Star Trek continuity: Talmudic and fundamentalist paradigms

[Editor’s note: As part of my more leisurely summer routine, I’ve hit on a way of achieving the true Star Trek completism that has so long eluded me by watching an original series (TOS) episode every day over lunch. I had already worked about halfway through the series over the last year or so, but I had watched only at very odd intervals (basically whenever The Girlfriend left me alone in the house for the evening, as her tolerance for TOS is very low). Watching it in rapid succession has made it impossible to ignore the utter inconsistency and discontinuity, and I started a conversation on Twitter with Sean Capener comparing Star Trek continuity with issues of continuity in religious traditions. He was far ahead of me in his reflections, and so rather than poach all his ideas, I invited him to contribute this guest post. Sean is a Dual-MA student at Claremont Graduate University studying Philosophy of Religion & Theology and Cultural Studies. He usually blogs here.]

Television continuity is an interesting beast. The form of obsessive and detailed continuity that contemporary television viewers have come to expect is a fairly recent invention—the product largely of shifts in television aesthetics in the late 80s and early 90s, and even then really only coming into full fruition with the ‘quality TV’ genre of the 2000s on.

Perhaps no shows have had their continuity more thoroughly analyzed by both writers and fans than those of the Star Trek franchise—indeed, with Star Trek, (and with its fandom) the strange formal parallels between television continuity and the ‘continuity’ of tradition involved in religious discourse become visible. As Adam put it in the twitter conversation that inspired this post, “just as St Paul didn’t realize he was founding a religion, DC Fontana didn’t know she was setting up 50 subsequent episodes in each script” (Fontana was one of the most prolific writers of the original series). And so, with the creation of sequels and spinoffs, the writers find themselves committed to Star Trek’s continuity, even while that original continuity was improvised and inconsistent.

In the face of this inconsistency, there are a number of possible approaches. Adam and I have both advocated for something like a ‘talmudic’ approach in the past, and I think that both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine operate basically on this model. The writers of both series had a certain freedom to disregard, say, The Animated Series, or conflicting dates and details given for major parts of the universe in TOS (does Kirk’s Enterprise operate under the banner of the United Earth Space Probe Agency or Starfleet, for instance? What is the relation of either of these to the United Federation of Planets?) while picking up details that illustrate what the writers take to be the central concerns animating Star Trek; questions of collaboration, utopianism, etc. As a result, they are free to systematize some of the more worthwhile details of the original without slavish devotion. It’s not that continuity isn’t an issue (TNG, for instance, spends a lot of time explaining to us just how transporters and warp drives work and trying to develop something like consistent rules of use) but how continuity is an issue implies a very different kind of relation to the source material than in later incarnations of the franchise.

And so, as the amount of Star Trek media grows, something changes, and Star Trek begins to slip into a ‘fundamentalist’ mode of continuity, wherein the point becomes to harmonize every small detail possible. This trend comes to a head in Enterprise—several of the latter seasons’ episodes are devoted to minor throwaway points from TOS (for instance, despite possessing basically the same communications technology as TOS, the writers are careful to obey the throwaway line from ‘Balance of Terror’ that no human had ever seen a Romulan until that episode). Perhaps the absolute apotheosis of this trend comes when a driving storyline is devoted to explaining in-universe the changes in Klingon makeup between TOS and the movies—something DS9 was willing to treat as a mere throwaway joke. These plotlines resemble nothing so much as creationists’ attempts to explain away the appearance of billions of years-old stars in the sky (God stretched the light!) or to render compatible the size of Noah’s ark and the number of animals it would need to hold to repopulate the Earth from scratch.

Given how far things have gone in the direction of fundamentalism, it’s obvious that one can’t ‘simply’ return to the talmudic model. It’s not even clear that, despite universal derision for later Trek, fandom would accept a direct return. Interestingly, the fandom’s ‘reading methods’ have mirrored the writers: whereas early fandom was focused around fanzines, fan-fiction, and talmudic improvisation using the ‘canon’ as a base (interestingly, a lot of early pop culture scholarship was kicked off by a fascination with the practices of Star Trek fandom—especially Kirk/Spock erotica), later fandom has been notoriously characterized by an obsession with details surrounding important timeline dates and technologies—in short, an obsessive harmonization (if you want to see this at work, one of my favorite sites for this kind of thing is Ex Astris Scientia).

If one can’t directly return to that moment of fabulation and indeterminacy, the need for some kind of break is implied; and so, you get the necessity of a reboot. It’s here that the relation between Star Trek  and religion—in particular, Christianity—becomes most telling. Abrams-Trek ties its ‘parallel’ universe to the original, and so is in many ways still stuck in the same harmonization-game. Instead of an actual break that might allow us to return to Star Trek’s animating concerns in a new way, what we get indebts us all the more to the fundamentalist mode. We get in Abrams-Trek a kind of post-Evangelical take on Star Trek: stripped of the more contemporarily ‘embarrassing’ bits of the mythology, but still beholden to a level of continuity, and paradoxically making it even harder to newly address the problem to which Trek might respond. And so, the sorts of nods we get to fandom involve getting straight the name of the first Captains of the Enterprise, all sorts of universe-continuity details, etc, but throw out the post-monetary society in favor of Budweiser and Nokia.

7 thoughts on “Star Trek continuity: Talmudic and fundamentalist paradigms

  1. There is perhaps an interesting contrast with Star Wars, which has a large continuity (of books, TV spin-offs, etc) which is collectively referred to as the “expanded universe”, and which has always been held to have a lower level of canonical authority than the films. Perhaps because of this distinction, though, the franchise seems to take a highly fundamentalist approach to the continuity of the films, particularly as George Lucas makes increasingly ludicrous claims to have planned everything in the films in advance.

    It appears that the new Star Wars films aren’t going to involve any kind of in-story continuity changes (as the Abrams Star Trek films do), but are simply going to ignore the expanded universe and lay down a new continuity.

  2. I think this is ignoring one of the fundamental principles of serial fiction, which is that any detail can become the hook for a later story, and so there can be no definitively unimportant details. Any detail, in the hands of the right author, can be become the hook for a fantastic story. And you get maximum satisfaction from seeing an earlier detail pay off in a subsequent story if you know all the details. That dynamic is always going to have the potential to push fans into becoming obsessive about continuity.

  3. Out of current television serials, I think Mad Men is best at exploiting the aspect of serial fiction that Urthman describes — and I think they do it in a fundamentally Talmudic way. I wonder if part of what enables this is the fact that the creators are actively hostile to their fan community and make it almost a matter of principle never to do any predictable “fan service” (probably the biggest example being the desire for Sal to come back). For all its virtues, rabbinic Judaism is after all an inherently elitist practice, in a way that Christian fundamentalism is not.

  4. Agreed. There’s a couple things I might change about this typology if I thought more about it than a blog post, but one of them is the impression that the issue is attention to detail vs. ‘general thrusts’ or something. Like I said about TNG, it’s not that TNG is unconcerned with details or continuity; it’s about the *way* these are accounted. An example internal to TNG actually might be the way the Crystalline Entity reappears in Season 5 in a totally different way than its original appearance: what was originally there as a one-off threat that was an excuse to set up Lore is brought back as an example of alterity in its own right–the second appearance figures the CE as worth consideration as a singular form of life, with the question of being-with the CE as the central consideration. (Incidentally, I kind of think it’s one of TNG’s best episodes)

  5. James Bond (like Doctor Who) would be another fascinating example of Talmudic continuity me thinks…it reinvents itself with every new Bond actor with nods to details but obviously also with a self-referential recognition that continuity is a sham with an ageless secret agent.

    Also continuity is tied to suspension of disbelief. You need continuity in a series or faith to make it plausible. But continuity in terms of slavish attention to detail leads to a reversal: it reveals an obssessive fear of the possibility that your belief might not be true. This is the moment when fans actually believe that Star Trek exists. A detail that doesn’t fit reveals the fictional nature of the whole enterprise (pun intended). In religion it defines the move from belief to desperate need for proof. Belief is not enough as its nebulous ungraspability is always threatened by its opposite, namely doubt. Ironically the craving for proof can destroy belief. Hence the creationist analogy is indeed apt. The focus on detail is a false security. As soon as someone comes along and disproves a complex system, the opposite of proof kicks in: proof of the whole system being an illusion – which is of course worse than doubt.

Comments are closed.