Sunday, 13 March 2016

Star Trek is dead; long live Star Trek

People often ask me ‘Star Wars or Star Trek?’. That’s like choosing between bacon and sausages. Star Wars is without a doubt a big part of my life - I grew up worshiping spaceships, and the people behind them. I loved the world building, the myriad different places and people, the way anyone could be seen as a background character and suddenly have Timothy Zahn write an entire novel about them. That freedom of space travel, of the way characters had a ship and did whatever they wanted with it. It was magic.

But Star Trek is a-whole-nother animal. It’s a system of beliefs, an idea - an ideal - that changed my perspective on people, places and even Star Wars. And let me tell you why.

At the heart of Star Trek you have its ideals. It started off in 1966 as a show where people in the far-flung future had already outgrown petty things like race, gender, age, ability. Instead you had this wonderful notion that people could just be themselves and not try to get along despite their differences, but work together brilliantly because of their differences. There was a spaceship, and aliens who either just wanted to be understood or just wanted the humans to understand themselves. There was a firm triangle of command and support - Kirk, Spock and Bones are legendary. Just one year after over 500 non-violent civil rights marchers were attacked by law enforcement officers while trying to defend the need for African American voting rights, here was a show that had a black person on the bridge in a pivotal position - and a female one, at that. It had an alien crew member as part of the trusted three, in an age where Communist witch hunts and ‘they’re not like us’ arguments were rife. And, bearing that last point in mind, it had a Russian on the bridge, and a Japanese character. Star Trek was indeed pushing the envelope, in terms of what it could get away with and what it needed to get across. It was life-changing, while at the same time reassuring; if the the top two blokes in command could do what they did, if the crew around them supported and followed them because of their actions, why couldn’t real life do the same?

So it boils down to the two basic ideals that made Star Trek what it is: that the universe is full of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, put against the backdrop of the Prime Directive. Simply put, everyone is and should be free to be whatever they are, but at the same time, it’s not for you to interfere if you think they’re doing it wrong. And that, my friends, is what the 2010s are all about. We have stories of ‘gay marriage’ (otherwise known as ‘marriage’) causing controversy all over the world. We have stories of transgender people becoming more and more important and apparent in media. We still have problems with people of colour getting or keeping acting roles. More people are protesting at the inequalities of this life we’ve made for ourselves, and due to social media platforms they are getting heard. ‘The twenty-first century is when everything changes’, as Jack Harkness was fond of saying. But changes into what?

I could go into the Donald Trumps of this world, and how they are throwing us back into the Dark Ages. I could say that everything he is doing, and stirring up in one of the most financially influential countries on the planet, is tantamount to kicking Gene Roddenberry and his like-minded crew in the balls wearing hobnail boots. But I won’t. Instead I’ll say he has to be stopped - whether that means letting people vote him in as President, and thereby giving him enough rope to hang himself so he’s voted out or impeached; or just trusting that the average American is the product of how Obama has left the country a better place, and will reject Trump as the factually racist, misogynist and downright harmful person he is.

Does this make Star Trek less important? No. It makes Star Trek more needed than ever. People still need that vision of What Could Be; every person, no matter what colour or gender, needs something to believe in. In 1966, Nichelle Nicholls received fan mail from little girls of colour who were just stoked to see someone like themselves on TV. Famously, Whoopi Goldberg saw her and was so excited she shouted through the house to her mother “Come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!

As far as other kinds of social norms go, Star Trek gave us one of the first interracial kisses on TV (after the ITV show ‘You in Your Small Corner’ showed Lloyd Reckord and Elizabeth MacLennan kissing in 1962). The episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ showed Kirk and Uhura educating viewers as to what had been going on for hundreds of years with no ill effects, and yet made a percentage of the filming crew and audience squeamish. With Shatner and Nicholl’s judicious sabotage of alternative versions, the scene was not only shot but got through - and it challenged people. The Next Generation gave us a body swap and gender issue in the case of the Trill with whom the doctor falls in love, in season four’s ‘The Host’. It fell short of the obvious answer the audience was rooting for, but for 1991, it wasn’t bad in the knocking on the glass ceiling department. It was a story line that was pretty much retackled and fixed by the Deep Space Nine episode ‘Rejoined’, aired in 1995, where Dax has to work with Kahn, a scientist - and her wife in a previous life. The first (but not last) lesbian kiss in Star Trek was met with anger, backlashes and utter regression. But in the same way as the Star Trek episode ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’, all it did was bring something that people do every day into the limelight - and letting people know it’s ok.

What I’m saying is, Star Trek is more relevant now than ever before. People (including children) need to see how things could be, how they can make the world better. I’m old, and I’m jaded, but even I believe anything is possible after watching a Star Trek movie (an even numbered one - or an odd numbered one if it’s one of the 2009+ reboots).

With a new series apparently in development, I have high hopes for how they will cast and write it. After all, in 2016, you have a huge responsibility. You have to have an idea of who your demographic is and what they need from it, and in the same way as Whoopi Goldberg gets to see a ‘black lady’ on TV, you have to be representative of the planet. A genderfluid Captain maybe, as someone who’s got their life together and accepts what they are - and so does everyone else. The heterosexual crew being in the minority, as gay, bisexual and omnisexual crew members just quietly get on with their lives without their sexuality being their defining trait. The offset of (identifying) male-female split more true to the planet (i.e. 51% are actually female). Remember that shot of the Enterprise crew members from Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979?

More of that, and less of JJ Abrams / network / studio nagging and worrying over how they’re not going to make money because they’re not doing exactly the same as last time.

Star Trek is about moving forward, about breaking new ground, about shining a light on things that are wrong with our world by playing out a metaphor on another. So let’s do that again; let’s have a new crew, a new ship, a way of working through what’s wrong with the planet and making people aware of how they are the first point of call to effect change.

At time of writing, I’m hopeful for the new series. We have Bryan Fuller (who gave us the DS9 episodes ‘Empok Nor’ and the stellar ‘The Darkness and the Light’, before going onto Voyager) and Nicholas Meyer (who gave us the screenplays for Star Trek II, IV and VI - otherwise known as three of the four best Star Trek movies) attached to the presently unnamed new show. Time will tell what they do with it, but I’m wishing and hoping they actually break ground, as Enterprise completely failed to do. The network there even backed off from showing an interspecies romance several times - and that was as vanilla as it could have been as they were human and Vulcan, and heterosexual. The aliens and wars used were nothing we hadn’t seen before, and it seemed that many of the episodes just simply finished instead of gearing up for something greater.

All I want is to move forward. I await the new show with great anticipation - but part of me is already steeling myself for disappointment. If they can pull something out of the bag - the next Farscape, Mr Robot, or Agent Carter, then I’ll be happy. But it has to be something new - after all, that’s Star Trek.

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