I'm thrilled that Star Trek has returned to the big screen and that JJ Abrams has helped increase its popularity amongst mainstream viewers. This is very important to the franchise in order to attract new fans and continue to grow and produce new Star Trek content. However, I am concerned about the lack of some pillars of Star Trek in the recent films and Enterprise, and fear that if these vital aspects are not adopted, these films and future television series will cease to carry the cultural significance that Star Trek has become.
Exploring Cultural and Moral Issues
A cornerstone of the Star Trek television series involved exploring contemporary cultural, moral, and political issues. You don't have to look further than Let This Be Your Last Battlefield (TOS), The Measure of a Man (TNG), or Children of Time (DS9) for examples of episodes which address real moral imperatives. This scene from The Measure of a Man highlights this well - it is not a scene of incredible action, violence, and visual effects, but something much more powerful:
The new Star Trek films have not spent enough time exploring these issues, which I believe is a major ommission of this vital component of Trek. Yes, action draws in big crowds, but there must be a balance of focus in the films and new series.
Taking on a major role in Star Trek is not just about playing the character during the films or episodes and then walking away; in a real way, the actor becomes that character for life. This is particularly evident in how the actors of the Original Series and The Next Generation have invested themselves in their characters. For example, Leonard Nimoy was not only Spock while the Original Series or movies aired, he has continued portraying the role and investing in it through numerous other appearances, including at Comicon and other fan events but also cameoing in the newest films. Perhaps the most important part of the above clip is not the scene from Nemesis at all, but Patrick Stewart's description of it beforehand. Watching him describe the emotions Picard is feeling regarding his family and the changes that are occurring for him, it is clear that he is not just playing a character and a role, he is fully invested in the character and understands Picard as a more three-dimensional person with complex relationships to the other characters. This is poignantly emphasized when the scene opens with Data contemplating Picard's Ressikan flute, probably his most dear posession.
I am concerned that the new actors have not realized this or are not willing to make this "lifetime" commitment to their role in Star Trek. Not only is it necessary to act in the movies or TV series, but also to carry that role to conventions and beyond. A comical example of this is how Patrick Stewart recently posted this on his Twitter feed:
Focus on the Characters
Any new Trek must focus on the characters - developing them individually and their relationships. DS9 did a great job of this through some of its longer story arcs, and as a result the characters become more complex and meaningful to the viewer. For example, many people cite Garak as their favorite DS9 character, and he was only a recurring character! However, the writers did an amazing job of developing him into a complex, conflicted, mysterious person who was very intriguing for the audience.
Character-centric, emotionally-rivoting episodes like The City on the Edge of Forever, The Inner Light, and The Visitor make the characters become almost real, and give a much deeper view of their personalities and relationships than most television or movies allow. This is a strength of Star Trek that should be explored more.
A Darker Trek is Not Necessary
Battlestar Galactica launched the idea that all new, popular, interesting scifi must be dark and portray characters with major flaws and huge personal conflicts. While this worked very well for BSG, this is not the only formula for successful scifi in today's market. Roddenberry's vision was of a brighter future, with fewer problems, especially problems that we face today. I think it is important for Star Trek to continue to adhere to this ideal; portraying a gritty, dark future is not what Star Trek is about and other shows have done a lot of exploration already in this area. The fast cancellation of Stargate Universe, which attempted to be a BSG-styled version of the Stargate franchise, should be evidence enough that this is not a universal formula for success. DS9 demonstrated that a series can focus on some parts of the Star Trek universe which aren't as wonderful as the Federation without going too far.
Set it in The Future
The recent trend in Trek series and movies has been to travel to earlier periods in the Star Trek timeline - first with Enterprise and now with the rebooted movies. Frankly, these stories are less interesting to me than what cool new technology and though-provoking things will be invented after the time of Voyager and Nemesis. This is where new Star Trek, in particular a new television series, should be set. As pointed on in this article, so many technologies that existed as fiction on Star Trek, like Geordi's VISOR, the Tricorder, and even the replicator and holodeck are now starting to become realities. I think many innovations owe a generous portion of their existence to how futuristic technologies on Star Trek inspired people to try and invent them. Only portraying content from the "Star Trek past" makes it much more difficult to "invent" new technologies since the timeline constraints what can be invented (e.g the communicators from the original series look dated now, but the new movies must keep using them since they need to stay true to TOS).
While I'm glad that the new Star Trek movies have been greeted with such success and popularity, and I applaud JJ Abrams and the writing staff for working so diligently to incorporate elements true to the original series (like explaining how Dr. McCoy became known as "Bones"), future Star Trek films and series must also incorporate some of these other vital aspects of Star Trek in order to remain true to the core of the francise.