I think about Star Trek a lot.

So I’ll be sitting in on a few panels for this year’s Norwescon, starting with two tonight — one on the future of Star Trek, and one on the present of Doctor Who. Given the likely odds I’ll become completely tongue tied when I have to actually talk in front of people, I figured I’d outline my thoughts here for you.

First off, here’s my assessment of Star Trek after the jump. Short version: I’m cautiously optimistic.

I’ve been a Trek fan since back when “Trekkie” was still the word. Now, I’m of the TNG generation, so the first episode I ever watched was “The Quality of Life.” And I think that episode encapsulates what I came to love about Star Trek: There’s a nuanced view of machines becoming self-aware, plus a moral dilemma with no villain and no immediately obvious right answer. And for a show that (sometimes rightly) gets faulted for its technobabble, I respect Trek’s attention to the mechanics of its world, and its recognition that, oftentimes, our best solutions really do come from innovation, and not from force.

The great thing about Star Trek is that you can tell just about any kind of story you want within its framework — a western, a spy story, a hard sci-fi mind-bender or a comedy about fuzzy animals taking over the ship. But that openness works against the franchise when it makes the leap to film, because now they need to pick one story.  And to draw a wide audience, it can’t differ too much from what they’ve made before.

It’s a testament to Star Trek’s range that the same franchise produced Star Trek: The Motion PictureStar Trek II and Star Trek IV, which were radically different in their tone, their story, and the nature of the conflict.  And it’s also telling that every Trek movie since has essentially taken the Star Trek II formula. We’re left with a very narrow definition of what a Star Trek movie should be: It needs a villain, lots of action, and a climactic standoff between the captain and his rival. By the TNG films, it had become depressingly formulaic, and the new movie didn’t break the mold. I’d be surprised — and very happy — if the sequel were very different. This was much less of a problem back when the guys who actually made Star Trek II — Harve Bennett, Nicholas Meyer — were making the movies, but everyone who’s come since has needed to establish their own cred by trying, essentially, to remake The Wrath of Khan.  Thus, Jean-Luc Picard becomes an action hero.

The latest movie didn’t really succeed at being Star Trek II, but it did in the way that matters, by revitalizing the franchise. We can hope that the guys behind the movie can use the cred they’ve established to do something truly new.

For the record, Star Trek was a brilliant way to reset the franchise, and about the first two-thirds of the movie or so was a terrific exploration of an alternate history for the show. I could take you through the list of annoyingly unnecessary changes they made — my biggest pet peeve is the last-minute rescaling of the Enterprise— but its biggest failing was in what they had to keep the same.

The tragedy of the movie is kind of symbolized by the absence of Number One, Captain Pike’s executive officer. Her inclusion wouldn’t just have made sense, it would have helped to offset the show’s conspicuously male-heavy cast. She wasn’t there, of course, because she was never part of Kirk’s crew, and the movie had to fill the role of a prequel, despite not actually being one: Everyone had to end up in their familiar roles, regardless of whether it made sense. That ended up constraining the writers and detracting from most of the weight the story could have had.

Here, again, is a problem that won’t really exist in the sequel. The crew has been established, and the work of maneuvering them into their accustomed roles has been done. That means they can go in truly new directions now, so here’s hoping they do.

Finally, I’ll confess my biases: I’m of the mind that the best Star Trek movie was Forbidden Planet, because the actual Star Trek movies didn’t really embody the spirit that always attracted me to the franchise.

The second best was The Motion Picture. Yeah, it was about a half-hour longer than it needed to be and it recycled its plot from a TOS episode, but it asked interesting questions and wanted you to think about the answers instead of just look at explosions.

Odds are, whatever the next Star Trek movie does, it won’t meet my ideal of what the series can be.  Movies like The Motion Picture aren’t summer blockbusters.  That’s why I’ll be happy when Star Trek comes back to television — hopefully, in the hands of someone who knows how much the show can do.

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