Friday, May 13, 2005

To boldly go

On a lighter note, I have now lived long enough to have outlived the life-cycle of the Star Trek franchise, as it sputters to a whimpering denouement tonight. I’m actually old enough to have seen the original series in its premier broadcast. And now I see the whole thing put to rest.

Star Trek was the archetype of the cult-hit. What accounts for its demise? The question is of interest because the franchise was a cultural icon. Hence, it’s passing closes a chapter in the culture wars.

One possible explanation is that the SF genre has run out of steam. Its distinctive conventions have become…well…conventional.

Yet among more recent entries into the SF field, Farscape and Red Dwarf—at least what I saw of them--were a lot more imaginative and entertaining than Star Trek: Enterprise. There are also SF fans who rue the cancellation of Firefly. And a well-made miniseries on Cordwainer Smith would be very fine to have. So the problem doesn’t seem to be with genre, per se.

What killed it off, I would submit, is political correctness. Political correctness is boring. It’s risk-averse. It’s inoffensive. It’s oh-so sensitive. Politically correctness is effeminate, whereas SF is a guy thing.

There is no recipe for success, but there is a formula for failure. One reason that Enterprise was doomed from the start was the cast. To have an interesting series, you need to match up interesting actors in interesting parts.

But Enterprise was cast with bland actors. Bakula was okay in the lead role—although he has a very limited range. But the rest were hopelessly dull, interchangeable personalities.

And there’s a reason for this. Political correctness dictated a multi-ethnic cast. Now, that of itself, wouldn’t kill it. Indeed, that creates a potential source of dramatic variation and conflict.

But the actors were chosen, not because they could act, but to fill out the quota: so you had the generic token black, the generic token woman, the generic token Asian.

In addition, the minorities were chosen to fit in with the liberal ideal of the model minority—a minority who is a “person of color” on the outside, but a white liberal on the inside. An ideological clone of Hollywood values.

And, of course, the scripting and characterization followed the same politically correct agenda. Take tonight’s final installment, which is a thinly-veiled allegory and promo for illegal immigration. The heroes are the blue-state liberals, while the villains are the red-state rednecks.

Now, a natural objection to my thesis might be that Star Trek has always tilted to the left. That is true, but that was when the audience was tilting to the left.

The original series was a commercial for the Sixties counterculture, for Sixties idealism and the youth culture.

And SF is still especially appealing to the teen-to-thirty-something male demographic. But that demographic is not especially liberal.

Even Sixties’ idealism wasn’t all that idealistic. What killed the Vietnam War was the draft—the drafting of college students.

And moving down to our own time, you have the gender gap in politics, where men vote the GOP ticket at a disproportionate rate. That was true even before 9/11. And to the extent that the gender gap has narrowed, it has narrowed in a rightward direction.

Now, conservatism comes in more than one flavor. But libertarians are just as contemptuous of political correctness as social conservatives and Bible-thumpers.

I’m not saying that you don’t have liberals who like SF as well. But Enterprise is targeting a political demographic rather than a social demographic, and there is a wide demographic gap between the constituency for SF fare and the constituency for Will & Grace.

Star Trek will die tonight, not by going boldly where no man has gone before, but by losing its boldness and manhood to the gelding-shears of political correctness.


  1. ST:TNG was pretty obnoxious with its lefty politics.

    (1) There was an featuring American Indians on another planet, where Picard [if I remember] talked about their exploitation in the past.

    (2) There was an episode where a unisex humanoid and Cmdr Riker had the hots for each other --- hey, interspecial sex! Cool!

    (3) You had the token people as you mention as well.

    (4) In an early episode featuring some people from the 20th century who were cryogenically frozen [and then thawed], Picard made some snide comments about not needing to worry about things and money anymore. Yay for socialism!

    I could think of other examples, but these are the ones on the top of my head. I saw every episode during its run, and saw virtually every episode multiple times through syndication.

    It wasn't sci-fi with a leftist streak, but often it was a show about leftists with the sci-fi as one of the accidental attributes.


  2. Yes, #2 was an allegory for same-sex marriage. There was another TNG episode about a proto-Vulcan culture which regarded Picard as a god. This was an excuse to treat religious faith as primitive superstition. Then, on Voyager, you had the scientist who was persecuted for his theory of distant origins--a heavy-handed allegory of the Scopes trial. In the same vein, on Deep Space Nine, there was the teacher who was persecuted by religious fanatics for reducing the "celestial temple" to a mere wormhole.

    In my opinion, TNG was the last successful Trek series--and it improved after Roddenberry kicked the bucket. Voyager was bland, but not generally an embarrassment to watch--unlike the campy Deep Space Nine and the threadbear Enterprise.

  3. I watched the first three episodes of Enterprise with great eagerness, since, as a kid growing up, I always wanted to fill in the gap of history between the 20th century and James T. Kirk.

    I didn't watch any episodes after the third.

    I'd like to mention that anything involving Q was rather irksome too. I almost got the idea that Q was supposed to be the dualist "dark side" of God, as if we had to revisit the whole question of God's objective goodness.


  4. Actually, I take back what I said about the bad acting. There was one performer that showed a flawless command of method acting--Capt. Archer's pet Beagle! If only the other actors had had an ounce of his thespian charisma, the show might have been a hit rather than a bomb.