Did Star Trek Wreck SF?

Star Trek was great back in 1966.  There had never been anything like it.  For the first time, SF was mainstream, not just a product of the pulps or B movies.  SF that was watched by twenty or thirty million people every week.  (Or whatever a 15 or 16 point Nielsen share worked out to in 1966 – you tell me.)  SF written, occasionally, by real SF writers, which meant that the show, despite being about thirty years behind written SF in most ways, still had some connection to the original genre.  Yes, the science was often ridiculous, and much of it was soap opera, and the special effects were positively Ed Woodian compared to 2001 two years later.  But at least it was a start.  Boldly going where no mainstream media had gone before.

And then it was cancelled, and that was that, for almost another twenty years.  Yes, there were movies, but that was more because of Star Wars and Close Encounters than the TV shows.  And the Star Trek movies have never been where it’s at (though a couple of them are pretty good).  Star Trek is really about TV.

And sequels.  Endless sequels.  Sure, you can argue that DS9 was the best of the lot, better in some ways than Original (but really, it’s not).  And the Borg are the absolute all time coolest evil aliens ever invented.  But for every Borg episode there are a dozen where Data or the doctor or Seven are trying to figure out how to be human (or hew-mahn, as the Ferengi would say, despite the fact that they have no problem pronouncing any other word in the English language), and a dozen where those wonderful hew-mahns teach the rest of the galaxy how to get along, and another dozen where the hew-man females have to wear negligees and watch their men folk fight duels involving bat’leths or chakani.  (At least in Dune there’s a scientific reason why starfarers still use swords and knives.)

I think it’s the humancentricity of the later shows, that drives me most batty.  Really, is any culture in Star Trek any match for hew-mahns?  By the time Enterprise rolls around, we learn there never would have been a Federation if the wise, passionate, and noble hew-mahns hadn’t been there to supply a wonderful example for everyone else.  Because what else would all those races who had space travel for thousands of years before hew-mahns have been doing all that time but waiting for hew-mahns to straighten them out?

Bah, humbug.  I’d rather read Startide Rising.

What do you think?

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  1. 1. carmen webster buxton

    I think anything that brings at least some new readers into the genre is a good thing, and I think STAR TREK did that. Like DR. WHO, the budget drove much of the look and feel (and sometimes even the scripts) of all the shows , not just the original series. That’s the beauty of books; an incredible setting doesn’t cost anything but the writer’s imagination. Hopefully some STAR TREK fans learned that.

  2. 2. Ken Marable

    As for the question in the title – of course not. There’s always good and bad writing for any genre. Always has been and always will be. Might go in cycles where it is hard to find the good amongst the junk and other times when it seems you can’t keep up with all of the amazing stories coming out.

    However, to more directly address one of the main points of your article – OH MY GOODNESS THANK YOU!! I can’t stand the way humans are portrayed in SF and fantasy around other races. As bad as Star Trek is with it, it is far from an isolated case and so rampant I don’t think the blame can be squarely put on Star Trek alone.

    Every time I read or see a story where humans are the “versatile race” and everyone else belongs to “one trick pony races” I throw up in my mouth a little (to use an overused but appropriate cliché). Writer after writer can make interesting nuanced characters that belong to utterly monolothic, boring races. In fact, hew-mahns* are probably more boring in that they don’t even have a defining characteristic – other than the fact that they don’t have a defining characteristic.

    This goes back to Tolkein and spread in the fantasy genre by writers who grew up on Tolkein and D&D. In SF, maybe Star Trek is the big culprit. I’m not sure. SF’s written foundations are more diverse than Tolkein-inspired fantasy, so maybe it was something as big as Star Trek that set the stage for the hew-mahn and the cliché races. (Maybe Hew-mahn and the Cliches will be my theme song cover band.)

    It would be nice if more writers made other races far more varied and nuanced. As it is, the human race is usually defined by the human characters in the story, but it’s opposite for non-human characters who are defined by their race (and how much they fit or don’t fit the racial stereotype).

    Anyway, sorry to rant, but yes I utterly agree.

    * hew-mahn – I think that’s good term for this situation where the human race is defined by being undefined, whereas every other race is some stereotype. Star Trek is SOOO bad with this that using that term to set it apart from actual richly defined races is nice.

  3. 3. Shakatany

    I was 13 when Star Trek premiered and I imprinted on it, thinking if I hung around for the next couple of centuries this was what the future would be like. In the 70s I read Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Kraith series (http://www.simegen.com/fandom/startrek/kraith/) which depicted a movement among the non-human races to secede from the Federation. At a hearing, evidence from various episodes were introduced to defend their stance. It opened my eyes to the human-centeredness of ST. I recall when ST:TNG premiered Stewart, in the revised opening segment said “where no one has gone before” (a slight improvement over no man…) and I retorted “you mean where no Earth human has gone before!”. I think after the original series the spinoffs fell into a rut where no one examined the precepts set down in the original and just blindly continued in the humans-know-best vein. Having to churn out hundreds of eps diminished the originality and thoughtfulness of the first series without retooling what had been set up in that series. And don’t get me started on the reboot :(

  4. 4. Wolf Lahti

    Star Trek had a far more optimistic outlook than is common in SF (and most any genre) nowadays. It seems everything must have angst and despair as the main propelling aspects of the storyline. And even if the protagonist triumphs in the end, it is an empty and hollow victory because his beer has gone flat or something. Give me a happy ending once in while, please!

  5. 5. Dawn

    I think for the time, it fulfilled a purpose. I love Star Trek and Star Wars and that will never change, even if my own SF writing is vastly different.

    To be completely honest, I think we needed a human-centric overly optimistic opening into science fiction. Some SF fans today would not likely be able to bridge themselves over to the current, darker forms of SF.

    No one expected it to be perfect, nor claim the movies to be the best SF experience. (Ask the most dedicated Trek fan and he’ll tell you which of the movies to skip).

    I think Star Trek as a whole is about humanity and for that comparison to work, we need to start with ourselves. Everything else has branched from there.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Carmen – George R.R. Martin likes to talk about how he quit TV to write Game of Thrones because he would no longer have any budget limitations. But good writing can overcome budget limitations any time.

    Shakatany – Every once in a while the sequels managed to transcend themselves, but I think you’re right. They fell into the rut of what worked and never bothered to break out. Unfortunately, that is the nature of episodic American TV. Find a fomula that works and never change.

  7. 7. S.C. Butler

    Wolf – I think original ST’s optimism has more to do with its time and place than anything else. The country was more optimistic then. Our mood now leads to neverending dystopia in our SF. Though I am like you – I love a happy ending.

    Dawn – I think there’s a big difference between telling compelling stories about humans and casting them as the savious of the galaxy. Since we are humans, ST by definition is going to be humancentric, but that doesn’t mean we should make ourselves the only heroes.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    Ken – Glad you liked the post. Maybe speciesism is the new racism. (I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out, but I can’t remember where I’ve seen it before.) Not so sure about seeing it as much in Tolkien, though. He was writing a story about Hobbits and Humans in LOTR. He gives the elves their due in the Silmarillion. He was, however, a bit of a racist (though no more than usual for his time), about the Easterlings and the Southrons.

    The fact that he gave such short shrift to the dwarves is why I wrote The Stoneways.

  9. 9. Dwayne Russell

    I have no wish to be rude, Mr. Butler, but did I miss the part of the article where you actually address and attempt to answer your own title question?

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    Dwayne – The question is somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

  11. 11. Scott Seldon

    I think in some ways you are being overly harsh on Star Trek. It’s not just Star Trek. And you should separate the the original from the sequels. The original was being pioneering with their casting. The rest are pale imitations with token aliens.

    As for the stories, they were good old adventure SF, like the 1930′s comics and series Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. There were a step up from their source and many of the writers were names in 1960′s SF. Noted SF author James Blish novelized all the episodes. But Star Trek really didn’t grow up. I stopped watching when Voyager took a promising start and pissed it down the drain.

    In my reading, most SF is human centric. There is little attempt to create any lead aliens and I can’t think of many books where an alien plays a serious main role in the storytelling.

    I haven’t picked up a Star Trek novel in a long time, but the older ones from the 70′s and 80′s were as daring as the original show was.

    To answer your original question, I think the original Star Trek was good for SF, but he sequels in the franchise never went anywhere. I wouldn’t say they were bad for SF, but they didn’t help any and you can’t say they were good for SF. They were for Star Trek diehards but didn’t offer anything new.

  12. 12. Keith W

    Great article, minor nit. As far as Special effects wise. The Original series did the best they could with the budget they had. We might be spoiled with all the new CGI that is available today. A friend of mine finds a lot of it too ‘cartoonish’ for his taste. Lost in Space had a bigger budget, but they didn’t do hardly any optical effects that Trek did and their set designs where really cheesy compared to the original Trek. In fact I would say compared to the video effects of say the Old Dr. Who or Blake’s 7(both of which I’m a fan and enjoy) Trek’s 60′s model shots of the Enterprise are way better than either of those shows model efxs shots. But getting back on topic, Trek was my ‘Gateway Drug’ into SF. After watching Trek, I started reading Asimov, Heinlein, etc. I soon realized that Trek is not the best example of SF out there, but I still have a fondness for it. As the movies go: Wrath of Khan is the best. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot is the Worst (Rampaging Supernova! Using a Black Hole to stop said Rampaging Supernova! That’s not SF that is Fantasy!) Yes it is even worse than Shatner’s Star Trek V!

  13. 13. S.C. Butler

    Scott – I believe my post makes it pretty clear I think original Star Trek was better than the sequels. And my point about humancentricity is not about the humans being the POV characters – that’s pretty much a given when you’re writing for humans, or hew-mahns. My problem is the show’s belief that humans are superior to other species – which is not a common them in SF.

    Keith W – You’re absolutely right about the ST’s Special Effects. Until 2001, they were light years beyond everything else. I could never watch Dr. Who because the effects were so bad, and Lost in Space was ridiculously cheesy to even my ten year old mind.

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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