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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

6 Things I Would Change About Star Trek

Like a lot of people, I'm really excited about the new Star Trek movie. Early returns are looking good, although time will tell whether or not it's as good as the early reviews are saying it is.

However, I have a couple of bones to pick with Star Trek. These are all things that I wish that they either wouldn't have done since the beginning or would fix now. Be warned: This entry includes spoilers and massive amounts of geekdom. You might want to avert your eyes.

1) Stop the time travel.

Look, I love time travel as much as anyone. Some of Star Trek's best episodes have been about it. I mean, what would Star Trek be without "City on the Edge of Forever" or "Yesterday's Enterprise?" At least on the aforementioned examples, no timelines were really changed and the plots were actually, you know, thought through.

What I wish they would stop is time travel that causes paradoxes. For instance, in the season finale of Voyager, Janeway goes back to help Voyager get back home much sooner than they did in her timeline. So what does that mean for Janeway? Does that mean that she still goes back in time at the same time that she did in the alternate timeline just to complete the mission she went back to do in the alternate timeline? And if she doesn't go back at that exact time, then the crew never actually goes home early, which means she then goes back, which means they get home early, which means she never goes back, and-

My head hurts. Alternate timeline stuff is sloppy and demonstrates a lack of creativity. Not mention the fact that time travel in the Star Trek universe is getting absurdly simple to do. It's time to stop using it as a crutch for lazy writers.

2) More backstory.

We know that Kirk was an immature kid who grew up once he was joined Starfleet, and we know that Picard was a hellion in the Academy until he was stabbed in the heart and realized his own mortality. But what about Sulu's backstory? Tell me about Uhura. Tell me about Geordi LaForge.

Now, these characters have backstories, but how much do we really know about them? I'm going to hold up Lost as an example, because they do a lot of things right. We know far more about Jack and Sawyer than we ever did about William Riker or Chekov. I mean, on Lost, we even know that Sayid snapped a chicken's neck as a child.

Why does this help? Well, a great character isn't just a great actor playing a person. It's years of learning why this character does what they do. That's why Lost's characters work, that's why Captain Kirk works, why Spock works, why Picard works, why Data works, why Sisko works, and why stiffs like Harry Kim and the ciphers from Enterprise don't work.

3) Add risk.

In every episode we know who will live and who will die. It doesn't matter if Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres get stuck outside the ship in spacesuits. They'll find a way back in. They're not going anywhere. It doesn't matter if the crew is kidnapped and forced into slavery. They're not going to die. There's no long-term threat.

Do characters die in Star Trek? Yes, they do, but for stupid reasons. Tasha Yar died because Denise Crosby wanted to leave the show. Jadzia Dax died because Terry Farrell wanted off Deep Space Nine. No one dies just because sometimes people die. When you add in that sense of risk, it adds pathos and tension to the stories. You actually get nervous that someone might die because no one is truly safe.

I hold up as an example Serenity. MAJOR SPOILERS! WARNING! Over the course of the Firefly series, you get to know Shepherd Book and Wash very well. Shepherd Book dies in Serenity, and as sad as it is, you kind of expect it. You figure, "Someone has to die, why not have it be this guy?" It made sense for the narrative, but it took away the tension you felt throughout the big space battle afterwards because you know that no one else is going to die.

Then Wash dies suddenly and with no warning. It shocks you back to your senses. Anything is now possible. Anyone can die from here on out. Suddenly, the stakes are raised for everyone and you don't know who's going to get it next. That makes the fact that everyone escapes much more gratifying. END SPOILERS!

Star Trek would do well to heed that. When no one's off-limits, there's so much more dramatic tension and danger. The galaxy is a scary place, and Star Trek would do well to demonstrate it.

4) Jump ahead 50-100 years.

The 2300-2400's are becoming very well-tread ground. It's getting to the point that you can't shoot a phaser without hitting some legend of the Star Trek universe, and the plotlines are starting to get more and more insular. Every story has to be mindful of canon and can't interfere with anything else. You can't have any major, seismic changes in the galaxy because it'll upset what's already known.

So, why not jump ahead? We know the Dominion fell. We know the Borg are weakened. We know that Cardassia and the Klingon Empire are in decline. So now what? Where do we go from here? There are myriad possibilities that this opens up, and it finally takes the shackles off the writers, allowing for spec scripts and all sorts of things that you wouldn't have been able to do if they had kept the timeline in the same place.

This also does something else: It enables the other actors to retire in peace. Patrick Stewart is 67. Jonathan Frakes is in his late 50s. You can't keep trotting these people out and expecting them to play the same young versions of themselves. The original cast is already dying off, as sad as it is. Someday, the rest of them will go too. We need to move on from a narrative sense and a practical sense.

5) No more human-alien hybrids.

OK, you can't really retcon this stuff out. I mean, Spock is half-human, half-Vulcan. That can't change. But ask yourself: How can a creature that has green blood and a creature that has red blood have a child? How is it that myriad humanoids evolving separately across the galaxy all have the same reproductive organs and systems?

I say no more. Leave the ones that are able to reproduce alone. Fine. I'll accept those. But no more hybrids. No more Trill/Klingon coupling or Human/Mud Monster babies.

Why? Well, for one, it makes no sense. These aren't like different races of human. These are different species, and should be treated as such.

Secondly, it adds emotional depth. Imagine this plotline: One character falls in love with another character, but they can never be together because they're from a different species. Think about it: A relationship based on trust and love that can never be consummated that opens the door for social commentary, which is what Star Trek was meant for. What could be more dramatic and heartfelt than that?

6) Stop focusing on nothing but Galaxy-class Federation ships.

We all love the Enterprise. Everyone knows it, and it's one of the most enduring symbols of Star Trek. That shouldn't change. But how about giving us a full picture of the galaxy? We know a little about the Maquis, a smattering of the Romulans and an amount about the Klingons. Let's bring it all together. Let's focus on something like, say, a ship of Maquis on the run, the adventures they have, and the Federation ship that's trying to track them down. Let's say that sometimes the Federation has to get their hands dirty trying to track down the Maquis.

Using that plotline, you can delve into a whole variety of issues, like whether or not the end justifies the means, terrorism, or any other real hot-button issue of this time. Why is it more effective? Because you're not going to be exploring these issues merely from the strait-laced views of the Federation, but the fast-and-loose style of the Maquis. You get to see the best and worst of both sides.

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Star Trek is great, but what makes it great isn't just Captain Kirk and Spock. They're the most recognizable part of it, but they're not all that Star Trek is about. Star Trek made its mark by being provocative and forward. It was a show that made you think in a time when most shows didn't. It was a show that gave you heroes and antiheroes, questioned established prejudices, and made you care about characters. It can still be that show, but it needs to make these changes to be relevant once again.