Star Trek shows reflected — and reacted to — their times.
When “Star Trek” first premiered in the 1960s, the world wondered if it would survive. Nuclear war always seemed more or less imminent. Trek was notable in that it portrayed a future where not only did we survive, we solved some of humanity’s biggest problems, and we discovered we were explorers after all.
The 1980s and 1990s Star Treks, including my franchise favorite “The Next Generation,” were produced in a different world. The threat of nuclear annihilation had eased, and we were more concerned about our feelings. It continued to show a brighter future where humanity had learned to get along with itself and celebrate its differences. “Deep Space 9” saw an opening to tell some darker stories and largely succeeded. “Voyager” tried gamely to be different, but too many of the same people were producing it, and it found it couldn’t be so different after all. This is where Trek began to feel a bit too re-treaded.
In the early 2000s, “Star Trek Enterprise” came into the shadow of international terrorism. 9-11 had just happened. We felt betrayed that we’d survived the era of nuclear fear and found we hadn’t gotten anywhere after all. It was the era of uncertainty. “Enterprise,” in response, showed a humanity still struggling to make it off the earth and find its place in the galaxy with very uncertain footing (and uncertain production and story values).
Modern “Marvelized” Star Treks come to us in a world where, yeah, we still wonder if we’re going to survive, but many of us don’t care if we do or don’t. We’re so burned out from the struggle we find it hard to care for ourselves or each other. The real pandemic is our lack of empathy. Sometimes we’d rather be distracted by the overwhelming big-ness of CGI than think about how society is crumbling all around us. We survived the threat of nuclear annihilation, survived terrorism, only to find ourselves at the mercy of people killing each other over wearing masks and getting vaccinated. We’re a culture with a severe death wish.
While heralded for bringing some meaningful diversity behind and in front of the cameras, “Discovery” is struggling to figure out just what kind of future it wants to present to the audience. I credit the writers and producers for fresh angles and new stories, though some are more successful than others. “Discovery” has hit some highs, but it’s still figuring out who it wants to be when it grows up. Its saving grace is a marvelous cast.
The Trek franchise has reached a place where it can play with the formula and find new things to do with it. “Picard” brings us an unflinching look at aging and has such high aspirations I’m not disappointed it doesn’t always reach them. It features my favorite Trek actor and character, so I’m willing to engage regardless.
I’m thoroughly enjoying “Lower Decks,” which brings a lot of satirical yet loving humor to the franchise. This is only possible because Trek is at a place where one single show doesn’t have to carry the weight of the franchise.
I have high hopes for “Strange New Worlds.” I hope it can tell new stories but imbue itself with the feeling of hopeful exploration we got in the 1960s original series.