Returning to the Sci-Fi Episodic Roots of ‘Star Trek’

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tng_01In Vox, Todd VanDerWerff has argued that Star Trek should return to the small screen–well, now medium screen–and should do so in the style of series such as True Detective and Fargo. Now I have to admit that (1) a TV series of Star Trek again would be awesome and (2) that I really loved Fargo and it was the first series since, I guess, Star Trek that I have actually re-watched. However, both of those things do not mean that they should be spliced together.

Here I am going to argue that this is not the way Star Trek should return to TV. Instead, I am going to go “old school” and argue for a traditional TV series. But before I do, I’ll give VanDerWerff his due: it would be really interesting to see what writers would do with a mini-series style of Star Trek these days. Following on from the magnificent Babylon 5 whose long, what was supposed to be, 5-year story arc opened up the longer series form, Star Trek itself had two attempts at this: there was the “Dominion War” arc in DS9 and then the “Xindi” arc in Enterprise. Many remember these fondly, but, if you look at the list of the best Star Trek episodes of all time (here in the special sealed SFW section), none of these feature. These were good viewing, but they were not impactful in terms of our own thought, inspiration, or in terms of culture.

So what are the elements of our favorite episodes? First, they used the character development that had occurred in the past–for instance, Picard’s difficulty in being a family person in “The Inner Light.” Second, unlike the movies, they rarely relied on action to keep the plot moving. There are exceptions, but most were explorations of the inner human or society in general. Finally, they used science fiction to its core. Science fiction at its best puts humans in new situations to explore the issues of the day. These three elements together became inspirational as the characters grappled with moral dilemmas but also did so with a sense of having to move forward.

It is far from clear that chunks of 10 episodes in a series with new characters but the same universe could achieve this. Instead, Star Trek needs to put a crew back in a ship and fly them around the galaxy and see what happens. They should visit a planet every episode and occasionally can have tie-ins to previous ones. This is a genre that has served us, and particularly children, well. (The temptation with addictive TV as it is today would be to create situations with violence, etc., that may deter family viewing.) So we should think of this as more like Space 1999 (where the moon flew around), the Time Tunnel or Quantum Leap (which was flying around randomly in time) or Doctor Who (which did both).

It can be done in this day and age; Star Trek‘s return to television can boldly go where it has gone before.

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7 thoughts on “Returning to the Sci-Fi Episodic Roots of ‘Star Trek’

  1. I miss the days of Television when you didn’t have to go back and get the old ones on Netflix or whatever to be able to watch the new ones. Next Generation was great in that you could watch it like appointment viewing or you could come in every week or so and get an episode. It is what made it work so well in syndication where you could flip channels and find it on and sit down and watch.

    Of course I sound like an old person talking about flipping channels and finding something on. Who does that anymore?

  2. I personally respect the old way star trek was presented in the isolated episode format, but i would honestly like to see a more true detective or even game of thrones format. The last 2 seasons of DS9 was amazing because of the format they chose to present the story in. Next gen, TOS, DS9 etc. were great and always will be great… I would just like to see star trek in a more modern format. just give it to netflix already and please keep it away from prime time tv stations for the love of god lol

  3. (The temptation with addictive TV as it is today would be to create situations with violence, etc., that may deter family viewing.) I say good do that make the new series Exciting and Violent I would like to see a Darker Star Trek series make it PG rated and lets have a Federation that is corrupt and a new massive threat to the entire Alpha Quadrant so they Build a new Enterprise to find out about this new threat.

  4. TV has moved on and episodic formats just don’t have a place. The audience for Star Trek has migrated away from broadcast and cable (both are doomed) towards streaming, where technology favors the serialized format.

    Episodic TV developed because originally there were no DVRs, no catch-up possible. If you missed an episode, it was gone forever. If you were vigilant, you might find it again sometime in rerun, but that was way too hit or miss and difficult. Networks did not want people to be dissuaded from tuning in just because they missed a week. Serialized formats might hook people in better, but just weren’t work the risk of losing them entirely.

    Cable and now streaming introduced a subscription element. The idea there is to give people an incentive to sign up by hooking them on an ongoing storyline. Technology made it easy to catch up on missed episodes, so the danger of the serialized format was neutralized. Why stick with episodic formats, then? No wonder everyone switched over. It’s all about binge-watching 13 episodes back to back now.

    There may be some artistic merit to the episodic format, but it never existed for artistic reasons anyway. The commercial reasons it did exist are now moot. I expect to see Star Trek back on TV (streaming) someday, but not in an episodic format. It’ll follow the serialized storytelling that Netflix and Amazon prefers, for business reasons.

  5. I have been a Trekkie geek for years, I started watching with Captain Kirk started….I’ve seen them all…in today’s standard of television, viewers are looking for a specific appeal…the new Star Trek Movie pulled many new younger Trekkie viewers who became involved…the suspense, the drama, the acting was all great the way they molded it all together…I am so very grateful that Leonard Nimoy was able to be a part of that before his death…I could say on a personal note that I would love to see a new mini series added to the franchise of Star Trek, made in the Star Trek genre, the way Gene Roddenberry would see it…but realistically that may not be possible…I’m afraid it may be a flop…the Enterprise was a bust as they made it a soap opera and not a day by day event, I was highly disappointed and was the only one in the series I did not follow all the way through…I enjoyed Voyager, DS9 and STNG…Star Trek with Captain Kirk {William Shatner} I was a child when it was on and not that interested in such things, I liked my cartoons still….but the episodes I did see I was drawn into the unknown and started asking questions about weather or not there was really life on other planets and started getting involved in the stars and our universe around us…but being the 60’s and 70’s I was generally laughed at for such thoughts….bottom line is I would love to see another series…I’d also like to see more of the Academy interaction as that is where they get there crew from…tasteful for younger viewers yet dramatic for those with a flare of drama, with a home sense, a ship that carries children/families…not a barge looking boat that is made for only battles…some battle scenes with other species, I’d love to see another Klingon aboard, perhaps Alexander {Worf’s son} a time where species get along with one another, to a point…Ferengies would have to be there usual greedy self, but some having ethics and showing them pulling away from their roots and trying to climb the ladder in the world of none greed, they have to stumble and get back up again to make it look somewhat authentic…the Romulans are the mortal enemy as usual and the Cardassians as well, although some flash backs and some wanting sancuary for one reason or the other, perhaps a half breed child for lack of a better way of putting it….the Maquis was thought to be all perished according to an episode from Voyager…maybe find the odd Maquis rebel or retired one at least to tell the story right…I have a ton of ideas but no one to share them with…I like Gene have always had a vision of space and what it entails and the shows of his were about right on the money. 🙂

  6. I think you hit the nail on the head with the Doctor Who idea – every season has individual episodes, and most seem unconnected, except for one little thread that gradually builds to the season finale. That model might translate very well to Star Trek; a galactic mystery that is revealed slowly over a season (or more).

  7. One of the problems of the arc story was that it doesn’t do well in reruns. Almost all the shows with arc stories can’t be found in rerun because it matters what order they’re run in. I think more a continuity thing would be a good start — episodic TV almost never had that. I still remember watching Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, where the crew would encounter Monster A and a few episodes down Monster B was like Monster A had never existed. Whereas one of the things I really liked about Stargate SG-1 is that if they brought a character in, he would probably reappear later in the show, and there would be this element of continuity connecting them all together — yet, it wasn’t dependent on watching the last episode or watching anything in order.

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