So Star Trek hits 50, and while I will never deny its influence on our culture, I have to wonder if maybe it’s time to give the entire Star Trek universe a break? I’ve said it before, and usually, it’s met with a great wave of disagreement from the fans. I’m not dismissing their love of Trek, but I am pondering if it has anything truly new to offer us.
Sci fi heresy? Perhaps. Don’t mistake my question for an attack on Star Trek in particular. I wonder, often, just as much about Doctor Who, Star Wars, Ghostbusters, and dozens of other long running characters and ideas. I even enjoyed the new Ghostbusters, but still thought the actors and creators involved would’ve been better served by a new universe to play in rather than revisiting an old one.
We all have our favorite things. I have friends who still manage to adore Star Wars, even with its occasional faults. And I love Tarzan. Still, while I enjoyed the latest Tarzan film, I found too that there was nothing about it to really make it distinct or interesting beyond an affection for the character.
Putting aside our love for these universes and characters, I think it’s okay to ask every so often what they’re bringing to the cultural table. More often than not, it seems to me that it’s the equivalent of comfort food, a not entirely bad thing but often missing that thing that made them so great.
Most great sci fi and fantasy is about discovery on some level. Star Trek was explicitly about exploring strange new worlds. The original Star Wars trilogy was all about a traditional legend told with new characters and new tools. Jedis and spaceships and exploding planets, etc. When I first read Tarzan, it was an experience precisely because I didn’t know what to expect. (Tarzan, the literary character, is so different from Tarzan, the movie / TV character.)
So when I ask do we “need” Star Trek, I’m not asking if Star Trek is something we enjoy? I’m asking if enjoying it is enough? That special feeling about Trek is more than an affection for the material. In its prime, Trek was about exploration and discovery. Now, it’s little more than a nice meal I’ve had before.
I’m not saying Trek is done. I’m saying perhaps we might do ourselves and our world better by giving it a rest. Same with Star Wars, the TMNT, Spider-Man, and a thousand other franchises (god, I hate that we use that word, so cold and clinical) that refuse to go away. As much as I enjoyed the new Spidey making an appearance in Civil War, I didn’t find myself pining for yet another movie with the character when their are so many other characters who could visit us. In fact, the more familiar the MCU becomes, the less interesting it is to me, which I get is the opposite of most people who couldn’t wait for Spidey to show up. Yet the moment the X-Men and Fantastic Four become the dominant force of the MCU is the moment it becomes infinitely less interesting.
It’s all a thought experiment without purpose. None of these things are going anywhere. They’re simply too grounded in our shared culture, and in a world of uncertainty, it’s too easy to go with what works. Star Trek Beyond was even decent, though I’ll argue that it was mostly forgettable simply by virtue of being a Star Trek story hitting all the Star Trek expectations. The Force Awakens is little more than the re-skinning of Star Wars for a new generation, which isn’t terrible.
But as for me, Action Force, I just don’t know how I feel about any of this. And as the world spins onward, I see us beholden to the sci fi of our past with far too much affection. And this, again, is coming from the guy who loves Tarzan stories.