I was a big fan of the American science-fiction television series, Star Trek, when I was a child, watching reruns of the original 1966-69 NBC show – and its syndicated 1987-94 successor, The Next Generation – on both RTÉ and the BBC. However, as I got older I found it increasingly difficult to accept the basic premise of the programme. Not so much the implausible science and technology, which was frequently driven by the drama’s budgetary constraints rather than any quasi-scientific extrapolations or theories (teleportation, for instance, was simply a narrative shortcut for moving characters from one location to another without the use of prohibitively expensive sets and special effects). Instead, it was the series’ ostensibly optimistic – if frequently contradictory – depiction of humankind’s utopian future which dulled my interest.
Reflecting the personal hopes and beliefs of the show’s main creator, Gene Roddenberry, I found the largely harmonious “United Federation of Planets” an unconvincing construct, especially as my interest in history grew. Indeed, I was far more intrigued by the Tolkienesque half-glimpses of the dark past which lay behind the Federation’s brightly-lit present, than the morality tales played out on the screen each week. That is why the downbeat 1967 episode, “Space Seed”, featuring the actor Ricardo Montalbán as the eugenic warlord Khan Noonien Singh, ranks as my favourite story from the entire history of the franchise. And why I was so disappointed with the loose revival of the character in the 2013 film, Star Trek Into Darkness.
I moved away from the Trekverse in my early twenties but I have kept a sort of fond eye on its evolution ever since, from so-so relaunches on TV – Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise – to rather more fun cinematic outings. The latest addition to the canon is Star Trek Discovery from CBS and after five fairly boring episodes I have given up on the big-budget spinoff. Surprisingly it is the programme’s more cynical and socially realistic take on Roddenberry’s imagined universe which has made it such a laborious watch. By offering a far bleaker narrative and set of characters, the new production has brought to the fore many of the flaws hidden in the older one. Just as the recent glut of derivative Star Wars movies have highlighted the creative hollowness at the heart of that cinematic series, so too has Discovery displayed Star Trek’s inability to be anything other than what it was meant to be. A futuristic analogy for a more progressive mid-20th century America and an occasional parable of American moral interventionism on a global stage, as envisioned by a mid-1960s’ California-raised liberal scriptwriter and producer in Hollywood.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the lead characters in Discovery are so emotionally unattractive, lacking in any noteworthy qualities or motivations, or that the first few episodes revolve around the fate of a giant bed bug. Most critical comment has focused on the spectacular special effects and for a good reason. There is precious little dramatic grist to the mill. By eschewing Trek’s foundations, the overall arc of optimism, of things getting better, even between Cold War analogous enemies, the makers of Discovery have produced a vastly inferior version of the early 2000s’ Battlestar Galactica in a Star Trek dress.
Meanwhile, the programme that many true Trekkies wanted to see is coming to an end, not on their television sets but on the internet. Star Trek Continues, a fan-made 2013-17 production supported by donations and Kickstarter campaigns, has just released its penultimate episode on YouTube. Using new actors to play old roles, it frames itself as the never-made fourth season of the 1960s’ show. Consequently it looks very much like the original, from clunky sets to multi-coloured uniforms, hammy acting to stilted dialogue. However it works – just about – providing some campy, nostalgic pleasure, partly derived from the awe one feels at the ability of the makers to recreate and restage something so eerily close to the “real thing”. Quite honestly, it looks like Star Trek should look, and with a more talented cast and set of screenwriters it could have been the programme every sci-fi addict was talking about, instead of languishing in relative online obscurity.
With the show ending, likely forever due to legal judgements shrinking the space for fan-based non-profit productions, it is well worth having a look for yourself before the whole thing disappears into the internet ether.