What is Star Trek? Is it merely entertainment, or is there more to it than to a normal television series? I think that there is. Perhaps the most important thing about Trek is that it fulfils one of humanity's dreams: in this universe, mankind reaches out to the stars, and has not fallen back but gone on to greater things. On the edges of explored space the starships still "boldly goŠ": humanity has not abandoned science, as some writers would have us do, nor have we drowned in technology, as others have portrayed, but instead humanity grows with it. Trek has always had a powerful respect for science: the starships of the Federation have always carried scientists as well as weapons: contrast, for example, the rather one-dimensional Galactica. It is not for nothing that the first US Shuttle was named Enterprise.
Star Trek is often accused of lacking good actors and deep characters: while this may once have been true, it would be hard to find another television actor the equal of Patrick Stewart. Brent Spiner is not far behind him, and it would be hard to point to a Trek actor these days who is not at least competent. The characters improve all the time: we have discovered new depths to Data over the series as he moves towards humanity, Troi has moved away from her early "Counsellor Cleavage" role towards a more believable psychologist and limited psionicist, with depths few would have dreamed of seven years ago (Face of the Enemy, for instance, in which she impersonates a member of the Romulan security forces.) Worf has developed in the Klingon episodes from a mere source of muscle to a being torn between loyalty to the Federation, to the Klingon Empire and to the honour the Empire seems to lack: we have discovered Worf has a mate and a son, and seen his mate die.
Q. Is there anyone who cannot like Q? Even in the otherwise rather weak pilot, Q was striking: ommnipotence and childishness rolled into one. Later he has gone further, but Q has always been one of the strengths of the Next Generation, literally from start to finish.
What of an ongoing plot? Often Star Trek is accused of lacking one entirely. While many of the Enterprise's encounters are one-offs, often one finds recurring plot threads running through it all: the Klingon internal politics, for instance. The Borg. The consequences of the recently-concluded Cardassian War. Tasha Yar, who, for someone who died so early, gets into a lot of later episodes. Deep Space Nine takes this further with the constant Federation/ Cardassian/ Klingon/Bajoran politics, which are complicated by the Bajoran religious matters and the danger of civil war. Few DS9 episodes are one-offs.
What of the mirror held up to reality? 60s Star Trek had a Russian and a black woman on the bridge, and many will tell you showed the first interracial kiss on American television, between Kirk and Uhura. DS9 at last has overcome the tendency for Trek women to be in female-stereotype roles (Yar was head of security, but died early on): Major Kira is, in many ways, tougher than Sisko, her superior. Indeed, the second in command in the original Trek pilot, which was rejected, was to be an extremely professional woman, and, while Paramount has rejected the female Captain for the USS Voyager, I feel that this was not the decision Roddenberry would have made.
Star Trek touches on other issues: it is, I hope, moving towards a serious treatment of homosexuality, albeit belated one: Kira has come as close to kissing another Kira as she has to kissing anyone, and a couple of TNG episodes have touched the subject. One TNG episode was not shown by the BBC and was censored by Sky because its treatment of terrorism was too close to Ireland for comfort. DS9 has shown us ugly religious terrorism (a school firebombed) and civil war. Do you still think Trek is just entertainment?
But what of it as entertainment? Here Star Trek does equally well: such episodes as Yesterday's Enterprise or The Best of Both Worlds, where Picard is forced to command a ship that destroys the Star Fleet, and Riker prepares to ram this same ship, killing everyone on board the Enterprise to save humanity, can hardly be deemed boring. The average Star Trek episode is interesting: some are magnificent. Is it shallow? Is The Inner Light shallow? In 40 minutes Stewart portrays Picard living out a whole new life with a family, growing old and dying, and discovering that his 'family' is long since dead: the episode held my attention throughout, and it made a profound impression on me: months later the memory of it saddens me, even though it may be 'only fiction'. It has received a Hugo, one of the major SF awards, and undeniably deserves it.
In conclusion, I can only ask you to look at Star Trek's best before you decide, rather than its worst. If we are to judge Blake's 7 by Rumours of Death rather than Harvest of Kairos and Tolkien by The Lord of the Rings rather than The Simarillion then let us judge Star Trek by The Inner Light rather that Spock's Brain.
(c) David Dammerell
A reasoned reply