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Fandom and the Future of Star Trek


Fandom and the Future of Star Trek

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Fandom and the Future of Star Trek


Published on November 10, 2020

Credit: CBS
scenes from Star Trek Lower Decks Picard and Discovery
Credit: CBS

The incredible multi-media phenomenon known as Star Trek has been around for over half a century. And in that time, the creators and fans of the franchise have weathered change and all manner of updates necessary for the show to maintain its relevance, reinventing itself again and again across television, movies, comics, novels, and even in games.

The franchise currently includes thirteen motion pictures, eight television series (with two more in development), and two animated series (with one on the way). No other franchise can hang its hat on such wide-ranging, consistent success…arguably not even Star Wars, with a measly eleven motion pictures, three live-action shows, four animated series, and (of course) one Holiday Special.

Since 2009, however, when the J.J. Abrams-directed Star Trek debuted, initiating what’s known as the Kelvin timeline, a vocal segment of the existing fandom have insisted that more recent versions of Star Trek are not “real Star Trek,” complaining that these newer movies and shows do not fit into their conception of what the franchise should be.

Since that time, bashing “NuTrek” has become a staple of online discussions and articles; for the simplicity of this article, I will refer to the following as “NuTrek” as well:

  • The movies Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), and Star Trek Beyond (2016)
  • Star Trek: Discovery, Picard, and Lower Decks

Though Trek has stood the test of time, decade in and decade out, things have not always gone smoothly when transitioning from one era to the next. The cast of The Next Generation (TNG) were famously faced with hate and derision from fans of the original series for years before people eventually came around. Same with the actors of Deep Space Nine (DS9). For proof, just watch the first few minutes of the DS9 documentary What We Left Behind to hear the cast read some of the hate mail they received back in the day.

Some fans of previous versions of Star Trek have continued to take aim at current shows online and on social media, mostly visibly on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit. It’s gotten to the point where Jonathan Frakes, TNG’s Commander Riker and a veteran of Trek both as an actor and director, recently opined that some viewers watch Discovery and Picard mainly “to make sure they hate it.

I think it might be helpful to take a look at some of the frequent complaints from those who dismiss and deride NuTrek for not being “real Star Trek,” why people feel this way, and try to put these criticisms into perspective. I realize that some of these points, as with any criticisms about one’s favorite show or series, can inspire strong feelings and responses, so the goal here is to be respectful, and to try to be constructive even where we disagree the most. With that in mind, here we go:


Complaint: NuTrek does not honor Genes vision

Star Trek: Lower Decks
Credit: CBS

Gene Roddenberry was a visionary, and I’d like to think that most Trek fans would agree that his idealistic view of what the future could be is something we would do well to strive for, here in the real world. But those higher values don’t always translate to good stories.

Roddenberry thought that humanity would be highly evolved by the 23rd century. By then, he supposed, we’d be beyond petty disputes and conflict, and without money, we wouldn’t need to compete with each other for the same material goods. Instead, the pursuit of knowledge would be humanity’s ultimate goal, rather than the pursuit and accumulation of “stuff.”

Moreover, as discussed in Manu Saadia’s book Trekonomics, by the 24th century (TNG-era shows and all that followed), the pursuit of stuff was made even more pointless because the replicator meant that anyone, anywhere, could acquire the latest widget. By this point, humanity had to change for the better…

Unfortunately, these tenets of Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future do not always make for the best storylines and dramatic stakes for TV or the movies. Because of Gene’s mandate that there be no conflict between humans, writing for TNG was reportedly rather difficult…eventually, Roddenberry was pushed into a consulting position.

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The same thing happened to Roddenberry on the greatest Trek film of them all—The Wrath of Khan. Roddenberry famously wrote a nine-page letter to producer Harve Bennett in which he spelled out his anger over many of the film’s plot points. These included:

  • David Marcus’ negative view of Starfleet
  • The Genesis Device
  • The Kobayashi Maru test
  • Human conflict and weakness

…along with a few other things, which are integral and beloved parts of the film.

It may not be a coincidence that once Roddenberry’s involvement in The Next Generation began to wane (after the end of Season 2), the show found its own footing, and is considered among many fans to be the very best Trek series ever created (with DS9 a close second). Michael Piller and Rick Berman took over the series beginning with Season 3, and Roddenberry had less to do with the show’s day-to-day decision-making.

In a way, it reminds me of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous declaration that “God is dead.” As the demiurge of Star Trek, Roddenberry created the Trek Universe, then had to step aside in order for the world to grow and evolve, making room for disciples Berman, Abrams, and now Kurtzman to continue to spread the gospel. Roddenberry created Trek—a magnificent achievement, to be sure—but the fictional world must be able to change and adapt to the times, and ultimately become bigger than one person’s ideas, in order for it to live on.

Speaking of God, Roddenberry was famously non-religious. If he were around, would have he allowed for an entire series about the Bajorans and their wormhole aliens?


Complaint: NuTrek is science fantasy, not science fiction

Star Trek Discovery
Credit: CBS

I tend to hear this a lot from those who do not like Discovery’s spore drive tech, protesting that it’s clearly not based in hard science. For years, Trek fans have held this as a point of pride over Star Wars fans: Our shows and films are more realistic, more science-based, than yours.

But if you stand back and take a long look at the history of the franchise, there are a ton of elements that don’t have any real basis or parallels in hard science. Things like:

  • Landing on an alien planet where everyone speaks perfect English
  • Visiting planets that are “just like Earth”
  • Using the Sun to “slingshot” and go back in time
  • Q, Trelane, and other super-beings
  • The transporter
  • Tuvix-style merging and successful splitting of people

Some of those can, of course, be chalked up to the fact that Roddenberry, Gene L. Coon, and others were making a low-budget TV show in the ‘60s, and they needed aliens who could speak English. Discovery explains this away with the use of the Universal Translator, which earlier Trek uses as well. The Original Series used this a few times, but for the most part, did not. We just assumed that when Kirk and Spock beamed to the surface, everyone would speak the same language.

Speaking of “beaming,” or quantum teleportation, that was created by Roddenberry and other Trek writers as a way of getting the crew down to the planet’s surface without the use of some landing some craft. The shuttlecraft was created for TV for the episode “The Galileo Seven,” and furnished by toy manufacturer AMT. This was the 16th episode of The Original Series.

Current science can “beam” photons from one place to another. This is a far cry from the massive energy required to convert a human being or other complex forms into molecules to send to different locations. The computing power needed for a task like that would be otherworldly.

But Trek fans bought it at the time, and we all continue to suspend disbelief when it happens on screen. Old School Trek fans might criticize Discovery for the spore drive, but that is just as unrealistic as the transporter.


Complaint: The Kelvin Films have no Star Trek soul

Star Trek 2009
Screenshot: Paramount

This is true… from a certain point of view. In Paramount’s defense, when they decided to make the Star Trek reboot with director J.J. Abrams, they needed to change how the world perceived the franchise. Why? Because people weren’t watching Trek.

There’s no shortage of charts reflecting the fall in ratings from TNGs heyday to the end of Enterprise, proving that with each new version of Trek, the audience shrunk, and the ratings fell lower.

Many fans of those years will say that Voyager and Enterprise’s low ratings were due to the shows being aired on a new network (UPN). The fact is that, in most cases, if a show is excellent and appealing to a broad audience, then people will find it (even if they have to subscribe to a channel or streaming service, as was the case with Game of Thrones).

When Abrams created his new version of Star Trek, the focuse was on action and adventure stories, which seemed like a departure from Voyager and Enterprise. Audiences got to see Kirk and Spock on the silver screen again, with a 29-year-old Chris Pine starring as Kirk, and the rest of the classic TOS crew was just as young and vibrant.

This was a smart move, designed to allow for multiple sequels to the reboot and bring in younger people who were not familiar with the older films or shows. Believe it or not, there are people who consider TOS “campy” and the effects “primitive.”

Star Trek had to change to suit younger audiences and court new viewers. If it did not, then Trek might have become one of those franchises that once was in the popular zeitgeist, but faded into irrelevance, commercially or artistically (or both). Without NuTrek, there would only be reruns.


Complaint: Discovery and Picards writers are terrible

Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Elnor (Evan Evagora) in Star Trek: Picard
Screenshot: CBS

A massive swath of NuTrek haters insist on the truth, which they hold to be self-evident, that the writers of Discovery and Picard are awful. While I have no doubt that their criticisms are sincere, I can’t get this perception to square with reality, especially considering that Picard‘s showrunner (Michael Chabon) has won a Hugo, a Nebula, and a Pulitzer Prize for his work. That’s… kind of an amazing track record.

Could it be that instead of being objectively terrible, the current writers’ room for the Star Trek shows on CBS All Access are writing stories that are significantly different than what we’ve seen in the past? Both Discovery and Picard are serialized. They took a note from the Kelvin series of films and function more like long movies, rather than 50-minute standalone missions per episode.

DS9 had already proved that these sorts of stories would work for Trek, but perhaps they got away with it because the “planet of the week” stories were running on TNG and Voyager at the same time.

Many have pointed out that in the finale of Discovery Season 2, Georgiou reported that the threat from Control (the evil AI) had been “neutralized”—so why did Burnham and the Discovery still go into the future? Could it be that Georgiou meant the AI-controlled fleet of ships and the Leland-bot were disabled? The threat from Control still existed on Discovery.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger has taught us anything, it’s that an all-powerful, evil AI cannot be defeated so easily. It makes sense to take the AI-infected ship into the future, to ensure that it could not take over again.

Different, my friends, is not necessarily terrible.

I will admit that Season One of Discovery was a bit rough—largely because there were no characters to really root for (the grouchy Burnham, the snobby Saru, the sarcastic Stamets, etc.). But we gave TNG a couple of seasons to figure things out without burning it to the ground. Why not give Discovery the same chance?


Complaint: Its just not the same…

Screenshot: CBS

Yeah. Yes. Can’t argue there. But I stand by my earlier statement: In pop culture, you either learn to reinvent yourself or the franchise dies.

For those fans who grew up watching TOS and are upset about the changes in recent years, think of it this way…let’s compare what was popular when TOS premiered in September of 1966 versus what topped the charts when Discovery aired on Sept 24, 2017:

#1 Song on Billboard Charts:

  • 1966: The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love”
  • 2017: Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do”

# 1 Box Office Film:

  • 1966: A Man for All Seasons
  • 2017: Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi

# 1 Top-Selling Mobile Phone:

  • 1966: Not yet invented
  • 2017: Apple iPhone 8/8 Plus

Okay, I threw in that last category to mess with you, but also to illustrate how much the world has changed in just five decades. Many older fans found the lens flares and multiple action sequences in the Kelvin films and Discovery to be jarring or otherwise objectionable. But those types of action scenes and visuals are typical in popular movies and shows of this era. If the expectations of a new generation of action-hungry viewers weren’t taken into account, then the new generation of Star Trek might well have been doomed to the same fate as Enterprise—cancellation.

In Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, he explains how the Internet and its accessibility have changed the way people read and consume information. He argues that people’s brains have actually altered to accommodate this new technology. Think about what it was like before the Internet (if you’re able to). Now, imagine being born after 2003 or so, and ask yourself to imagine what life would be like without the Internet and the way it’s shaped (and continues to shape) culture and society.

How do fans who reject NuTrek expect the show to gain a new audience when using the same old tactics which got Enterprise canceled? Especially when you consider the rise of a new, younger, tech-savvy audience who grew up with the Internet and connected devices. They watch movies on their iPads and phones, and Netflix and other streaming services let you binge through entire series in one sitting. The world has changed, and Star Trek—fittingly, for a show about change and about progress—has been updated to reflect and embrace that evolution.


Complaint: NuTrek uses curse words; Classic Trek did not

Star Trek: Discovery "That Hope Is You"
Credit: CBS

Maybe you don’t count “dammit,” “shit,” and other classics as cursing. Here’s a great article that summarizes the greatest hits of cursing in Trek, before Discovery. Yet Classic Trek fans lost it when the F-bomb dropped first on Discovery, and later on Picard.

Picard showrunner Michael Chabon said this, when asked why he chose to use profanity on his show:

No human society will ever be perfect, because no human will ever be perfect. The most we can do … is aspire to perfection. Until that impossible day, s**t is going to happen. And when it does, humans are going to want to swear.

That’s a pretty decent explanation, and it makes sense. It could be that Classic Trek fans got upset because that word is, in particular, upsetting to hear. It may also be the case that, as described before, society has changed, and words like “damn” and “shit” no longer affect people like the F-word does.

But, seriously folks… the Federation is a quasi-military organization whose mission is primarily one of exploration. The word “military” is critical here. For those of you who have not been in the military, you may not know, but the guys and gals in the Armed Forces curse. A LOT. I worked for the U.S. Navy as a contractor for four years. I heard terrific and incredible combinations of curses on a daily basis.

They even curse at NASA.

Can you imagine if you were serving on a ship in space, and things started to go wrong… you wouldn’t utter a swear word or two? Or would you say “gosh darn it, the Klingons just fired at us, and our shields are down. Shucks!”


NuTrek is not canon

Star Trek: Lower Decks: "Veritas"
Credit: CBS

This is the thing… it is. Classic Trek fans can choose to pretend that it is not—and plenty do—but if it says Star Trek, and it’s on television or on a movie theater, it’s canon. Some say that the NuTrek shows ignore what happened in the past, but that’s just not true. Here are some examples:

  • Watch any episode of Lower Decks, and it’s riddled with references to prior Trek shows and movies
  • Captain Pike sees his own future disfigurement in Discovery (which we know will happen thanks to “The Menagerie,” Parts I and II)
  • As mentioned before, Picard is entirely based on events that occurred in Star Trek: Nemesis, Star Trek (2009), the TNG episodes “Family,” “The Best of Both Worlds,” “The Measure of a Man,” and more.

Heck, Picard got people to go back and watch the very first appearance of the Romulans in the TOS episode “Balance of Terror” to make sure there was no AI or advanced computer systems in their society.

I’m not quite sure why those opposed to NuTrek say this sort of thing, other than they “just don’t like NuTrek.” That could be it. Because Trek Czar Alex Kurtzman is undoubtedly a giant nerd and is all about making sure the new shows align with the old shows and films.

Eventually, reality’s going to catch up to the Trek timeline. According to canon, the infamous Bell Riots are supposed to start in September 2024. What will we say when we get to 2024, and the Bell Riots don’t happen? We’ll recognize that Star Trek is a show and a story, and will likely need to start over.


NuTrek is not Star Trek

Star Trek: Discovery "Far From Home"
Credit: CBS

I see this all the time, especially on Twitter, where fans of classic Trek dismiss the Kelvin films and CBS All Access shows as simply “not Star Trek.” Let’s compare Trek to something very dissimilar—namely, American football—to make a point.

If you transported a football player from the 1920s to the 2020s and had them watch the NFL, what do you think they’d say? They’d probably note that the game had changed a lot, but the basics of blocking, tackling, and running with the ball are all still there.

In the same vein, if we beamed DeForest Kelley in from 1967 and asked him to play the doctor on Star Trek: Discovery, he’d probably think that while the uniforms and set had changed, the basic elements of the series are all still there.

In a recent interview I conducted with Deep Space Nine’s Armin Shimerman, I asked him what he thought of people dismissing NuTrek as “not Star Trek.” The man who played Quark for seven years would know a little something about this, since his show was disliked by so many when it first debuted back in 1993.

“Star Trek is what Star Trek is,” said Shimerman. “If you say it’s Star Trek, then it becomes Star Trek…” He continued:

When we started Deep Space Nine, people said “this is not Star Trek, you don’t have a ship. You’re not going anywhere.” It took a while for fans of Star Trek to come and take a second look at us, and say, “you know what, this is Star Trek.” We were just telling a different story.

If you tell the same story over and over again, it gets repetitive, and nobody wants to see the same thing again. To push the boundaries, and expand the envelope is what every creative artist should be doing.

If, currently, someone is saying that your particular Star Trek show is not Star Trek, I say to them, what I said to Nana [Visitor] about five weeks into our run on Deep Space Nine. When we were beginning to understand that fans of The Next Generation were not particularly pleased with Deep Space Nine, I said wait 20 years, they’ll discover us.


In conclusion…

Author Madeline Miller recently noted that the Ancient Greeks told story after story about their heroes, and these stories often did not align. You might have overlapping timelines and multiple stories about the same gods or titans doing essentially the same thing. This happened because people liked hearing about figures like Hercules as much as possible, so the oral storytellers would embellish and borrow from each other, and change the mythos and stories in the process.

In a way, our Trek characters are a bit like those heroes from Greece. Spock has been played by half a dozen actors over three different TV series, two separate film series, and one animated show. Though we have Netflix and Blu-ray players, we’re still hungry for more stories about those great heroes and the worlds in which their exploits take place. If purists want to hold on to their specific visions of Spock, Kirk, Sisko, Picard, Janeway, and the rest, that’s okay—but we shouldn’t try to deny the fans of the present and the future who want to tell their own versions of Star Trek stories, too.

I think that if you don’t like something, especially if you’re expected to pay for it, then don’t—don’t watch it. Yet folks take it upon themselves to actively and aggressively campaign against shows and movies they don’t enjoy, online and across social media, attacking and deriding anything that differs from their sense of how these stories should be told. This goes beyond Star Trek and entertainment in general, of course. To me, this kind of reaction to NuTrek seems very much against one of Trek’s most significant tenets.

…No, not the Prime Directive, but IDIC: Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. This inspirational mantra comes from Vulcan philosophy, and, according to Gene Roddenberry himself, means “an ideal based on learning to delight in our essential differences as well as learning to recognize our similarities.”

Some fans consider the period from TNG’s debut to the release of Nemesis to be Star Trek’s Golden Age—a time when there were new films in the theaters and fresh Trek on TV. I propose that this current era is Trek’s Silver Age (to borrow a term from the comic book world), in which we get to explore the new and different facets of the franchise brought to us by Discovery, Picard, Lower Decks, and future shows like Strange New Worlds, Prodigy, Section 31, and more.

So if you can, try to relax and enjoy the phasers, ships, special effects, and Starfleet-delta wearing crew in action, like you’ve never seen before. It is a great time to be a fan of Star Trek. And besides…in 25 years, the “new” NuTrek will probably arrive to make us look back at Discovery and Picard the way we look at The Original Series from our vantage point here in 2020.

Eric Pesola (he/him) lives in Virginia with his wife, children, shitzhu, and cats named Archer and Hoshi. The dog is not named after a Trek character. He writes about Star Trek at Trek Report.

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