Monday, March 13, 2017

I've been thinking about what Star Trek is supposed to be, and why recent efforts at series have sucked.

First, I did a little research. I broadly described each episode of Star Trek: The Original Series with a single phrase, and then categorized them. Here's what I came up with:

Very first thing you notice: Fully 30 percent of the shows are "Monster of the Week" episodes. Roughly 13 percent of all episodes are "Let's Violate the Prime Directive" shows, where Kirk et al. get into a jam and must destroy an alien civilization's entire mode of living in order to get out of it. Nine percent of all episodes are "Crazy People" episodes, in which some lunatic gets aboard the Enterprise and must be stopped. Another nine percent of episodes are pure "Combat!" episodes, in which there's little story line and a lot of fist-fighting or laser-blasts in space.

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Now, if we look at just the first two seasons, which are the better ones, there's a lot more diversity. "Monster of the Week" and "Let's Violate the Prime Directive" shows still dominate, but not to the degree they do in the Third Season.

While "Crazy People" and "Combat!" episodes are 5 percent of episodes, so are "Disease" and "Bad Robot" episodes. "Alien Possession", "Time Travel", "Comedy", and "Mystery in Space" episodes are just under four percent each.

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If we look at Star Trek: The Next Generation, we see a somewhat different pattern. "Monster of the Week" still dominates, but "Mystery in Space" is just as popular. So are shows about "Technology Malfunction", which were much less frequent in TOS. "Let's Violate the Prime Directive" is popular, but not nearly as much as in TOS. Episodes about "Vulcans/Klingons/Romulans" are a big part of TOS (which is probably due to Worf's presence on the series), as well as a new category, "Overcome Your Problems" (in which various characters have problems with love, self-confidence, or whatnot and need to overcome them). Not popular? "Crazy People" and "Combat!".

What we see on TNG is a lot less focus on combat in space, and a lot less focus on crazy individuals (like mentally-ill starships captains taking over psychiatric hospitals). Instead, there's a much bigger focus on personal problems, on solving mysteries, and on technology malfunction (a much more modern dilemma than it was in the 1960s, when faith in technology was much higher).

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In trying to figure out what made Star Trek popular in the first place, I've tried to avoid discussions about whether the show had a social conscience, whether the show lacked conflict between the humans, and stuff like that. I want data, not myths.

So what was the writing about?

Star Trek: The Original Series has a reputation for being VERY socially conscious. But is that true? The data show that seven or eight episodes a season, out of 26 or so episodes each year, had a socially conscious theme like racism, patriotism, violence, or sexism. That's about 27 percent of all episodes. TOS has this massive reputation as a socially conscious show, but it seems blown out of proportion. "One in four" is what that reputation is based on.

Star Trek: The Next Generation has even lower numbers of episodes which are socially conscious. Just two or three episodes a season, out of 25 or so episodes each year, had a socially conscious theme like drug addiction, ageism, or militarism. That's about 15 percent of all episodes.

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Another way to approach "what was the writing about" is to perhaps compare the show to other recent science fiction shows. While there are quite a few sci fi TV series airing over the past 25 years, most of these are superhero shows, supernatural shows, or shows set on Earth. Aside from the four Star Trek series which have aired, there have been four Stargate series. That leaves just seven series on the air: Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Farscape, Firefly, Space: Above and Beyond‎, and Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

Nearly all of these series have a theme; that is, there is a long, over-arching story arc which most episodes work to advance to one degree or another. Battlestar Galactica and Caprica both had a long story arc about Cylons and montheism. Babylon 5 had a long story arc about the Shadow War. Farscape had a long story arc about the flight from Captain Kreis and Scorpius. Space: Above and Beyond had a long story arc about the Bug War. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated series, had a long story arc about the Clone Wars. Stargate SG-1 had a four-season arc in which the Stargate team battles Apophis, a four-season arc in which the team battles Anubis, and a two-season arc in which the team battles the Ori. Stargate Atlantis had a five-season story arc in which the team battles the Wraith. Stargate Universe had a two-season story arc in which the team discovers the starship Destiny and begins to solve the puzzle of the universe. Stargate Infinity, an animated series, had a long story arc about the Stargate team being framed for allowing an alien invasion of Earth and their attempt to flee through various stargates in an attempt to clear their name.

Star Trek: The Next Generation‎ does not have a theme or story arc. Story ideas appear over time, such as each season's Q episode, or the Borg episodes that appear in every season after season four, or the "Worf's honor"/"Klingon civil war" episodes that appear from time to time. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine‎ has a three-season story arc in which the ramifications of the Bajoran Occupatin are generally worked out, and then a four-season story arc involving the Dominion War. Star Trek: Voyager‎ has a general theme (but no story arc) in which the ship is trying to get home. A lot of episodes involve this theme (the search for fuel, the search for food, the attempt to create a wormhole, Starfleet's attempt to create a wormhole, etc.). One season had a story arc involving the alien race known as the Kazon. Star Trek: Enterprise‎ had a two-season story arc involving the Temporal Cold War, a one-season story arc involving the Xindi War, and a fourth season involving three-episode story arcs (involving Augments, Vulcan religion, the Tellarite war scare, the Mirror Universe, the Klingon phage-plague, and xenophobia).

What's revealing is that Star Trek: The Original Series, like Star Trek: The Next Generation‎, is completely episodic. We don't see recurring story ideas (as in TNG), and we certainly do not have story arcs. Deep Space Nine, however, was completely thematic, and Voyager and Enterprise were a bit of a mix. Although none of these shows were considered paragons of good television writing, it's interesting that the most popular, and most popular in syndication, is the one most like The Original Series.

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So what does this all mean?

In trying to get at what "good" Star Trek is, and how the movies can be better, my sense is that comparisons to the TV show are pretty meaningless.

I know that people love to compare modern Trek films to the classic series. But I've come to the conclusion that that's a false comparison. Moreover, Star Trek has recently tried to do the "social commentary" thing with post-Cold War environmentalist films like The Undiscovered Country and anti-cloning with Nemesis. Those have proven to be big failures, in their commentary, because of a number of issues. First and foremost, the films have not staked out truly progressive, liberal territory the way the 1960s series did. Second, the films have taken a really wish-washy attitude on social issues. (It's widely viewed, correctly, as having horribly fumbled the ball on LGBTQ rights in the past 25 years. When it finally addressed them in Into Darkness, it do so only tangentially.)

So why has Star Trek failed?

First, it's because Star Trek isn't visually exploring new territory any longer. This occurs in two ways. First, the 1960s series adopted a very distinct visual look. The visual look was new and different because it both adopted the "clean look" and it adopted vibrant colors. If one considers the look of science fiction prior to the 1960s, the common thread was to show lots of dials, levers, speakers, flashing lights, wires, microphones, and all the rest. Star Trek rejected this. Controls were minimal and symmetrical. All mechanical things were behind panels. Moreover, because it was television, the show adopted extremely bright colors to stand out. Pastels were out.

Second, the 1960s series created new visuals for itself. Instead of the traditional Art Deco rocketship design of every sci fi movie and TV show for the past 30 years, it adopted a radically new starship look. Ship controls were simple and brightly lit (to show up well on the small TV screen). The phaser was your typical gun, but the tricorder and the medical probe and the medical bed and the communicator were all new. Even the names were new. But the films have largely ignored innovation, and have slavishly replicated 20-, 30-, and 40-year old visuals. Ever since Star Trek: The Next Generation, the TV shows have also used largely the same visuals. The only substantive changes have been to the control panels on the ships, which use NASA-developed "programmable visuals" (TNG calls them "okudagrams", after production designer Mike Okuda -- their creator).

The post-2009 Star Trek films have attempted to come up with their own visual language in regard to ship controls, but little else. In part, the bridge design relies heavily on light, upright, transparent panels with heavy frames first seen in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. It also relies for some controls on the round shapes of Michael Okuda's controls depicted in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everything is under-lit, just as it was in the 1960s TV series. The innovation is the immense amount of pseudo-information being thrown at the viewer. Huge numbers of line-drawings, endless scrolls of numbers and words, vast equations, and drawings of the ship itself are layered on top of one another in a profuse and confusing way. The goal is to create a visual overload, so that the viewer cannot really concentrate on anything. But another goal is to create the illusion of practicality; one of the criticisms of the 1960s TV series and the films (until the post-2009 era) has been that data and information on monitors was pretty much meaningless junk. (Think of the spiralling, highly repetitive light-shows on the monitors used in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or the meaningless dots of light used on monitors in Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan.)

Visually, the post-2009 films' only other innovation was in the development of medical "dianostic film", which is seen only briefly in Star Trek Beyond.

Where's the excitement that comes from innovation?

Don't tell me that fans "demand" the same shit, because fans are clearly upset and unhappy.

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I think another big problem is just story. The first film suffered heavily from "let's get the old crew back together" syndrome. But in smashing (literally, in some cases) icons of the "old" Star Trek, it managed to alienate a number of fans. Meanwhile, new viewers with little emotional involvement in Spock or Vulcan just didn't give much of a shit. Endless in-joke references to the TV series (of the 1960s, 1990s, and 2000s) flew over the heads of nearly everyone who saw the movie. (For example, the 2009 film makes a big joke out "Admiral Archer's beagle". This is a Star Trek: Enterprise in-joke. Fans of that show numbered less than 4 million -- roughly one-quarter the number who see a hit movie on a single weekend). Most viewers know the name "Romulan", but have little other knowledge of the show, yet that's who the main villain was. Star Trek Into Darkness suffered from many of the same problems. Star Trek Beyond was more creative in its approach, but how many times has a Star Trek series done the "starship crash survivors turn into embittered aliens with mega-powers" plot? Seven? Nine?

It seems to me that, if a person is going to do a Star Trek movie, they need to approach the project as if no one had ever seen Star Trek ever before. Come up with a real wing-ding science fiction plot about people exploring the galaxy. And then do it. Stop worrying about a 50-year-old television show and its aged fans.

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