Reading Boarding the Enterprise, a celebration of Star Trek's legacy originally published ten years ago but rereleased to coincide with the franchise's fiftieth anniversary (I got the book thanks to AshleyRose Sullivan's giveaway, which she held on her excellent blog, My Year of Star Trek), I found some essays I particularly enjoyed, and some that kind of irritated me. One of the latter was the very last essay in the book, Howard Weinstein's "Being Better," which was about how the original series is best remembered as Gene Roddenberry's vision of a better tomorrow.
Which is fine and dandy. I mean, that's about the best summation of Star Trek you'll find, a common one, in fact, that you'll find littered throughout most of the commemorations of the anniversary. Where Weinstein's thoughts stick in my craw is when he suggests the sentiment is at its purest in the original series, and each subsequent iteration features diminishing returns, to the point where he suggests, "Voyager and Enterprise muted the message."
It bothers me because this is the legacy I've been battling for fifteen years, the idea that Star Trek has never again been as good as it was in the three original seasons. I get it. I really do. Loathe as they would be to admit it, Star Trek fans are slaves to nostalgia as much as anything else. It's perfectly valid to adhere to a thought process you developed years, even decades ago, but to continue to insist, in completely dismissive tones, the contributions later iterations of the franchise have had over the years, is just plain wrong.
Everyone knows (another contributor, Paul Levinson, whose "How Star Trek Liberated Television" is literally about how viewing audiences fragmented over the years, and is the essay just before Weinstein's in the collection) that the '90s represented the dawn of a seismic shift in ratings dominance between network and cable TV, which was directly reflected in the fortunes of the three later Star Trek shows, including Deep Space Nine. The popular shell game of the lack of unity within the Star Trek fanbase itself has consistently, in the past fifteen years, insisted that this was solely because of the product itself. I won't say that every Star Trek fan has to like every series. That's equally ridiculous. But to continually push the fiction that one series or another, or two or three of the last three series, simply didn't succeed because they weren't true to the spirit of Star Trek, has to end.
Because Weinstein singles out Voyager and Enterprise I'll discuss them here, and why they most emphatically did maintain Roddenberry's vision of a better future, in ways that were uniquely their own but totally in-line with what came before them. (In fact, the fact that they did was the main sticking point for a lot of younger fans, who didn't understand why Star Trek had to exist with this vision, when other, cooler sci-fi shows clearly didn't.)
Let's start with Voyager. Famously envisioned as the "Lost in Space" of the Star Trek franchise, and later usurped in the hearts of fans by the similar Battlestar Galactica (which took a very different outlook), this was all about a crew that was stranded far from home. Captain Janeway quickly decides that they will make the journey home, no matter how long it'll take, and in the process reconciles a group of Federation rebels into the crew, which will operate under the ideals of Starfleet. I don't see how any of that contradicts Roddenberry's vision. In fact, it's the greatest affirmation possible.
A lot of fans had problems with the show, whether because it was basically another exploration series with new dressing, or because they thought it was incredible that Janeway could so easily convince the rebels to join her crew. This speaks to the integrity of the fans more than anything, who clearly didn't understand what Roddenberry's vision was. You'd expect Weinstein to be better? Except he isn't. The very spirit of inclusiveness that was at the heart of Roddenberry's vision quickly turned defensive, when the promise of new Star Trek meant older fans might have to make room for competition from within. Ironically, it was the fans themselves who turned on the franchise's ideals, without once thinking twice about it.
Enterprise, meanwhile, was a prequel, and as such attempted to dramatize how Kirk's era came to be. Again, the very struggles Captain Archer's crew experienced in their adventures embodied the essence of Roddenberry's vision. Every time Archer had to admit his mistakes was a working example of what Star Trek was all about. Every time he struggled with his conscience (something that had been common in the franchise since Deep Space Nine) was the full-blown version of the dialogue Kirk so frequently indulged in with Spock and McCoy on his way to making some decision or other on an alien world that had somehow been corrupted and he had to decide whether or not to intervene. It wasn't simply the presence or absence of the Prime Directive, and Archer's dawning awareness that such a thing would probably be necessary, that made Enterprise reflect Roddenberry's ideals, all over again, but that when things were at their darkest, in the third season Xindi arc, Archer struggled the most.
If Archer's missteps, if his yearning to find common ground, was something less than the spirit of a better tomorrow, if Janeway somehow failed to live up to Weinstein's standards, it would have looked better for him if he hadn't so casually rejected their efforts. Listen, I know what fans have said about these shows over the years. I know it's easiest to embrace what the widest pool of fans have already embraced, but I thought the whole idea of Star Trek was that we stop letting petty differences get the best of us, and recognize the fact that we're better than we sometimes allow ourselves to believe.
Boarding the Enterprise has a surprising depth to it, looking at Star Trek from a large pool of perspectives. Some of it is decidedly irreverent, which I wish were more common among fans. Some of them take it far too seriously. Some don't take it seriously enough. Not one incarnation has failed to meet Gene Roddenberry's vision that tomorrow, things will be better. And maybe, tomorrow, fans will understand that, too. Maybe it doesn't matter, in the long run. Maybe it doesn't matter which fans like what. But I'd like to think every fan could recognize what Star Trek is, what it has always been, and stop trying to antagonize each other. Because that's the opposite of what it's all about. I recognize that it's ironic to complain about Weinstein's comments, in this spirit, but his perspective perfectly encapsulates everything that's wrong with everything that's right, why we're still imperfect, and why we can still hope to be better, tomorrow.