In my last column, I began talking to you about how Star Trek can return to television in a way that makes it a reflection of modern times.
The basic idea is that Star Trek’s return to the small screen should be set in the centuries after “Star Trek: Voyager,” and it should be set in a time when the Federation is declining. Despite the decline, we spend this new series, which I referred to as “Star Trek Legacies,” showing how the Federation can move into a brighter future again.
In this column, I want to talk to you about how the conflict of such a show would inform its setting and story.
For most of Star Trek, conflict came from the outside. This was the basis for the alien-of-the-week formula, with different conflicts originating from outside the crew that the characters would then have to deal with. With Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the 24th century, rarely did we see conflict among the crew or even among humans in general. That is because, as John Billingsley (Dr. Phlox) said on the “Star Trek: Enterprise” Season 2 Blu-ray, Roddenberry’s vision was one of the perfectible human.
I want to step beyond that premise, though, and ask a question that would guide the story of this series: what happens when that perfectible human makes a mistake?
I believe this should be the basis of a new Star Trek series. There do not need to be major changes to Star Trek’s vision of the future, but if Star Trek is meant to reflect the times we live in and discuss the issues we face, I believe we have to be willing to accept that Roddenberry’s idea of the perfectible human is, in and of itself, imperfect. It’s a noble idea, but it lacks room for serious character drama, and lacks the ability to show the humanity of the future making mistakes they can learn from and grow from. Such a restriction is something the writers of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” often struggled with.
For a new series, the squeaky clean world of the 24th century could be a distant memory. While Earth would still be the great society Roddenberry believed it could become, the rest of the Federation is not as strong as it once was. Militarily, it is weaker. Its economic security is not as robust as in centuries past. Outlying systems no longer feel it is necessary to be part of the Federation, and that the Federation does not represent their best interests. Internal mistakes and outside pressures have forced the Federation to begin contracting.
This concept, while somewhat radical for Star Trek, fits with the trajectory of the prime canon as we know it. In fact, to have everything be squeaky clean would be a disservice to the Star Trek canon that has come before.
When we left the 24th century at the end of “Star Trek: Nemesis” (and via the backstory of J.J. Abrams’ first “Star Trek”), the Federation was specifically stated as being in decline; there had just been a massive war, the Borg were fractured and the Romulan Empire was gone. To suggest there are no massive, game-changing consequences to this wouldn’t make any sense.
The destruction of Romulus in particular is Space 9/11; it changes the entire balance of power. The goodness and sanctity of the Federation, especially as seen in “The Next Generation,” can only be fully sustained so long as outside factors permit it.
Much of the conflict of a post-“Voyager” series can be the result of these outside factors. With the Romulans nearly extinct, the Klingon Empire could find a renewed lust for war. That would allow the Klingons to be an enemy again, but not all of them. We’ve had shows where Klingons are good guys and where Klingons are bad guys, but there’s never been a sustained story where there were both at once.
The Romulans also present an opportunity to explore their society after the destruction of Romulus, particularly if any resurgent Romulans became an enemy for the Federation.
Perhaps the most interesting villain would be the Borg. Some fans might argue that the Borg were overused in “Voyager” to the point that they lost their edge, and I generally agree with that. But there are new ways to explore the Borg after the destruction of their transwarp network and the death of the Borg Queen. What if that was the final queen, and they’ve been leaderless ever since?
The idea of a Borg civil war is very appealing, particularly when you consider that different Borg, no longer drones to a queen, could have conflicting ideals as they relate to the Federation. Imagine if the Federation, or at least the main crew of a series, sided with one Borg faction over another. The possibilities for where such stories could go are tantalizing.
Despite these enemies, and any new ones a crew could encounter, conflict also needs to come from within. It can’t just be about the alien or crisis of the week, but with problems in humanity. Outside factors can’t be the only thing that gives us a weaker and struggling Federation. There have to be mistakes that humans made along the way. This factors in the canon of what came before, in that sense that the perfect humans of the 24th century were actually blind to the real struggles of the Federation.
“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” which spent time examining Roddenberry’s vision of the future, had a great quote in the two-part episode “The Maquis,” when Benjamin Sisko criticized the Federation’s human leaders: “Just because a group of people belong to the Federation, it does not mean they’re saints. Do you know what the trouble is? The trouble is Earth. On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see paradise. Well, it’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise. Out there in the Demilitarized Zone, all the problems haven’t been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints — just people. Angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with Federation approval or not!”
“Deep Space Nine” reminded us that while the human world may have become the hopeful paradise that Roddenberry dreamed of, that doesn’t mean the rest of the galaxy is the same way. The Federation can be in decline, and show that the humans of the 24th century were blind to other peoples’ problems was a cause of that, but that doesn’t mean Earth would be in decline. It’s a technicality in the vision, to be sure, but one that provides a lot of room for storytelling and examining how even future humans can make mistakes and learn from them.
That is why I believe Star Trek should move away from the idea that the Federation, and the vision of the future that it embodies, is perfect and above reproach. It’s the fundamental flaw in Gene Roddenberry’s otherwise brilliant vision of the 24th century. We can say that there will be no hunger, that there will be no greed and that all the children will know how to read, but that doesn’t mean the Federation — led by always-imperfect humans — can’t hit a roadblock every now and again.
After all, it doesn’t so much matter what message a Star Trek story starts with, as long as it fits into the basic parameters of Roddenberry’s vision of the future. What matters is the message it ends with.