I’m having a little episode, here. I have just watched The City on the Edge of Forever, some 49 minutes of Star Trek originally broadcast in 1967, the year I was born. It’s good. I’m tempted to say, miraculously good. More than good enough to make me feel cheated.
There’s a long rant about Star Trek boiling away inside me, and it will have to boil on for now. In lieu of that essay I’ll just make a statement, and hope it matters to someone out there.
Star Trek has given meaning to my life. The original series embraced reason and the hope of peace, and made a hero of a man named Spock whose twin ambitions were knowledge and psychic emancipation (or Zen stillness, if you prefer). If you flipped to other channels you’d find people smoking and spitting, cooing on sitcom couches, gunning engines, gunning each other down. The original Star Trek, at its best, countered all that with a never-ending carousel of wonder, wrapped up in an ongoing argument in defense of the human spirit.
Best of all, it gave us these treasures not as theories but as lived moments. For Star Trek was also a cosmic opera house built for three. McCoy, the passionate humanist. Spock, the fortress of intellect, besieged from within and without. Kirk, the royal ego, charged with balancing these two princes, leading them forward, making them work as one.
You know all this. You know too how much there was to choke on in the original show: its chauvinism, the one-in-three episodes that seemed to be written by a team of stoned clowns, Shatner’s occasionally hideous hamming. But when the show worked – oh, how it worked! No one had ever seen anything like it. And rarely – very, very rarely since the sixties – have we seen it again.
Which brings me to an impertinent question. What has Star Trek been since 1969? What do all its movie and TV reincarnations amount to?
Not even for myself do I have an answer: tomorrow I may wake up and doubt (or even delete) the words I’m about to write. But I suspect they amount to a small, smoldering compost heap.
Granted, millions upon millions in rich leftovers have been dumped on that heap. But it’s never really worked. The process of decomposition has been too quick. Almost everything thrown at the heap has broken down quickly into pungent soil.
Almost? Yes, almost. The gold nugget was The Wrath of Kahn, because Nicholas Meyers' script was not written for imbeciles, or those so starved for the joys of the original that they would feign imbecility in exchange for references – references, by God, inside jokes, allusions! – to the show’s remembered strengths.
Wait! cries the critic, fresh from the theater. All that embarrassing schlock is behind us! All those Next Generation bridge scenes with Rick Berman’s mannequins delivering lines as though reading warranty statements. The makeup on Mr. Data so thick it seemed applied with a trowel; the costumes made of hotel bedspreads. The winks at the audience; the painful cameos. The aliens more poorly imagined than those in Buck Rogers. The very name “Mr. Data.” The agonizing solitude of Patrick Stewart, crying, raging, thrashing about night after night in his vain hunt for someone to act with, some scene worth completing. The dull, stale, meaningless drivel about deflector dishes, holodecks, antimatter containment diddlywhacks and Wesley Crusher’s puberty. It’s all gone! The bridge has been swabbed clean! J.J. Abrams himself gave the order.
But did he?
That’s a rant for another night, perhaps—long after I turn in Book III of The Chathrand Voyage. I’ll just leave you with another question, this one about Abrams’ own film:
What was good? The film itself, that adrenal blur? Or the memories of something great that it did not so much build on as exploit one more time, in expensive, dumbed-down, risk-free fashion?
Could it be that Star Trek since 1969 is one vast money-gobbling machine, fueled by our hunger for what we glimpsed back then, by our nostalgia for a world that could dream such dreams, by our surrender of the future?
Again, I don’t know. But here’s one way to test the notion: wait and see if Trek boldly goes ANYWHERE the series hasn’t gone before, ever again. Wait and see if its corporate mandarins permit such a rash adventure, instead of prudently recycling our fathers’ inspirations. I for one pray the journey continues.