I’m a huge fan of Star Trek. I don’t speak Klingon and I can’t name all the founding member states of the Federation, but I love all things Star Trek. So when someone asked me to review the recent Star Trek series, I took the request to heart like the mature, professional writer that I am.
Thanks to the wonders of Netflix, I’ve just recently rewatched Star Trek: Voyager so that will be the first show I’ll be covering.
Considered to be the weakest in the Star Trek TV franchises, Voyager evokes apathy from most fans and outright hatred from the hardcore trek fans. In addition Voyager wasn’t exactly user friendly for people new to the series, which is what it really needed to be. Of course you should always keep your core audience in mind when you write your stories, but unless it’s a continuation of an already established story, it should also be accessible for people just coming into it. For instance Part 2 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows doesn’t need to ease the reader into it, because by its very nature of being a continuation the reader has to have read the first part, it’s right there in the title. Part 2, Book 2, etc: they are all an unspoken agreement between reader and writer that the book is under no obligation to make sense if you haven’t read Part 1. However, many of the earlier Harry Potter books are indeed quite accessible to new readers. I knew of several people who got into Harry Potter by reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets first, even though it was the second in the series. The beauty of Rowling’s writing is that she can reiterate plot points and facts from previous books in such a way that long term readers barely notice it’s there, but also allows newcomers to know what’s going on. Every time she wrote a new book, she drew in more readers because they could hop right into the story, so rather than depending on already established fan base she actively tried to expand that fan base to new generations.
Voyager started a full ten years after The Next Generation brought Star Trek out of the purgatory that was the 1960’s and into the slightly less hellish 1980’s. So it was 1995, the new millenium was looming and a new generation of Trekkies was just waiting to be unleashed. For instance I was too young to have seen The Next Generation as it was airing, I only saw it later through reruns, and Voyager had the opportunity to forge me into a hardcore fan. Instead of easing new viewers into the universe, however, it dove straight into the deep end of the pool by taking its already present fanbase for granted.
Here’s what the average person knows about Star Trek: A bunch of people flying through space in cool space ships. In fact the “Boldly Go…” statement that’s made Star Trek famous is a good summary of a general viewers understanding of the series. People think Jean-Luc Picard, Borg, Klingons and Romulans. Voyager’s first episode seems to take some kind of perverse joy in trying to introduce every obscure, secondary story elements as possible in the premier episode.
In the first 30 seconds of the first episode Voyager introduces the Maquis and the Federation/Cardassian Treaty that spawned them, an event covered by several episodes of TNG and the focal point of several of the first 2 seasons of Deep Space 9. Now, for the record, I liked the moral dilemma that the Maquis allowed Star Trek to explore, but if I were writing the first episode of Voyager, the complexities of the Maquis and Fed/Card Treaty is not what I would have began with. For a kid like me, it all went way over my head. My parents never watched Deep Space 9, so they were just as clueless as to what was going on…and this was just in the first 30 seconds of the show.
This confusion robs the opening scene of any significant impact for a new viewer. The fact that the cardassian ship is trying to blow up a Maquis ship means absolutely nothing to a person who doesn’t know who either of them is. We feel no tension because they failed to adequately explain why we should care that the guy with a tattoo on his forehead could die.
What’s worse is that they then continue to use the Maquis rebellion as a backdrop for the first 20 minutes of the episode, with Janeway and Tom Paris providing some very boring expository dialogue about why he’s in jail and arguing the complexities of navigating the Badlands. Once again this is an example of what happens when you don’t keep things simple. You want to know how they could have started this episode?
The scene in which Harry Kim and Quark meet on Deep Space 9:
Quark has become as much an icon of Star Trek as Worf or the Starship Enterprise, most people will recognize the big eared Ferengi bartender. This is actually a perfect scene to start the show, not with two ships we know nothing about firing at each other, but with two characters. An established character and a new character interacting. Through the new character’s interaction with the already established character, we begin to learn who this new character is. In fact this scene is almost perfect because we learn several things about Harry in only a few moments. First that he has a false bravado, like when he says “They warned us about you at the Academy”. Harry wants to appear worldly and confident, but that facade quickly melts as Quark pulls out his wounded Ferengi routine, and he’s revealed to be a naive youth who’s completely unsure of himself. He also proves he’s very naive by basically offering Quark whatever he wants for a bunch of worthless trinkets. This scene also does a good job of introducing Tom Paris, who quickly intercedes on Harry’s behalf and reveals himself to be a bit more experienced and a bit of a rogue himself.
That’s all in the space of 5 minutes. Five minutes and we’ve not only introduced two new characters, but introduced the audience into the world of Star Trek by opening it at a bar (something familiar) filled with aliens (something strange). Through Harry’s dialogue with Quark we learn that Harry is embarking on a new mission on a federation starship, which I mentioned earlier as the one thing that most people know Star Trek is about. Boom, mission accomplished, we’ve successfully introduced our audience to the universe they are about to enter and, more importantly, the characters whose stories will be told. This is the perfect jumping off point for a new series, so it’s too bad that Voyager stuck it in the middle of the first episode and by this time most casual viewers had changed the channel.
When people talk about why there is no longer a Star Trek series on the air, they’ll talk about the complexities of the technobabble, the fact that the show is 90% dialogue, or that people don’t care about the moral and ethical dilemma’s that Star Trek tackles in most episodes. I’m sure all these played a small part, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned watching television it’s that people will watch almost anything. I’ll admit science fiction shows have a harder time surviving than normal shows, but that’s because introducing strange and unfamiliar concepts as a matter of course, and special care has to be taken to do it properly. Most cop shows don’t even have to bother with easing a new viewer into the story because…well there are just so many of them everyone knows what to expect. In addition, cops are something we all encounter and know about, there’s not really much you need to ease into. So no, I don’t think Star Trek went off the air because it was “too geeky” or “too wordy” or “too sophisticated.”
It went off the air because it didn’t grow, never reached out and invited people to experience its story. Star Trek never tried to get new viewers invested in the show, it simply relied on its base audience and hoped it would always be there. You absolutely cannot just rely on your already existing fans…because things change. People find other interests, you have to be ready for the possibility that some fans may just lose interest over time. More than that though, a good storyteller is always trying to tell his stories to as many people as possible. Of course we all enjoy writing the stories themselves, but I’ve found the real joy of writing is knowing that someone else got enjoyment out of reading my writing.
Star Trek Voyager should have been the platform to launch Star Trek into the next millenium, to take my generation and gently introduce us to a world full of possibilities. It could have been a brilliant show that ushered Star Trek into the digital era, instead it was just kind of a mediocre show that petered out and left Star Trek at mercy of Enterprise. We got a first season filled with the complexities of the Maquis rebellion, a second episode dealing the horrific cause and effect conundrums of Black Holes and time distortion, and a completely mundane series of episodes that failed to explore any meaningful themes or ideas. Is it any wonder that Voyager almost didn’t survive its first season?
So let this be a lesson: if ever anyone reading this has the opportunity to bring back Star Trek to prime time television, don’t stuff the first episodes with irrelevancies. Keep it simple. Keep it smart. And most of all, keep it accessible.