The short answer is: No.
If you want to know more, then read on.
I can remember as a very, very, very little boy being plunked down on the floor in front of the television set at a family friend’s house. If I recall correctly, my parents were there to play cards with another couple. My slightly older sister had some dolls and whatnot: as she had reached the age where she could speak and grasp conversation, she was elsewhere in the room, occupied by her own interests. I was of that age wherein TV held more fascination; and while I can't remember what episode it was that played on the network, I do distinctly remember being fascinated by a certain Vulcan’s ears. His name was Spock, and my young mind just couldn’t figure out those ears.
As many of us know, the original Star Trek inspired a generation of television viewers (in more ways than one!) to eventually get up off the couch and do great things for their fellow man. In fact, there was a time when many card-carrying scientists proudly confessed that their whole reason for pursuing such a career was because they saw science being suitably explored on the Gene Roddenberry program. Trek fueled the interests of military men and women, of astronauts, and even budding storytellers who wanted to capture their own ‘wagon train to the stars’ if and when given the chance.
But the space show’s influence didn’t stop there. All one need do is look around at the various inventions now a reality that began (in one way, shape, or form) as little more than a prop or plot device in Star Trek. Today’s tablets are clearly derived from those shown on the original Trek and The Next Generation. In case you missed it, Lieutenant Uhura certainly sported the very first Bluetooth earpiece. Automatic doors and giant panels television screens are everywhere, both in the home and beyond. Things like GPS, portable memory drives, and the flip-phone began with the inspiration of storytellers; and now you could very well be reading this think piece on a smartphone yourself. It’s true that we’re still waiting on holodecks and warp drive but rest assured that the tech is on someone’s drawing board as you finish this very sentence.
Though I’ve always argued that Star Trek is one of television’s only programs that is truly timeless (some of that’s owed to being set in an era a few hundred centuries away) as well as universal, I’ve never insisted that it would always ‘matter.’ In fact, I’d strongly suggest that today’s Treks – those airing almost exclusively behind CBS’s pay wall – might be best forgotten when compared with what’s come before. That’s not a reflection on quality because these ventures are arguably well-made, well-produced, and well-acted. Simply put, I simply I find them hollow by comparison to what I grew up with.
That’s why when I woke up this morning I asked myself, “Does Star Trek matter any more?”
I come from the generation of kids that built things. We built forts. If we wanted to play superhero, then we had to cull together our own suits, our own capes, our own weapons. If it were the winter, we’d go out in the snow in our gloves and our boots, and we’d spend the better part of a day building this expansive fort to house our adventures; we didn’t care that Mother Nature would have most of it thawed out by tomorrow or the next day, if not certainly by the weekend. To us, a half-melted fort only meant that the alien invasion had arrived sooner than we’d planned, and we’d soldier on.
Infamously, we cut our knees. We scraped our elbows. If we weren’t careful, then we broke a few bones. We’d get back up, dust ourselves off, and try again. We knocked the wind out of one another. When we rode bikes, we’d build ramps, and we’d soar through the air even though we knew we were about to suffer the worst pain imaginable when we hit the ground again and our testicles were suitably mashed. (Boys, that is … and maybe even the girls amongst us who imagined themselves as boys, but that’s an argument for another day.) Our parents may have invented Bandaids, Mercurochrome, and Bactine, but we were the generation that forced them to put it to good use. They paid for our wounds, sometimes handsomely.
Well, it would seem that they do the bulk of their living virtually. (No, no, and no: I am not putting down gamers and/or gaming. This is a cultural reflection about why Trek mattered then and how that’s evolved.) And, indeed, carpal tunnel can be a harsh mistress, but that’s a far cry from falling face-first from your treehouse from twenty feet up. One generally leaves a mark; the other is treated with anti-inflammatory drugs. While it’s true that both require a bit of imagination – a requisite part of any good childhood – there’s still something intangible about getting your hands dirty: it just feels good.
Because much of the child’s experience has transformed from the real world to the virtual one, dare I suggest that we, as a society, have lost some of our ability to dream?
Think of it this way: one generation put a man on the moon, while the next one put a robot on Mars. One generation sent a man thousands of miles away from Earth at the risk of life and limb while the other sat at a receiving console safely watching a video stream play out. One man planted a flag somewhere that the wind never blows, and another punches buttons, releasing the footage to the world so that everyone gets a participation trophy for this trip to the red planet. Both events have significance. Both events require an incredibly amount of technical expertise to make them happen. Still, one of them seems fairly hands-off.
Storytelling interests people, and good storytelling inspires them.
Star Trek’s morality tales were clearly grounded in the popular mythmaking of television’s Golden Era. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never believed – unlike others – that Trek’s ability to spin good yarn had all that much to do with catapulting mankind into some new age of modern thinking and holistic living. At the end of the day, a character whose face was painted half black and half white was only just an actor in make-up; a good story that made me think about the wider world outside was honestly little more than that … a mirror held up for my own reflection. After all, here was a show that purported to whisk us culturally to a time when mankind had apparently done away with all vices; and still each villain-of-the-week required audiences to undergo yet one more rectal exam of said defeated vices? Erm … if the future was so perfect, clearly not everyone was getting the memo!
Like all good morality tales, Star Trek needed heroes, and the crew performed admirably whenever given the chance. Each of them had a purpose, a function on this ship, and it was their particular skill sets that more often than not helped save the day, be it more fast flying by Sulu at the helm, Dr. McCoy handling a particularly difficult surgery in Sickbay, or Scotty squeezing one last bit of power out of the warp core. They proved themselves the best at their respective positions, and rarely were they required to be as exceptional outside of that requisite box. (See where I might be going with this?) In other words, Uhura was a master at communications: never did she pull a second shift in, say, Medical. Her role was on the Bridge, supporting command in any related capacities, and in that respect she served wonderfully.
When you have a purpose – a driving inspiration – you can be the best.
When you’re all over map or taxed with being an expert on everything within your reach, the best is rarely – if ever – achieved. Any professional athlete will tell you that excellence is ninety percent repetition. An excellent pitcher pitches, all the time, every game, every chance he gets. It’s that repetition that turns into muscle memory; and when the muscles are trained to do something over and over and over again they naturally get very adept at performing under all kinds of circumstances and stresses. While you can’t win every game based on solely on pitching, there’s no doubt that quality pitching will have occurred in every game that’s won.
That same analogy can be made of every starship crewmember: even the best navigator known to man will have a tough time surviving when the captain keeps requiring you to steer through Hell.
Today’s Star Trek, from what I’ve seen, doesn’t appear to be crafted as morality plays.
Instead, they’re gripes about what the scriptwriting staff just plain doesn’t like about the world around them. More specifically, they’re slightly veiled attacks on political policies they personally abhor. These screenwriters are using these characters – many of them beloved – to deliver not so much messages of unity as they are clarion cries of revolution for things that might not be in the best interest of humanity but rather for their personal wish list. Instead of championing ideals that we, as a culture, have already come together against, these storytellers appear more interested in tearing things apart than in putting things right.
This, by itself, is not without inspiration.
The casual Trek enthusiast need only peruse the Information Superhighway for mentions of – ahem – “We Are Starfleet,” a phrase downright majestic if it weren’t for its own ambiguity. Instead of focusing on the action phrases of seeking out and exploring strange new worlds (much like the children of a certain generation who rode bikes, climbed trees, and broke bones), this next generation has taken to rallying its youth and young-at-heart with politically-sounding catch phrases that have no doubt been test-marketed and focused grouped for maximum malleability. “We Are Starfleet!” What does it mean? Well, it can mean anything you want it to!
Perhaps I’m reading more into it than I need, but I’m older than most and tend to do that on every occasion. Perhaps I’m seeing seeds planted in this new cavalry of viewers meant to inspire them to run out, burn down cities, and tear down statues if for no other reason than to avoid being offended. Perhaps a franchise once meant to unite the species around one central path forward is being used to divide us, to categorize as ‘for Starfleet’ or ‘against Starfleet’ at a time when unity has been found out-of-step with the contemporary intelligentsia. Perhaps I find it painful to see one of televisions most beloved franchises – something that’s brought joy and personal inspiration to countless millions – being refashioned into something meant to be a vehicle of change for only a fateful few.
Or perhaps I’m wrong … as usual.
I’ve always said that – first and foremost – Star Trek is a business, and throughout much of the late 1990’s when Trek’s motion picture films went through some curious highs and lows as ‘the next generation’ separated itself from its parents, labeling it as a commercial property was controversial. I can’t tell you the number of times I was berated for doing such a simple thing – something honestly fairly benign given what creates debate online today. I was threatened with being banned from message boards (ask your parents). I was warned I wasn’t getting Trek’s central message. I was even branded ‘not a true Trekkie’ by some who claimed to know better.
For those who don’t know their history, Gene Roddenberry left the original show in its third season; and one of the first things he did was to expand on the marketing possibilities surrounding his show. Like George Lucas saw with the potential for growing an empire around Star Wars about a decade later, Roddenberry saw it with Trek, and he turned his eyes toward capitalist ventures that could possibly grant him the income required to continue seeking out and exploring other possibilities. Go figure. He treated Trek like a business.
Granted, he still made the rounds speaking at colleges and universities and conventions. He met with anyone willing to host him for the purposes of, once again, keeping alive his vision of mankind’s future – that very enterprise, itself – and he did so with the hope that Star Trek would live long and – dare I say? – prosper. He never wanted it to end; and thankfully he didn’t let it, nor did Paramount. They persevered – the way good businessmen and women do – and it’s still around today. It’ll likely grow and change into something else for that next generation – those who were born today while I’ve been writing this piece and have obviously yet to discover it.
While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, I’m still convinced that what Trek is today bares so little resemblance from where it’s come that it needn’t even have the ‘Trek’ name attached to it. It does solely because it’s good business sense (there’s that whole business thing again).
But does it – Star Trek – matter?
Well, the long answer is above, and I gave you my short one at the outset, so you’ve no one to blame at this point but yourself. I suppose it’s safe to suggest that it only matters so much as you want it to matter – art is, after all, entirely subjective, so it only matters so much as any one of us wants to give it meaning. I think not – that it doesn’t matter – but, as I’ve said, I’ve been wrong before.
So was Kirk.