In Star Trek we’ve seen courtroom dramas, time travel universe altering events, mega-villains, even retellings of the exact same story in multi universes. Is that good enough for fans?
Star Trek is middle aged. It’s been to just about every corner of the galaxy and beyond. During its many adventures Trek crews have time traveled, died, and been brought back to life, possessed by aliens, turned into weird walrus-like creatures, reduced to dodecahedrons, combined with other characters, split into different entities, used in alien machines as portable computers, and even fought each other in battles to the death. Now while I made mention of all those storylines, you may have picked one or two (or three) episodes with incredibly similar storylines or maybe imagined some long forgotten, recycled plot which made its way back into Star Trek storytelling.
Anyone up for a game of “Of course, you can Khaaan do it again”?
We have to ask ourselves, “Is it wise to return to a character or situation?” One can’t help but remember Spock returning in “Unification” during “sweeps week” to know producers were fishing for viewers when they aired that episode. While enjoyable it’s not on my “replay” list.
Another example was when we only met Sarek of Vulcan once in the original series run, he’s a popular character who has resurfaced in several series since and seems to be a fixture of current and probably future storytelling.
Does this reliance on incredibly similar storytelling coupled with very familiar characters decades after their debut mean Star Trek is running out of ideas? Does it mean an eye-rolling Yogi Berra moment of “deja vous all over again”?
It can, of course. Anyone who enjoyed the masterful “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan”: a revisit from “Space Seed” (youtube.com) and rebooted (again) three decades later as “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” Critics called it a “flat” unnecessary retelling of the iconic story. In short, it wasn’t something we fans needed or really wanted. Box office receipts suggested exactly the same.
Yet, when we look at the latest season 3 of Star Trek: Picard, many fans found a return to the Enterprise-D tremendously satisfying, connecting where the previous two seasons looked more like a retirement center lunch soup special.
Why such a contrast and why do fans care about one reboot or return visit over another?
The answer might be pretty simple and straightforward.
Star Trek stories with familiar characters or storylines must be WORTH telling.
Stories must earn our attention and affection. While Star Trek: Picard’s first two seasons provided new stories in the Trek universe, there really wasn’t much “new” ground. In season 3, things changed dramatically. We got to see our old NextGen friends come back, update their lives, and progress in ways we never got to see in the show (or the movies). They evolved. Good storytelling demands characters change and learn from their experiences. Simple “eye candy” like seeing the “Enterprise D” return to our television screens is immensely rewarding, but any fan with computer animation skills can make that a virtual reality, and we can enjoy those renderings for a few minutes, enjoy the short rush and then move on. What we wanted was for Star Trek: The Next Generation to get a great sendoff, one we were robbed of in the final movie installment.
Another great example was bringing Captain Pike (ign.com) back in “Strange New Worlds” – the series which is fast becoming many fans favorite series (myself included). With a cast and crew who are both familiar and dynamic, we want to learn more about these beloved characters. We want to know where they are going and probably how they are going to get there. “Strange New Worlds” is delivering on what “Star Trek: Enterprise” did not. How we, if you can forgive the pun, want to honestly traverse that “long road getting from there to here”.
Sure we’ve had Pike pop up in the reboot movies, but his character was nothing more than a placeholder. We could have put anyone in that role. Admiral Tightpants could have served the same position, and we’d gotten pretty much the same result. SNW producers decided our character deserved a fully developed background, armed with all the qualities and exciting stories to challenge him. We care for the guy knowing the day will come where we have to say “goodbye”. Bring tissue – we’ll collectively need it.
So, too, our “Enterprise D” was important in Picard – but it was its reassembled CREW on board who we cared about. Their final voyage together and resolved storyline made its return important to us. The “D” was just icing on a very influential cake.
If that’s not convincing enough, let’s consider Next Generation’s return to TOS, “Relics” with Scotty’s revival and his quality time on the original Enterprise holodeck experience. We’ve all watched that thing dozens of times. We do it because we care about the character, and it was essential to understand Scotty and our shared love of “Star Trek”.
Returning to previous Star Trek can work, but it has to be on honest terms. It’s about furthering the story and mythos – not just “eye candy” or gimmicks. Star Trek fans care and producers will be rewarded when they do the same.