The world owes a debt to Gene Roddenberry. In 1966, Roddenberry—affectionately known now as the Great Bird of the Galaxy—launched the first Star Trek series. Not only has it spawned over 700 hours of storytelling, it inspired a generation of scientists, doctors, and more to move humanity a little bit closer to the technology and ideas of the 23rd century.
At its core, Star Trek has a very fundamental idea: humanity is good, it’s worth saving, and the idea of the IDIC (“Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations”) can help create a better world for future generations. Perhaps, even, a world in which humanity has taken to the stars and become part of an interstellar community. Thinking ahead to what the 23rd century and beyond could look like, it’s hard not to envision a ship called Enterprise racing through space.
That idea has captivated audiences for 50 years now. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series this year, we’re also looking forward to the next two projects that will be hitting our screen. On July 22nd, Star Trek Beyond will be released in theaters. This is the third movie in the alternate film universe featuring new versions of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and all of the other main characters (played by new actors, of course) from the original show. Then, sometime early next year, a brand new Star Trek television series will begin airing on CBS All Access, an online streaming platform.
Every time a new Star Trek film is released, fans ask a big question: what should Star Trek be in the modern world? This new film series, jumpstarted by director J.J. Abrams in 2009 (Justin Lin took over directing duties for Star Trek Beyond when Abrams was tapped to helm Star Wars), brought more of an action element to the franchise. There was a lot of spectacle and stories with intriguing ideas, to be sure, but many Star Trek fans clamored for something meatier. Star Trek has always told allegoric stories that examined the human condition in modern times, and there are fans who feel that Abrams’ films lack an important message. They have the characters, the ships, and the setting, but is that enough to be worthy of the Star Trek name?
Now that Star Trek is returning to television, fans want that message to return—but finding any agreement on how to do that can be difficult. Arguably, many fans want to see Star Trek the way it was in the previous television shows, the last of which went off the air in 2005. There’s always debate amongst Star Trek fans about what Gene Roddenberry would want. They see an action-adventure film called Star Trek and wonder, is this what Roddenberry would have wanted? Is this what Star Trek is all about?
So why is this such a big question? Where does the debate stem from?
Gene Roddenberry Wanted Different Things at Different Times
When Roddenberry launched the original Star Trek series, he pitched it as a very simple concept: “Wagon Train to the Stars.” The network, Desilu, ultimately went for it—it was a fun action show, with an old west and frontier vibe, set in outer space. Roddenberry always wanted it to be an intelligent show, though. The original pilot, “The Cage,” starred Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike. It had its action beats, but it was also a show with a message behind it. The network worried that it was a little too intelligent for audiences, calling it “too cerebral” in their feedback. Yet the studio still supported the idea of the show, so they did something unprecedented: they let Roddenberry film a second pilot. That pilot became “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” with William Shatner brought in for the role of Captain Kirk. The network approved that pilot. Three seasons later, and the rest is history.
Roddenberry realized pretty early on that he could use his “Wagon Train to the Stars” show to tell stories that mattered. Social issues scared networks—studios were put off by the idea of telling stories about racism in 1966, for example—but Roddenberry realized he could use allegory and the futuristic setting of outer space to tell stories about the present day. Whereas shows set in the present would only be able to tell stories about racism using real-world settings, Star Trek could use alien worlds and alien conflicts to tell a story about overcoming prejudice and working together for a better future. Even the Klingons, now a staple of pop culture, began as an allegory for the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. That sort of allegory would slip past the censors, giving Star Trek the meatier hook that fans have embraced for half a century.
After Star Trek went off the air in 1969 due to low ratings, it became syndicated and played on TV for years in reruns. It took on a life of its own and became more popular than ever, with people responding to its message more and more. A decade after its cancellation, Star Trek returned with a big screen continuation called Star Trek: The Motion Picture, shepherded to the screen by Roddenberry as a producer. It was a far cry from the television show that people fell in love with. The action adventure, and even the many interpersonal conflicts between crew members, was largely absent. In its place was a much more sterile and cerebral effort. It had a lot of great ideas, but even Star Trek fans will often admit that it feels like a boring film. This all-but ended Roddenberry’s involvement in the Star Trek films. The series returned a few years later with the now-iconic film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but Roddenberry had little say in it or the films to follow.
The success of the film franchise did, however, allow Roddenberry to return to Star Trek. In 1987, the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, starring Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard and a whole new crew of characters, launched into syndication. Like The Motion Picture, the action adventure of the original show and even the subsequent movies were largely absent. By this time, Roddenberry was fully committed to telling stories with a message. That message had evolved from the core idea that the future was a better place. Now, that better future involved a lack of interpersonal conflict between the characters. Everyone generally agreed with one another. Diplomacy was at the forefront of the series. Captain Picard was always one to talk about a problem, whereas Kirk would often shoot at it. If 23rd century Star Trek had the western frontier spirit of 18th and 19th centuries, then the 24th century of The Next Generation could be seen as a reflection of the global diplomatic community of the 20th century.
By the time of The Next Generation, Roddenberry talked a lot more about his vision for humanity. His ideas for the future were much more important to him. The world hyped Star Trek as this awesome vehicle for societal influence, and in some ways it seemed like Roddenberry bought into that perhaps a bit too much. He started the franchise as a working screenwriter with a pitch that he believed in. He brought it back to the small screen as someone on a mission to espouse a philosophy. There was nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does serve as an important reminder: in talking about what Roddenberry wanted, fans would do well to remember that what Roddenberry wanted evolved over time, and there are clear differences between the original show and The Next Generation as a result of that. By the time of his death in 1991, there were three incarnations of Star Trek—the original show, the six films with the original cast, and The Next Generation. Each one embraced the fundamental philosophy of how humanity could be better, but each one did so in different ways.
Audiences Change, Star Trek Should Change With It
When The Next Generation first launched, its initial offerings were shaky at best. The show seemed like it had no idea what it wanted to be, with some of its initial episodes based on the original show and others that just seemed lacking in any sort of captivating story at all. Many of the show’s writers felt constrained by the edicts that Roddenberry passed onto them. Not the ideas of a better humanity, of course, but the idea that there could be no conflict between the crew. Dramatic storytelling is based around conflict, and the writers remembered how there was often conflict between the crew on the original show. The often-emotional approach of Dr. McCoy frequently clashed with the logic of Mr. Spock, with Captain Kirk in the middle figuring it all out. The writers wondered, why couldn’t The Next Generation have characters like that too? Just because human society can evolve away from war and tearing itself apart doesn’t mean that interpersonal conflict or disagreements go away.
Without interpersonal conflict, the writers were left to figure out an “alien of the week” formula in which the conflict always came from the outside. Some new threat had to arise each week that would allow for conflict, and each new character and threat had to be compelling and captivating in their own right. Otherwise, the audience wouldn’t buy into the drama on the screen. For two seasons, this formula wasn’t particularly successful from a critical standpoint. These were the less-well received seasons of the show’s seven-year run, and the writers felt like they had to move somewhat away from what Roddenberry wanted.
Luckily, the nature of the television audience at the time was much more forgiving. There were fewer shows on the air to choose from, so audiences kept tuning in. Whereas audiences now will barely give a show two episodes before tuning out and trying something else, audiences gave The Next Generation two full years to figure itself out and begin righting its course. By the third season, Roddenberry, whose health had started to decline, was less involved in the show. Rick Berman and Michael Piller became the primary producers, and Berman went on to oversee all incarnations of Star Trek until the cancellation of Star Trek: Enterprise in 2005. The Next Generation largely stuck to the idea of little conflict between the crew, but the show found new creative footing by exploring new types of dramatic storytelling with more compelling stories about how the crew dealt with outside threats and situations. The show found its voice.
The success of The Next Generation led the producers to think about expanding the franchise with more television shows. Of course, television was evolving at the time. Star Trek also had to evolve, both because of the changing landscape and because they couldn’t have multiple shows doing the same thing. Berman felt that the next series couldn’t be about another starship exploring the galaxy, because that’s what The Next Generation and the original show were about. That sparked the launch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, set on a space station near the edge of Federation space.
Deep Space Nine, which became more serialized as time went on, explored ideas that Roddenberry might have balked at. The religion of the planet Bajor, a major setting for the series, was an integral part of the show. Benjamin Sisko, the commander and later captain of the Deep Space Nine space station, became the Emissary, a key religious figure in the Bajoran faith. He had a link to beings that lived in a wormhole, who the Bajorans worshiped as the Prophets. Would Roddenberry, a noted atheist, have gone for this? The later seasons of the show also saw the Federation go to war with a force known as the Dominion. Even though the war was instigated by Dominion hostility, would Roddenberry have approved of humanity being involved in a major galactic war, or would he have told stories about a diplomatic resolution to the conflict? Even the very nature of the United Federation of Planets itself was explored, showing less-than-honorable forces inside of it ensuring that the peaceful utopia that Earth created could live on. Surely Roddenberry would not have approved of such actions being carried out by humans.
The next two shows, Star Trek: Voyager and the prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise, also told new kinds of stories, but still within the same basic non-serialized format. Voyager told a story about a crew that was stranded on the other side of the galaxy and their long journey home, and it often had an action bent to it as they confronted threats in unknown space. Enterprise was very much like The Next Generation at first, and audiences didn’t respond as well to it. It was a tired concept at that point. Even its serialized story in the third season, with a war against a species intent on destroying Earth, couldn’t save it, despite an uptick in the quality of its episodes. Unlike The Next Generation, Enterprise aired in a television environment that was less forgiving if a show couldn’t find itself from the beginning. In the end, Enterprise was cancelled after its fourth season, and the only new on-screen Star Trek content since then has been the feature film series started by J.J. Abrams.
Embrace the Core Tenets in New Ways
Now that a new Star Trek series is on the way, the creative team behind it has to ask an important question: is this new show for the fans, or is it for all audiences? The writers are going to have to find a way to balance both. Though Roddenberry himself had different ideas about what Star Trek should be at different times, fans have come to accept a certain style of Star Trek. There are themes, tones, and ideas that are part of the fabric of Star Trek now, and the new show has to embrace those. At the same time, they also have to do it in a way that’s appealing to a larger audience. This is an audience that has a lot of shows to choose from, and Star Trek is going to have to have a fun hook right off the bat in order to suck them in. That’s all the more important considering Star Trek will air on a streaming platform, where audiences will have to pay to sign up for the service and watch the show. CBS is being smart and airing the pilot on television before the rest of the episodes are released online. If audiences respond well to the pilot, there’s a much better chance that they’ll subscribe for the rest of the show.
Hooking the audience means balancing the themes and ideas of Star Trek with adventure. Perhaps the way to do that is to look back to the original show, to see how Star Trek was always a fun space adventure that had important stories to tell. By the time of The Next Generation, Roddenberry arguably put the importance of his message above telling a fun story. He lost the balance between the two that he achieved on the first show, and while The Next Generation has since become a beloved television series, it’s not the right framework for an audience in 2017.
Because of that, the new creative team has to move Star Trek beyond Roddenberry in some respects and avoid asking what he would have wanted, as the last few Star Trek shows have done. Take a look at the recent success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens as an example. George Lucas had ideas about what he wanted the new film to be, but Lucasfilm went in another direction. That decision was wildly successful, as the film embraced the basics of what made Star Wars great in the first place. The literary idea of “death of the author” came into effect—unlike Roddenberry, Lucas isn’t literally dead, but figuratively he as the author of Star Wars has moved on. Post-Lucas authors have to do what’s best for new audiences and new Star Wars stories, rather than holding onto what Lucas wanted.
Star Trek can do the same thing. To be successful, the new show has to embrace the core ideas: humanity is good, it’s worth saving, and the embracing of the philosophy of “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations” can help create a better world for future generations. With that as its guide, the new Star Trek series and future films can tell stories that shine a light on the issues of our day and that resonate for years to come—all while giving us fun adventures at the same time.
Something tells me Gene Roddenberry would approve.