Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Where (And When) Should the New Star Trek Boldly Go?

CBS recently announced that the Star Trek franchise is finally returning to small screens, if not exactly television. After a première on network TV in 2017, subsequent episodes will be available exclusively (at least to start) through their streaming service, CBS All Access, a move that has generated its own controversy.  Will people pay $6 (US) a month for the privilege of watching hot, fresh Trek? Some will, but I probably won't be one of them; I am just a shade too frugal, and content to wait until regular TV or BluRay or what have you. Besides, the show will be distributed internationally for television at the same time, so I am unsure how long that exclusivity will actually last.

But regardless of how or when I get to see it, I am very glad to see Star Trek swing back to its natural habitat: episodic storytelling. The movies have always given us great action and some wonderful character moments, but a TV series is still the best way to actually wheel out some 'big idea' science fiction and dynamic storytelling.

We are told by that "The brand-new Star Trek will introduce new characters seeking imaginative new worlds and new civilizations, while exploring the dramatic contemporary themes that have been a signature of the franchise since its inception in 1966."  The biggest question now seems to be when this new venture should be set, and whether it should exist in the contextual universe of the original series or the rebooted Abrams movies. 

For my two cents, we still want to drive the narrative forward, right? No more prequels or reboots, this is a franchise that could do with a return to its exploratory roots and actually show us something new, as opposed to the history of the Federation (Enterprise) or re-treading previous stories (Star Trek Into Darkness/Wrath of Khan)

But as a sci-fi audience we have matured a fair bit since 1966, so running into planet after planet of humanoids that we can talk to (I know, I know, universal translator, but still...) is just too implausible, and realistic first contact would take a miniseries to dramatize, and even then runs the risk of boring the audience. (Darmok notwithstanding, obviously.)

How about this idea, that could potentially work in either the original or rebooted Star Trek universe:

More than a century after Voyager returned home (or a couple of centuries after Vulcan was destroyed in the reboot), a galactic catastrophe occurs (war with another galaxy, a dimensional incursion, some space/time fragmentation, whatever) that not only results in tremendous damage to just about everything in known space, but also somehow corrupts transluminal space in such a way that it completely prevents interstellar flight and communication.

With trade and talk between the stars removed without warning, chaos reigns for a time, and when no solution is quickly found, these isolated island systems have no choice but to make their own way. Homeworlds are forgotten, as alien residents forge a permanent future on the planets they believed they were just visiting, but which will be their homes for the foreseeable future. Earth reflects the galaxy in a microcosm, as political unrest spills into war across the solar system, before a hard-fought peace is finally won.

Four hundred years later, the Vulcans (who else?) eventually solve the warp-drive puzzle, and send an emissary ship to Earth, asking for the Sol System’s help in re-establishing a United Federation of Planets that most Terrans think of in the same terms as Camelot.
Some systems have probably made out just fine, while others may have fallen to barbarism. Some planets and societies will gladly rejoin the fold, while others will balk at their perceived lack of independence. Piracy and lawlessness will no doubt take hold once greedy beings realize they can take to the stars again, and a strong Starfleet will be needed to give the fledgling Federation a fighting chance against more opportunistic players looking to fill the power vacuum in a newly reunited universe.

Who will the new captains of this Starfleet be? What will they find as they re-discover former colonies? Will they have to face the threat from four centuries earlier?

And how will their deeds be measured in a universe where the name Enterprise has all but disappeared into legend?

61% of the poll respondents on sci-fi blog io9 want Star Trek to move forward, taking place either post-Voyager(42%) or in the far future (19%). Moving the continuity 500 years or so forward gives the showrunners a clean slate and some room to breathe, and the period of isolation provides a real opportunity to 'reset' things in a way that suits long-term storytelling arcs.  

A number of show formats could be used within the setting I described, but a five year mission to re-establish contact with previously lost elements of the Federation would be easy, accessible, and a great tribute to the original series. Besides, who's to say everything still is where it was 400 years ago, right?

Re-introducing elements of previous Trek iterations can still be done as a form of fan service, but you can tweak them to suit current sensibilities, either by explaining that the original records got some details wrong or that things have simply changed in the interval. ("Gangsters and tommy guns? Well, I suppose maybe it could have looked like that to an offworlder but the pinstripes you are describing are completely unheard of here...")

Technology levels (transporters, holodecks) could be left pretty much the same, saying that Sol III and the rest were busy getting by and establishing peace, and Vulcan was preoccupied keeping everyone fed on a desert planet with food insecurity while also working the FTL conundrum. 

The biggest downside to me (aside from the fact that the central idea is not particularly original, showing up in the Warhammer 40,000 backstory as well as the Andromeda TV show (apparently), Hyperion by Dan Simmons, and even the Fallout video game series) is that no one in it is initially going "where no one has gone before". As long as they are going boldly (and by 'they' I mean both the crew and the writers), I won't worry too much about the destination.

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