This piece by Lukas Kendall is probably the best analysis of Star Trek
you'll ever come across. The original article is here,
There has been a cottage industry of essays about how to make Star
Trek more popular. Many of the prescriptions are simple: Put it back
on television. Hire good people to make it. (Certainly, good creators
But there is a basic assumption that Star Trek could be every bit
as successful as the Marvel universe or Star Wars... or even DC
... if only CBS and Paramount could work through their business problems.
I think it's not so simple... and the reason why is not a matter of
taste. It is a matter of story.
Star Wars and the Marvel movies are action... packed spectacles
that appeal to attention... deficit teenagers... the blockbuster sweet
spot. Star Trek, by contrast, appeals to the brainy outsider.
It's slow, talky, even philosophical... a little bit like eating your
The same things that are the source of Star Trek's appeal are
also the source of its limitations. Try to change it to appeal to
everyone, and you'll appeal to no one.
Star Trek just had two mega... budget blockbusters that were
aggressively made and marketed for the modern, global movie audience.
They are spectacular productions that cost a lot of money, made a lot of
money, were popular and well reviewed... but did not set box... office
records. A third film is likely to continue the trend.
Tellingly, some Trek fans revile the new films. That is because,
in order to appeal to a modern global audience, they fundamentally alter
the franchise's DNA. This has nothing to do with the creation of an
alternate timeline, which is ingenious. It is about taking a pacifist,
cerebral, talky television show and turning it into an action...
adventure movie. Something is lost along the way.
Star Trek is fundamentally not action... adventure. Drama is
conflict, and blockbuster movies are about "branding" the conflict as
specific forms of physical fighting: Comic book movies are superpower
slugfests. Star Wars is lightsaber duels, blasters and spaceship
dogfights. James Cameron's films are commando... style militaristic
warfare. The Matrix is "bullet... time" kung fu.
Star Trek has always had its share of fighting... from 1960s
fisticuffs to submarine... style warfare... but the best Star Trek
"fighting"... is talking. Kirk talks a computer into exploding. Picard
talks a bad guy into laying down his arms.
Star Trek has never translated well to movies. Its style and
ideas play best on television, without the need to: (1) encapsulate its
entire world (2) into the fundamental transformation of a single
character, (3) that happens over two hours, (4) with all of civilization
in jeopardy, including (5) stuff for the supporting cast to do and (6)
all the de rigueur "He's dead, Jim" moments, while (7) humoring
die hard fans by not changing too much and (8) pandering to morons.
The best Star Trek film is still The Wrath of Khan...
which doesn't put Earth in jeopardy or climax in a fistfight, kills a
major character (as a requirement of being made), and was shot cheaply
on recycled sets. At a time when Star Trek was only 79 episodes
of the original series, a cartoon, and a widely seen but unloved movie,
Nicholas Meyer and his colleagues had the freedom to do what they
wanted, so long as it was cheap: tell a good, literary and character...
based story. Today, that movie would not survive the first development
A common refrain is to put Star Trek back on television and make
it for adults... the Mad Men or Game of Thrones of Star
Trek series. Sounds exciting!
It's also impossible. You can't make the "adult" Star Trek
series because Star Trek is not about adults. It can be for
adults, but it is not about them.
What are the driving realities of adult life? Sex and money. What is
never in Star Trek? Sex and money.
Sure, there's suggested sex. Off... screen sex. Characters have romantic
relationships, but viewed as a child would... Mommy and Daddy go to
their room, and come out the next morning.
Money? There are "credits" but I still don't understand the Federation's
economic system. Do the crew get paid? Is the Federation communist?
(There was a great article about this: https://medium.com/@RickWebb/the...
economics... of... star... trek... 29bab88d50)
There have already been 726 episodes and 12 movies of Star Trek...
and too many of them revolve around misunderstood space anomalies.
Would it be best to start from scratch? Creatively... no doubt about it.
But Star Trek fans would never allow that. Star Trek is
not like James Bond or Batman, where every decade you cast a new actor
and wipe the slate clean. Or like Marvel's movies and TV series, which
are drawn from fifty years of mythology, but nobody expects them to
slavishly reproduce the comic books... or even be consistent with each
Star Trek fans demand every installment connect with every other
one. We already have the "Abramsverse," which was cleverly constructed
as an alternate reality. Can there be another recasting, with a third
actor playing Kirk, or a second playing Picard? I doubt it.
Stay in the Abramsverse? Possibly, but Into Darkness demonstrated
the problem of doing this: you're constantly running into characters and
scenarios you already know. Not only do the writers have to tell the
same story twice... for the people who know the original, and the ones
who don't... but it's never as good the second time.
Go another hundred years into the future, aboard the Enterprise... G?
Maybe. But no matter what, you have a consistent, intricate universe
that has to be respected. Hard to bump into an asteroid without it being
like that time on Gamma Epsilon VI.
Star Trek already had one fundamental storytelling upgrade: when The
Next Generation got good in season three (circa 1990) and took a
turn into Philip K. Dick issues of perception and reality... which is to
say, postmodernism. It jettisoned the 1960s melodrama... great move...
but replaced it with technobabble. Ugh.
The Problem With Star Trek
Unlike the Marvel universe... which takes place in contemporary
reality... Star Trek takes place in the future. And not just an
abstract future, but a specific vision of the future from fifty years in
the past. It's not only a period piece, but a parallel universe... a
Before man landed on the moon, manned space travel was plausible.
Roddenberry intended the bridge of the Enterprise to be completely
believable. (Next to The Beverly Hillbillies, he was doing
Chekhov... that's with an h.) But we now know that (Interstellar
and Avatar aside) interplanetary space travel is not realistic,
or certainly not happening any time soon.
As a result, Star Trek is irrevocably dated. What was meant to be
the actual future has become a fantasy future... but it's not allowed to
acknowledge it. Star Wars is unashamed space fantasy, set in a
make... believe galaxy, but Star Trek is supposed to be real. (I
guess I missed the Eugenics Wars.) Ever wonder why in Star Trek
they only listen to classical music, or sometimes jazz? Hearing anything
recorded after 1964 would puncture the reality (except for time travel
stories). This is the same reason why The West Wing never
referenced a president after Kennedy.
Roddenberry aspired to do cosmic wonder and weirdness... "The Cage," Star
Trek: The Motion Picture... but these stories are wildly expensive
and dramatically abstract. (How do you fight an alien that can destroy
you with its thoughts?) Star Trek became a more elevated version
of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers, a predecessor to Star
Wars, transplanting 19th century colonialism (instead of feudalism)
into space. Klingons instead of Russians, Romulans instead of Chinese
(or vice versa). It's a futuristic version of Captain Horatio
Hornblower, as Nick Meyer realized... and Roddenberry intended... that
could be practically produced on a weekly basis. (Master and Commander
is a great Star Trek movie.)
Why can't you do a variety of stories set in different corners of the Star
Trek universe? Because Marvel can go anyplace in the contemporary
world to mine relatable characters and interesting storylines... from
the corridors of a high school to the streets of New York City to
foreign countries to mythical Asgard. But Star Trek has to go
different places within its own, make... believe universe, bound by
specific storytelling and ideological rules: it is, by definition, a
ship in space. They tried space without a ship (DS9), a ship lost
in space (Voyager), a prequel ship (Enterprise), and an
alternate universe ship (Abramsverse); how many more variations can
there be? One wonders if even Star Wars will be able to sustain
its "expanded universe" movies and TV series, but it has the advantages
of a bigger fanbase, more action... adventure style, and fewer
How do you reinvent Star Trek for a modern television audience?
There already was a terrific, adult human space drama... from one of the
best Star Trek writers, Ron Moore. Battlestar Galactica
was adapted from an old TV show that Moore was at complete liberty to
rework (since it sucked and no one cared).
One thing Moore took care to do: no aliens. Because aliens
fundamentally don't make sense. All over the galaxy, there are aliens
who look and act like (white) humans with bumpy foreheads, they all
speak English (somehow "universally translated"), each planet has a
single culture and government, yet the Prime Minister's office consists
of three people, and no society has television... really?
But we can't get rid of aliens on Star Trek... because of Spock.
So as much as I'd love to see Star Trek on the small screen
again, I question how it could be done without violating continuity or
its fundamental appeal. It's certainly not suitable for a True
Detective... style reimagining.
What is the appeal of Star Trek? Forget about sex and money...
the humans on Star Trek aren't even human. The aliens are
human. Let me explain.
The appeal of Star Trek... the drug that intoxicates a certain
percentage of the world's population... is Gene Roddenberry's vision of
a utopian future. We despair at the pathetic failures of our species...
our polluting, warfare, cruelty and selfishness... but Star Trek
says, "Relax. Humanity will survive. We will triumph. We will solve our
problems and fly to the stars. Everything will be great!"
It is a wonderful, inspirational message. It deserves to have lasted
fifty years... may it last forever. It's not necessarily a future that
will come to pass, but it's good to have this positive message in the
culture. (The best TV series of the last twenty years to carry this
spirit? The West Wing.)
It's not just the fantasy of us as a species. Roddenberry's vision is
one of adult life as seen by a child, anxious about a future as a
grown... up. How will I live by myself, without my parents? How will I
learn to socialize, to have romantic love, a family of my own, a job?
Will the world still be there for me? Who will take care of me?
Starfleet will! You will have a job on the Enterprise, full of friends,
colorful uniforms, understandable work (Warp speed! Level... one
diagnostics!), galactic adventure, and a social life of fun on the
Holodeck and poker in Riker's quarters.
Think about the characters on Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry was
adamant that humanity would evolve and shed petty and negative
characteristics. Drama relies upon conflict between characters... but he
didn't want the crew to fight amongst themselves. Therefore... to the
frustration of most of Star Trek's writers... Star Trek's
human characters are bereft of the personality traits that create drama.
How does one tell a Star Trek story if drama (conflict between
characters) is forbidden? The humans are drama... free... so you make
the aliens the humans.
Consider Star Trek's most pivotal characters: they are always the
aliens. In Star Trek, humans are perfect... therefore dull. The
aliens, however, are versions of human children learning how to
Spock is a repressed child. Data is a shy child. Worf is an angry child.
Seven of Nine is a repressed, angry child with big boobs.
The same goes for the races: the Vulcans are repressed kids, the
Klingons angry kids. (The Romulans have never quite worked because...
what are they, exactly?)
Think of the three most... developed characters on Next Generation:
Picard, Data and Worf. (Picard is the father figure, representing all of
What did we really learn about Riker, except that he played trombone
(because the actor did)? About Troi (half... alien, but close enough),
except that she liked chocolate? About Crusher... at all?
And didn't they struggle to find quality episodes for these characters?
In Star Trek, the human characters lack dimension... because they
are idealized. They are viewed as perfect the way children view their
parents as perfect... finding them incapable of dark or deviant
behavior. At most, they are given trivial social problems to solve...
like Geordi being nervous about going on a first date. (What was he,
forty? The chief engineer on the best ship in the fleet, and he couldn't
The child... parent model explains why attempts to go "dark" on Star
Trek... from Nemesis to Into Darkness, and even
rebelling against the Federation in Insurrection... never work.
It's like watching Mommy and Daddy fight... it's not interesting, it's
sickening. (The exception that proves the rule: the Mirror universe, a
wacky funhouse that's not real.)
In the last movie, watching Kirk be a brash asshole (again!) and
the Federation warmongering maniacs is like seeing your dad as an
alcoholic and your mom a hooker. Sure, it may make for a more
interesting family, but it actually hurts to watch.
In marketing speak: it goes against the brand. (I hope someone reads
The Best Star Trek
Maybe you think I hate Star Trek. Au contraire! I love it.
I would love to see new Star Trek produced and be popular.
But it has to be good Star Trek, and that requires a leap of
faith on the part of the producers.
For Star Trek to be high quality, it has to risk appealing to
fewer people... less action, more talk. Fewer special effects, not more.
Intimate, not epic.
Making a lot of it is not a good idea because it'll start to repeat
itself and suck (cf. Enterprise).
Fans are not necessarily the best people to dictate what Star Trek
ought to be. They want exactly what they've already seen, while also
being completely surprised. Can't be done. (This is the problem with all
sequels and franchises.)
Fans are also obsessed with "continuity porn"... brief moments of
recognition with no storytelling value. They are empty calories.
Nick Meyer likens Star Trek to the Catholic mass, which has been
set to music by composers throughout the centuries. The composers can
change the music, but the text is always the same. Star Trek has
a glorious text that can be set into music a few more times... at least.
But the text is not well understood... certainly not by studio
executives, and rarely even by fans.
There are doubtless readers of this essay who will bristle at my
implications that Star Trek is for children... that by extension
I am calling them children. Star Trek is not for idiot
children. On the contrary, it is for very bright children... ones with
big hearts and quick minds who long for purpose, a sense of belonging
and a universe that is just and wise.
It is for the child in all of us, stripped of our adult baggage, forever
hopeful, curious, eager to please and to experience love... not
necessarily a romantic love, but the love of all of mankind. "All I
want," you may say to yourself, "is to be a good person, and be loved
Importantly, the best Star Trek stories involve death, from The
City on the Edge of Forever and The Wrath of Khan to The
Bonding and Yesterday's Enterprise. They feature characters
facing death, a little bit as a child would (the first loss of a
grandparent), but accepting it with elegance and grace... an inspiration
for all of us who must come to terms with our mortality.
When we accept death, we also accept life. We accept ourselves.
Or at least, I think this is what Spock was trying to tell me... on my
Live Long and Prosper
Star Trek has survived for fifty years, and will hopefully
survive for fifty more. It's a wonderful, timeless creation, with an
important message about the human condition.
That message, says Linus on the school stage, is not to buy more DVDs,
toys or movie tickets. When it comes to merchandising and exploitation, Star
Trek may be the granddaddy of them all, but it will always to take a
back seat to something flashier and more popular. As well it should.
Star Trek should not be run like a money machine, but curated
like an important museum piece... which is paradoxically how it will
become the most popular, and make the most money. This doesn't mean it
should never change. The "music" always needs to be updated, shorn of
things that are dated and bad. But the "text" is immutable.
The next Star Trek creators need not be Star Trek fans...
many of the best have known nothing of it (Nick Meyer), but also so have
some of the worst (Stuart Baird)... so long as they understand and
appreciate the text.
The text is the heart of Star Trek. It is story, not spectacle.
It is gentle, not aggressive. It is optimistic, not dark. It is hopeful,
compassionate and, above all... the captain says with a tear running
down his cheek... human. In the right hands, it can, and should,
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