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« A Peek At The Future? | Main | Tuning Up The World's Tiniest Violin »

Another Star Trek Perspective

Orson Scott Card says that we don't need Star Trek any more:

As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas. It was sci-fi as seen by Hollywood: all spectacle, no substance.

Which was a shame, because science fiction writing was incredibly fertile at the time, with writers like Harlan Ellison and Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg and Larry Niven, Brian W. Aldiss and Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke creating so many different kinds of excellent science fiction that no one reader could keep track of it all.

Little of this seeped into the original "Star Trek." The later spinoffs were much better performed, but the content continued to be stuck in Roddenberry's rut. So why did the Trekkies throw themselves into this poorly imagined, weakly written, badly acted television series with such commitment and dedication? Why did it last so long?

Here's what I think: Most people weren't reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren't reading at all. So when they saw "Star Trek," primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction. It was grade school for those who had let the whole science fiction revolution pass them by.

That's the sense that I've always had as well, based on many encounters with Trekkers, few of whom seemed interested in real space activities, or reality in general.

Posted by Rand Simberg at May 03, 2005 09:29 AM
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"few of whom seemed interested in real space activities, or reality in general."

Reality is overrated.

Posted by William Kubruster at May 3, 2005 09:38 AM

I grew up reading the same science fiction as Card, and, occasionally, still read in the genre. It doesn't make much sense to assess Trek from a perspective rooted in science fiction. It uses SF conventions to tell stories that, in most cases, could be to told using ocean-going ships and strange cultures on undiscovered continents.

Much of the literature Card mentions is gloomy and pessimistic, filled with skepticism about humanity's ability to survive, much less expand into the galaxy. Star Trek lacks that skepticism and pessimism. It has painted an optimistic picture of humanity's future as a species capable of resolving its Earthbound problems and moving into space. Trek makes you feel good to be human; a lot of science fiction makes you feel ashamed. That, it seems to me, accounts for a lot of its enduring popularity, along with the ability to tell a good story every so often.

Posted by at May 3, 2005 10:30 AM

WWII naval avaition influenced a lot of Roddenberry's ideas in creating Star Trek. So a lot of it is just like a destroyer or battleship cruising the exotic seven seas during the 1930's, with lots of interesting ports of call and adventure.

Just as in print, SF is a niche market or genre, and not mainstream. The more mainstream an SF movie or TV series is, the less it deals with hard SF themes, and becomes just action or romance.

Posted by ZZTop at May 3, 2005 10:39 AM

It's merely space opera, one of the oldest sub-genres of SF. Space opera is fun, and lightweight, which is why people enjoy it. Space ships, ray guns, uniforms, battles, and hot chicks? Yeah, I'll take some. Space opera has never been very respectable, has it?

Ultimate space opera? Babylon 5.

Posted by Mike James at May 3, 2005 10:50 AM

Orson of all people knows the tension between "good" science fiction and "popular" storytelling. He's merely faulting Star Trek for choosing a different balance than he has.

Posted by McGehee at May 3, 2005 11:19 AM

The problem with [i]Star Trek[/i] is that it just wasn't very good space opera. Especially in the Berman years, Star Trek was guilty of A) horrible dialog, B) Plots that don't hang together, C) Internal inconsistency, D) A universe that makes no sense (the Federation doesn't have money? huh?), and E) The use of techno-babble as a Deux ex Machina to get the lazy writers out of a corner they'd written themselves into.

For example, an entire episode could build towards a huge dilemma for the ship, which at the end would suddenly be resolved by Giordi announcing, "Hey, if we reverse the flux in the quantum fizzulator, it will create a space-time rift that will fling us out of harm's way!". You might as well just say, "And then a miracle happened, and the story ended!"

If you want to see good science fiction on TV, watch Firefly. It has an internally consistent universe, a plausible socio-political structure, dilemmas without easy techno-babble solutions, and characters that actually grow and change throughout the series. Firefly was superior to Star Trek in almost every way. The drama was more interesting, the comedy funnier, the ships cooler, the dialog MUCH better, etc.

Posted by Dan H. at May 3, 2005 11:30 AM

I would agree that Trekie (ers)?, and the Star War ers? aren't largely interested in real space exploration. However they are pro space exploration, as long as someone else does the math. They are a rich untapped resource when it comes to financing space exploration. With as little incentive as an acid etching of their name on a space craft these people would gladly finance their portion, Just to have the certificate and a picture of their name from the spacecraft hanging in the den.

Posted by JJS at May 3, 2005 11:42 AM

For the time Wagon Train to the Stars (aka Star Trek) was all there was (Lost in Space we'll not talk about...). It's indicative of how things have moved along that we can argue the relative merits of a variety of shows now.

And for my escapism I prefer optimism of the Star Trek/Bab5 sorts over Dark Shadows onna Spaceship.

Posted by JSAllison at May 3, 2005 12:03 PM

You took the words out of my mouth, JSAllison. Does Star Trek leave a lot to be desired? Of course. But was it better than any other science fiction show when it originally aired? Yes. At least they put some thought into it, they did some nice technological extrapolation, and many of the stories did depend on SF concepts. Compare to Lost in Space, UFO, Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants, etc. Even years later, you had Space:1999, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, etc. which were all pure jokes. Or compare to Star Wars, which is fun, but is essentially a fantasy story with SF trappings (Good and evil wizards, magic swords, etc.). The same story could be played in a "Lord of the Rings" environment.

Posted by VR at May 3, 2005 12:57 PM

When Star Trek was first broadcast, I think some computers still used vacuum tubes. The first cell phones were years in the future, and would be much larger than "communicators", which were modeled on military walkie-talkies. Some of our technology now is more advanced than what Star Trek portrayed as in our future then, but in other areas - like propulsion - we have made no progress at all. Like every work of fiction, it is a product of its time, and it should be cut some slack.

Posted by lmg at May 3, 2005 02:05 PM


> As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s a throwback to
> spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas.

To be fair, the original Star Trek series was a huge advance over earlier science-fiction TV series with respect to science and ideas. I can't defend the later Star Trek series, but with a few exceptions like Babylon 5, television generally hasn't really progressed past the original Star Trek.

Posted by Edward Wright at May 3, 2005 02:27 PM

Why do people keep bringing up Firefly as an example of good SF? If Startrek was the 1930s naval vessel, then Firefly was a Horse Opera without the horses or Lorne Greene.

But the earlier poster is right about that 60s written SF. I've still got most of the books by those authors mentioned that I bought back then, and I haven't read most of them in years. Their Cold War pessimism is just too hard to take, and is as incredibly dated as anything Hugo Gernsback ever published. Does anyone actually care what Harlan Ellison ever said or wrote, and why?

Posted by Raoul Ortega at May 3, 2005 03:28 PM

I think Star Trek was popular with the masses because it conveyed a sense of utopia that other programs don't have. This might explain why most Trekkies aren't interested in real space exploration: Because real space exploration is a long way from any utopia.

Posted by Kevin Parkin at May 3, 2005 04:44 PM

One thing that gets overlooked when people discuss how "cheesy" Trek was in the 1960s is the fact that the show was actually nominated for an Emmy as one of the best dramas on television. It really was one of the boldest shows on TV back then.

Posted by William Kubruster at May 3, 2005 05:02 PM

If you want to watch some good science fiction, watch The Outer Limits series, 1960s version. The 90s remake was pretty good too.

Posted by Jim Rohrich at May 3, 2005 05:27 PM

If you want to watch some good science fiction, watch The Outer Limits series, 1960s version. The 90s remake was pretty good too.

Like Star Trek, the original Outer Limits had some very good episodes, but it had plenty of silly ones too. I absolutely hated the remake. Every episode I saw was extremely pessimistic. The message always was: humans are evil, corrupt and stupid, the few good people will be overwhelmed by all the bad ones, we'll destroy ourselves, make a terrible mistake, or be destroyed by aliens despite our best efforts. Yeesh. That's fine once in awhile, but how about some stories that aren't quite so dismal? If that thing comes on the screen now, I turn the channel immediately.

Posted by VR at May 3, 2005 06:11 PM

I admit I've had little to no contact with Trekies as Trekies. But Trekies don't make up the bulk of the viewers.

Is it possible that the Trek franchise taps into our culture's yearning for far places and romaticism?

Posted by Brian Dunbar at May 3, 2005 07:19 PM

I'd like to see a new show without aliens and magic technologies that takes place within our own solar system? Is that possible?

Posted by ken anthony at May 4, 2005 01:10 AM

Card forgets that hard SF wouldn't make for a very compelling TV show. For all the gnashing of teeth about Roddenberry "ruining" Ellison's City on the Edge of Forever, the aired version is much better series TV. You can't just arbitrarily make a major character of an ongoing seris a drug addict, for instance. I'll allow that Ellison's version is a much more interesting *read* though.

Posted by Ian S. at May 4, 2005 05:34 AM

"That's the sense that I've always had as well, based on many encounters with Trekkers, few of whom seemed interested in real space activities, or reality in general."

Concur. Even in the late 1970's, when we pioneering L-5'ers (Elf-Hivers) tried to recruit members for our 'space colonization' society at Trek conventions, we found practically zero -- even negative -- interest in getting involved. Most of those activists were outright allergic to anything smacking of reality or potential reality.

Posted by Jim O at May 4, 2005 07:06 AM

I agree with Ken Anthony. A space opera set exclusively in the Solar System with STL ships and stopovers at asteroid colonies, terraformed (and partially-terraformed) planets and moons and O'Neill cylinders or Varley Rings (ala Golden Globe) would be loads of fun. Say a space-based civilization was just becoming self-sustaining when some kind of disaster hit the Earth and civilization there collapsed (asteroid impact from out of the ecliptic, massive plague, terrorism, war, some combination). The spacers manage to pull through, but R&D takes a hit, and they actually lose some of their tech. Set the story on an itinerant trader (call him Caleb Catlum or Nick van Rijn:-) and follow his adventures from worldlet to worldlet.

Posted by Jason Bontrager at May 4, 2005 07:17 AM

There ya go Jason,

I wasn't sure how you'd go about introducing the dramatic elements a show requires, but I guess if you have to wipe out the Earth to do it... so be it.

Posted by ken anthony at May 4, 2005 09:19 AM

Jason, I wrote an essay a while ago about science fiction stories like that (Earthless and restricted to the Solar System). You can read it here.

Posted by The Tensor at May 4, 2005 12:38 PM

One aspect of ST:TOS often forgotten is that at the time of broadcast, most TVs were still black and white, and ST had to be produced with that in mind. Try one of the better episodes with the color turned off; the effects are less cheesy, the costumes less garish and distracting, and most importantly the lighting is set up for dramatic punch in B&W. "City at the Edge of Forever" (for example)is a different viewing experience, space opera noir. Something is lost, and little gained, in the switch to color, IMO.

Posted by Stewart at May 4, 2005 01:28 PM

Jason's idea sounds a bit like Varley's Eight Worlds stories, which I recommend highly.

Posted by Bruce at May 4, 2005 02:24 PM

Jason's idea sounds a bit like Varley's Eight Worlds stories, which I recommend highly.

Posted by Bruce at May 4, 2005 02:24 PM

Now that you mention it, it *is* similar to Varley's stories. Even though I cited him I didn't think of that comparison. I'd want to leave out the aliens though, too much room for preaching and deus ex machinae there:-(.

Posted by Jason Bontrager at May 4, 2005 06:31 PM

I would think that David Weber's Honor Harrington series would be a natural for TV, or even movies. They have a sexy heroine, lots of intrigue, plenty of blood and guts (even including a duel), and multiple clashes of civilizations and/or cultures. While I wouldn't characterize them as great literature, the characterization is good and the technology is self consistent, if not always clearly derivative of current knowledge. I suspect that their fatal flaw is that the good guys are a democratic, capitalist federation while the bad guys are a either a communist system gone bad, or various intersteller dictatorships or end game bureaucracies. As such, they are not likely to find favor with the liberals and communist fellow travelers who run the TV/movie industry.

Posted by John F at May 4, 2005 07:34 PM

Want some un-PC sci-fi? How about Larry Niven's Kzinti, felinoid aliens whose males are sentient and whose females are not? Yes, I'm gonna say it - there would be a feminist catfight.

(ducking for cover)

Quick review of Ringworld: the interaction between the three main characters is the best part. The expedition to the ringworld itself is average. Not bad, just average.

Posted by Alan K. Henderson at May 4, 2005 08:39 PM

Yeah, I know, it ain't a real catfight unless there's "cats" on both sides. Couldn't resist the bad pun anyway.

Posted by Alan K. Henderson at May 4, 2005 10:01 PM

Orson Scott Card is a good man and an excellent author, but sometimes I think his acquaintance with Star Trek is all third-hand. His analysis of the Original Series is completely off-base. It's true that "science fiction writing was incredibly fertile at the time, with writers like Harlan Ellison and Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg and Larry Niven, Brian W. Aldiss and Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke creating so many different kinds of excellent science fiction that no one reader could keep track of it all." What Card doesn't say, possibly because he doesn't know it, is that some of those same authors were responsible for some of Original ST's better episodes. "The Doomsday Machine" by Norman Spinrad; "City on the Edge of Forever" by Harlan Ellison; "Amok Time" by Theodore Sturgeon; horror/SF writer Robert Bloch wrote at least two episodes including "Wolf in the Fold;" Richard Matheson did a couple of episodes; "Arena" was adapted (rather badly, IMO) from a story by Fredric Brown; "Trouble with Tribbles" was by David Gerrold, who went on to become a respected sf writer in his own right. An episode of the mostly-forgotten animated ST series was adapted from a Larry Niven short story.

I also agree with those who say that Original ST shouldn't be judged too harshly for its poor production quality and SFX. Remember that it was made forty years ago, on a shoestring budget even judging by the standards of the time. I've read a bit about the behind-the-scenes work that went into it, and I'm frankly impressed the cast and crew managed to do as well as they did. The later Trek series simply do not measure up in any of the ways that matter: not acting, not writing, not production quality, and certainly not as good Science Fiction.

All that said, however, I agree that Trekkers are not nearly as interested in the real space program as they should be. There are enough Trek-fans in the world that if you could convince each to donate just a ten-spot, you could probably fund Space Ship Two in full. And maybe some of Three as well.

Posted by wolfwalker at May 5, 2005 04:39 PM

"I've still got most of the books by those authors mentioned that I bought back then, and I haven't read most of them in years. Their Cold War pessimism is just too hard to take, and is as incredibly dated as anything Hugo Gernsback ever published."

You may still have your Ellison and Moorcock collections, but you seem to have forgotten everything that you've read by Niven, Heinlein, and Clarke.

Posted by John "Akatsukami" Braue at May 14, 2005 02:28 PM

"Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke"

Alan, you just listed my most treasured SF memories as a teenager! Thanks for the trip down the lane.

Also I must provide an alternate opinion about S.T. fans. As a kid, the show was one of several influences that lead me to my career in the Air Force as a satellite equipment technician Plus many of the shows' fabricated "tech" has come to pass in the form of our modern day cell phones, PDAs, and laptops, to name a few. The O.S. was cheap, camp, poorly executed, and highly "top 40", but still the best that the Tube ever offered ATT.

Posted by T. Stryker at September 24, 2005 10:47 AM

Scotty was not dealing drugs. It's a corrupt federation officer called Beckwith.

Posted by at October 12, 2005 12:01 AM

I think comparing Star Trek to literary science fiction is absurd. Although Outer Limits was somewhat better than Star Trek to expect television with its demand for a mass audience to equal the quality that only a minority of people will appreciate is rather silly.

Babylon 5 is better than Star Trek, but could it have done as well if Trek hadn't paved the way.

psikeyhackr

Posted by psikeyhackr at April 22, 2006 01:26 AM


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