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'Star Trek' as SF Lite

COVER STORY

September 08, 1996|Gregory Benford | Gregory Benford is a professor of physics at UC Irvine and has published 16 novels, including "Timescape," and two collections of short stories. He is a two-time winner of the Nebula Award, the highest honor bestowed by the Science Fiction Writers of America. He has never written for "Star Trek."

The astonishing persistence of a television series routinely launched with little fanfare 30 years ago calls for explanation and rumination. Those of us from inside the science-fiction genre view "Star Trek" with oblique bemusement, cousins eyeing a rich relative.

Hollywood and TV have always methodically harvested ripened fruit from genre vineyards. Cowboys and detectives are easy for a broad audience to fathom, but true, hard-core science fiction seemed, well, downright eerie. Its density and strangeness had made TV's job far harder than Hollywood's scare-'em-with-science, giant-bug formula that evolved in the 1950s.

Gene Roddenberry's ever-growing profit center began with a single insight, when he casually referred to "Trek" as " 'Wagon Train' in space." He saw that the genre needed translation into human terms, and so evolved the fundamental strategy that opened sf (as it is known to its insiders; outsiders call it "sci-fi").

"Trek" became a huge multimedia phenom by imagining a shared experience: Our Gang visits the future. The Enterprise crew had well-defined roles led by an affable captain. William Shatner saw that humor and a calm, everyday air aboard would be crucial. Spock was Sherlock Holmes in space, the series' most original notion. The crew/family's often whimsical

efforts to convert him to emotion provided an amusing leitmotif against a background blend of the mildly fantastic and reassuringly familiar. Manageable exoticism sold.

"Trek" taught a generation to seek the sci-fi experience in this associative way, far from the deliberate dislocations and strangeness sought by genre insiders. Seldom did "Trek" challenge genre stereotypes. By harvesting fresh ideas and themes invented in print, it loomed over most conventional TV. Several well-known genre sf writers wrote some of the best scripts in the first two seasons (Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon), only to be often rewritten and finally not invited back. The series now depends on writers who seem rather proud of their ignorance of written sf.

Roddenberry's favorite theme was flawed gods, usually alien super-beings or warped humans, often speaking to the problems of hubris. For genre insiders like me, "Trek's" greatest sins lay in its general scientific incoherence. In the very first show, an alien "salt vampire" preferred to kill people for a few grams of salt in their bodies, rather than simply steal from galley stores.

As it spawned offspring series and films, quickie technical solutions threw into question the entire physics and technology of the series. The early shows opted for the "transporter" to avoid expensive shots of rockets landing and lifting off. Thereafter the series dodged the problems of what a society looks like where everything can be quickly duplicated. Worse, plots often relied on telepathy and "mind science" for motivation and twists.

Sf studies the collision between our humanity and an indifferent universe. Many modern anxieties stem from our broadening awareness of our chilly loneliness. "Trek" dodged this deeper issue, inventing SF Lite, the sci-fi option. In "Trek," human emotion and gut feeling is forever superior to cold logic. The galaxy is user-friendly.

The show pivoted around a desire to please everyone, with a token Russian, Asian and black woman in the crew. This apparently forgave its air of earnest moralizing, a trait we still see today in the frequent oracular pronouncements delivered ex cathedra from the Enterprise bridge. The films continued this; even in the perhaps best, "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," the most adventurous position taken is Save the Whales.

"Trek's" dazzling successes inspired more than a hundred novels, a gold mine for Pocket Books. Alas, the hoped-for transference of "Trek" book readers to mainline sf didn't happen. Perhaps this relates to the unusual popularity of older, Golden Age writers in sf--Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Herbert--with their time-honored approaches. Here, too, readers prefer to go to the strange future in the company of somebody they know; it's reassuring.

This suggests that whatever the medium, the way to reach this enormous audience is to find a shared, quasi-communal vehicle. Later, "Star Wars" made this strategy more explicit with an entire set of future family, its sons-and-fathers revelations played out over three films with three more in the pipeline.

It did take courage for "Trek" to show TV's first interracial kiss, to confront militarism during Vietnam on one hand and soon after to deplore countercultural excesses as well. "Trek" did and does assume a world that works, surely a reassuring fresh breeze to anyone reading the newspapers.

In "Trek's" future, everyone cheerfully wears spandex and looks great, a remarkable prospect for a nation that, over the last three decades, has seen the average adult add a pound of weight in each passing year. Could this be the secret heart of our love for the show?

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