebirth titles, I tend to agree. There’s a lot that could go wrong in a story about an eleven year old and a thirteen year old, one a juggernaut of physical power the other with all the training of legendary assassin and the money of a millionaire, but amazingly, Super Sons avoids it all.

The core of Super Sons is less on Jon and Damian sorting out who they want to be, as most of these coming of age stories are. As a child raised in the League of Assassins, Damian has already had to confront challenges like what it means to take a life and rebelled against one path set before him in favor of another he wants more. That part of his maturation happened very early, and is already put aside. Jonathan has his father’s unshaking sense of morality and purpose, his mother’s nosiness and thirst for truth, and the untempered optimism only the adolescent can pull off. That he would take the mantle of Superboy seems almost inevitable.

The point of Super Sons is not what Jonathan and Damian want to do. DC knows their audience has come for rousing superheroics and exciting adventures, after all, and we’ve seen the reluctant hero done to death. What Super Sons offers instead is a focus on the negotiation. Who we are is not something we decide on our own, no matter how much we’d like it to be. Other people will judge and evaluate us along the way, and while that doesn’t define a person entirely, neither is a person entirely self-made. Super Sons highlights this via the simple expedient of having Jonathan and Damian dislike each other. A lot.

To be honest, the friction between the two is as much an outgrowth of how the two characters behave – established in the Superman and Batman titles before their spinning off into their own title – as it is a device of the writing and editorial staff. Damian is arrogant, short tempered, taciturn and generally unpleasant. It’s not that he doesn’t try to understand people, he understands them just fine. He just doesn’t like what he sees and isn’t afraid to let them know it. Jonathan is humble and even tempered, considerate and obedient towards his parents. From the outset their personal codes and idea of how the world should be set them up for a clash. Neither really wants to accept the other as a superhero and their getting the rest of the world to accept them for what they want to be is, in many ways, less of a challenge than the two accepting each other as heroes.

In many ways DC has chosen to pass on the semi-adversarial relationship that Superman and Batman had in the days when they’d just met down to their kids. Again, that could come off forced but it feels more like DC just recognized that they’d created two characters who fit that dynamic perfectly and decided to bring back a relationship dynamic the audience had always enjoyed. Now DC audiences can have the rocky but mostly friendly relationship Superman and Batman currently enjoy while still also getting the fractious arguments over methods, ideals and attitude that once was.

Of course, all this could go very, very badly if the characters were badly written. Fortunately they’re not. Both Jon and Damian are smarter than their peers and they’re better trained and more emotionally in control than most kids their age. But they never act like short adults. Peter Tomasi, the writer for Super Sons, either has kids of his own or works with them extensively, because he hits the exact tone, attitude and emotional investment you’d expect from the youngest of young adults. Neither boy ever preaches, or tries to be an emotional mainstay for their parents. And, while they do occasionally challenge the limits their parents set – Damian much more than Jon – they also accept discipline when it is handed down. In short, they act like kids rather than like adults trying to show kids how they’re supposed to act or worse adults seeking some kind of childhood do-over wish fulfillment. That’s a real achievement on its own, in the context of Super Sons it’s borderline miraculous.

Super Sons is the best possible evolution of a long-running fiction brand. It keeps the existing character development while expanding and developing old characters in new contexts. At the same time it finds ways to very naturally keep beloved franchise dynamics alive and flourishing without feeling forced or growing stale. Go read it. Right now.

Arrow Season Six – Changing a Franchise Done Right

Over the past few years Marvel Comics has caught a lot of flack for changing its flagship characters. The title of Iron Man is currently in the hands of RiRi Williams, a teenaged girl genius with all the tech savvy, people sense and situational awareness of boiled parsley. For about a year Captain America was replaced with an evil HYDRA counterpart due to cosmic shenanigans. And, in a move that felt much like a demotion to many fans, popular characters Falcon and X-23 were shifted into the roles of their friends and mentors, Captain America and Wolverine. The most galling thing for many fans seems to be the way these changes came out of left field, with little attempt to build them up in narrative or make them look like the actions of normal human beings.

In their ongoing attempt to prove they are better than Marvel at anything other than making movies, DC took their very popular CW show Arrow and took main character Oliver Queen out of the Arrow suit – at least for most of the first half of the season – and replaced him without any fan batting an eye. What happened? Why did it work when Marvel’s attempts at switching leading roles didn’t? Let’s take a look.

Reason number one is John Diggle. No, not the Anglican Bishop, Oliver Queen’s bodyguard, portrayed by David Ramsey. There’s been a natural friendship built up between Diggle and Oliver over the last five years, aided in no small part by the natural chemistry between Ramsey and Steven Amell, and cemented by countless saves in myriad life and death situations. They trust each other’s judgement, moral fiber and skills. That makes the passing of the torch from Queen to Diggle quite natural and believable.

Furthermore, while Diggle does have his own hero identity as Spartan it’s not as well established or deeply seated in the public’s psyche as the Green Arrow is, and I’m not just talking about the show’s audience. The Green Arrow is a symbol for Starling City in ways no one else can rival – though the Flash is just as powerful in Central City – and preserving the power of that symbol means someone must wear the hood. The Spartan can’t just step into those shoes. Diggle giving up his own superhero identity isn’t a random demotion forced on him by the script but rather a sacrifice he makes for his city and his friend.

Which brings us to point two. Oliver’s struggle with being the Arrow – green or otherwise – has been ongoing, a constant thread since the end of the first season of the show. This issue was forced to a head when Oliver’s son, introduced two seasons ago, loses his mother when she’s used as a pawn in a battle with one of the Green Arrow’s rivals. With his responsibilities as the Mayor of Star City added on top of his new responsibilities as a father and his son’s deep dislike for the Green Arrow persona which is tangentially responsible for his mother’s death, Oliver’s decision to step back from the superhero life is not only understandable, it’s admirable. The press to be in the thick of things weighs hard on Oliver but he’s not the right man for the job right now. His reasons for stepping back are well established, believable and meaningful, to the point where we’re glad he’s made this call, rather than resenting it.

But the biggest thing is this change let us see new sides of both characters. Diggle struggles with being in command. He’s led other people before but never been at the top of the command chain and it weighs on him. Worse, he’s struggling with the physical toll the life has taken on him and he’s going to extreme lengths to keep it up while keeping his allies in the dark. It’s a new kind of challenge for Diggle, but one we’re sure he’ll live up to. Oliver has new responsibilities too, to a son he doesn’t really know and a city he’s not trained to manage. And beneath it all is the constant desire to get back out in the field and make a difference on the personal level, something he has to hold in check for now if he’s going to meet all his responsibilities. These struggles and opportunities are new and interesting and, if they don’t have quite the impact of Arrow‘s early seasons they’re still well written and interesting and no doubt people will continue to tune in and see what happens.

Marvel’s character swaps rarely present anything interesting in terms of new struggles or new stories and they’ve come out of left field time and time again. In setting up their change far ahead of time and driving them by story events as much as by editorial mandate, Arrow‘s writing team has managed to pull a very impressive switch that has so far eluded their rivals. There’s lessons for all to be learned in how they’ve done it.