Erikson, Star Trek and Beyond
Not so long ago Steven Erikson penned an open letter to Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman, the creative team bringing the new Star Trek series to the small screen. While the response to this online has varied between abusive and dismissive, to thoughtful and considered, it did raise some issues that go beyond Star Trek itself, and it is that which has piqued my interest.
In his extensive letter (parts 1, 2, and 3, or the whole thing here) Erikson attempts to explain what he believes are some of the core principles behind the success and the longevity of Star Trek: The Original Series, and how the subsequent series of The Next Generation, Deep Space 9, Voyager, and the prequel series, Enterprise, have drifted further and further away from the strengths of the original. So below I am going to address my interpretation of what Erikson said and how it relates to what I consider a broader trend within SF and TV toward violence and conflict as action, and then, in turn, how that actually relates to a more significant general problem in terms of compromised morality. Lastly, how I think this is related to a systemic and flawed understanding of narrative by producers and production companies.
Beginning then with Erikson’s critique of ST:TOS, he outlines how the crew was made up of very distinct and well-drawn characters. Spock, ruled by his logic, but possessing an internal conflict between his emotional human half and his rational Vulcan heritage. ‘Bones’ McCoy, the human doctor and friend to Kirk who is a passionate individual, slightly xenophobic, and frequently finds himself in vehement disagreement with Spock. Lastly, in this triumvirate of commanding personalities, is the captain himself, James Tiberius Kirk. Impulsive but intelligent, motivated by a sense of what is right but guided by duty and morality, in touch with his emotions but capable of assessing and evaluating situations coolly and dispassionately. Kirk is the balancing point of the two extremes represented by his two closest friends and advisors. In a sense, Kirk represents the eternal human conflict of finding balance between rationality and passion, between thought and emotion. We could get all Freudian here and start talking about the Id, the Ego and so forth, but I think the message is fairly clear.
So one of the strongest elements in the original show is the balancing act that Kirk maintains as he listens to the often contradictory advice from Spock and Bones, before ultimately making the command decision. He never requires consensus amongst his officers, he is tolerant of their divergent opinions, but he requires them to follow his orders and support them once the decisions have been made. This is part of the beauty of ST:TOS. The disparate views of the officers are tolerated as long as, once the decision has been made, they support their captain and follow the chain of command. Now, of course, there are episodes that deal with when this breaks down, but as a general trend, there is conflict and drama within the crew on-board the Enterprise, as any there would be with any group of strong willed individuals, but it is managed and contained by Kirk. No one is suggesting that the shipmates are intolerant, the opposite is true, they are exceptionally tolerant, but rather there is a frank exchange of free-flowing ideas that do not all necessarily agree. This is, in fact, tolerance at its truest. Divergent opinions, different perspectives, multiple approaches and solutions, many being mutually exclusive. So a core element of the drama of the show lies in this human element, the points of view of the crew, the conflict between clashing perspectives, and how the crew navigates this and finds a way forward.
Erikson also notes that in later iterations of the Star Trek franchise, many of the Federation characters became almost interchangeable in relation to the points of view they offered and their rather homogenous and non-controversial perspectives. The fights and bickering amongst the TNG crew were closer to the grumbling disagreements of a fairly harmonious family than the vast gulf between Spock and Bones that Kirk bridged. In DS:9, it was the Ferengi and Cardassian characters that provided some real sense of difference, with even Kira (ostensibly a terrorist/freedom fighter with authority issues) becoming yet another in a long line of fairly generic Federation Flunkies. Even Dax, an alien symbiote who had lived ‘multiple lives’, was surprisingly bland. In Voyager the renegade outsider with authority issues, Tom Paris, becomes one of the most ‘by the book’ officers with Chakotay and Torres (rebels and terrorists) also conforming to a greater or lesser degree, respectively. Even in Enterprise, there was rarely a sense of complex and individualised characters. In essence, the Federation became bland and homogenous, and as result the sense of conflict was necessarily externalised in the form of threats to be faced and foes to be fought.
I know, I know, these are vague generalised comments and assertions. I am aware of that. Yet there is a strange underlying trend here. The Federation came to represent a stagnant order, replete with rules, regulations, and a nightmare bureaucracy, and it lost any sense of the pioneering spirit. Rebel characters were rapidly assimilated into the right way of doing things, with little consideration of other points of view. So is it any wonder that the show runners began to create more and more perilous external threats just to provide a sense of narrative tension and desperately needed conflict?
But behind this is the actual general theme of the original show. Exploration. Not conquest, not war, not conflict, but exploration. A desire to see what the universe contains. Combined with this is the complete and utter awareness that the universe is a dangerous and often times bizarre place. Yet when Kirk et al encounter strange new worlds and aliens, his first thought is to find out about them. Contrast this with the number of times Picard and his crew encounter a new thing and their first reaction is ‘Shields Up’. Kirk may have been cognisant of the dangers of space exploration, but it was a voyage of discovery that focused on the joy of finding infinite diversity in infinite combinations. The focus was optimistic, uplifting, and, ultimately about the risks necessary to make strides forward in claiming out place among the stars and in the universe, and that those risks were worth taking.
Yet it seems, as Erikson highlights, that as each new iteration of Stark Trek emerged, it lost focus on that theme of the grand exploration, of the need to discover, and the need for tolerance but not necessarily consensus. In ST:TNG, the Trek series I grew up watching and loved at the time, I noticed that the crew was far more often in general consensus about approaches to issues, and even when they disagreed, the disagreements were fairly minor. But not only that, the series began to become more and more afraid of exploration and what is out there. The Borg storyline, the threat from the Q Continuum, the dangers of exposing humans to the powerful forces in the universe and the need to protect ourselves and fight for our legacy. Gone, it seems, was the joy in exploration, of the desire to learn for learning’s sake. This trend continued on in DS:9 with its focus on the Cardassian and the Dominion war, Voyager with its journey through the ‘hostile’ Delta quadrant, and even Enterprise. Enterprise, ostensibly a show that should have been far more in line with TOS had a grand arc of temporal war and the conflict with the Suliban and the Cabal.
In this sense, Star Trek did lose its way somewhat from the original incarnation. War, battle, violent conflict, these were the things at the heart of the later series.
However, this was not necessarily a bad thing. After all, television often reflects concerns and preoccupations in society, and perhaps from the 1990s onwards we became far more focused on destroying perceived and potential enemies, than in trying to find a way forward. TV seemed to reflect our generalised fear of the strange and the unknown, and so framed narratives with the known good fighting the unknown potential evil. What is, perhaps, even more egregious, is that in the modern film versions by JJ Abrams, not only have the two stories focused exclusively on external, violent threats from irredeemably ‘evil’ villains who need to be, and according to the film, should be, stopped at all costs, but that the means will always justify the ends.
By this I mean, if you think about the stories from the perspective of the villain, say Khan for example, in Into Darkness so much of the narrative falls apart and the bias of the story rears its ugly head. Khan was coerced into designing weapons by having his crew, his ‘family’, held hostage and threatened. When he tries to break free from this tyranny and rescue his family, his crew, through violent means admittedly, he is pursued relentlessly by Kirk. In fact Kirk is given an assassination order. Despite this, he spares Kirk when he has him at his mercy, because he knows that Kirk is unaware of the full details of the situation. When Khan and Kirk ally to take down the corrupt and evil Admiral Marcus, Khan behaves honourably albeit a little barbarically, while Kirk actually betrays him. Then, even though if the positions were switched Kirk would have done pretty much the same thing, Spock deliberately betrays Khan despite having no evidence that Khan would actually betray them and so Spock attempts to kill him in cold blood, all on the say so of Spock Prime from a completely different timeline. Not only is this completely illogical as it judges a man by the actions of an alternate version, it also relies entirely on the previous franchise to even partially justify the action. Apparently the vaunted Federation values and Kirk’s desire for justice only extends to other Federation members like Marcus. Whereas victims of the Federation like Khan can be summarily executed. Then, Khan, for no apparent reason, and completely against character at this point, tries to destroy the Enterprise. This makes no sense whatsoever from his perspective as clearly he would be endangering his crew on-board the Enterprise, his sole reason for doing everything that he has done thus far. This action exists in the narrative solely so that Spock’s betrayal and underhanded actions are justified after the fact by a series of events that are illogical and run contrary to the character of Khan as established in this film and turns him into a spittle-spraying madman. He becomes a figure that is deemed villainous solely because he was a previous Star Trek villain and this reveals a deep flaw in how producers and directors see the ethos of Star Trek, and how they see ‘action’ and ‘tension’.
Khan mindlessly destroys a huge swathe of San Francisco because… reasons. Well actually he does it because Spock blew up the ship he was on… so really it is Spock’s fault, not Khan’s, but we can’t blame a hero here. Spock and Khan then mindlessly fight… for reasons, before Khan is ultimately defeated. Try this thought experiment on for size. Instead of Spock trying to kill Khan for no real reason, they give Khan back his crew and let him go. Not only does this make more sense, and fixes the error that the complicated cryo tubes all get emptied in a few minutes and the defrosting crew seemingly stowed somewhere, it also means that Spock gives a logical order, and one that is in tune with his beliefs, the beliefs of the Federation, and it is in line with the tone of the film to this point that Marcus is the true villain. Khan has behaved honourably at this point and has no reason to betray or attack the Enterprise crew, so he heads off on his way in order to set up a new home for his crew away from the Federation. This would leave him available as a future villain, or one of his crew as a future villain later on in the series, there are a myriad of reasons that he could return. So that would actually mirror how TOS and the Wrath of Khan film operated. However, this would mean that Admiral Marcus would still have to be alive, so Kirk would have stopped Khan from killing him and brought Marcus to true justice instead of simply having Marcus executed.
Ultimately this would mean that a corrupt part of the Federation is exposed and excised in a public and just manner. Marcus brought to trial and the true strength of the Federation is brought to the fore and honoured. The warmongering is criticised and shown to be the antithesis of what the Federation stands for. Spock, Bones, and the crew wouldn’t have to have the ridiculous sub-plot involving Khan’s ‘super’ blood that seriously undermined the credibility and viability of the narrative. Spock wouldn’t turn into a rage monster emulating a ‘Hulk smash’ moment. We wouldn’t have that ridiculous ‘we can beam down but not up’ moment. Khan and his crew would be left as a potential future threat, or ally. The theme of exploration and of a just and honest Federation would have been reinforced, and this would have led to a far more appropriate reason for Kirk to give the speech about exploration. Exploration, optimism, a just society, these are things that have to be protected and worked for, and this ending would have reinforced this. Instead we got more battles in space. More over-the-top destruction. More ‘kill them before they kill us’. I can think of few things further from the ethos of Star Trek than this.
But strangely, that seems to be were the latter iterations of Star Trek have gone. Compelling drama has been replaced by villains who need to be fought. The strange, the alien, and the unknown are no longer to be explored and embraced, but feared and killed. The over-arching narratives of the later Star Treks have been those of violent conflict and military conquest. I willingly admit that wars and battles can be exciting action, they can be dramatic, but ST:TOS managed action, drama and compelling viewing without resorting to war and conflict as a default.
So this brings me on to the wider point about TV and Film, and to a lesser extent in this instance, fantasy novels. War, conflict, and the ends justifying the means in a dog eat dog world, seems to have become a prevailing trend. So much so that the underlying reasons of why this things must be done have been lost or glossed over. Heroes dispatch villains and henchmen with quips and nary a second glance. Evil guys are evil because they are evil. The good guys can commit any type of nefarious act, with minimal repercussions, as long as it is in service of the greater good as they see it. Plots become twisted and bent out of shape to justify heroes acting like villains and giving them fig-leaves and the flimsiest of rationales to hide their villainy.
I am not suggesting that every hero suffer psychological trauma with every nameless henchman they dispatch, but some acknowledgement that they have just ended multiple human lives would nice. To see them have to weigh the burden of this, even if it is simply to nod in that direction, would be a welcome change. But it seems that we are locked in a cycle of violence in which ‘heroes’ commit the very evils the villains are accused of but we celebrate their actions because we are on their side. Torturing enemies for information is viewed as a necessary evil that heroes have to commit because it is for the greater good, despite the fact that every study says torture doesn’t work and is terribly unreliable. Killing enemies is portrayed as making the heroes more powerful, rather than acknowledging that this is a failure on their part to be heroes, to be better than their foes, to be the people we need to look up to. But whatever happened to heroes actually acting like heroes?
Let me give you another example of this taken from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Iron Man trilogy. In the first, Iron Man, Tony Stark is confronted with the irrefutable evidence of what he has wrought. He is a weapons manufacturer and he suddenly sees how his weapons are being used. He sees American soldiers killed by his weapons. He faces death and has a life altering experience. He builds a suit that is high on defence, and low on weapons, adapting the repulsors to be non-lethal, or at least not entirely lethal, weapons as well as part of his suit’s propulsion system. He sets out to right the wrongs that his company has created and focuses on a future in which Stark Industries will make the world better through clean, renewable, and cheap energy. He wants to protect the world. He is even regretful as Stane dies.
Then comes Iron Man II. Ivan Vanko is set up as a bad guy, a villain, irredeemable in every way. He is dirt poor. He is dirty and greasy. He is Russian. He is the total opposite of the American Dream that is Tony Stark, who is rich, cultured, manicured, and, above all, American. But the audience is told that Vanko’s father had been a friend and partner to Tony’s dad. They had worked together to design the arc reactor and basically Vanko’s dad was ‘betrayed’ by Howard Stark. Tony, fearing that he is dying, is focused on righting the wrongs of the past. And yet… and yet… it never occurs to him when he meets Vanko to apologise for what happened to Vanko’s father and to offer Ivan a job. He recognises Vanko’s brilliance, a kindred spirit with a similar brilliant mind, but dismisses him as a bad guy. And the audience is meant to agree with this why? Because Vanko is a victim and Tony’s family screwed him over? That point never really gets raised. Vanko is a bad guy because the film says he is, and that is all there is to it. We are meant to go with it because the film needed a bad guy, so they made him dirty, poor and Russian, all so an American audience would find it easy to villainise him. It is an egregious narrative flaw that goes against the whole theme of Tony’s need for redemption, and his desire to make up for the mistakes of the past, as well as going against his need to fix everything before he dies. And, let’s face it, the cold war justification for villainy was old hat nearly twenty years ago, and we are still meant to swallow it without a thought?
Added to this is the fact that Tony has continued to tinker with his suits, primarily to build ones with more powerful and greater numbers of weapons. Something that runs completely counter to the ethos of the first film, runs counter to his character development, and runs counter to the theme that is meant to be running through this film. What then follows is the film’s ‘climax’, in which numerous robotic enemies are blown apart while, despite the massive devastation, there are apparently no civilian casualties or injuries. This is then followed by a ridiculous showdown between Vanko and the ‘heroes’. Action, explosions, conflict… these are the things that have replaced drama and compelling storylines. It is just wanton destruction portrayed as entertainment. A celebration of violence and mass destruction as innocent fun that has no real repercussions or victims.
But the most egregious example is actually Iron Man 3. The first third of the film highlights how the injured soldiers that Killian is experimenting on with the Extremis treatment are victims. The first two instances that Tony investigates are clearly unwilling victims of an experimental procedure to treat wounds that they received in honourable combat protecting the US. These are heroes. American heroes. Heroes who have been used and abused by an unscrupulous scientist. Heroes who are victims of a procedure because they were desperate to be made physically whole again. Heroes who are then killed by this treatment. But suddenly the film transitions to all the Extremis soldiers being bad guys with no explanation. Nameless bad guys. Nameless bad guys who need to be killed. Despite the fact that Tony miraculously develops a cure in the space of half an hour to cure Pepper, none of this was possible to ‘save’ the other Extremis victims. In fact, by the film’s climax, the fact that these were military veterans who were experimented upon after being sold a bill of goods by Killian is completely forgotten. They are just mindless, non-human, glowing monsters to be killed, and the audience is expected to forget that these were men and women in the armed services who had served their country and received grievous injuries while doing their duty. So the film suggests, just like Vanko in Iron Man 2, that despite the fact that these are victims they need to be treated as enemies that deserve death. Sure Tony could cure them, but killing them is completely justified? Right?
If this were not bad enough, in Tony’s assault of the ‘Mandarin’s’ complex he willingly and nonchalantly kills a number of guards. This is despite the fact that the film never makes it clear that these are terrorists or bad guys. They are just private security guards who have been hired to protect a drunken actor. There is no attempt by Tony or the film to justify Tony’s execution of these men. Simply being associated with Killian is enough. Tony has gone from a hero who wanted to protect the world and save it, to a man who willingly, and without qualm or remorse, kills a bunch of people in cold blood because he deems it right. Could he have built weapons that incapacitated the guards? Of course he could, but he doesn’t, in fact he makes a bunch of weapons that he knows will maim or kill. He even shoots a few of them with a gun, and this is depicted without Tony showing a shred of remorse, doubt, or care. And he is meant to be the good guy?
He becomes judge, jury, and executioner of men who may or may not have known what Killian was doing. And even if they did, what the hell happened to justice? Shouldn’t they have been made to face a trial and imprisonment? Shouldn’t this whole plan have been dragged out into the light and the villains punished? Nope. Apparently it is far better that we just execute people because that is apparently what we want our heroes to do. We celebrate murderers and honour killers. We venerate cool-blooded sociopaths and call them heroes.
Can you see why this ethos is so troubling? Are we so afraid of others that we think those that take the law into their own hands, and act as vigilante murderers, are heroes? And if we don’t why do we constantly promote and consume narratives that sell this message?
So this brings me on to what I see as one of the major problems in the form of narrative that producers and directors are promoting. They are promoting fear and intolerance at the heart of all these major blockbusters and action films. They don’t seem to understand that violence and action are not necessarily the same thing, and that there is an ethical undercurrent to how they portray violence. But more than that, they seem to realise that actively promoting intolerance and fear is a way to sell more tickets. They are cashing in on xenophobia and stoking the fires behind the scenes as they flood our screens with stories that celebrate violence, that dismiss repercussions, that valorise sociopaths, that deny the devastating personal and societal ramifications of violence. The system seems to promote superficial narratives that gloss over the ethical repercussions of heroes’ actions. The system promotes stories and heroes that justify a ‘might makes right’ approach. The system and the market supports films and shows that want us to believe that the end justifies the means. And we buy into it, each and every time. The entire production line of media normalises violence, normalises killing, normalises destruction and, ultimately and repeatedly, tells us that it is right.
So when Erikson talked about the ethos of Star Trek and how he hopes that the new show will harken back to that, I support him. There will always be a place for violence and action our screens, we are a violent and brutal species after all, but surely having one show that offers a less bleak and morally dubious future would be nice? A show that realises that conflict and drama don’t necessarily have to come from an external threat. A show that celebrates the best of what humanity can be, and is both aspirational and inspirational. A show that acknowledges that the universe is big and scary and full of peril, but also full of wonder and alluring strangeness. A show that illustrates that there is room for debate and multiple points of view, that we don’t always have to agree, and that there is more than one right answer to complex problems. A show that challenges us to move away from sound-bites and trite, knee-jerk responses and makes us engage our critical faculties and actually think about problems from multiple perspectives. A show that doesn’t necessarily operate on a simple dichotomy of us and them. A show that gives us human (or at least human-like), fallible characters who are as flawed and as broken as we are, but who show us how to overcome our prejudices and fears through their actions, their intellect, and their wisdom. A show that presents conflict as something that can be negotiated and resolved, rather than something that is sorted out with the barrel of a gun. I would watch the hell out of a show like that.