The evolution of Star Trek

archielady recently picked up How William Shatner Changed the World, and having lmao’d she watched it again with me. It was fairly amusing, although pretty largely devoid of anything more than entertainment value. A serious documentary it was not.

But the central concept of the documentary did intrigue me. The idea is that the original Star Trek presented a world where technology was friendly and helpful. By imagining powerful technologies and making them seem friendly, he argued that Star Trek inspired people to be interested in technology, and then used the fictional models provided by Star Trek for their implementations.

Tied in with this was the argument that DS9 was less successful than TNG because the technology in DS9 was alien, rather than human, and prone to malfunction. You can imagine that the Borg got a pretty downbeat mention too.

The first thing which occurred to me once I grasped his basic point was: did he ever actually watch TOS? The various Enterprise gadgets were invariably death-traps, as ably parodied in the penultimate action sequence in GalaxyQuest. Transporter Accidents, Homicidal computers… basically the only device which was harmless in the original show was the Corbomite. TNG continued very much in this vein, so much so that at times it seemed as if half the problems encountered by the crew were caused by their own ship!

So I couldn’t put too much stock in Shatner’s theory. The periodic malfunctions in technology on DS9 seem entirely in keeping up the Star Trek tradition.

But DS9 was widely divergent from its predecessors in a lot of other ways. The most obvious is that the station doesn’t actually go anywhere. This lead to a great parody of the TOS voice-over intro. “To boldly sit, where no man has sat before.” And generally people responded to Voyager as a return to the point of Star Trek. This more-or-less static environment did allow for a range of beneficial side effects. The most prominent of which is that problems which arose on the show needed to be solved, and had on-going effects. When the Enterprise encounters some civilization in dire straits, it does it’s thing for an episode and then all is forgotten. Not so with DS9. What I’m talking about here is simply continuity being more important.

The original Enterprise was supposed to be a cultural melting pot. We saw people of each different colour on the command staff. And yet, aside from period nods such as Uhuru’s singing, there isn’t actually much to demonstrate a different cultural background for each crew member. Chekhov has a Russian accent: but he has essentially the same socio-poltical identity as Kirk. Spock, the alien, got the most comprehensive cultural treatment and I suppose that’s because the idea of exploring alien cultures appealed to a SF writing team.

TNG did an even poorer job with its humans. Picard, for example, is the English-accented Frenchman. Nobody else even has a nominal cultural heritage. Again, the alien, Worf, reaps all the backstory exploration time. DS9 not only has a variety of different coloured people, but utilizes their cultural backgrounds. Of course, the aliens in the crew do still get more time than the humans, but it is often obvious that certain cultural factors are in play. Such as Bashir and O’Brien endlessly re-fighting the Battle of Britain, or Sisko’s frequent culinary outbursts.

TOS and TNG were also comparatively unkind to their women folk. In TOS we have only Uhuru to represent women, and her basic function is to repeat stuff she’s heard on the communications link. I don’t recall any time when she makes an actual decision or has much of an actual story impact. But it was the 1960s, we could forgive that. TNG however is much less aware of half our population. In the original lineup we have 3 command staff as women. Tasha Yar starts out as a strong female character, but is quickly killed off. Dr Crusher is basically a yes-woman, and pretty dull. And Deanna Troi is just pathetic. Not only is her basic function to state obvious emotional conditions (“Captain, those klingons who are attacking is? They’re angry.”) but her uniform is pretty explicitly changed from the standard uniform to emphasize her sexual characteristics. Yay, we have one woman on the Bridge, who is basically eye-candy.

DS9 has a marginally better ratio, but the characters are much stronger. Dax and Kira are never really relegated to the sidelines. But strikingly, both have a sexual life without becoming sexual objects to the writers. Finally in DS9 we see relationships move beyond the innuendo and flirtation stages, while not allowing the relationships to become the major mode of identification for the characters! I can’t be the only person who was annoyed by the obvious Riker-Troi sideshow?

For me however, the most satisfactory change in DS9 was the treatment of the characters’ whole lives. On the Enterprise everyone is essentially Starfleet, which is analogous to “military personnel”. While DS9 still retains a military emphasis and overtone the station environment is conducive to more general home-life stories of a civilian population. I think this is most prominently shown in the different handling of the family units. TNG is ostensibly a family show: we have a mother-son team in the command staff. But let’s be honest here: there’s not much of an investigation or exploration of this dynamic. It was just a convenient way of getting a kid onto the set for the young audience.

But in comparison, almost half the crew of DS9 have families that are frequently seen in the show. The O’Briens, Quark & Rom, the Siskos. Moreover, these family relationships actually affect the characters! In TNG when Beverly leaves for Season 2 or 3, Wesley just moves on, essentially. But a huge amount of what the DS9 characters do is driven by their family relationships. Jake Sisko is pretty clearly one of the most important things in Ben’s life: there is no way you could miss that impact.

Reviewing William Shatner’s bold assertion about technology, I am instead left with some disturbing counter-conclusions. Rather than technology, people have been turned off by continuity, by the presence of strong female characters, and the inclusion of families. All of these things make DS9 much less of a teenage boy escapist fantasy in which girls are just for looks and there are no consequences to your actions: it is a show for grown-ups.

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2 Responses to The evolution of Star Trek

  1. jarratt_gray says:

    DS9 was the only Trek show I ever really got into. TNG just annoyed me silly. It wasn’t a world or a journey I could be interested in. Now DS9 wasn’t perfect. early on it suffered from episodic programming and a case of not actually knowing what it was doing. It wanted to break the mold of previous ST adventures but the writers and producers didn’t know it yet.

    In the end it started exploring a much grander story, the likes of B5 and because of higher production values, people that could act and people that could write it turned out better in many ways. B5 is more original, DS9 is more political and they both have serious flaws. I always kind of wanted that Sci-Fi show that was in the middle somewhere – good special effects, strong writing, acting and direction and and definite sense of the overall story – not to mention a really interesting one.

    BSG is pretty close to that program but it doesn’t have the dynamic of several alien species living together or the possibility of multiple wars. It is essentially two races going at each other and some interesting political and military intrigue. Still production values, acting writing and strong sense of story are all there.

    • mashugenah says:

      I was enthralled by BSG season 1. It was some of the best TV I watched that year (albeit, on DVD). But it was not without its flaws. Primarily, I started to feel like the characterization was breaking down for some. There didn’t seem to be a consistent dynamic between the President and Adama, for example. And Starbuck just started to seem too cool… almost every episode seemed to be “how can we make Starbuck look cool.”

      The part of the show I enjoyed most was the stuff going on with Helo and pseudo-Boomer back on Earth (or wherever)… and I was a bit annoyed in the almost deus ex machina way that sub-plot was curtailed.

      YMMV, obviously. But from my seat, it seemed like there was a writer working on a whole bunch of good stuff that none of the rest of the team were tuned into. One of the great strengths of B5 was that since JMS wrote almost all of it, everything was consistent. Joss Whedon exercised a lot of control over his Buffy scriptwriters which helped the consistency of that show. But particularly in Angel, I found the personality of Angel almost perfectly maleable to suit the particular episode premise…

      Which is all a bit tangential. 🙂

      I am now writing another post about the relationship between arc and episodic TV styles which will address some of your other points.

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