Monday 19 February 2018

Star Trek: The last generation? Does the new series spell the end for beloved show?

Controversy has surrounded the new series, which airs on Monday on Netflix. Lifelong devotee Ed Power fears it could spell the end for his beloved show. Can it Klingon to life?

JJ Abrams
JJ Abrams
Kirk and Uhura's controversial kiss
Ed Power

Ed Power

Star Trek is about to emerge from deep space hibernation with the debut this Monday of an all-new series set in the universe of Klingons, Starfleet captains and weirdly-elongated space ships.

Yet far from waggling their rubber Vulcan ears in anticipation, among hardcore geeks the feeling as we countdown to Star Trek: Discovery is of intense trepidation.

There is a fear that in this age of intellectually nourishing 'prestige' television and rollercoaster ride Star Wars and Marvel movies, Star Trek's moment has passed. Is it time the venerable sci-fi franchise was beamed up to TV's great beyond? As as lifelong Trek fan - you'll forgive me if I don't embrace the set-phasers-to-kill designation 'Trekkie' - a new Trek series is a fraught prospect. On the one hand, we're crying out for smart science fiction that aspires to more than blowing up planets and doubling as a billboard for Kerry tourism (as Star Wars has lately been reduced to).

On the other, the show's utopianism feels terribly naive in our present era of reality TV presidents and nuclear-armed dictators.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry forbade any storylines in the original series in which the crew argued among themselves. In the future, he reckoned, people would have put petty feuding behind them. We can agree he was wrong - and then some.

Star Trek: Discovery, which debuts on Netflix Monday morning, has been broiling in controversy for months now. At one level, the contentiousness is of interest only to nerds. We may care, deeply, that Discovery has given the iconic Klingon aliens a radical makeover, but that will be of only passing interest to the rest of you. However, even among causal sci-fi fans, there are reasons to fear that Discovery may be about to burn up as it enters the orbit of viewers' eyeballs. Original show-runner Bryan Fuller left the production in fraught circumstances, with his desire for a complicated and multi-faceted drama - think Mad Men in space - vetoed by the suits at the CBS network (which is airing Discovery in America).

Fuller, who also created the thrillingly ghastly Hannibal series and is overseeing Starz's bonkers American Gods, had wanted to drag Star Trek into the modern television universe. There would be a textured storyline and complex and flawed characters. But CBS was (understandably) cautious about tinkering with a formula that has worked since the original Star Trek introduced us to Captain Kirk and Mr Spock in September 1966.

So Fuller exited and, by all accounts, his interweaving plot has been considerably simplified.

Since his departure, most of the attention has focused on the new show's commitment to diversity. Early on, we will be introduced to the first female Asian Starfleet captain, played by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh. Meanwhile, the lead character of Burnham is portrayed by African-American actress Sonequa Martin-Green (fantastic negotiating a rubbish script as Sasha in The Walking Dead).

The problem is that the above is a big deal only if you don't know much about Star Trek. From the outset, the series has been uniquely progressive. The original Trek featured the first interracial kiss on American television between William Shatner's Captain Kirk and Nichelle Nichols' Lieutenant Uhura - this at a time when police in the American south were still setting attack dogs on African-American protesters.

Moreover, the franchise has already broken fresh territory with an African-American lead. In Deep Space Nine which ran from 1993 to 1999, the eponymous space station was commanded by Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), while the medical chief was portrayed by Sudanese-born Alexander Siddig. Discovery isn't nearly as revolutionary as you've been led believe.

There hasn't been a Star Trek television series since the demise of the intergalactically dreary Enterprise in 2005. In the interim, box office whisperer JJ Abrams revitalised the franchise with the 2009 movie reboot. However, that film and its sequels have been hugely divisive among the Trek community, with their whiz-bang storylines and emphasis on action perceived to many as antithetical to Star Trek's core values.

A bigger issue is the rise and rise of Star Wars - today the one sci-fi property to rule them all. Growing up, every geek reached a point at which they had to ask themselves whether they were a Star Wars or Trek devotee. The differences were vast. Star Wars emphasised quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo and deafening space battles, while the more sedate Star Trek pursued a comparatively intellectual course.

But now Star Wars is the Death Star of science fiction - huge, inescapable and capable of blasting its opponents to pieces. From Darth Vader cookie jars to ironic Stormtrooper t-shirts, Star Wars has its tentacles everywhere. Star Trek, by contrast, remains fundamentally uncool.

Meanwhile, the past decade has witnessed the emergence of a new strain of small screen sci-fi. One of the surprise winners at last week's Emmys was Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, a dystopian meditation influenced by obscure, yet-respected-within-their-field, sci-fi writers such as Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison (ironically, many of these writers contributed scripts to the original Trek). Plus, the hot name to drop nowadays is Philip K Dick - a fringe figure shunned by science fiction in his lifetime but whose loopy writings are now regarded as virtual sacred texts.

The challenge Star Trek: Discovery therefore faces is multi-faceted. For the series to succeed, it's essential the grassroots of Trek fandom are kept on board. But at the same time, the series must decide if it wishes to appeal to Star Wars fans - who essentially expect an explosion every 15 seconds - or the sort of chin-strokers drawn to Black Mirror. Among us lifelong aficionados, meanwhile, the prospect of more Trek is both thrilling and slightly terrifying.

Star Trek: Discovery begins on Netflix on Monday, with new episodes to follow each week.

Irish Independent

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