Sunday, May 15, 2005

Death of a subculture

In Where No Geek Has Gone Before Douglas Kern celebrates the 40 year run of Star Trek, which came to a close Friday night with the final eposide of Star Trek Enterprise:

The last new Enterprise airs tonight, and soon Star Trek will be, in a sense, dead -- but we should all have such a rollicking afterlife. Forget the five-year mission; Star Trek has succeeded in its forty-year mission to be the most all-encompassing multimedia geek experience ever. Star Trek doesn't need new episodes, or new anything else. Between hundred of episodes, novels, comic books, video games, role-playing games, conventions, cartoons, and movies, Star Trek has achieved cultural immortality.

Yes, Orson Scott Card, it was inferior science fiction, but so what? Star Trek was family. You don't stop loving your kids just because someone else's kids are smarter and better looking. Star Trek didn't just offer the illimitable joys of William Shatner tumbling out of his chair every time the camera shook, or yet another sermon from the pen of Gene Roddenberry about how organized religion is a childish superstition. It offered a world. It offered a place that dreamers could call their own; a place where wonky, right-leaning dreams of rugged space exploration and pioneering could sit comfortably next to hippy-dippy dreams of world peace and universal brotherhood. It was a kind of home, and home is no place for shrewd critical judgments.

Star Trek offered us middle-class midwestern types a chance at full-body geeky immersion when nothing else did. Now pay attention to yer Grandpappy Kern, you young Gen Y whippersnappers. In the bad old days, when nickels cost dimes, ladies wore petticoats, and high-speed modems ran at 800 bits per second, geeky pursuits were the love that dared not speak its name. In those days, we didn't have "graphic novels." Admitting that you read comic books was like admitting that you read Playboy for the pictures. Video games? If you spent twenty hours a week on the same game, your parents had you institutionalized. Dungeons and Dragons? For Satanists. Tolkien? For Folklore Studies majors who looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy and homely girls who liked unicorns.

I am old enough to remember the first episodes of the original series, and as a nine year old was at the right age to be taken in by the sense of wonder and adventure that Star Trek engendered. You got a sense from the original series that the crew of the Enterprise really was going "where no man has gone before". The earliest episodes were the best, especially "Where No Man has Gone Before", which was the second pilot, and the first with William Shatner at the helm. In the earliest episodes, the plots and characters were truer to the concept. In "Where No Man.." Spock's lack of human emotion, and reliance on logic contrasted with Kirk's humanity, as Kirk struggled with the decision to strand Gary Mitchell on a deserted planet. Spock knew that Mitchell's ESP powers would multiply exponentially to the point where he would be too strong to stop unless he be killed immediately, and had no compunction against carrying out the execution which he knew was the right decision. The contrast between Kirk's and Spock's reactions to the dilemma gave a sense of how an environment where humans interacted with alien races could be very different than we are used to.

Sadly, over the years Star Trek was a victim of its own success. With each new series, the characters became more one-dimensional, the plotlines more repetitive and predictable, and the sense of wonder less evident. "The Next Generation" and "Deep Space Nine" were well written and watchable, if not as appealing as the original series. "Voyager" brought nothing new to the franchise. "Enterprise" was unwatchable. As the producers increasingly relied on special effects and sexually attractive female crewmembers to hold the interest of viewers, the original premise of the series, the spirit of pioneers driving "covered wagons to the stars", was lost.

Of course, my opinions may reflect more my advancing years and my declining interest in the Sci-Fi genre in general, but the declining audience base confirmed that the Star Trek franchise has run its course. Sci-Fi cannot thrive in an atmosphere of familiarity and routine. The next successful Sci-Fi franchise will have to re-write the rules, just as Star Trek did 40 years ago.


Blogger Oroborous said...

Hey, good to see ya !!
Sorry to hear about your troubles & good luck.

[D]reams of world peace...

Much easier to accomplish with an external enemy to focus on...
Western Europe was a nicer friend to the U.S. when the USSR was around.
Star Trek had the Klingons, and also the Romulans, as well as a whole host of one-episode threats to the Federation.

The contrast between Kirk's and Spock's reactions to the dilemma gave a sense of how an environment where humans interacted with alien races could be very different than we are used to.

No kidding. That's the second biggest question that the universe has to offer: How much like us will alien life be ?
If the aliens are like us, and not too much more technologically advanced, then my guess is that there's a 50/50 chance that we'll engage them in warfare.
If they are not like us, and not too advanced, then I specualate that it's 90/10 that we'll fight a war against them.
I hope that I'm quite wrong, but human history says that I'm not.

The next successful Sci-Fi franchise will have to re-write the rules...

About that, I dunno.
If one thinks of Star Wars, Alien, or Stargate, they're all just re-hashed ancient tales, with a overlay of "magic", i.e. speculative future technology.

May 16, 2005 5:31 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Hi Michael, long time no see!

I don't think I'll be unemployed for long, I should have a new job by the end of this month. I'm enjoying the respite from work while it lasts.

As far as Stargate goes, I wouldn't consider it a success from the standpoint of gaining a new audience for Sci Fi. It is just a maintenance dose for the hard core Sci Fi fan who grew up on Star Trek and needs a fix for his cravings. Same with Andromeda. Of course this begs the question as to whether it is possible to rewrite the rules at all. I think that you are right in that there are no new stories, just old stories in new settings.

But don't pay much attenion to my cynicism. Sci Fi tends to be a young man's pursuit, it loses its appeal with age.

May 16, 2005 7:13 AM  
Anonymous Hey Skipper said...

I must be some sort of sourpuss.

IIRC, Star Trek and the Rings Trilogy both hit the culture at about the same time.

Being somewhat older than Duck, I was in early High School at the time, and slavishly loved them both.

It wasn't but a half dozen years later, though, that I found them respectively unwatchable and unreadable (and dull nearly beyond comprehension as movies).

May 16, 2005 9:36 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Really ?

You don't think that The Lord of the Rings is good fiction ?

The second book is rather slow-paced, but overall, I find them still to be very enjoyable, and quite well written.

The Trilogy had been around for quite awhile, but you are correct, for some reason the mass culture picked them up in the early 70s. Probably something to do with the Cultural Revolution.

As for Star Trek, I agree, the only reason that I (very) occasionally watch an episode is nostalgia.

May 17, 2005 2:32 PM  
Anonymous Hey Skipper said...


No, I guess I don't find it to be particularly good fiction. Inventive, yes. Richly detailed, yes. Exceedingly well written, yes. But, at heart, nothing more than tarted-up Perils of Pauline.

And by that standard, not particularly good.

For precisely the same reason that Star Trek (Rel 1.0 to, what, 20.7?) and the entire Star Wars franchise have produced the most hackneyed dialog and sloppy plots in the entire canon of Western popular culture.

Science Fiction/Fantasy writing is perpetually enfeebled by the ready availability of The Plot Device, the literary world's answer to Welfare Dependency.

In an entirely invented world, there is no plot dilemma that can't be solved by a Plot Device, because all such devices are inherently plausible in that invented world.

There is no doubt that on first viewing/reading, many such tales are engrossing. They just don't seem to reward repeat visits at all well.

May 18, 2005 9:01 AM  

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