In the second part of our focus on Star Trek, we look back over the 1990s, 2000s, and the famous franchise today. Read part 1 here.
The 1980s saw Star Trek successfully transition to the cinema screen. However, the reliance on the same actors and characters would gradually take its toll, and whilst the six movies that focused on original Enterprise crew would continue until 1991, Gene Roddenberry, creator of the brand, had some other ideas up his sleeve.
Despite the failure of Phase II back in 1976, Roddenberry believed many of the ideas were still sound. He used the concepts as a launching point for what would become the franchise’s next incarnation: Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994). This was a momentous step forward for Star Trek, and a very different show than the original. Led by the more cerebral character of Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, this new series fleshed out the utopia of the 24th century. The pseudoscience of the show reflected its time, with a grounded set of technology that regularly became an integral part of the plot. Thanks to energy sources such as ‘dilithium crystals’ and the energy-to-matter converters known as ‘replicators’, vessels like the Enterprise could manufacture anything, including food and water. Thanks to the abundance of resources, money was no longer a concern; people worked to amass reputation, experience, and knowledge, rather than material wealth.
The cast was even more diverse than its predecessor. With LeVar Burton as the black Chief Engineer Geordi, and three female characters on the main roster at first, the show was making clear its intentions from the off.
Star Trek: The Next Generation continued with the allegorical storytelling of its predecessor, but also expanded its scope; its most popular storyline was the two-part episode ‘Best of Both Worlds’, which focused on one of science fiction’s most terrifying enemies: the Borg. It was proof that Trek could be an inspirational and thoughtful franchise, while still throwing in the occasional heart-pumping thriller.
But there were problems too. Tasha Yar was killed off towards the end of the first season after her actor, Denise Crosby, resigned. There were rumours that this was due to her involvement with Playboy, but it turned out she simply wasn’t enjoying the show. Meanwhile, the child character of Wesley Crusher had few fans, as viewers considered him irritatingly precocious and were reluctant to accept him as a genius who saves the day. His actor Wil Wheaton survived the hate and has gone on to become an internet icon.
Roddenberry’s health was failing, and in the sixth season, he passed away. From that point on, the show would continue without him. Before he died, however, he had been consulted about Trek’s upcoming show, Deep Space Nine.
As with most visionaries, Roddenberry was hardly a perfect person — particularly when it came to women. Accounts from female Star Trek actors indicate that Roddenberry might not have fared too well in the #MeToo era. He was also difficult to get along with, by some accounts, and many of his coworkers parted with him on less-than-positive terms. He took legal and illegal drugs both recreationally and as stimulants to keep working late into the night, which most likely contributed to his death.
Nonetheless, he possessed two key attributes that would help turn Star Trek into one of the most momentous media franchises of the 20th century. First: he had an uncanny knack for predicting future trends. Second: He was fundamentally optimistic about the future, and believed humankind would grow beyond its struggles in the coming centuries. Racism, nationalism, religious hatred, and other forms of discrimination; he believed humanity would leave all of that behind. This optimism seems quaint in the light of today’s ‘grimdark’ trend, although many believe it is what sets Trek apart from its contemporaries.
Post-Roddenberry shows and franchise fatigue
Trek did not slow with the passing of its creator. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) came to television in the early 90s, and was unlike any Trek show before or since. Instead of flying about on a spaceship, DS9 was set on a space station in orbit around a planet named Bajor, near a wormhole leading to another section of the galaxy. The stationary setting allowed the showrunners to experiment with all manner of different kinds of stories, including serialised storytelling the likes of which had rarely been seen before. This makes it surprisingly binge-able in 2019. DS9 was also notorious for its ‘darker’ storylines, in which the so-called utopia of the 24th century humanity was challenged.
Babylon 5, a show about a remarkably similar space station, also pioneered story arcs that played out over the course of a series rather than isolated episodes. Controversy surrounds the two series to this day: Babylon 5 aired a few months after DS9, but was actually pitched to Paramount before being picked up by Warner.
Perhaps DS9’s most-controversial creation was Section 31, a secret part of the Federation charged with carrying out the ‘dirty work’ that Starfleet was too ‘squeamish’ to do. Many fans loathed these additions as contrary to Roddenberry’s utopian ideals, but others loved the risk-taking and deconstruction.
One of DS9’s most popular aspects was its choice to cast a black man, Avery Brooks, as Commander (later Captain) Benjamin Sisko. Like Nichelle Nichols and LeVar Burton before him, Brooks was an inspiration to a generation of African-Americans. One of the show’s most popular and groundbreaking episodes was Season 6’s ‘Far Beyond the Stars’, in which Sisko hallucinates an alternate life as a black science fiction writer in the 1950s. It was Brooks’ favourite episode, and a damn fine hour of television. DS9 made some strides forward in representation (it famously included a sort-of lesbian kiss in one episode), but showrunners later expressed regret with how little work they did promoting the inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters.
The Next Generation came to its end soon after DS9 began, but the adventures of the USS Enterprise D continued with the Next Generation-era films. In 1994, Star Trek Generations was released, in which Shatner’s Kirk returned and worked with Picard and his crew in a ‘handing of the torch’-style plot. Several films appeared centered around the adventures of the Next Generation crew, but by 2002 and the release of Star Trek: Nemesis, viewing figures had slumped. Nemesis was a dismal failure and a death knell for any future Trek films — or so it seemed at the time.
In the meantime on television, following the end of The Next Generation, Trek’s next incarnation was Star Trek: Voyager (1995–2001). After having a black captain, what was the next logical step for Trek? A woman, of course. Kate Mulgrew was cast as Captain Kathryn Janeway, a leader and mother to a crew trapped 70,000 light years from home. At this point, Trek was suffering from franchise fatigue, and Voyager proved to be the least successful series to date. Storylines were arguably uninspired and some characters less-than-loved. The show found its stride a little bit at the start of Season 4 and the re-introduction of the Borg, with the casting of former model Jeri Ryan as the liberated Borg drone Seven of Nine. The move seemed to work. Seven of Nine was a fascinating character in her own right, although her form-fitting catsuits seem designed to attract male viewers.
Voyager declined in the ratings and ended with a whimper in 2001. Trek’s next incarnation, Enterprise (it lacked the Star Trek prefix for the first two seasons, partly because it was a prequel), would be its last for more than a decade. Showrunners made a number of choices attempting to recapture the excitement of the fanbase: a white man, Scott Bakula as Jonathan Archer, was back in the captain’s chair, and the first officer, female Vulcan T’Pol, was quite sexualised.
Enterprise had some interesting threads but they weren’t enough to save it from an early end after only four seasons. Its cancellation in 2005 ended eighteen years of Trek, and seemed like a death knell for the series as a whole.
Recurring characters and actors
Trek has had a number of actors that keep returning to the series, either in their original roles or different ones. Perhaps the most well-known example is Majel Barrett, Roddenberry’s widow. She started in Trek’s very first incarnation as Number One in ‘The Cage’, became Nurse Christine Chapel in The Original Series, and returned as Lwaxana Troi (the voracious mother of series regular Deanna Troi) in The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. Barrett was further involved in the series as the voice of many starships’ computer systems, from The Next Generation through Enterprise.
Denise Crosby was another popular recurring actor. After leaving the role of Tasha Yar, she returned in later seasons in various roles, including an alternative universe’s version of Yar and her half-Romulan daughter named Commander Sela. Never before had technobabble been so complex and disturbing!
Other popular recurring actors, many of whom remain popular at conventions, include Diana Muldaur in two minor roles in The Original Series and a one-season regular of The Next Generation as Dr. Pulaski; Marc Alaimo, whose prominent neck muscles were the inspiration for the infamous Cardassian neck design and who played multiple roles across incarnations of the show; and Jeffrey Combs, who at one point played two recurring characters (of different alien races) in the same episode of Deep Space Nine.
Non-canon Trek and fan content
For almost as long as there has been Trek, there has been tie-in fiction. Over the fifty-plus years since The Original Series, many hundreds of novels, anthologies, comics, and other forms of print Trek media have been released. They cover content from across every incarnation of the show and its films. These media are licensed in an interesting way, in that they are all considered non-canon. Many of them expand on the stories of popular guest characters, such as John de Lancie’s omnipotent ‘Q’ and Majel Barrett’s Lwaxana Troi. Notable successes include: Peter David’s Imzadi, which expanded on the pre-Next Generation romantic relationship of William Riker and Deanna Troi; Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Entropy Effect, which is more of a classic Original Series adventure; and Andrew J. Robinson’s A Stitch in Time, which focuses on the popular character Garak he played on Deep Space Nine and was based on a biography he wrote for the character after being cast.
Trek media also includes an extensive non-fiction catalogue. Documentaries, analyses, and commentaries about the franchise abound, from the recently-released, fan-funded documentary What We Leave Behind about the much-maligned Deep Space Nine to 1997’s Trekkies, a documentary helmed by Next Generation actress Denise Crosby about the franchise’s legions of — at times quite eccentric — fans.
Some content, while not exactly Trek, clearly took inspiration from Roddenberry. From 2000–2005, alongside Enterprise, Majel Barrett and a Canadian-American team brought Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda to the television scene. It wasn’t Trek, exactly, but borrowed from some of Gene Roddenberry’s unused concepts, creating a far more dystopian science fiction series starring Kevin Sorbo (of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys fame) as Captain Dylan Hunt.
Fan-produced video content has also become quite impressive in recent years. Star Trek Continues was a web series set on the original Enterprise, essentially taking over where The Original Series had left off. The show, partly funded by Kickstarter, starred professional actors and fans of Trek in the roles formerly occupied by William Shatner and others, and released eleven episodes from 2012 to 2017. Another fan-produced, Kickstarter-backed production was Prelude to Axanar, starring some Trek alumni in an attempt to demonstrate that quality Trek films could be made on a limited budget. The film was considered successful as a proof of concept.
The Abrams reboots and the modern series
Even those with little exposure to Star Trek are likely familiar with the franchise reboot by J.J. Abrams in 2009. Abrams saw in Trek a kind of media similar to classical music: it could find a wider audience if it just added in a bit more jazz. He cast younger actors as the original crew of the Enterprise and proceeded to make a blockbuster hit. The reboot was controversial among fans for a number of reasons, not least Abrams’ notorious lens flares, but it created a surge of renewed interest in the franchise and lead to two more feature films and a new television series in 2017. The films added little to the franchise as a whole, save the razzle-dazzle of modern special effects, but were commercially successful. Interest waned as Abrams turned his attention to Star Wars, renewing tensions between fans of the two science fiction franchises.
This brings us to the present. A fourth film in the rebooted ‘Kelvin’ universe seems unlikely, but Trek lives on in the two television series currently in development under CBS all-access. Star Trek: Discovery has been out for two seasons, and after a lacklustre first season, seems to be finding its legs. Star Trek: Picard is coming soon with Sir Patrick Stewart returning as an older Jean-Luc Picard, following his retirement from Starfleet. For added nostalgia, Brent Spiner will be returning as The Next Generation’s Data, and Jeri Ryan will be returning as Annika Hansen, also known as Seven of Nine from Voyager. At the moment, Discovery seems to be leading the way on the diversity avenue, with a black female lead and an openly gay crew member, while it is unclear what Picard will add to the table beyond a welcome return to the gentle wisdom of Stewart’s captain.
It’s an interesting time to be a Trekkie. It’s yet to become clear what the place of the series is in 2019, as the optimism of Roddenberry’s utopian vision and the allegorical roots of the series seem to have been supplanted by snazzy special effects and copious heaps of nostalgia. Nonetheless, for 50 years, Star Trek has been a cultural leader in television and an inspiration for those who hope for a future utopia.