The latest news about CBS’ new Star Trek series Discovery says the show will be set ten years before the events of the original Star Trek adventures with Captain Kirk and the Enterprise. Like the JJ Abrams movie trilogy and the most recent Trek series Enterprise, Discovery will be a return to the origins of the franchise. This is a departure from the 1987-2001 period, when Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager drove the story forward into the 24th century. For the past 15 years, Trek has been stuck in the past of the franchise itself. What do we gain by endlessly returning to the origins of this interstellar tale?
Obviously, we get to go back to a fan favorite period of adventure and strife. Back in the crazy days of the 23rd century, humanity didn’t have replicators or positronic brains, and there was no peace with the Klingon Empire. That affords more opportunities for the kinds of problems that make for good drama. This period also offers narrative comfort food for fans, reminding them of the “good old days” of the show before everybody got so uptight about the Prime Directive and started worrying about post-colonial politics on Bajor and other developing worlds.
24th century Trek
As Manu Saadia points out in his excellent book Trekonomics, there’s a huge gulf between the civilization of TOS and TNG for one reason: the replicator. As a result of this one piece of technology, humans can basically turn energy into matter (with a few exceptions, like the dilithium crystals needed for warp drive and the valuable material latinum). The replicator means pretty much all problems with scarcity are technically solved. Nobody needs to work for a living, because all our material needs can be met as fast as you can say “tea, Earl Grey, hot.” Work itself as a concept is radically transformed. People only work because they choose to work; everyone enjoys (or at least gets satisfaction from) their job.
Imagining a world like that is hard, but The Next Generation tried and often succeeded. Everyone on the Enterprise wants to be there. There’s little angsting about rank or boring jobs, and therefore conflicts between crew members were minimal (with a few notable exceptions). Instead, the world of plenty in the Federation stands in stark contrast to many of the planets our crew visits. The Prime Directive comes to the fore as a kind of anti-colonialist ideal. In fact, colonialism and post-colonialism are major preoccupations of Deep Space Nine and Voyager in the same way that the Cold War is a focus of the original series and movies. One of Captain Sisko’s main jobs is figuring out how to deal with Bajor, left in ruins by the imperialist Cardassians. And Voyager is about how a crew of anti-imperialist Maquis, freedom fighters against the Cardassians, must learn to get along with Federation lackeys on a ship far away from all their homes.Essentially, the world of 24th century Trek is one where the Federation’s biggest political problem is trying to figure out how to partner with developing worlds but not colonize them. No wonder the scariest bad guys are the Borg, a group whose entire existence is defined by the ultimate colonial imperative: “You will be assimilated.”
Biologicals of the 24th century also have to deal with a new life form: AI Data and the holographic doctor on Voyager have several plot arcs devoted to their status as part-human, part-property. At one point, the Doctor even leads an uprising among holograms who read his manifesto and decide to revolt against unfair working conditions. Seven of Nine is also an interesting character in this respect, representing a kind of halfway point between biological and technological being. Watching The Next Generation and other shows set during that time period, audiences are asked to question how living beings are defined and what kinds of rights they should have. Put another way: the political underpinnings of Star Trek: TOS led to “the first interracial kiss on television,” while Deep Space Nine led to “a polymorphous alien from a colonial species romances an anti-imperialist freedom fighter whose planet’s former colonizing force is now allied with the polymorphous alien’s estranged people.” Yeah. It was intersectionality in space, and it was complex as hell.
Back to the past
Maybe the world of Next Generation is too futuristic, or too Utopian, or just too wonky for people to believe in after the “War on Terror” and ugly international brawls over climate change. The lure of Enterprise is supposed to be its realistic grittiness. Transporters barely work; the crew is at each others’ throats half the time; and the future itself becomes a menace during the Temporal Cold War. The new JJ Abrams movie trilogy gives us more of the same. Instead of a unified crew trying to form peaceful bonds with other civilizations, we have Kirk and Spock at war with each other. Or we have Kirk whining because his job is too dreary. The world of the 23rd century is depressingly like our world, and we don’t have to use our imaginations very much to consider what life there would be like.
As many writers have pointed out, science fiction isn’t really about the future. It’s a reflection of the present. So why are we, in 2016, so obsessed with returning to a version of the future that was dreamed up in the 1960s? Trek plunges further into the future during the 1990s partly because series creator Gene Roddenberry was still at the wheel, pushing his world further into tomorrow. But there’s no reason why the next generation of creators couldn’t have picked up where Roddenberry left off, in the 24th or even 25th century. Something about the early 21st century is driving us into Star Trek‘s past.
Let’s consider the world that Star Trek: Discovery will inhabit. The Klingons are still enemies and humans have to work for a living. We can’t just make things out of thin air with our replicators. There are office (or spaceship crew) politics. The frontier is hostile and unregulated, and no wise alien bartenders remind us that we’re on “a ship of peace.” Indeed, humans are just starting to trust aliens, and the Federation is full of human-centric bigotry. Authority figures aren’t thoughtful, educated Picard and Sisko types. They’re cowboys like Kirk, and some wear black hats. It’s a world struggling toward a democratic ideal, but often resorting to less-than-democratic tactics to maintain that ideal.
Now that I’ve put it that way, I’m going to refine what I said about the last 15 years of Trek. They haven’t exactly been about going back to the past. It’s more accurate to say they have focused on transitioning to a better future, while still being mired in a dark past. And that does reflect, sometimes painfully, what it’s like to live on Earth right now. Maybe we have to go back to the past to remember what we hope the future will be like.
This post originated on Ars Technica