A meme popped up in a facebook group I’m part of, a meme asserting that Babylon 5 was the third best Star Trek series of all time. I can see how this claim might be true. Since Deep Space 9 was in actuality the third Star Trek series, and since J. Michael Straczynski (Joe) suddenly came up with the seed money to create Babylon 5 after suing Paramount, the owners of the Star Trek franchise, and then dismissed the suit after an agreement with Paramount, after Paramount realized how much their new series looked like Joe’s pitch to them for Babylon 5; it is quite easy to say that the third Star Trek series was Babylon 5, if not the third best series of Star Trek.
The meme’s real problem becomes apparent when it suggests that the second best Star Trek series after The Original Series (The Only Series) was Star Trek: Enterprise (long time readers of this blog should have been able to hear my head explode when I read that name off the list) I must object to this outrage in the strongest of terms. Enterprise was crap. It was so much of a crap show that I used it to illustrate just how bad science fiction television can be:
…But I’ll go even farther and state for the record that everything Star Trek after and including a good portion of Star Trek: Voyager has been crap. One could argue (and one did) that at least half of TOS season 3 was crap:
Half of TNG was really boring and terrible. Half of Voyager was terrible. It is still the greatest and most culturally significant franchise in SF history. When you get right down to it, art is hard. Consistent quality over a period of decades may not be a reasonable expectation. Might as well savor the high points and forget the terrible stuff. Forget the terrible stuff except for that Voyager episode when they went too fast and turned into lizards. That episode is too unforgivably stupid to forget.
I have to disagree with him though. There is no saving Star Trek at this point. Star Trek has irredeemably jumped the shark. After Star Trek: Discovery promoted itself by having a character claiming a planet with a shredded battle flag. After Star Trek: Lower Decks descended into the gags we fans lamely thought up for ourselves forty years ago (sealing a crewmans ass closed with Starfleet’s medical equipment? Has that joke showed up yet? I’ll bet it has) These shows make Star Trek: Enterprise look like high drama now.
I know, I know, there was a post I wrote that responded to a suggestion that Star Trek jumped the shark way back at the beginning of this blog:
…and I went on a few short years later to declare Star Trek dead all on my own:
However, like most things, there remains still more to say on this subject. There is a reason that Galaxy Quest is considered one of the best Star Trek movies (in the top ten) a reason that the riffs on the ideas first presented in Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry seem to be spreading outside of science fiction television and are presented widely now as just the way people should try to be. That reason? Star Trek has ceased to be on the cutting edge of television and forward-thinking philosophy. It has become a myth that overshadows the current attempts to reclaim the glory that was 1966 Star Trek. A franchise destroyed by its corporate owner’s inability to understand what it was that made the show special:
I’m not just talking about poor scripting or bad acting or stupid technobabble or whatever (Voyager lizard episode fresh in the mind now, thanks) Gene Roddenberry was part of a revolution that was not of his own creation, and Star Trek was one of the first new shows to come out of that vision of what television could really be if we gave it a chance. Desi Arnaz had a vision of making television in a way that had never been done before, and Gene Roddenberry had an idea for a show that would present people in a way that had never been seen before. They, together with the cast and crew of the 1966 Star Trek series, created something that has never been equalled since that time in television history.
None of the movies ever came close to being what TOS was when it aired. None of the series ever came close to equaling TOS in its effect on American society. No series since TOS has come close. This is a simple fact established in the number of myths that have moved out into society at large from inside the show and the fans of that show that was. Everything created since the 1966 series has been an attempt to recapture the essence of that show and harness it as a money making vehicle for its corporate owners. All of it has done nothing more than cement TOS as the only Star Trek worthy of being called Star Trek.
Everything since the 2009 Abramanation has represented a wholesale abandonment of Roddenberry’s philosophy for the future society the stories are supposed to be about. This betrayal was radically on display in Into Darkness:
…Where, not only does an admiral of starfleet fire on his own ships, killing his own crews, but he attempts to hold them hostage with terroristic threats. This is ironically the opposite lesson from the one we learned from Space Seed, the TOS episode that featured the character Khan seen recreated in some Mirror, Mirror version of himself in Into Darkness, the lesson being that terrorism no longer motivates individuals to comply with the demands of the terrorist in that distant future. That the knowledge that terrorists use our own emotions against us empowers us to defy our own emotional drives and makes us stronger than the terrorists could ever be. That lesson forgotten, the actors go through the same old cardboard cutout routines that they are paid to perform. The cardboard villain fails. The paper hero triumphs. The popcorn is stale and the sodas are flat, and I am no longer interested in the things that exploit my nostalgia for days gone by.
J.J. Abrams not even taking an interest in what kind of stories Star Trek had been about prior to his helming the 2009 movie shows itself in the works that he has created since 2009. Paramount’s insistence on treating the shows they’ve generated since 2009 as all equally Star Trek has driven off a lot of the original fans of the show. It is one thing to love Galaxy Quest and laugh at the good humored poking of fun at all things Trek from outside the Trek universe. It is another thing to consume this stuff that calls itself Trek and then continue treating it as if it is all worthy of fannish devotion.
My conclusion stated flatly? It isn’t worth the investment of time to even consume and then write criticisms of it, and I won’t waste even more time talking to people who think it is worth that investment of time. This is just more of the same from me on the subject of nostalgia. I don’t waste time arguing with Star Wars fans about the debacle that has been the Star Wars franchise since the beginning. There are other worthy subjects out there to spend time on, so I’ll do that instead.
Since this article started with my objections to a Babylon 5 meme, I want to point out that Joe’s worthy efforts to present his five year story arc failed in one important way. He had to fundamentally alter the story arc in season two in order to allow for the failing health of Michael O’Hare. Consequently the show did not end with the unavoidable destruction of the station and everyone on her at the time, as the arc was originally plotted out to end. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the show right up to the point where Claudia Christian left at the end of season four. I felt season five was seriously weak tea, an interesting sideshow of events that had to happen in order to fill out the final season that Joe didn’t think he would be allowed to produce because of the way the show’s broadcast contracts were mishandled by the various television networks of the time.
Since we’re all about harvesting nostalgia for the good old days for its dollar value in the here and now, why don’t we try that with the second most influential series in television history? Babylon 5, the first of the long-form story arc multi-season shows that aired on television, the show that lead to the kind of scripting that you find in almost every single television series on the air today. Gone are the one-off shows that do not develop characters from episode to episode in a glorious never-changing now. The characters reflect on the things we’ve seen them do, and their previous actions are referenced in later episodes directly even if the stories themselves don’t flow from episode to episode seamlessly. Babylon 5 gave us that.
Let’s take that original Babylon 5 five year story arc and generate a new show with new actors that begins and ends the arc as Joe intended when he plotted it out and pitched it to the networks back in 1992. New scripts, new characters, same overarching story. Let’s do it just to show how malleable the narrative device is, how influential all the different parts that go into creating a show can be.
Maybe then we can understand just how Desi Arnaz was as influential as Gene Roddenberry was in the making of Star Trek, but less influential than the authors of the scripts and the actors in front of the cameras were. Maybe then we’ll understand what we sacrifice when we let people shake us down for nostalgia’s sake. At the very least we’ll get the conclusion to Babylon 5 that we were promised when we started watching it back in 1993. One that will look great on HD television, even.
Featured image: Star Trek’s Enterprise superimposed over a satellite image of Earth