BOOKS
...from the 'pen' of CHRIS GREGORY  

 

 
 

STAR TREK: PARALLEL NARRATIVES
an overview by the author


Over the last 33 years, Star Trek has evolved into a unique phenomenon - what began as a single TV series has grown into what is reckoned to be the most valuable 'entertainment property' in the world. It has the potential to continue 'evolving' for many years. Meanwhile, there is certainly no shortage of Star Trek books on the market - indeed, bookshops are awash with guides, novelisations and autobiographies of various Enterprise crew members. But there are precious few works that attempt to form any kind of critical perspective on the phenomenon.

janewayBut why should there be? After all, isn't Star Trek just 'mass popular entertainment', hokey TV sci-fi starring a guy with funny ears and featuring loads of weird-looking creatures who look like distant cousins of the Elephant Man?

So... is it really worth spending time and effort analysing something so 'trivial' ? Well, yes it is! Those of us who know the new Star Trek series well would recognise them not only as very successful attempts to update the 1960's original, but as finally fulfilling the original dream of Star Trek's creator Gene Roddenberry - that is, to use the medium of TV to comment on the key issues affecting us all today, through the medium of powerful, convincing and affecting drama. Of course, any casual viewer tuning into The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager might be unlucky enough to encounter episodes which have no more 'depth' than any other slickly-produced TV show. But as real Star Trek fans know, persistence pays off... and the new Trek series have produced a number of episodes that stand amongst the most powerful pieces of TV drama ever produced...

STAR TREK: PARALLEL NARRATIVES is intended for both the dedicated Star Trek fan and the mere Trek dilettante, as well as for anyone with an interest in the way that today's mass media works. I have attempted to to 'boldly go' where no Star Trek book has gone before... to identify Star Trek's oustanding moments, to give an overview of its development from season to season, to present an account of its significance as a drama which reflects many current social, scientific, psychological and religious concerns and to relate all this to issues of authorship within the complex structures of TV production. Some commentators still seem to believe that almost anything produced for TV (with the exception, perhaps, of single dramas) is by definition trivial and inconsequential in comparison to the products of other mediums like the novel and film. To me this is a hopelessly outmoded view, but it must be pointed out that it still holds currency for many people and the number of works you can buy that actually address the issue of the aesthetics of TV is still extremely small. Most TV critics in newspapers follow the 'Clive James' approach to TV criticism - i.e, they use their columns as an excuse for cheap jibes and a mocking, patronising approach. Surely its time to move away from this!

picardIn PARALLEL NARRATIVES, I've concentrated primarily on Star Trek as a product of TV. As I state in the intro to my TOP 20 EPISODES (written especially for this site) the greatest achievements can be found within it's TV episodes, rather than the movie series, which often smother its vital themes and concerns in a 'Hollywood' gloss. Star Trek works best when it makes use of the patterns of reference and repetition and the generic codes which are TV's stock in trade... it does this by its exploration of the political dimensions of its 'universe' built up over around 500 TV episodes. In PARALLEL NARRATIVES, using detailed reference to a number of episodes, I have explored how Star Trek uses its fantastical scenarios and characters as 'cover' for some profound drama which powerfully reflects many of today's vital concerns and issues.

Another fascinating - and, as yet, largely unexplored - element in Star Trek is its status as a 'postmodern text'. Star Trek uses its references to the original series as an implicit commentary on the differences between today's 'postmodern' media culture and with what now appears in comparison to be the more 'innocent' 1960's equivalent. Thus in The Next Generation episode Relics, the appearance of 'iconic' original-series character Scotty is presented in a touchingly elegiac manner and in Deep Space Nine's Trials and Tribble-ations (where computer-animation technology allows the DS9 crew to interact with actual scenes from the 'legendary' original-series episode The Trouble With Tribbles) the interaction with Star Trek's original characters leads to some brilliantly ironic humor, which inevitably trades on the audience's pre-established knowledge of the 'Star Trek universe'. A great example occurs in Trials and Tribble-ations, as DS9 characters Bashir and O'Brien taunt the Klingon Worf (replete, of course, with 'modern' Klingon prosthetics) by asking him to explain the difference between his appearance and that of the rather more minimally made up original-series Klingons. With his characteristically spot-on comic timing, Michael Dorn as Worf merely growls... we do not discuss it with outsiders... We know perfectly well that the modern Klingon make-up was invented in the 1980's for the Star Trek films, and that the original series had to make do with far cheaper prosthetic effects. Worf's comment is a kind of 'hyper real' joke, which hilariously mixes the imaginary world of Star Trek with the known facts about its production history. Of course, as 'sophisticated' postmodern viewers we are in on the joke...

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PART ONE - STAR TREK, TELEVISION AND CINEMA begins with a chapter examining the narrative structures and patterns that the Star Trek TV series exist within, and outlines how such patterns have changed since the original series was broadcast. Succeeding chapters look at each TV series in turn and give an overview of the dramatic themes that the episodes have taken on, with particular reference to matters of authorship. Star Trek's original creator Gene Roddenberry is often still (rather vaguely) seen as the 'author' of Star Trek, but I have taken pains to stress that such an impression is by now wildly inaccurate. Indeed, it seems that, despite Roddenberry's fertile mind, only after his death did Star Trek really achieve the potential he sought for it. The chapters in Part One look at each series on a season-for-season basis and outline how changes and development in both the production and writing teams of the various seasons can be connected with the high points and low points of Star Trek. I have stressed that the main 'author' of a TV series episode is its writer (unlike in film where directors are in the ascendant) and have tried to identify the distinctive contributions made to the modern Star Trek by its most prominent writers such as Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, Hans Beimler, Jeri Taylor, Ira Steven Behr and Michael Piller and how the overall stewardship of Roddenberry's successor Rick Berman has moved it towards ever-greater levels of sophistication. Part One also gives some details of the production and screening history of Star Trek, and recounts how the phenomenal success of reruns of Star Trek in the 1970's led to demands for its return.

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PART TWO - STAR TREK: MYTH AND RITUAL examines Star Trek's use of the various traditions and themes of science-fiction literature, from the 'Darwinian' utopianism of H.G. Wells to the mainstream sci-fi of the 1940s and 50s (Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury etc), the 'new wave' SF of the 60s and 70s (Ballard, Aldiss,etc) and the cyperpunk of the 1980s and 90s, popularised by writers like William Gibson. I've also related Star Trek to a number of SF films, comparing the Star Trek and Star Wars 'universes' and looking at the influence of such modern SF classics as Blade Runner and Brazil. Other chapters include an examination of the 'cult' nature of Star Trek's audience, in relation to the whole current phenomenon of 'cult' audiences, and an examination of the Star Trek 'parallel universe' as a kind of modern mythological system. A number of commentators in the field of media and cultural studies have pointed out that TV plays a kind of 'bardic' role, returning us in the age of global communications to an orally-based form of communication which emphasises allegorical or 'mythic' tales - so that the modern audience can be seen to resemble of 'fireside' listeners to the 'bardic' storyteller of the 'global village'. Star Trek, with its many prominent mythological elements, seems to me to be an excellent example of 'bardic TV'. And the series touches on deep psychological and even 'religious' themes which have greatly encouraged its development as mass-media culture's most prominent 'cult phenomenon'...

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PART THREE - PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIAL THEMES IN STAR TREK looks in some detail at Gene Roddenberry's philosophy of rationalistic liberal humanism (personified in the figure of the 'perfect rationalist' Mr. Spock) and traces how it has been moulded and changed in more recent times by the writers of the New Trek series, leading to a more equivocal view of religious and cultural traditions. The develop-ment of the political structures of the various sections of the Star Trek galaxy, and how they reflect present-day world politics, is examined. The use of various alien races as 'psychological types' in order to focus on particular psychological themes is the subject of one chapter, while the book's closing chapter concentrates on Star Trek's treatment of various social themes such as multi-culturalism and gender-politics. This section takes a more detailed look at a number of Star Trek's outstanding episodes.

 

COPYRIGHT CHRIS GREGORY (C) 1999-2002 - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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