What is Star Trek About? Federation, Fan-Service, or Freedom

[The following is the paper I delivered earlier today at the American Comparative Literature Association’s annual meeting in Chicago, as part of the seminar “Franchise Cultures,” organized by Benjamin Robertson. It was made up primarily of authors planning to contribute to the University of Minnesota Press “Mass Markets” book series, co-edited by Robertson and Gerry Canavan. As I indicate at the end of the talk, I am set to write a book on what I call “late Star Trek” — i.e., the material that has appeared in the 21st century, after the end of the Next Generation era.]

The Star Trek universe is one of the most robust commercial storyworlds in existence. Aside from the DC, Marvel, and Archie comic book universes, it is arguably the oldest to be in more or less continuous operation. New Star Trek stories have come out essentially every year since the early 1970s, even when the show and its spin-offs were off the air. And though this observation opens up serious ontological questions, it is the oldest fictional universe that purports to take place—outside of the brief interregnum of the JJ Abrams reboot films—in “the same” universe and timeline since the original series began broadcasting. Despite fans’ love of theories involving forked timelines, the clear intention of the writers and producers is that there has been no Crisis on Infinite Earths, no reset, nothing overwritten, nothing lost. Unless it is very explicitly flagged otherwise, everything we see on TV really happened within what is known as the Prime Timeline.

The Prime Timeline represents an exceptionally long span of time. Discounting a couple visits to the origin of life on Earth and the Big Bang itself, it stretches from the 20th century (where our heroes periodically visit) to the 32nd. Within that broad sweep, four main eras have been established in greater detail: the mid-22nd century (home to Enterprise, the unsuccessful prequel series), the mid- to late 23rd century (home to the Original Series and original cast films, as well as Strange New Worlds and the early seasons of Discovery), the late 24th century (which includes Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Lower Decks, Prodigy, and Picard, the last season of which has finally crested the 25th century) and the early 31st (seen in the later seasons of Discovery). Among the shows currently running, then, all major historical eras other than the 22nd century are represented, with three shows set at staggered points within the Next Generation era. And in the second season of Picard, they double down on one of the strange curiosities of Star Trek lore that fans have for decades treated as a sacred shibboleth—namely, the idea that Star Trek’s timeline “forked” from our own at some point in the 20th century, meaning that when Admiral Picard and friends traipse around present-day Los Angeles, it is not actually “our” Los Angeles.

That is a ton of fictional history to grapple with—even leaving aside the secondary histories found in the ancillary novels and comic books, which have been periodically swept away by the arrival of new on-screen “canon.” The question I would like to explore in this paper is whether the Star Trek universe is ultimately a complicated sandbox or whether all of those aggregated stories add up to a single story. In other words, paraphrasing Jesse Pinkman’s famous characterization of Saul Goodman: is Star Trek a story-world, or a story-world? This question is not merely a personal idiosyncrasy. As I hope to make clear, it is one that the writers and producers clearly struggle with, and increasingly so as the franchise continues to expand.

The question of what Star Trek is ultimately about is a lens through which to view each new installment’s struggle to justify its existence—a task that becomes ever more difficult as the burden of history grows greater and greater. On the one hand, it would seem that if a new show is to have a purpose for existence, it must make a difference to the Star Trek universe. From an artistic perspective, it should offer some new take on the material, which dovetails nicely with the commercial imperative to reach audiences that are not already invested in Star Trek as it currently exists. On the other hand, making a difference would constitute “changing things,” which fans hate (especially if those changes take place under the auspices of a prequel series). This is a risky move, since there is no guarantee that alienating old fans will advance the cause of gaining new ones.

In my detailed study of Star Trek canon, I have isolated three basic strategies that the writers and producers use to escape this dilemma. The first is the search for freedom from the constraints of Star Trek canon (as well as the constraints of Star Trek’s storytelling style, ethos, etc.)—in short, the declaration that this is not your father’s Star Trek. The second is fan-service, which simply gives long-time devotees of the franchise further adventures with familiar settings and characters. The third, which tries and fails to synthesize the previous two, is to claim that all of these stories really do add up to one big story, namely the story of the Federation.

These three strategies can only be ideal types. As the Star Trek fans in the seminar room have probably already recognized, any given production is likely to blend the strategies in some way. From a commercial perspective, this is understandable as a way of hedging their bets—but I want to claim that something deeper is at work. I will argue that, in a kind of space-age cunning of reason, the contradictions in each strategy necessarily call forth the others. (Hegel: the final frontier.)

So first: freedom. This is not your father’s Star Trek. The first example that springs to mind is probably the JJ Abrams films, particularly Star Trek (2009), which goes to such lengths to have multiple characters proclaim, on screen, that their fates are not determined by what came before. But this is only an extreme version of what Star Trek does literally every single time it starts a new era. The Motion Picture starts off with the basic coordinates of the Original Series unfixably broken—not only has the old gang broken up, but everyone (other than maybe McCoy) is acting completely wrong. Kirk is insecure and making all the wrong calls. Spock is a virtual zombie. Clearly this is not going to be just another episode. The Next Generation starts off nearly a century into the future with all-new characters and a radically new situation: peace with the Klingons. Deep Space Nine inverts the exploratory concept of Star Trek by putting our heroes on a space station, and in case we didn’t notice the implicit rebuke, our new commanding officer tells Picard to his face that he hates him.

Those of us who have all of Star Trek memorized are doubtless jotting down a rejoinder for Q&A. But Adam, the plot of The Motion Picture is a thinly disguised remake of an Original Series episode! And The Next Generation not only clearly models Q on “The Squire of Gothos,” but does a remake of “The Naked Time” in its second episode. In both cases, though, the intention is, paradoxically, to distance themselves from their sources. No one on the refit Enterprise thinks to say, “Hmm, isn’t this kind of like the time we encountered Nomad? Could we talk V’ger to death, too?” It’s as though it never happened—and indeed, Gene Roddenberry resisted the idea that the Original Series should be “canon” for the films or Next Generation. As for “The Naked Now,” the entire point of the episode is for them to refer back to the logs of Kirk’s Enterprise and realize that they have to find their own solution. It’s not quite as heavy-handed as bringing Jean-Luc Picard to Deep Space Nine for a brutal dressing-down, but the fundamental gesture is similar. Yes, this past Star Trek happened. We realize that. We’re doing something different—deal with it!

The second strategy is fan-service. The best recent examples are Lower Decks and Strange New Worlds. Neither has any pretensions of changing the face of the franchise. Just the opposite: they seek only to pay tribute. Lower Decks provides a fun and ironic window on the most successful era of Star Trek, while Strange New Worlds returns to the Original Series’ episodic style and heavy-handed moralism with modern production values and better-looking actors. This is also something that Star Trek has always done, though normally in less authoritative material. The Animated Series is perhaps the earliest canonical example, as approximately a quarter of the episodes are direct sequels to the Original Series. The novels and comics, despite their often underrated quality and creativity, have also been structurally committed to providing more of the same.

In the Next Generation era, the strategy of homage was used sparingly, most often in lampshaded tribute episodes that signalled respect for the Original Series while highlighting the decisive break between the two eras. In the final season of Enterprise, by contrast, fan-service became a survival strategy, as season 4’s new production and writing staff sought to win back alienated Star Trek fans with episodes that explored the mysteries of the Eugenics Wars, the Orion Slave Girls, and the urgent question of why Klingons on the Original Series don’t have the same make-up as in later productions. (Shockingly, this last-ditch effort at fan-service did not forestall cancellation.) Much the same arguably happened with Deep Space Nine, which increasingly called back to concepts from the Original Series—including the Mirror Universe, the Orion Syndicate, and the dangerously fertile tribbles—as a way of establishing its Star Trek bona fides for skeptical fans. (In another context, I would pause here to make the argument that what we call the “Star Trek universe” is, perhaps ironically, an emergent property of Deep Space Nine.) Even the reboot films, after so forcefully proclaiming their independence, spent much of their run in homage mode, with Into Darkness clumsily rehashing Wrath of Khan and Beyond hinging, improbably enough, on plot elements from the unpopular Enterprise—as if recognizing that fans were already tired of this bold new version of Star Trek and hungered for any information at all from their beloved Prime Timeline, even the most hated instance of it.

In the case of Enterprise, I tend to think of the fan-service-heavy season 4 as an “apology tour.” The series had intentionally broken with tradition in many ways—from the tacky Rod Stewart-esque theme song to the unfavorable portrayal of the Vulcans—and even intentionally clouded the question of its relationship to the other series through the complex Temporal Cold War plot, and ratings had clearly suffered as a result. But the repetition of the pattern makes me think that there is a deeper necessity to this retreat from the freedom strategy into the fan-service strategy. Simply put, most of the time the writers free themselves from the weight of tradition only to find themselves with no clear purpose. If your goal is to get away from Star Trek, why are you doing Star Trek at all?

On a more pragmatic level, returning to the familiar routine is much easier than heroically reinventing the concept of Star Trek. The latter does happen, but only rarely. To pick the most obvious example, Wrath of Khan did heroically reinvent Star Trek, establishing that actions have consequences and no one has plot armor. The next movie undid literally all of that stuff—but subsequent generations of Star Trek have repeatedly (and mostly embarrassingly) tried to recapture Wrath of Khan itself. Similarly, the Borg represent arguably the greatest creative achievement of the Next Generation era, if not Star Trek as a whole, and First Contact radically reimagined them while rewriting Star Trek’s own fictional history—introducing concepts that would be foundational for the later seasons of Voyager, all of Enterprise, and the first two seasons of Picard. The bold gesture of reinvention is thus relentlessly assimilated by the tradition, to the point of becoming invisible or worse: a cliché.

This is not simply an example of a familiar dynamic where artistic innovation gives rise to its own kind of tradition. In the case of Star Trek, the problem is exacerbated by the existence of the ongoing storyworld. No true break is possible because everything is happening within “the same” history. Hence it was “always like that.” This happens literally in the text of First Contact, which retcons the Borg as an intrinsically hybrid species that assimilates its victims using nanoprobes, at the behest of a creepy yet undeniably sexy Borg Queen, and which inserts our future heroes at the origin of their own fictional history. In both cases, it was always like that, as Seven of Nine—a character who basically embodies everything First Contact introduced into Star Trek canon—establishes when she declares, on screen, that the events of the film were a predestination paradox.

The storyworld does provide a safety net, guaranteeing that no permanent damage can be done. After all, a failed innovation can always be reversed or explained away. Yet it produce contradictions, as every attempt at fan service is in danger of being perceived as a heretical innovation. When filling in a character’s backstory or reconciling an apparent continuity error, there is always the possibility of contradicting a novel that had a solution fans preferred, or breaking with established fan theories, or simply not “feeling” right. Innovation becomes fan-service, fan-service becomes innovation—where does this dialectic lead?

Clearly the mechanism of continuity mandates that all stories ultimately collapse into something, but what? The out-of-universe explanation, of course, is that they all collapse into a marketing strategy that forces fans to consume every new series and episode in order to stay up to date on their favorite fictional universe. I admit that I fall victim to this, lavishing intellectual energy on the mediocre current-day shows while refusing to dignify The Orville with my viewership. Even if The Orville is “better”—as everyone assures me—it’s still not “real” Star Trek. But again, surely I’m not invested in Star Trek merely for the sake of completism, much less out of a desire to contribute to the revenue of Paramount Plus’s rip-off streaming service. I am drawn to Star Trek as an atmosphere, an ethos, a set of values, even if they are incoherent ones. At the end of the day, I’m drawn to Star Trek because it’s a world I would want to live in, even as a lower decker, even if I were consigned to Raffi’s sad little trailer.

If Star Trek is ultimately the story of that world and how it came to be, how it lives up to its values or fails to, then that means Star Trek is the story of the Federation. It takes a while for that story to emerge clearly—in many early Original Series episodes, it’s not totally clear who Kirk and friends are even working for—but by the Next Generation era, it’s well established. Next Generation is about the Federation triumphant, while Deep Space Nine is about the underside of the Federation’s values and what happens to them when they face a serious existential threat. Voyager is about getting back to the Federation and spreading Federation values as you go. And of course, the big selling point of Enterprise is that it was going to show us the foundation of the Federation—something the finale stops just short of doing. Discovery starts off by retconning the Federation’s history vis-à-vis its greatest enemy, the Klingons, then jumps to the distant future so that it can re-found a Federation that has collapsed. And Picard’s first season clearly wants to be more than just a continuation of the title character’s personal arc—since he is the embodiment of Federation values, it has to be about the Federation itself, how it has failed and how it can (abruptly, unconvincingly) right its course.

The problem is that there’s no story to be told here. The Federation is one of the fundamental presuppositions of Star Trek, part of the furniture. It’s always-already there, even in Enterprise, when Daniels, Captain Archer’s time-traveling guardian angel from the distant future, reveals to him that his role is to found the Federation. It’s not all Daniels’ fault, though. The same dynamic recurs when he is not explicitly involved, as in “Dear Doctor,” an episode that purports to give an origin for the Prime Directive but can only presuppose it as obviously desirable.

After so many shows documenting the implacable rise of the Federation, the only genuinly new story to tell is the Federation’s equally predestined decline and fall. Discovery flirts with this idea, but barely deigns to explore the post-Federation world it has posited and instead devotes its first distant-future arc in season 3 to exposing the source of the natural disaster that shattered the Federation—ushering in an era of isolation, the reintroduction of large-scale slavery, etc., etc.—as a weird one-off fluke that is easily avoided and corrected in the future. By the end of season 4, we have virtually returned to the status quo ante. Similarly, in Picard, the revelation of a mole in Starfleet motivated by a tragically mistaken extremist ideology is enough for everyone to forgive and forget the betrayals that had led our hero to resign in disgust.

The recognition of this basic stasis in the Federation concept is enough to undermine Star Trek’s pretense of a coherent “history” with recognizable “eras.” What truly differentiates them? Is it the characters? Well, by the magic of time travel, any character can appear in any era. Is it the technology? The ship travels at the speed of plot regardless—even Archer’s primitive Enterprise NX-01 can get to the Klingon homeworld in a jiffy. Is it the political situation? That is always subject to revision and upheaval at any time, as when the Klingons casually break from the era-defining alliance with the Federation in Deep Space Nine, only to return to it just as casually in a later season. The writing and aesthetics of the current streaming shows confirm this—aside from the animated series, both of which look radically different from each other and any other Trek, all the shows look broadly the same, with the same deficient lighting and the same angular ship design. More than that, the themes of each new season seem to echo the last season to air, no matter which show and which era. Discovery season 2 had a dangerous AI that threatened to wipe out all biological life—and right afterward, so did Picard season 1, set 150 years in the future (or 700 in the past). Picard season 2’s jaunt into the early 21st century raised the vexed question of genetic engineering, and wouldn’t you know it, a week after that season concluded so did Strange New Worlds season 1 (set 150 years in the past, or 250 years in the future).

So what is Star Trek about? No Hegelian synthesis is possible here—we are dealing with a pure “bad infinite.” Star Trek is about generating riffs on familiar scenarios and concepts and character types, about chewing on bits and pieces of lore until you can make something out of it, about making bold declarations of one’s value and importance and only occasionally backing it up. It’s about itself, it’s about our future, it’s about the future of a timeline that diverged before any of us were born, it’s about selling streaming subscriptions and novels and comics, it’s about liberal humanist values until it’s about conservative militarist values. At this late date, it’s essentially “about” the deadlocks of franchise storytelling itself—of which it is the most venerable and accomplished example and, despite its recent questionable choices, arguably the only long-running franchise that still maintains the capacity for genuine creativity and insight, as shown by (most of) Discovery season 1. But that is a topic for another day, namely the day when I finally submit the manuscript for my book on all the redheaded stepchildren of the Star Trek franchise, from Enterprise to the streaming era.

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