(There are Star Trek spoilers here.)
My girlfriend and I have been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation in order, from the beginning. This morning we just got to “All Good Things”, the final episode of The Next Generation. I’ve spent the rest of the day thinking about why Star Trek used to be so popular as a TV series, and why it feels like it’s lost it’s way. And then I had a weird thought. Star Trek had certainly had it’s up and downs after Next Generation went off the air in 1994, but after the 90s ended, things went really badly. Star Trek Enterprise, the last TV series, was prematurely canceled. Plans for a fifth Next Generation movie fell through after the fourth, Star Trek Nemesis, was a commercial failure. And it wasn’t just that people were over Star Trek. Star Trek, with the same writers, and the same producers, had seriously declined in quality. So what happened? And then I had a totally crazy thought. Could it have been 9/11? I know, crazy. But after 2001, something about Star Trek got weird. Star Trek got unnaturally… dark.
Part of what made Star Trek special is it’s inherent optimism about the future. It’s a great example of what’s referred to these days as “competence porn.” It was a television series (or a series of series) about people doing their jobs exceptionally well in the face of extraordinary danger, and saving the day. The unique spirit of Star Trek was in showing that space wasn’t something to be scared of even if there were scary things out there. At the end of the day, humanity could always overcome and stop any death and destruction that they were threatened with.
But then after 2001, something funny happened. Star Trek consistently became about 9/11 type events.
Alien Laser 9/11, Star Trek Enterprise Season 2 – This was the first season entirely produced after 9/11. In a major event that drives most of the rest of the show, Earth is hit with a laser by previously unknown aliens, wiping out an area between Florida and Venezuela. Seven million people die. Finding the alien terrorists and stopping them becomes the primary mission of the Enterprise, which is promptly refit as a warship instead of a ship of exploration (and it remains a military ship for the rest of the series.)
(After finishing up the fight-against-terrorism plot point started in season 2, the Enterprise carries out some random missions and returns home to find… anti-alien terrorists on Mars pointing a laser at Starfleet Command on Earth. It feels like a redundant follow on for a series that already dealt with terrorism in a big way.)
Romulan 9/11, Star Trek Nemesis – A Romulan terrorist kills the Romulan government in a biological terrorist attack, and then takes over. He then threatens the Earth with a ship that can fire radiation at a planet.
Vulcan 9/11, Star Trek 2009 – A Romulan terrorist… wait didn’t we just do this in the last movie? He destroys Vulcan and kills billions, and nearly destroys and entire alien species and culture. Then he tries to destroy Earth.
Khan 9/11, Star Trek Into Darkness – Starfleet, now so fearful of terrorism militarizes and… it doesn’t matter. Kahn blows up a few city blocks in London. Then he kills a bunch of Starfleet Admirals in a meeting. Then he flies a ship into San Francisco and bulldozes it. The whole movie has very clear parallels to 9/11, and the way the United States government handled it.
With the exception of a few Enterprise episodes that were random plot points, this has been every single Star Trek plot point since 9/11. And they’re all pessimistic views of the future where humanity is constantly under the thumb of terrorists. Gone is the inherent optimism of Star Trek. Now space is a place where another 9/11 lurks around every corner.
“Now wait a second. There were plenty of times planets were almost destroyed in older Star Trek. What about the Borg?”
Yes, in previous iterations of Star Trek there were sometimes big scary things threatening to destroy Earth. But it wasn’t a main focus in the series, and I think Star Trek still handled those events in an optimistic way. Sure, the Borg might wipe out a few ships (or maybe more than a few), but at the end of the day, the day was always saved before anyone could actually carry out their plans. Someone might threaten to blow up Vulcan or Earth, or destroy San Francisco, but they’d never actually get away with it. Even during the Dominion War of DS9, the events weren’t framed as terrorism, but as a military conflict between two powers. Yes, the series did make a point of showing it as a bloody, horrific conflict, but it wasn’t depicted through the lens of a 9/11 sort of event. Starfleet, as a military organization, was never a completely safe organization to work for. And things like slavery, greed and war were still forces that still could be found in the galaxy. But ordinary civilians were never used as mass, unsavable terrorist cannon fodder to raise the stakes for the audience.
Maybe Star Trek stopped being good because we, as a society, lost the optimism that made Star Trek work. We stopped thinking about how great the future was, and instead we started thinking about how scary the future is going to be. And just maybe, if Star Trek ever comes back as a series, that sense of optimism could make it great again.