What is the Appeal of Star Trek?

Saturday , 28, October 2017 25 Comments

A cool guy who didn’t take the franchise too seriously.

I pride myself on being able to understand the fandom for various media despite not caring for them.  I despise Stranger Things, but I see why others like it.  I don’t hate Star Trek, and have even liked some of its properties, yet I have never understood how it becomes such a beloved, enormous franchise.  And damn have I tried!  Time and again as a kid, teen, and adult I have watched the various series and movies, and read a few of the novelizations, desperate to figure out its allure.  I haven’t succeeded, although I’ve developed a few theories.

So indulge me, dear reader, as I, a long-time science fiction fan try to understand what the hell people are so enamored with in Star Trek;


Perhaps it’s as simple as an intricate, complex universe?  An adventurous, intriguing vision of the future?  Most books merely try to build a single world, but Star Trek has endless ones at its disposal!

And yet, as I started reading, I quickly grew disappointed.  Take the economy, for instance.  A work like Dune, while not focusing on it, expertly weaved a subplot of the riches the spice promised, the wealth House Harkonnen had amassed, the money required to pay the Space Guild that even the Emperor bowed to, etc.

Star Trek dispenses with this very easily, however.  There IS no money.  Instead, there is a magic box that gives a person anything he desires.  If a 14 year-old wrote a science fiction story like that on his blog, he would be chided for not putting forth any thought or effort.  What is the incentive to work in this society?  To build or create?  Are there any commercial companies?  Perhaps these are answered in some Star Trek franchise, but not in the main ones I’ve perused.

These magic boxes are given by the Federation to anyone who joins and swears loyalty to them, which brings us to the sociopolitical aspects of the series.  The Federation, a globalist, or perhaps “universalist” entity, is a fundamentally benevolent force.  Its leaders are wise and virtuous, it treats its members fairly, and any abnormalities within their ranks are usually minor and quickly quelled.  No government in human history has been as bland, black-and-white, or good as the Federation.

Even the aliens are poorly done.  For all its limitless worlds, the number of alien races that truly matter in Star Trek is small.  And there is limited variability within them, as one Klingon behaves very similarly to another.  Furthermore, these fundamental alien character types would be considered too thin for a comic strip.

Not only is there little thought put into the Star Trek universe, but it’s dull and colorless, as opposed to brimming with adventure.

The Series 

Perhaps it’s the shows themselves, as opposed to the world-building, that capture the imagination of fans?  The original series followed a simple formula; Shatner, Nimoy, and the rest of the crew would visit a planet, which had an unusual society.  Inevitably, they would be in grave peril, so a silly Federation rule (the Prime Directive) was made up for why they couldn’t use their more advanced technology to get out of scrapes.  Lazy deus ex machina writing aside, the original show wasn’t bad, especially for its time.  There were occasionally some creative ideas, the acting wasn’t poor by television standards, and there was the sheer novelty of a science fiction show during the 1960s.

Nevertheless, I don’t see what anyone was excited about, either.   The writing, at its best, was inferior to the short stories of a middling science fiction author. (In the 60s, not now!)  The action and effects are cheap and hokey.  Most of all, why was anyone impressed with Star Trek when The Twilight Zone had come out seven whole years earlier?  It had vastly superior ideas and writing, many in a science fiction setting.  Why did the popularity of this series endure when similar quality shows that were around for 3 seasons got no more than an occasional reference?

Maybe it was the newer shows?  Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, the acting and effects are better.  And instead of visiting a planet each episode, they take a more general approach. Some episodes involve contact with other ships and their crew.  Some concern an astronomical phenomena.  Or a time loop.  Others are insular, dealing with the crew or the holodeck.  And yet, while the characters are better, the stories are worse.  The explanation for a mysterious event is usually pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, a meaningless combination of scientific-sounding terms, which never fails to disappoint. When there is no mysterious event (take the various episodes with Data, Worf and the Klingons, the romances of the crew members, etc.) the morale is childishly, insultingly simple and patronizing.  Again, the directors and cast members do their best with the material, and like the original, it’s a decent enough show.  But to the point where it spawned an entire subculture?  I’m not seeing it.

The only other Star Trek television series I’ve tried watching was Voyager.  Unlike the previous two, this one is absolute trash.  That it somehow endured for 7 seasons speaks to the unshakable loyalty of the fans.

The Movies

Maybe it was the movies after the original series?  This seemed initially likely, as I consider Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan a damn good film and my single favorite work within the franchise.  It’s fast-paced, exciting, with a decent enough story.  There is no empty philosophizing or scientific mumbo jumbo, just good, hearty, swash-buckling adventure.  In fact, it’s the only Star Trek property that truly captures the sheer fun of adventures set in space. Even the subplots, like Kirk’s aging contrasted with his unquenched thirst for exploration, are done well and unobtrusively to the main story.

And yet, good as it is, it appears to be an anomaly.  The other movies with the original cast feature generic, dull scripts with a bigger budget, but worse writing than some of the episodes of the show.  Nor do they have the fast pace and adventure of the second installment.

The couple of movies I watched with The Next Generation cast were awful.  Having nothing in common with the series, they’re big, loud, rote 90’s style blockbusters with lousy action and no ingenuity, not even in the set pieces or effects.

And the JJ Abrams 2009 reboot?  I was laughing in the theater at how idiotic certain scenes were.  Only, instead of being a comedy, it was intended to be dead serious and even emotional.


What, then, is the appeal?  I think it might have to do with Star Trek offering a vast, but ultimately simple world.  There is a lot of trivia and minutia, but understanding its fundamental nature takes a few minutes.  The Federation is good.  The Borg are bad. Thus, it feels nice and familiar, especially for those who don’t read science fiction.  This seems reflected in the shows, which rarely feature any running storyline, and use the same formula from one episode to another.  One will never be intellectually taxed, but can feel they learned something from the complex-sounding terms and solutions.  Or the movies, which are loud, empty special effects extravaganzas which the fandom can cheer and enjoy with friends.  Perhaps what I consider dull, bland, and simplistic is essential to its popularity?

What say you, gentle reader?  Feel free to offer your views below, including the various details I likely got wrong.

  • Mr Tines says:

    Count me as equally bewildered.

    I saw a scattering of the original series in the late ’60s/early ’70s, and while it was at times good, it didn’t on the average even match up to Doctor Who. The animated series wasn’t bad as Saturday morning cartoons went — that even had an adaptation of Niven’s The Soft Weapon for one episode.

    As for Next Gen, I’d heard enough about that to have no interest in seeing that before the chance could even have arisen — there being a 3 year delay between US and UK airings.

  • David says:

    Part of its continuing success is the regularity of its structure. Everyone can tune into an episode and understand the interactions of the crew based on their rank/position. It is comfortable and familiar.

    Someone randomly changing the channel and finding an episode of Firefly is going to need to put in mental effort to figure out what half those people are doing on that spaceship. Captain, pilot, doctor and mechanic, yes easily grokked. Preacher, courtesian, crazy girl…not as easy.

  • Frank Luke says:

    I like Trek a lot. Probably more than I should. However, I will never watch STD or anything set in the Abrams timeline.

    I started watching ST:TNG in sixth grade, when it first came out. I enjoyed the action and didn’t give to much thought to how hard is the scifi. Then the station started running STOS late at night. I begged my mother to record them and then watched them the next evening. I read the novels. I watched the movies. And I loved STOS so much more than ST:TNG.


    Some of the themes they built into the episodes were fantastic. Some were not (the less said about the space amoeba, the better). The question of Bread and Circuses about what if Christianity had gone into hiding in the Roman empire instead of Constantine converting? What would the world look like centuries later? (They never gave a reason as to why Christianity didn’t take hold in that episode, but that wasn’t the point.)

    But more to me was the adventure and the swashbuckling of the OS. Every episode, a new planet with new problems and Kirk’s bravado, Spock’s logic, and McCoy’s heartfelt emotion to save the day. At one time, pre-Internet (I bet you could find it online these days easily), I tried to make a list of Kirk’s women.

    That’s why I loved it and still watch the OS episodes: Swashbuckling adventure.

  • JD Cowan says:

    I enjoy a few of the original movies and what I’ve seen of Deep Space Nine. That’s about it.

    The franchise doesn’t really do anything for me.

  • LD says:

    Star Tek came out during a time when there was little else of as much easy access around, and so, like many of those older properties, it cemented its place in popular culture.

    Also, it’s pretty much tailor-made for stupid people to pretend they’re “smart and sophisticated” for watching it; Cause it’s all about “the science” and “profound commentaries on social issues”, dontcha know…

  • I saw the original as a kid, so of course there’s the nostalgia factor, its regular, simple, primary-color structure (cited above) and a few truly outstanding episodes (City on the Edge of Forever, Balance of Terror) to sustain it.

    Then I saw TNG through the eyes of my kids, who were great fans (again, not much decent sci-fi around on television at the time, especially what could be found on DVD seasons as we acquired them then).

    Then, DS9 became “My” Trek–darker, more complex themes, money and greed, some great characters (especially some superb baddies like the smarmy Wayoun or the egotistical Gul Ducat), an in-depth return to the Mirror Universe with Naughty Kira Nerys in the lead, some real big-ass battles among Klingons, Cadassians and the Dominion–come on, what’s not to like?

    Okay, there’s a lot not to like, but I’ll accept the gravel to play with the diamonds.

    I didn’t even mind Voyager so much. Enterprise was the real failure, positing a prequel to TOS while trying to impose a PC value system on what were supposed to be rough-and-ready pioneer-explorers. They compounded the error with bland boring too-nice characters and a Vulcan who never acted like a Vulcan. The only fun in that show came too late, when Archer finally found some mojo after Jeffrey Combs’ Commander Shran completely upstaged him by being more Kirk than Kirk.

    Am I a super-Trek fan? No, but I’m certainly glad it existed and at times I had a lot of fun watching it. Without Trek, there would have been no Firefly, nor many other series, I suspect. Star Wars should of course get the biggest credit for sci-fi earning its place on the screen, but Star Trek is a significant second IMO.

  • Steffen says:

    For a great many people, Trek became their gateway into SF/Fantasy as a whole.

    Nostalgia goggles and gratitude for the introduction to more imaginative fiction account for much of the appeal.

  • Meng Greenleaf says:

    I have fond memories of StarTrek from my childhood. Firstly, there wasnt much on TV to watch, let alone SciFi. Secondly, my parents were divorced and I’d spend weekends at my fathers. He’d often get high and watch Natural Geographic. Which I grew fond of watching as a child as well. The other show he seemed to like was StarTrek TOS. And you know the Midwest, it’s quite like that for a certain demographic of blue-collar UAW families. So, for me, watching StarTrek was a way to share time with me father. Maybe StarTrek was a perfect place where people lived the ideals they only waxed on about while stoned in real life? Or maybe the stories were something only a child or stoned adult could appreciate? That said, I even like watching StarTrek: Diversity. The imprinting must have been complete LOL

  • Michael Ervin says:

    For me, it was the contrast between TOS and the dull, talky, black and white, slow-moving science fiction movies of the fifties and early sixties. I was finally seeing some “science fiction” on TV that was not silly like Lost in Space, and it was fun and action-packed! I always preferred reading space adventures in science fiction, even the dullest and slowest stories, and watching even the dullest and slowest-moving shows and movies. So in the end, for me, it was better than nothing. And now if I watch it, it is simple nostalgia for that old thrill I got as a child watching space ships…IN SPACE!!!

  • JIMMY Glover says:

    Well, 3 things in ST.

    1. City on the edge of forever is the best episode and one of the best on tv off all time.

    2. Wrath of kahn, as you pointed out.

    3. 7 of 9’s rear.

  • Terry Sanders says:

    When I was a boy, SF was either gee-whiz cartoons or TWILIGHT ZONE/OUTER LIMITS. Nothing between. Kiddie stuff or borderline horror. The most impressive SF scene I can recall from those days was the launch scene from the opening credits of FIREBALL XL-5.

    Then came STAR TREK.

    A gigantic ship with a crew of hundreds, patrolling the borders of a nation that spanned hundreds of lightyears, when it wasn’t exploring strange new worlds just beyond them. Aliens who had motivations beyond obeying Ming the Merciless. Heroes who sometimes had to think beyond simply winning.

    If you never tried to watch anything but VOYAGER, you can’t know how mind-blowing all of that was to anyone who, at the time, was under, say, twenty. An adult might compare it unfavorably to TWILIGHT ZONE or OUTER LIMITS, but many of us would never have watched either. The episodes that weren’t the stuff of nightmares were set pieces. Not an adventure in the lot. And at that age, we wanted adventure. STAR TREK gave it to us, without talking down to us. (Compare LOST IN SPACE. They tried to fill the same niche, but their writers thought they were writing for kids. So an exciting adventure about a family in peril in a hostile universe quickly degenerated into “Dr. Smith vs the Rutabaga Men.”)

    In many ways, STAR TREK was just a Western in space. But that made a difference. Westerns were set in the past. STAR TREK was set in the future–a future where you could still be a hero, and virtue could still be rewarded–sometimes, at least. Yeah, hope was part of it, too.

    Sorry if this is disjointed. I just put things down as they occurred to me.

    • Vlad James says:

      No, that was an excellent response, and makes perfect sense.

      Indeed, “The Twilight Zone” had a different style, and might well have been avoided by many younger viewers for that reason.

  • Andy says:

    It’s really not complicated – it’s likable characters having fun adventures. (I’m only speaking about the original series, here. “Fun” and “likable” were kind of arguable with the later stuff.) Kirk was a cool hero who could outwit an opponent as well as out-fight them, Spock (and later also McCoy) were his loyal sidekicks who bickered all the time, and the rest of the crew consisted of broadly sketched but interesting people. The core actors had rare chemistry.

    Kirk usually hooked up with a hot chick in each episode – the original series actually did have something resembling sex appeal, more than can be said for the later series that for some bizarre reason gave all the vulcan women Spock’s haircut and made everyone dress unisex.

    “Most of all, why was anyone impressed with Star Trek when The Twilight Zone had come out seven whole years earlier?”

    People loved both of them. Both series were still in regular reruns as far as the late 80s. The decline of Twilight Zone in the U.S. probably has more to do with the decline of anthology shows than anything else. Star Trek was most directly compared to Lost in Space and frankly it’s far better than LoS ever was.

    “The writing, at its best, was inferior to the short stories of a middling science fiction author.”

    Well, you can’t say they weren’t trying to hire popular sci-fi writers. Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Frederic Brown, Jerome Bixby all wrote episodes.

    • Vlad James says:

      “Likable characters having fun adventures” described what, like half the non-sitcom series at the time? Why isn’t there a large fandom around “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”, “The Lone Ranger”, “The Rifleman”, or countless others?

      And while people may have loved The Twilight Zone, it didn’t have the enduring popularity and success that Star Trek did.

      It’s not nearly as simple as your reasoning above.

  • Mike says:

    The original Star Trek had a lot of good stuff, but as you point out, it had some jaw-dropping clunkers too.

    The worst moment was in “Return to Tomorrow,” in which Kirk, Spock, and the sexiest woman on board agree to have their bodies taken over by telepathic aliens. The plan is for the aliens to build robots to house their minds, and return the bodies to their rightful owners. However, the female tries to convince the alien inhabiting Kirk’s body they should just steal the human bodies they’ve commandeered. The female, played by Diana Muldaur, plants one on Kirk, saying, “Can robot lips kiss like this?”

    Now I had a huge crush on Diana Muldaur, but instead of swooning at the sight of her kissing Kirk, I laughed at that horrible line.

  • Robespierre says:

    I’ve enjoyed Trek since watching the reruns as a kid, but I’ve also wondered (for years) how the economy works. We see the Trek universe, in the original show, from the viewpoint of the military personnel of a powerful amphibious assault ship (disguised as a science research vessel) which can materialize troops and materiel at great distances, destroy comparable ships, and even wipe out entire population centers if desired.

    But what about the civilians back home? Is the government totalitarian? Is private property (and hence theft) abolished since the replicator can reproduce anything. Steal my stuff – who cares – I can always make more.

    Not just for Trek, but SF in general, if people no longer had to work, what would they do? Wouldn’t people start getting in trouble? I guess it would depend on the culture. I was going to ask Vox how he would answer this question with his econ background. Money isn’t just for necessities. If my neighbor produced a great painting how could I buy it and he sell it, if we have no money? Would sexual favors become currency for unique items? Did Picard’s brother own his own vineyard or did he just manage it for the government?

    Has anyone seen any books on how the civilian Trek economy works?

    The original Enterprise is on a suspiciously Soviet style five year mission.

    The question remains: is Captain Kirk a communist?

  • Jack Amok says:

    The reason for the popularity is right there in the opening credits: to boldly go where no man has gone before.

    It promised action and adventure exploring strange new worlds. Now, it didn’t always deliver on that promise, but the original series delivered often enough to be fun. Roddenberry pitched it as a western set in space.

    The themes and structure of most Westerns are very popular. The trappings became a little passe though, so changing the setting but keeping the structure worked (note how popular the western-in-space Firefly was).

    The Trek series that have come since then have steadily delivered less and less of the premise, less and less western feel, so popularity has declined.

    What I’m confused by is the pedobear connection. WTF, where did that come from?

    • Carrington Dixon says:

      Roddenberry pitched it as a western set in space.
      To be precise, he pitched it as “Wagon Train in space. Remember that is some ways Wagon Train had some of the characteristics of an anthology series. Most episodes were not about the recurring characters but about someone new who was the focal point of this one episode and would not (usually) appear again. Imagine if the typical ST episode was about the sacrificial ‘Red Shirt’ and his attempt to survive this visit to this strange, new world.

      • Terry Sanders says:

        And then they ran into the actors’-salaries problem. And, I suspect, the limits of their “everyday” writers.

  • Mark says:

    TOS I guess was a space opera with fun and camp stuff, which might explain much of the enjoyment people had. Plus, it’s not like you had to turn your brain on for much of it, so you could just sit back and enjoy without having to think too hard.

    Beyond that, well it’s full of lefty tropes, so obviously the entertainment establishment likes it.

    But also… consider how few other space opera shows there are out there, with spaceships zipping around. Stargate SG1 was set 10 minutes from Vancouver 90% of the time, and didn’t feature much in the way of space combat until much later. So I wonder if a lot if it is down to a choice between “TV show with space ships flying around” or “The A-Team” (you get the drift).

    = + =

    On a somewhat related topic to this, I do rather enjoy the SF Debris reviews of Star Trek:


    Some bad language (“Neelix is a s—head” etc), but still good fun, from someone who’s watched far too much of it 😉 .

  • Carrington Dixon says:

    At the time, I never saw Trek as much of an advance beyond Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, except, perhaps, in production values.Indeed, you I might better actor than William Shatner.

  • Toddy Cat says:

    As William Shatner once put it, “How do you know that everyone else in “Star Trek” wasn’t underacting?

  • Bruce says:

    The original series had a low budget, so they just got on with the story. A guy with a decal on his shirt- he’s a starship captain, get on with the story. He’s got a briefcase- it’s full of enough antimatter to blow up the planet, get on with the story. They fuzz his image for a moment, cut to another location with fuzz in one spot, cut the fuzz to show him- he just teleported, get on with the story.

    Later with bigger budgets and much effort misdirected, they failed to get on with the story. Though I liked the Save the Whales Star Trek Movie.

  • TWS says:

    TOS was an updated US. Nobody thought of it at the time as a U.N.in space. It was just the natural progression of America to the next frontier. And it was a frontier! There were aliens to fight, new lands to see, new people to meet and daring do at every stop. You could see a brighter future for America. Ignore all the socialist horse hockey, we knew there was money because there were still con men like Mudd. We knew people still owned property because there were settlers and colonists on their own out there. We knew it was all there waiting for us and all we had to do was go get it.

    Of course, we had to turn our back on all that. Socialism hit America harder than any Star Trek setting. Dreary and drab our future didn’t feature ray guns and star ships it brought us good stamps and the Stonewall riots.

    No moon colonies or Mars base just, section eight and endless, social engineering.

    It was the future. Now it’s just a fantasy. My grandchildren are more likely to be scavenging a post-modern wasteland than sailing to the stars.

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