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.
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.
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.