Star Trek's 50 years of technology, optimism and naiveté

It envisioned a future we wanted to see—and didn't want to see

Star Trek's 50 years of technology, optimism and naiveté
Credit: Thinkstock/Wikimedia

Thursday marked the 50th birthday of a TV and film institution, "Star Trek," and was met with far more joy and happiness than most 50th birthdays are.

What started as a struggling TV series that limped along for three years has become an institution and part of our culture, with terms, references, and catchphrases now a regular part of our lives.

At the time of its creation, science fiction was more optimistic than it is today. It tried to envision a better future where our problems were solved.

Even so, it took some serious brass to put an Asian, Russian, and black woman on the bridge of that ship in 1966. Creator Gene Roddenberry wanted to go one further and make the second-in-command a woman but that was a bridge too far, which paved the way for Spock.

Its technology envisioned many devices we have today: wearable communications, real-time video chat, hand-held medical scanners, and real-time language translation. When something new emerges that bears any resemblance to a Trek technology, like Skype's real time language translator, the analogy to Trek is automatic.

But it was the social comment of Trek that set it apart. Unfortunately, that's what made it boring.

Roddenberry's optimism of the 60s gave way to a foolish policy decision in the '80s when The Next Generation hit the TV airwaves.

In 1995, I had the good fortune of spending time with John De Lancie, "Q" from TNG. He told me that Gene had a policy that the main characters were not to have any type of personality flaws that hindered them.

They were essentially to be perfect. He felt this "bound the hands," as he put it, of the actors because it gave them nothing to overcome.

At that moment I understood why I never liked TNG – his appearances notwithstanding, Q made things fun – but latched on to "Deep Space Nine" in a big way.

Both Ars Technica and IO9 have written wonderful tributes to DS9, but I want to add my own two cents. DS9 was created after Roddenberry died in 1991 and it threw out that requirement of perfection. The result was a far more realistic, honest, and exciting Star Trek than TNG, even if it was set on a space station.

TNG was an utterly lifeless word devoid of any excitement. It was a boring future I did not want to live to see because it seemed like they had nothing to overcome.

Agent Smith almost got it right in "The Matrix" when he said humans define themselves by misery and suffering. No, we define ourselves by the misery and suffering we have overcome.

In the TNG world, there was nothing to overcome. Life had no challenges. It was BORING.

In TNG, they would show up at any random planet and it was always the same: one race, one species, one language, one culture. Look at our planet. Are we all one culture or language worldwide? Of course not. DS9 had people at each other's throats, which sadly is how it often is.

Where Picard usually had easy decisions and always made the right one, Ben Sisko was faced with no-win situations and occasionally screwed up. He engaged in an outright fraud to manipulate the Romulans into joining the Federation in the war against the Dominion and made no apologies for it.

He did what he thought was right and let the chips fall where they may. Where Picard fixed every problem with a stern lecture, Sisko punched people, including Q.

DS9 had as a backdrop a recent war and massacre of the Bajoran people by the Cardassians in a barely-disguised reference to the Jewish Holocaust. The original series and TNG never touched the subject of religion because Roddenberry was an atheist, but DS9 had no problems with that.

Just as their faith sustained many Jews in the Holocaust, the Bajorans had their religion to sustain them through the war with the Cardassians. The wormhole outside of DS9 was considered a celestial temple where their deities, The Prophets, resided. In the end, Sisko would join The Prophets in the temple, marking the first and only time a Star Fleet captain became a god.

It also led to one of the saddest images ever in the series, with his son staring forlornly out a portal at the wormhole, knowing his father was in there but they could not communicate. Man was that a painful ending.

What made DS9 so great was it was human, full of human failings. Every character in DS9 had a problem or flaw of one sort or other that made them realistic, something Roddenberry would never have allowed.

Some were hidden, like Dr. Bashir's genetic engineering, while others were there for all to see, such as Quark's larceny or Worf's painful disconnection from the Klingon society he loved so much.

Star Fleet proved to be deeply flawed as well when it was uncovered late in the series that it had engaged in a form of genocide to kill the shapeshifters that were leading the Dominion war. It was Odo, cast out previously from his people, who returned to save them from annihilation.

I also have to point out that DS9 had three of the greatest villains (one of them debatable) in the series history. Please fanboys, spare me your support for Khan. He is the most overrated of the Trek villains, outwitted by Kirk at every single instance. Scenery chewing does not make you an effective bad guy, and that's all Ricardo Montalban did.

Gul Dukat easily wins as the most vile and dangerous character the Trek universe has ever seen, simply for the lengths he's willing to go through to achieve his vicious goals. Lots of credit has to go to the actor Mark Alaimo for adding so much menace to the character, from his voice to his stare to his freakish neck. Dukat was an utterly evil bastard and you knew it from the start, no matter how innocent he acted.

Kai Winn is the near perfect villain because she is the enemy within, a Bajoran holy person who proves a complete hypocrite and traitor. It's funny she was played by Louise Fletcher, because Fletcher's most celebrated role is of Nurse Ratched in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and just like in that movie, we all cheered when she finally got what she had coming in the end.

Finally, there was Garak. Some may debate whether he was a villain or anti-hero. Regardless, he was the most dangerous tailor ever seen on TV. He could smile to your face and stab you in the back at the same time. He was complicated, had no qualms about playing dirty and wound up insane at the end. DS9 was the least focused on technology of the shows, but the most human despite all of its aliens.

If anyone should be the caretaker of the Trek legacy today it should be Ron Moore, the executive producer of DS9 and creator of the "Battlestar Galactica" reboot, not J.J. Abrams.

Now, where's my damn holosuite with Leeta in it?

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