To boldly go: A roundtable on Star Trek
Playtime and Star Trek
This month is sci-fi month at Playtime in honor of the release of J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise. Playtime staff and collaborators sat down to have a chat on their favorite and formative Trek memories, as well as their reaction to the latest film.
What was your first Star Trek series, and who/what introduced you to it?
David Jordan: TOS. My dad has been a fan of ST since the show originally aired and as such I was exposed to it at a very young age.
Adam K: [The same as David], except that my dad saw it during its 70s syndication. He became an aerospace engineer, and I have no doubt that TOS contributed to his educational decisions. I imagine I probably saw either Wrath of Khan or The Voyage Home or both at the same time as TV reruns of TOS, but certainly that series had made its impact before I became aware of TNG.
Tracy McCusker: My first Star Trek series was TNG; I started watching when I was four years old. My mother grew up with TOS, and had been a science-fiction fan for most of her life; she watched TNG as it aired, and I would watch it with her… and bug her incessantly, since… four.
Matt Schneider: I don’t remember what Star Trek series was my first. I know that I saw several original series episodes when I was very young. In fact, I seem to recall seeing an animated version of “The Trouble with Tribbles,” but I don’t remember if I had any impression of it beyond the desire to have a Tribble of my own one day. Over the years, I know that I saw episodes of TNG here and there, and generally misunderstood what the hell was going on. (I was a Star Wars kid.) The first ST series I watched with any regularity at all was DS9, but I kind of failed at that. Nobody in particular introduced me to Star Trek, though one of my uncles bought me an original series trivia board game for Christmas once. Since I hadn’t seen much of the series at the time, it sat in my closet gathering dust for many years.
I can say that my partiality toward Star Trek probably started when I saw Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home on TV as an adolescent. It was goofy fun, and as a result, I’ve always liked the movies. As I got older and moved away to college, I somehow found that the science fiction that was popular was usually stupid or undercooked. I kept catching glimpses of the syndicated reruns on TV, and began to appreciate some of the more resonant themes and undercurrents in the shows. When I met Ellen, her enthusiasm for and knowledge of the show was quite infectious, and I’d have to say that I finally outright fell in love with the franchise because of her influence, although my admiration had already entrenched itself.
Brian Jewell: Like Matt, I vaguely remember seeing reruns of the original show when I was a kid, but TNG is really my first series. I had friends who were into it, so I started watching it. It was a good time to discover the show, because it was still airing but it was in syndication too, so you could watch it six nights a week.
Alex M: I’ve only seen the majority of one Star Trek series and even then I haven’t watched that one to the end. That’s TNG. [...] Star Trek TNG is probably the first American TV show I watched religious as a teenager.
Daniel Swensen: I grew up with the original series on reruns in the Seventies, and my memories of it to this day are only hazy recollections — the goofy-yet-terrifying Horta, the electronic heartbeat of the Enterprise’s medical machines, the mysterious creatures floating in space just beyond the viewscreen. I’ve rarely revisited the original series, though I still think of it fondly.
There was actually a very long gap between when I became a Trek fan and when I got around to noticing some of Trek’s more complex themes. Even in the TNG years, my interests were in the adolescent aspects of Trek — high adventure, phasers, technophilia, things exploding. While I find the Trek shows to often be thoughtful, they’re still mostly limited by their medium — at the end of the episode, everything will be back to normal, no matter what difficult revelation or epiphany some character came to.
Mostly, I grew up with the movies: Wrath of Khan’s spring-tight retelling of Moby Dick, the sheer fun of Voyage Home, the gap-bridging Undiscovered Country. There was a beautiful couple of years in the early 90s when we had multiple Trek series going at the same time, plus the movies. Characters were meeting each other, Undiscovered Country was passing the torch, and for awhile Trek was like this medium-spanning mega-narrative — a brief candle, but I loved it.
What is your favorite Star Trek series, and why?
Adam: TNG had been on for a few years before I got to it, but its seemingly wider sociopolitical scope and range of characters was intriguing. Picard is a kind of anti-Kirk, Data a continuation of Spock’s Otherness, Geordi, Worf, and Beverly more ethnic and gender diversity. Q and the Borg were the coolest villains since Khan, and eventually TNG, the way having been paved by TOS, had several more years than its predecessor to establish emotional connections and rounded characters to the point of “All Good Things…” being genuinely dramatic and epoch-ending.
David Jordan: TOS — mostly due to nostalgia, but we shouldn’t forget that this was the show to ‘start it all’; yes, there were still misogynistic elements that tainted things, but considering when the show aired it cannot be ignored that it was a rather major social statement. Looking back now, many episodes with one or more social messages do seem rather contrived and cheesy but they still seem poignant regardless.
Tracy: Tough to for me to say either way. For the longest time, my answer would have unfailingly been TNG–for reasons of nostalgia and because I enjoyed the philosophical content of the show. However, I’ve come to enjoy the staginess, long scenes, act structure, and political allegories of TOS. The contest is close. If I go by what series I’ll pop into the DVD player after a long day — TOS. If I go by oldest and first love — TNG.
Brian: Definitely TNG. An excellent ensemble with some great characters, lots of good stories, not as silly as the original show, and of course it takes me back to hanging out with my college buddies and watching the 11:00 reruns.
I think whatever had been my first series would have been my one and only, because all the Trek series that I’ve seen have been kind of stilted, and I got tired of that quality. To me the archetypal Trek scene is a bunch of people sitting and staring at computer screens. One person calmly says, “We’re going to explode in ten seconds,” and then someone else calmly says, “Rerouting power through the framistat to compensate,” and then the captain says, “Well, that’s all right then.” It’s great that there’s no prejudice in the future, but there isn’t much dramatic tension either.
One of the interesting things about TNG is that it’s one of very few TV shows that kept getting better and better. By the time they got to the sixth season, they had kind of exhausted the premise. That’s usually the point when TV shows start to suck mightily, but TNG had a burst of invention and confidence in its last years. There are some really fantastic episodes from this period, like “Schisms,” “Starship Mine,” “Gambit,” “A Fistful of Datas,” “Phantasms” and “Lower Decks.”
Matt: Deep Space Nine is my favorite by far (and one of my favorite shows, period), and probably because it’s the only one I’ve seen from beginning to end. That’s the probable reason. The reason I’d prefer to give (even if it’s not as accurate) is that it’s simply more interesting. The original series and TNG are fine; they have some very well-written episodes, and the actors all carved out distinctive niches for themselves. There are many pleasures to be had. But DS9 really paid attention to larger story arcs, the evolution of character dynamics over the course of the series, and frequently questioned its own legacy, often with stunning results. A way I like to describe the show is “lived in.” When I went back and watched the entire series again in the last few years, it achieved a remarkable feat: making me feel as if watching an episode was like paying a visit to a second home. The station had its own rhythms and “ecosystem” of a sort; it was familiar and comfortable, even though there were some major changes that occurred. Not every great show should be comfortable and familiar. Some a great because they constantly upend the status quo and keep the viewer dizzy. But DS9 was frequently challenging and comfortable; sometimes it was challenging because the underlying assumptions about the status quo were revealed to be a little more insidious than you’d care to think about.
Of course, I also loved the characters. I was on the verge of tears for a good couple hours after finishing the last episode, because I felt like I was saying goodbye to old, dear friends. The show didn’t always know quite what to do with its characters, but I don’t think there were any truly bad characters in there. Almost everything about the people and the stories had a good idea behind them, even if they weren’t quite pulled off.
Dan: Though I have a great fondness for the first three Trek serials, Deep Space Nine will always be my favorite, if only because it questioned the basic concepts Trek had been sailing on for decades. Though TNG eventually grew to greatness in its own right, its first season or two suffered a bit from some of Roddenberry’s Utopian ideals. In the Trek writer’s guide, Roddenberry clearly stated that “the crew always gets along,” because in the Utopian future, interpersonal conflict had become a thing of the past. (This later led to some severe disillusionment among some of Trek’s early writers, including Melinda M. Snodgrass, who summed up her dislike of Trek’s new direction in one sentence: “It takes a godlike being to catch a godlike being.”)
Deep Space Nine effectively put the boots to the argument that in the future, the human race will have eliminated poverty, disease, war, greed, discrimination, and short-sightedness. The characters of DS9 are deeply flawed, the situations often grim and messy (by Trek standards anyway). Although I adore the boundless optimism of TNG, I sometimes found something a little smug about the way the characters comported themselves — constructing elaborate, decadent holodeck fantasies, listening to classical music, fetishizing Shakespeare to beyond endurance and muttering about “bettering themselves.” I find something oddly Victorian about the whole thing in large doses — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I find the scruffier approach of DS9 far more suited to my personal taste.
There’s an episode of TNG where Wesley falls into a box of plants and is going to be executed, because they’re on Planet Wacky Laws! What’s Picard’s solution? He just beams the fuck out of there. I’ve got your moral superiority right here! Compare that to “In the Pale Moonlight,” a much-lauded episode of DS9 where the Federation must ally themselves with the Romulans in order to have a chance to win the Dominion War — essentially, they have to abandon Federation values in order to preserve them. Which, in the age of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, might seem like small potatoes, but I think that DS9 helped pave the way for the more cynical, complex science-fiction stories we’re seeing today.
Most of all, though, I think DS9 sent an important message about our future — that even if we do create a Utopia, we still may have to fight to preserve it — either on the field of battle, or within our own moral centers.
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