Star Trek is a franchise that garners mixed responses when uttered. To those who have never seen it, words like geeky or childish spring to their minds, but to the millions who identify as Trekies, inspiring and visionary are the first thoughts to spring into our’s. Star Trek, like all Sci-Fi, is about exploring the human condition. Unlike the vast majority of TV produced today, each episode goes out of its way to leave the audience feeling optimistic about the future. At its core, Star Trek is a celebration of humanity and it’s potential.
On Sept. 16, CBS announced they are pushing the upcoming chapter of the franchise, Star Trek: Discovery, from January to May 2017. While this is sad news for those of us who've been eagerly anticipating its arrival, it does afford all the non-Trekies of the world an opportunity to watch every episode from every series and movie now that they are all available on Netflix. Here is a synopsis of the franchise and what I believe each incarnation brings to the Star Trek universe.
Star Trek: The Original Series (TOS)
Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek first aired January 1968. It was an experiment in so many ways that its survival past the first season alone was an amazing achievement. In addition to being part of the then shaky Science Fiction genre, the show pushed social boundaries with its portrayal of women serving as military officers, and Lt. Nyota Uhura was one of the first black characters not portrayed as a servant in television history. The series received a lot of flak from Christian groups for its portrayal of a secular human society and was further criticized for what they interpreted as the satanic appearance of the fictional-pointed-eared Vulcan species. Despite the tension the series garnered, it survived three seasons, won numerous awards and was the start of a phenomenon that would touch the hearts and imaginations of millions.
The original series is set in the 2260s when humanity is the leader of a Federation of planets dedicated to the peaceful exploration of the galaxy in search of new life and civilizations. The show, originally titled Wagon Train to the Stars, was meant to blend the Sci-Fi genre’s greatest inspiration and the spirit of exploration that made Westerns so popular, but was also meant to emphasize Roddenberry’s Utopian ideology, that humanity had learned from the its past blunders, such as the colonialism, the salve trade, genocides, cultural appropriations and wars of the past. This enlightened live and let live attitude was a very new concept for Western civilization and gained mixed responses from viewers, but was mostly overlooked due the compelling story of brotherhood between Capt. Tiberius Kirk, Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy and Spock the ship’s half alien first officer.
Though modern viewers may have difficulty dealing with the show’s eccentric display of bright colors and its lack luster special effects, due to its being the first television series made for color TVs and the technology available at the time, every TV lover should still watch TOS and appreciate it for the vision required of its production team, the franchise it inspired and to watch William Shatner picking fights with every alien he encounters.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG)
Star Trek: The Next Generation has always been the manifestation of Roddenberry’s original vision. Despite the underground success of TOS, the show’s creator was very vocal about the studio tying his hands and drowning his utopian vision under a lot of action scenes featuring Capt. Kirk punching someone or seducing yet another woman. TNG, which was only possible thanks to Paramount buying the franchise and producing a string of successful movies, finally gave Roddenberry room to spread his creative wings.
TNG took the best elements of TOS and built on the series. It featured a diverse cast of fascinating characters such as Lt. Cmdr Data, an Android with a Pinocchio complex, Lt. Worf, a Klingon warrior serving on a vessel of peaceful exploration, Lt. Cmdr. Jody La’Forge, a blind engineer, and Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, the diplomatic and scholarly ship’s captain. Rather than exploring humanity through the experience of a hybrid Vulcan, TNG explored the human condition with Lt. Cmdr Dianna Troy, the ship’s counselor who also happened to be a half Betazoid, a race or telepathic and emphatic humanoids.
Like TOS it still featured its share of prototypical manly men, such as Cmdr. William Ryker, the alien-punching-woman-seducing first officer, aka Kirk junior, but always represented traditional gender binaries in the most respectful of manners without reinforcing them and simultaneously pushing boundaries by featuring characters, such as Lt. Tasha Yar, the ship's female chief of security. TNG pushes the subversive social boundaries of TOS even further with entire story arcs dedicated to exploring non-traditional gender identifications, LGBT, alternative economic ideals to capitalism and even questions what defines a person or a being. All of which is impressive for a series that aired in 1987.
Putting the more serious tropes of the series aside, TNG went out of its way to explain the biggest plot hole of the science fiction series; answering why most of the show’s aliens appeared to be humanoid. They Introduced the Borg, the most feared, fascinating and celebrated villains of the series, brought back the Romulan Empire and introduced several new foes to the franchise, such as the capitalistic Ferengi and the narcissistic Cardassians.
Of all the Treks, TNG has a special place in my heart. More than any other series, each episode explores a single character who by the end of the episode is a better or more enlightened person than they were at the start and leaves the viewer with a feeling of indescribable optimism that will put a smile on their face.
Star Trek Deep Space Nine (DS9)
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine took the series in a totally different direction. Rather than dealing with a crew of Star Fleet officers exploring the galaxy, the series take place on Deep Space Nine, a Cardassian Station left to the Bajoran race as reparations for a brutal 40 year occupation that left their planet devoid of any natural resources. After fighting against the occupation for so long, the Bajoran government judge themselves unable to manage the station and ask for Star Fleet’s assistance.
The set up for the series is meant to draw parallels between WWII, the Cardassians serving as metaphors for Nazi Germany, but what really makes the series interesting is the exploration of the Bajoran people. They were designed as an amalgamation of different human cultures. They dress and follow a religion that is very similar to Japanese Shinto, while their military gives viewers the impression of French resistance fighters during WWII. In many ways the Bajorans are set up as the antithesis of the Federation’s secular ideology.
While the series garnered a lot of mixed reviews from fans due to the pro secular franchise going out of its war to portray Eastern religious philosophy, DS9’s message is about learning to live in a universe where a secular vision of existence will never be shared by all and learning to live with each other peacefully.
DS9 does the same with its examination of capitalism through its Ferengi characters Quark, Rom and Nog, despite the Federation’s Utopian socialist society, and much of the series explores Klingon warrior culture in a way that serves to honor their radically different perspective as conquerors. Rather than simply building on the beliefs of established Federation dogma, DS9 scrutinizes those beliefs so the viewer can come to their own conclusions.
Subversive subtext aside, the cast of characters start off a bit rocky, but by the end of the series each of them become unforgettable in their own way. The series features Cmdr. Benjamin Sisko, the Federation’s baseball loving station commander who is trying to balance being a single father and a Star Fleet officer. DS9 explores the human condition or the very idea of personhood through its portrayal of Lt. Cmdr. Jadzia Dax, a spotted-humanoid-alien who is a combination of several personalities due to a symbiotic slug in her possessing six lifetimes of memories.
DS9 may be the most different of all the Star Treks but it my personal favorite and worth watching.
Star Trek Voyager
Star Trek: Voyager was final the masterpiece of Roddenberry’s vision, in my not so humble opinion. All the previous incarnations of Star Trek featured a crew of Star Fleet officers who could rely on the assistance of their fellow officers across the Alpha and Beta Quadrants, if things got to dangerous. This is not the case for Voyager.
The premise of the series is this crew of officers have been left stranded in the largely unexplored Delta Quadrant of our galaxy. They are alone without a means to communicate with their loved ones and staring down the barrel of a daunting 70 year journey back to Federation Space.
Voyager tests the fortitude of the Federation’s Utopian principles and forces the ship’s captain, Capt. Catherine Janeway, to choose whether to uphold the prime directive, Starfleet’s most important regulation regarding noninterference with alien cultures, or to save the lives of her crew on a regular basis. During the show’s daunting journey, they meet a host of new alien species and learn more about the Borg, the primary antagonists of the series, than any previous Trek.
Like DS9, many of the characters seem two dimensional in the beginning, such as former felon Lt. Tom Parris or the wet behind the ears Ensign Harry Kim, but by the end of the series, all of the characters evolve and become better versions of themselves, even the stoic Lt. Cmdr. Tuvoc, Voyager's Vulcan security chief. What is truly impressive is despite the insurmountable odds and the stakes involved for the stranded crew, each episode still leaves the viewer feeling optimistic in the same manner that made TNG such a great series.
Star Trek: Enterprise
Star Trek: Enterprise is my least favorite of all the Treks. Not because it is bad television by any means, but because the prequel to TOS is more action and less philosophical exploration than all of the others.
Enterprise is about the first Star Ship Enterprise and the first crew of Star Fleet officers to leave the safety of our solar system on their own. While the series has a very cliché manifest destiny kind of feel to it, which bring the American Western motiff back into the franchise, it is still very enjoyable and plays with a lot of the established the cannon, such as the fear of having your atoms pulled part by transporter technology, which is already an accepted form of travel by the TOS era, and the tense relationship between the Vulcans and blue-skinned Andorians who are members of the Federation by the time TOS began as well.
The show introduces a new interesting ally in the Denobulans, a race of eternally optimistic polygamous humanoids and a new villain in the Xindi, a collective of five sentient species who evolved on the same planet. While I feel this series had the weak crew of uninteresting bridge officers, some members are more than interesting enough to make up for the rest, such as Dr. Pholx, the ship’s Denobulan medical officer, and Cmdr. Charles "Trip" Tucker III, the Southern chief engineer with a heart of gold.
Whether you’ve seen Star Trek a dozens of for the first time, I highly recommend knocking as many of these great shows off your Netflix que before Star Trek: Discovery hits the small screen in May.