Every time the channel changed (in those days, with a clunk of the knob, not a remote) and I caught sight of Star Trek—those primary colors glaring against cardboardy sets, Captain Kirk’s wooden yet melodramatic delivery—it looked like a kids’ show I did not want to watch. Same with Dr. Who, some goofy guy in a striped scarf trying to fake time travel, like the kid at school who spent recess by himself.
My opinions cracked ever so slightly in grad school, when my beloved literature professor remarked offhandedly that there was a theology of Star Trek. The very possibility intrigued me. But I did nothing about it—until I married and found the show playing, like, nightly, in my living room.
By then the production values were somewhat better, but to my outsider’s eye, the show still seemed contrived. Oh wait, here’s the part where the captain, enthroned on The Chair, takes firm command, makes a difficult decision that will risk everybody’s life for the greater good, and polishes it off by saying, “Engage.” Here’s the part where the spaceship tilts and everybody falls in one direction then hurtles back in the other direction. Here’s the part where two much-loved crew members squabble because they both want to be the captain’s best friend. Here’s the part where a weird alien shows up and reveals, because they have been treated respectfully, some gnostic truth about the galaxy.
My mother learned to play golf in order to spend time with her husband. I … sat next to mine on the couch and read a book.
In recent years, though, I have perked up. The new Dr. Who was such fun, and now the sets and special effects were cooler. The dorkiness endured mainly in the concept, which made it ironic. Also, the showrunner for Picard was Michael Chabon, whom I had just voted for as the next recipient of the St. Louis Literary Award. Also, I would sleep with Sir Patrick Stewart if he asked. I say this aloud because in that one instance, I doubt Andrew would blame me. When we invited our friend Bash over to binge Star Trek: Picard (Bash and Andrew have spent many a dinner taking turns quoting huge chunks of obscure episodes verbatim), I was so excited I actually cooked a progressive seven-course snackable dinner for us, all laid out on the counter so the episodes could roll while we munched.
Sure enough, they said things like “The woman who took out the eye? Looks like the same eyes of the woman who played the Romulan bridge officer in the episode where the Tal Shiar and Obsidian Order fleet got destroyed by the Dominion.” They laughed at a bit of craggy landscape: “It’s iconic. That’s where Kirk fought the Gorn.” 0r “that class of ship would have been 100 years old by the time this takes place.”
I barely noticed. For once, I was caught up in the story.
Why do I like the new stuff so much better? I broached the question at a Common Reader editorial meeting, curious what my colleagues thought. Gerald Early, master of pop culture as well as high, said he had never been able to get into the old Star Trek or Dr. Who; their appeal mystified him. Our managing editor, Ben Fulton, summed up my feelings perfectly when he blurted, “Those shows were so cheesy!”
That night, I asked my husband, who is brilliant and normally has excellent, carefully analytical taste, how he had gotten past the cheesy factor.
“Because of the characters,” he said simply.
I was stricken. My colleagues and I were the humanities types. We were the ones who were supposed to care about character and be able to look past indie low-budget production values. “But wasn’t the show kind of…simple?” I asked.
Wincing, he listed off a few themes, some timeless, some far ahead of their time. There was fate versus free will (“Picard says the past is written; the future is not”), what it means to be human, and the thin line between justice and vengeance. One show was about the danger of warfare becoming too technological, abstract, and therefore easy to perpetuate. Several were about race: Not only did Star Trek dare the first interracial kiss on television, he reminded me, but in “Let This Be the Last Battlefield,” people have butchered one another because the dominant class is white on the left side and black on the right, and the subservient class is black on the left side and white on the right. The absurdity is made plain.
“You like that ‘Mirror Universe’ one, what’s that about?” I asked. He explains that it is a parallel universe where the basest instincts of human nature triumph. “Sociopaths!” I exclaim. Yet the episode aired long before we all learned to look for those reptilian types under every rock.
“Gender, too,” Andrew continued. “In one show, there was a species that had purposely evolved beyond gender, and when someone declared themselves male or female, they were sent to a reeducation camp. I’m not sure if this was before ‘conversion therapy’ got big for people who were gay, but that was the idea.”
He ended with one of his favorite quotes: “I can’t save humanity without holding on to what makes me human.”
I was so disgusted with myself, I went to a shrink. To be more accurate, I went to Dr. Jeff Zacks, who holds professorships in psychology, brain sciences, and radiology at Washington University, and has researched film’s effects on the brain. After I poured out my complaints about the early series, Zacks said, “My hunch is that it wasn’t the artificial sets that were troubling you. Maybe that was what kind of stuck out. But through the history of film and TV, there’s been huge variability in what could be done in terms of sets, and there’s often been a gap between the filmmaker’s vision and what was technically achievable. You see the same thing in noir movies, with the background moving behind the car, and I’m guessing that doesn’t bother you.”
Nope. I love that genre.
“My hunch is the thing that didn’t click for you is the intensely episodic nature that was necessitated by the constraints of commercial TV.” I am not sure what he means, but the sentence came in such a lovely rush, no pause for breath, that I let it wash over me.
“In Star Trek, they are on this five-year mission to go where no one has gone before,” he begins.
“Boldly,” I insert.
“But somehow there’s a major plot point that gets resolved in every episode. They have to follow this formula where you set up a puzzle and solve it within that hour. People much more sophisticated than I have written about the fact that part of what makes our era such a golden age of what was once TV is that you can conceive a project like Picard, which stretches over ten episodes but you can’t jump in in the middle. You have to commit. The Wire was one of the groundbreakers for this; Deadwood was another.”
Chabon said something similar, but he was explaining why fans of earlier Star Trek had a problem with the latest incarnation: “If you’re watching a one-hour episode of [pre-2010s] Star Trek, all of them—except for long swaths of Deep Space Nine toward the end of its run—have been episodic,” he told Variety. You could introduce dark, troubling material at the outset, and the fans “would be willing to tolerate a character having a substance abuse problem or not being nice to their fellow crew members—as long as it got put back to rights at the end of the episode.” Waiting six or seven episodes for a troubling issue to be resolved? That is not Star Trek. “It’s a little weird for me, too,” he admits. “Both in conceiving this show and, sometimes, if I can give myself enough distance as I’m watching the episodes as they’re dropping, I can feel this deep wiring in my brain that wants Star Trek to be episodic.”
The deep wiring in my brain was so happy it was not. Zacks is right: The longer story arc is what lets the themes develop more naturally, and the result is deeper and more thoughtful and more satisfying to me. It helped that the show did not bristle with insider references to previous episodes, crammed in to give that hour texture. Also, they did relationships, romance, and sex way better, with more subtlety and complexity. It feels darker and lighter at once, wittier and far more sophisticated. There is a new softness: Nature is present, they dare to slow the pace for reflection; the cinematography is artful and the tech is physically beautiful. After years of stubborn persistence, the show had won through, like the geeky kid from high school who started his own tech company and shows up at the reunion looking like a multimillion bucks. Enough money and confidence had attached to this project to fully achieve the vision.
So maybe the show has grown up, and so have I? In any case, the entire franchise is now thoroughly mainstream, and the joke is on those of us who rolled our eyes. Because, guess what? We are all voyaging on a fragile spaceship right now, traveling through just one galaxy in an unfathomable universe, facing unanticipated dangers, and desperately fighting to hold on to our humanity.