Michael Gummelt compels us to ask: What is Star Trek?

NOTE: Now that Star Trek is coming back to episodic TV, I thought I’d repost an essay on the topic from last year.

Is Star Trek old and in need of re-engineering, or does it need to be abandoned to the museum of 20th Century science fiction?

I was getting caught up on HBO’s The Newsroom last night, and in episode 5 of Season 3, there was a Star Trek reference that peeked my interest. Trek references in pop culture are telling signs of the status of the franchise. If Trek is on the cover of Time magazine (1995) or getting full page coverage in The New York Times (2009), then it is probably a good year to be a Trek fan. But this reference put me in a particularly morose mood about the state of Trek. It was not a negative reference. The problem was the type of person the reference associated with Star Trek, and not because the character was a stereotypical nerd like on Big Bang Theory. It wasn’t like that at all.

For those of you who do not know The Newsroom or Aaron Sorkin, this is a show (and a show runner) that glamorizes the past over the future. The show’s hero Will McAvoy played by Jeff Daniels is constantly equated to the 17th Century anti-hero Don Quixote (just as The West Wing’s hero Jed Bartlet was a throw-back to JFK).   The central conflict of the episode with the Trek reference is whether the newsroom can adapt to a new millennial corporate overseer who wants to replace their Edward R. Murrow business model with an Internet-driven/TMZ/citizen-journalist style of news. Just one of the questionable things they are being asked to broadcast is an on-air debate between a rape victim and her accused rapist. The show’s heroes can’t adapt, as evidenced by the crusty old president of the news division, Charlie Skinner played by Sam Waterson, suffering a heart attack in this episode. A young reporter, Jim Harper played by John Gallagher Jr., is just as old-school idealistic as the other heroes of the show (and Sorkin), as evidenced by the fact that he broke up with his girlfriend who left the newsroom to write gossipy click-driven Internet columns, as opposed to the ‘real journalism’ he thinks he does. Sorkin has said in the commentary that Jim is a younger version of Charlie, the embodiment of the old ways of journalism instilled in a young man just starting out.

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Jim is the character referred to in this episode as someone who watches Star Trek. He takes umbrage at the fact that someone confused the Star Trek episode he was watching with Star Wars. There is a scene where we actually see him watching a classic Star Trek episode on his iPad. To my ears this brief, insignificant reference, screamed this (probably unintended) message: the guy who says ‘piss off 2015, I prefer my media like it was 1955’ is the Star Trek fan.

Am I overreaching? I don’t think so. Consider the summersaults Hollywood types are doing right now to update Star Trek for modern sensibilities. The Bad Robot reboot is one example. But those who want to produce a new TV series, who will have to film dozens of hours of TV, have a higher hurdle to make their show relatable to modern audiences, of which the most important demographic will be millennials.

Enter Michael Gummelt, apparently in talks with Paramount/CBS, who said to TrekMovie.com about a potential series: “[Star Trek] needs to be reinvented for a new generation. Not a reboot, that’s already being done in the movies. What I want for this series is for it to be the future – a Star Trek TV series that feels modern and feels futuristic relative to our current times.”

Futuristic relative to our current times. There’s the rub. This is the real reason Trek canon gets a bad wrap by current Hollywood people involved with Trek. It’s not that writers and producers feel constrained by fictional facts, decades old lines of dialogue, Trek history. They desire to be free of the old Trek aesthetic, the look, feel and sensibility of TOS and TNG-era Trek. They want a Star Trek that seems futuristic to people in this decade, not the 60s or the 80s.

Classic Star Trek was standard science fiction of that era (written by some well-know 60s science fiction writers), but as TV, Roddenberry knew that the setting, the characters, and how they interact had to be visually familiar and relatable to his audience. His solution was to make the Enterprise look, feel and sound like a WWII battleship in outer space. There was the bridge, complete with pinging sounds; tight crew quarters; a sickbay; a rec. room, etc. The viewer tuning in could make the necessary suspension of disbelief—Oh I see, it’s the Navy is space—and then enjoy the story.

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When TNG came around 20 years later, that TV audience did not have the same cultural reference points as a generation before—we did not come of age close to WWII and Korea or having seen a lot of WWII movies. So the Enterprise-D resembles a plush, leather-interior luxury cruise liner, more Love Boat than the Battle of Midway. The bridge, it has been said by the show’s own writers, looked like the lobby of a chincy hotel; sprawling crew quarters; a lounge (ten-forward); state-of-the-art entertainment (holodecks); children romping down the corridors—a cruise ship in space. Voyager, TNG’s sister show, was virtually identical in sensibility.

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In these shows, the way the characters interact is deeply 20th Century. They communicate using glorified radios. Decisions are made from a central authority, distributed down a clear chain of command. They hang out socially in rec. rooms and lounges (bars, when they are in alien environments). There are more robots and devices that want to be human than there are humans who want to be more technological. Nobody ever Tweets, or even emails. I don’t expect Twitter to still be a functional company in the 23rd or 24th Centuries. But you have to admit that characters on even TNG-era Star Trek do not interface with technology as much as the average person does in a coffee shop or elementary school in 2015.

The change to Trek lore that potential future Trek writers and producers are calling for is not about technology per se, warp drives and sleeker communicators (there is not more archaic-sounding term than ‘communicator’ is there?). No, the so-called necessary change is about the interface between people and technology. It’s about a millennial seeing a star ship on TV they’d want to hang out on, instead of one modeled on a naval battleship, or an ‘iBridge’ grafted onto a naval battleship, or a cruise ship.

This is why Michael Gummelt says that the future trek series he envisions is “set sometime in the future, distant enough that it doesn’t really matter which universe it takes place in. It’s universe-agnostic.”

These are the words of someone who wants to tell a Star Trek story on a completely blank canvas. He wants to eject the archetypes of characters that would be familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1980s, or who saw many WWII movies, or, in the case of Kirk’s archetype, read stories about 18th Century naval captains (Horatio Hornblower, as a character born in 1776, as a piece of fiction born in 1937). All of that, and necessarily all of Trek canon, needs to be relegated to the dust bin of pop culture history. In exchange for… what exactly? Maybe it will be great, modern science fiction. But will it be Star Trek? If so, what threads of Star Trek DNA will it shed and what will it retain? On The Newsroom, the heroes have to ask what exactly can be considered news in 2015? For us Trekkies, what is Star Trek in 2015?

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