In the recent promo for the new Star Trek series that’s debuting early next year, one thing jumped out at me — and not in a good way.
“New crews, new villains, new heroes, new worlds,” we’re promised amid a buffet of fancy graphics and outer-space pyrotechnics.
But “villains” is something that stuck in my crawlspace. Since when did Star Trek become about villains?
To put it another way, using the words Whoopi Goldberg’s sagacious Guinan used to refer to the USS Enterprise: “This isn’t a ship of war. This is a ship of peace.”
Certainly, there have been some memorable villains across Star Trek’s 50 years. After all, you can’t have “Wrath” without “Khan.” Christopher Lloyd was a serviceable successor as Klingon Capt. Kruge in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and General Chang followed that up with Shakespearean wit and guile in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. (Maybe the cardboard Klingon capers of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier are best forgotten, after all.)
In the next next generation, the one rebooted by J.J. Abrams in 2010, we again have these larger-than-life bad guys with nefarious plans and high-adrenaline action sequences: Nero the raging Romulan, and alternate-universe Khan.
But those movie maniacs were mostly the result of an already venerable franchise trying to stay fresh and find new audiences on the big screen. For years before Star Trek ever hit the big screen, and again when The Next Generation came around on TV, the series overall had a well-deserved reputation for presenting complex moral dilemmas rather than evil schemes.
Most of the obstacles James T. Kirk and his original crew faced on their five-year mission were ones the audience could relate to, not just there to revel in conquest fantasies. The Klingons always had the need to battle boiling in their blood, but they were also on the warpath due to practical considerations such as population and resource pressures. The Horta was defending its young from miners; they only came into conflict due to Federation expansion.
A generation later, Jean-Luc Picard and his Enterprise-D crew faced many of the same situations — by design. They also encountered the omnipotent Q entity and the juggernaut-like Borg Collective, but even they were driven by logical goals — the former to test a growing humanity’s resolve, and the latter to achieve what it saw as a natural progression toward perfection.
In an alternate universe where Picard’s Starfleet was waging total war with the Klingons for their very survival, the timeline-sensitive Guinan remarked on that state of things just being “wrong,” and uttered that plaintive “ship of peace” comment. She couldn’t have been more right, for even as the Federation would later be assailed by the Dominion from across the galaxy in spinoff Deep Space Nine’s multi-season story arc that made for damn good television, it only served to highlight peace and exploration as the true themes of the show, and held that up as the goal for which our heroes battled.
The newer Star Trek films just don’t seem to care as much about the reason for all the fighting — just the fighting itself.
As that rebooted universe unfolds yet further this summer in Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond, there are tantalizing hints of a return to the original spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s hallowed creation — but it’s doubtful we’ll see such a true homecoming until 2017’s long-awaited return of Star Trek to a series format on CBS All Access, where the pressure to deliver blockbuster set pieces won’t be as all-consuming. But the recent teaser’s apparent focus on “heroes” and “villains” makes even that hope seem faint.
Perhaps logic will prevail.