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Star Trek: Renaissance
By A.K. Gildeth
The year 1966 was a time of great controversy. Soldiers were being sent to Vietnam, the United States was firmly entrenched in the Cold War, and society was experiencing a revolution with the Civil Rights Movement. This year was also marked by another event, one which is engrained in the hearts and minds of Trekkies around the world as a date to be remembered: on September 8, 1966 the first episode of Star Trek aired. What began as a “wagon train to the stars” became the cultural symbol and source of both controversy and hope for humankind for millions worldwide. With episodes like “A Private Little War”, which dealt with the war in Vietnam, and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, which addressed racism, Star Trek’s premise of a time remote and removed from ours allowed it to explore current events and prejudices no other show could touch. With a multiethnic bridge crew – a Russian as navigator, a Japanese at the helm, and an African woman as communications officer – Star Trek challenged our views of society and the world, and more: with firsts such as the first interracial kiss to air on TV, Star Trek also had a profound effect on the America we know today. The show explored politics and ideologies such as those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and inspired not only the general population to imagine a better future, but also children who would go on to be today’s well-known faces, including minority astronauts and actors such as Whoopi Goldberg. The show was so popular that when it was cancelled in its third season fans protested, sticking “I Grok Spock” bumper stickers on their cars, until it was brought back.
This is the Star Trek I grew up on, and the reason that after a hiatus as a teen I was compelled to come back to the show.
However, over recent years I have come to feel that this is no longer the Star Trek I know today. What was once a show about morality, adventure, and the human spirit and condition has all but abandoned the very quintessence of its nature. It has fallen into the race for ratings, rarely rising above the modern day formula of sex and violence to attract its audience. No longer is it a show I have any great pride in, or would choose to share with my children, and it concerns me to hear the same sentiments echoed among fellow fans. It seems every other week there is a new rumor that the latest series, Enterprise, may be cut, and in on-line forums people wonder aloud if it is even worth keeping the show on the air.
Also of concern is the recent spurt of censorship in the media (and I am not referring to the response to Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”). Since 9/11 there have been a few shows cut due to politically incorrect comments or storylines, and I have observed unease ripple through the viewers of these shows as to what the effects will be on our society and the function of democracy. These two points of interest are not as disconnected from each other as it at first may seem. There may yet still be hope for Enterprise, a solution to saving the show based upon the spirit of the original series, and one which is not unconnected to the theory of participatory democracy upon which America is founded.
The New Webster’s Encyclopedic Dictionary defines the word “enterprise” as “a bold, arduous, or hazardous undertaking; a readiness to engage in undertakings of difficulty, risk or danger”. Enterprise is hardly living up to its name. While the idea of the show and its characters holds a plethora of potential, many of the amazing opportunities to address controversy and culture have instead been avoided like the plague. Characters, who it was rumored were originally planned to be a representation of a specific struggle in society, now struggle for purpose and development. Situations which could speak to often whitewashed subjects instead go a completely different direction. Storylines rarely reach into real world issues, and when they do they fail to actually explore the issue in any provocative way.
Reviews and ratings have been low since the show first aired, and entertainment guides have headlined their articles with captions such as, “Forget Trek; Watch This Other Show!” Why? Truthfully, there’s not much to remember. Out of the seventy episodes aired thus far, only two stand out to many fans as excellent and memorable: “Stigma”, which dealt with the stereotypes and challenges associated with AIDS, and “Similitude” which hit the audience face on not only with many of the ethical issues of cloning, but also the potential emotional issues of not being unique or seen as a definite human being. (“Similitude” also had the largest audience since December of 2002.) Other episodes which in previews led fans to believe the show would tackle some gripping issue we live with from day-to-day instead delivered a watered down hour which named the problem but did not play it out (such as “Chosen Realm”, about religious fanatics, which evaded exploring the nature of such groups altogether when none of the guest characters with lines believed the values except the leader). Enterprise has fallen on using interpersonal drama between the characters, sex, and battle scenes as a crutch to get them through many episodes which lacked a compelling story; and when there are other shows which provide even more of that than Enterprise, why not watch those instead?
The producers have cited many causes for why the show has abandoned the original, controversial nature of Star Trek. One such explanation is that forty minutes per episode does not allow them to turn out a show of the same quality as the original series, which had forty-five minutes. This seems a flawed assertion however; Twilight Zone, another television show noted for its controversy, covered issues in under half an hour.
In another example, just before season three began Producer Rick Berman was asked whether the show would be paralleling any current issues related to 9/11 or the resulting wars, especially since the story arc of the third season would be based on a response to an attack on Earth. No, he responded, it had “nothing to do with 9/11 or the recent war. We are trying to be vigilant not make comparisons that seem unwise.” Yet is it not contrary to the very nature of Star Trek to turn from an opportunity to examine our times? If this essential element is abandoned, what is there left of Star Trek in Enterprise?
A return to the spirit of Star Trek is the solution to saving the show, and is also an appropriate response to the concerning trend of political censorship. No other show has the stability that Star Trek does as a franchise, or mass of loyal fans; no other show could pull this off. There are so many challenges and questions the world faces today that could supply Enterprise with an almost endless supply of enthralling stories: homosexuality; the suicides of soldiers in war; circumstances forcing soldiers to consider even children as potential threats; the question of abortion; the relationship between first and third world countries; the causes of terrorism; and the construction of the wall in Israel, to point out but a few.
How will this have a positive effect on the function of democracy? As much as possible, both sides of an issue should be shown. By posing questions from both points of view we can truly examine what is at hand. Controversy will result in discussion and debate, much like what I saw take place in several on-line forums and among friends after “Similitude”. Two people disputing the night’s episode will easily travel beyond the premises introduced in the show into the realm of “What about…?” and “What if…? What then?” In simply carrying out this discussion inspired by the events of Enterprise, fans are performing the theory of participatory democracy, exchanging amongst each other ideas, information, and opinions on matters which affect America or may come to pass, and on which they must take a stance as a voter. Questioning our actions, our beliefs, and ourselves may not be politically correct during this era of terrorism and war, but if it inspires people as above, I can think of no action more patriotic.
Such episodes will do more than motivate people to discuss otherwise dull or overwhelming subjects; the controversial stories will allow sex and violence to return to being the tools and elements of a greater story instead of being the story itself, and bring new life to the struggling series. Energized debates, on-line and in public places such as in front of the office’s water cooler, will also act as a form of free advertisement. Fans who left the show, feeling it had grown too generic and unintelligent, will have reason to return, and the entertainment guides which printed “Forget Trek” will have reason to take a second look.
Star Trek’s greatest and most remembered moments have been when the show stretched beyond itself into the real world, and episodes like “Stigma” and “Similitude” show that Enterprise does not have to return to the original series’ style of having only guest characters be the center of the controversy: connecting to real issues, and the development of regular characters and the internal universe of Star Trek does not have to be disparate. If they are looking for a way to raise ratings, this is it.
Today, as much as when Star Trek first premiered, we need a message that humanity can overcome these wars and not turn blindly from them, but face them with bravery, integrity, and compassion. If Enterprise takes up this challenge, we will see a revival of the spirit of humanity in Star Trek. Once again it can start playing a revolutionary role in our culture and country.
The meaning of “renaissance” is “a movement of vigorous artistic and intellectual activity”. If we the fans wish to see such a rebirth in Enterprise, then its time to go back to the bumper stickers. This time let them read: “Star Trek: Renaissance.”
---This essay in no way reflects the positions or opinions of the site this is published on, but is the position of the author alone.
If you have any comments or counterarguments, feel free to respond at the Star Trek: Renaissance home site: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/stren, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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