Shatner on Trek Since Him, and What That Might Mean

The Hollywood Reporter, Ryan Fish, 21 July 2022: William Shatner Sounds Off on ‘Star Wars,’ Latest ‘Star Trek’ Shows During Lively Comic-Con Appearance, Eric Pesola, 22 July 2022: Is Shatner right? Is Roddenberry ‘Turning In His Grave’ Over New ‘Star Trek?’

So apparently William Shatner (the star as Captain Kirk of the original Star Trek TV show back in the 1960s) gave an interview at Comic-Con in San Diego, just a couple days ago, in which he was asked how the newer Trek series compared to his own. None of them is as good as TOS, he said; “I got to know [Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry in three years fairly well,” Shatner added, “he’d be turning in his grave at some of this stuff.”

He apparently didn’t give details, but the item here from speculates on what Roddenberry might have objected to.

(The first thing I acknowledge of course is that no creation survives its creator’s intent. In particular, the more popular a character or franchise is, the more frequently it is imitated, revised to accommodate current cultural views, and watered-down through the many subsequent versions, as I wrote last year at Thinking About SF: Classic Erosion. Sadly, the very things that made the originals unique and distinct are usually the first things to go, in deference to the protocols of popular storytelling. Thus, (as in my previous post), Frankenstein becomes a simple monster, Trek becomes space battles and soap opera, and the Foundation TV series lost Asimov’s thematic purity.)

The article focuses on particular themes. I’ll quote a bit and comment on each.

Melodrama: This accusation goes against the recent “Star Trek: Discovery” series, which I haven’t seen, so I won’t comment on it.

Swords and Sorcery: Space pirates, and so on. The complaint here is about a couple three specific episodes that were essentially fantasy sequences (including the TOS episode “Shore Leave”), so I dismiss this as occasional lapse. (Not much different than the many holodeck episodes in TNG.)

Galaxy Policemen: There’s a point here, but inherent in the original premise, in which the Federation was apparently created and centered on Earth, to manage all the slightly lesser species and maintain order. There’s a point here, but it goes back to the very beginning. Why was Earth so central, why humans so slightly ahead of everyone else? Why hadn’t any more advanced species already set up such a Federation?

Fantasy instead of Science Fiction: A much debated distinction. The example cited is about the “spore drive technology” in (again) “ST: Discovery” which (again) I haven’t seen. But was the warp drive, the transporter, or the “shields” in TOS any more defensible?

Trek and Gene: Examples of episodes and even movies Roddenberry disliked, including “The Wrath of Khan” and Patrick Stewart as Picard in TNG, and even fan-favorite TOS episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

I think this article cherry-picks items that may or may not have bothered Roddenberry, and taken by themselves are relatively trivial.

The far bigger issues were, it seems to me, the way the idealism of TOS (The Original Series), gave way, gradually through TNG (The Next Generation), from exploration and wonder, to recurring villains (Q, the Borg, and of course Romulans and Klingons, and likely others in the series I haven’t watched) and internal soap opera, focusing on story arcs about individual characters. (Of course the latter wasn’t possible in the ’60s, when no one in TV expected their series to ever be seen again, except possible in syndication in random order of episodes.)

Yet a further note is this: TOS was not consistent in its tone either. It went from serious in the first season, to jokey in the second — under the line-producer Gene L. Coon, who produced such episodes as “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “I, Mudd” and “A Piece of the Action,” and who inserted jokey finales even in to the darkest, most tragic episodes, like “The Doomsday Machine.” One way the much-maligned third season, despite being hobbled by a limited budget, excelled, was that producer Fred Freiberger rejected that approach, and return the show to a serious drama. Thus “The Paradise Syndrome,” “Is There In Truth No Beauty?”, “Requiem for Methuselah,” and others, that did not need Coon’s jokes.

Finally, the article notes that, however Roddenberry might have approved or not, the franchise is worth an estimated $4 billion. It’s up to fans/readers/viewers to decide which versions of a franchise are most true, or most valuable.

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