The rekindling of a theoretical fourth Star Trek film has brought a new voice into the argument of “what Star Trek is”. Director Noah Hawley has made some bold statements about what the franchise is all about:
“Star Trek is such a special story about exploration and empathy and diversity and humanity at its best and creative problem solving,” Hawley said. “It was never designed in its origins as an action series. It was always about humanity having to fit into the universe and solve problems through diplomacy and outsmarting their opponents. So I’m excited to get back to that.”
I agree with Hawley to a certain extent. Star Trek is utopian fiction about a brighter future where people of all species join together to explore the galaxy in peace. Where he loses me is the “action” part. The series’ original pitch document, interestingly titled “Star Trek is…”, said otherwise. Before a single character name was decided on and a word of dialogue was written, Roddenberry defined the show as an “Action Adventure”. Even though the show’s pilot, “The Cage”, was always pushed by Roddenberry as having been rejected for being too intellectual with not enough fist fights, the episode still contains a several minute scene of Pike being stalked by, fighting with, and killing a large beastman. Another has him violently subduing an ape creature. Weapons are fired on the surface twice, and Number One’s very rational solution to the whole affair is to blow themselves up. Star Trek, at its very core is an action series.
This idea of Star Trek not being action packed comes up a lot and has been used to put down the lastest film incarnations, of which Hawley would be adding to. There’s no doubt that Star Trek is more action packed than those complaining admit. I’m always fond of saying the same fans making this claim will also list “Doomsday Machine”, “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, The Wrath of Khan, and First Contact among their favorite stories. Guess what they all have in common?
I have no problem with action in Star Trek, even the occasional mindless kind. What I usually object to is protracted space battles, which often get boring in their length and franticness, especially with unlimited modern budgets and computer processing. Plus, they’re incredibly ridiculous considering they often follow a kind of World War II, close-range, fighter/capital ship scenario that is already obsolete today. But, what I really hate in Star Trek is war, and I think when we talk about action that’s the kind we should be the most cautious about indulging in.
Star Trek always skirted war when Roddenberry was at the helm. Certainly there were Cold Wars, but hot wars were made out of the question. In the first episode with the Klingons, “Errand of Mercy”, war was made impossible through a fairly effective deus ex machina. War is definitely not part of “Star Trek is…” nor any other Roddenberry approved writers guide created after that. War didn’t become a part of Star Trek until Deep Space Nine. I know a lot of vocal people really like that show, but it was, by the numbers, the decline of Star Trek’s popular appeal. It’s just not what people wanted to watch. It certainly wasn’t what I was interested in.
And yet war keeps rearing its head as a topic worth portraying in Star Trek even though it’s consistently not done well. In Deep Space Nine the battles always seemed very low stakes and small to me, even if there were a million ships pewing at each other on screen. Watching a bridge full of people shake in their seats while continually reporting the shield percentage is, frankly, a drag. Plus the show introduced a lot of dubious and silly concepts that still plague the franchise.
In Discovery war is also central to the plot of the first season, but the war itself was so boring it was never the focus of the actual show. In fact, that year’s best episodes were the ones completely devoid of Klingons. And now we have the new Picard series, which, if its double fisted phaser trailers and the latest Short Trek are to be believed, is about an all out flying saucer style attack on our home soil, however improbable that seems. Even fan films can’t shake the war plot, with Axanar‘s leaked script containing page after page after page of tactics, torpedoes, and tech failures and little else. And yet it badged itself as the indie alternative to the action hell of the official Paramount films. Why do producers keep reaching in that pot when it seems to not be that much fun for the audience or even for themselves? We’ll never know without asking them, and so far nobody has.
So, Mr. Hawley, Star Trek is designed for action… just not every kind of action. It’s lizard bazooka action. It’s Klingon fist fight action. It’s rocketing out of the galaxy, crew crushing, mind fire, salt sucking, acid squirting, robot tossing, crotch kicking, lirpa vs ahn woon action. Some times it’s even space laser action. But it’s never at its best when it’s endless, multi-ship, screaming soldier war action. Pick two or three of the other options you’ll do just fine. Most Star Trek movies suck anyway, no matter what you put in them.
War is one of the easiest things to reach for when you’re trying to make your story feel like it has high stakes. It’s a background against which we can easily create drama, heroes, and villains, and it’s easy to integrate action sequences into a war story.
I agree it’s not only “not very Star Trek”, but also boring now that it’s been used so many times. (Although I disagree with you on DS9, and think it did great job in many respects.)
I hope Hawley reaches for something innovative, fresh, and more in keeping with the Star Trek spirit most of us deeply miss. I have to agree with those who have pointed out what a challenge it is creating a worthy Star Trek story in movie form (as opposed to television). We do have Star Trek IV as an example of how it can be done, however. TMP was a great example that could’ve been even better given a couple more months to complete, but I’m in the minority when it comes to that one…