The Roddenberry Box

At the risk of generalizing, fans of the original Star Trek series have not been happy with the J.J. Abrams-led reboot, and they haven’t been particularly happy with the prospect of the Star Trek: Discovery TV series.

Entertainment Weekly gives those fans ammunition, perhaps:

Star Trek: Discovery is shedding a creative restriction that’s long frustrated top writers on previous shows in the franchise.

Showrunners Aaron Harberts and Gretchen J. Berg — working from a creative roadmap laid out by executive producer Bryan Fuller — are delivering a Trek saga that gets rid of one the franchise’s decades-old limitations in an effort to evolve the series.

As part of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future (and one that Trek franchise executive producer Rick Berman carried on after Roddenberry’s death in 1991), writers on Trek shows were urged to avoid having Starfleet crew members in significant conflict with one another (unless a crew member is, say, possessed by an alien force), or from being shown in any seriously negative way.

This guideline wasn’t strictly followed across all 700 previous franchise episodes, of course. But in an aspirational effort to make the future more idyllic, Starfleet crew members typically weren’t supposed to demonstrate baser human flaws. For writers on Trek shows, the restriction has been a point of behind-the-scenes contention (one TNG and Voyager writer, Michael Piller, famously dubbed it “Roddenberry’s Box”). Drama is conflict, after all, and if all the conflict stems from non-Starfleet members on a show whose regular cast consists almost entirely of Starfleet officers, it hugely limits the types of stories that can be told.

So for the CBS All Access series coming Sept. 26, that restriction has been lifted and the writers are allowed to tell types of stories that were discouraged for decades.

“We’re trying to do stories that are complicated, with characters with strong points of view and strong passions,” Harberts said. “People have to make mistakes — mistakes are still going to be made in the future. We’re still going to argue in the future.”

“The rules of Starfleet remain the same,” Berg added. “But while we’re human or alien in various ways, none of us are perfect.”

The handling of these inner-Starfleet conflicts will still draw inspiration from Roddenberry’s ideals, however. “The thing we’re taking from Roddenberry is how we solve those conflicts,” Harberts said. “So we do have our characters in conflict, we do have them struggling with each other, but it’s about how they find a solution and work through their problems.” …

There’s also the fact the last Trek series (Star Trek: Enterprise) went off the air 12 years ago and the TV drama storytelling has evolved to be more realistic since then — and so has sci-fi. A former Trek writer, Ron Moore (who, like Piller, was outspoken about Trek‘s limitations), conceived of his acclaimed 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot as a way of telling the types of morally murky stories that Deep Space Nine and Voyager wouldn’t allow. Moore, Piller and Discovery‘s Fuller all worked on late 1990s Trek shows, collectively trying to push the format’s creative envelope in bold new ways. Mind you, Discovery isn’t nearly as dark as BSG — it’s very much Star Trek and Starfleet officers have still evolved in all respects from where we are now. As always, they’re admirable people you wish you knew in real life. But the show will also depict a wider and more realistic bandwidth of human (and alien!) drama.

It may well be that this is EW’s attempt to hype the series, possibly for money. So keep that grain of salt in mind as you read on.

The no-conflict rule, like the Prime Directive, was honored more in theory than in practice, particularly in The Original Series. It was beyond doubt the worst feature of The Next Generation. When you have to import conflict by importing aliens, that’s writer laziness. Starfleet, remember, is, or will be, a semi-military organization. Conflict exists in the military, but subordinates follow lawful orders and respect the rank, if not necessarily the person holding the rank.

The Roddenberry Box is one of several Star Trek weaknesses that will probably not be fixed. Humans have existed for between thousands and millions of years, depending on your religious and scientific worldview. The idea that humans will evolve beyond conflict in just 300 or so years makes as much sense as the TOS episode “Spock’s Brain.” (How are we evolving with conflict now?) Roddenberry was as wrong as the creators of the Progressive Era in their mistaken belief that mankind can be improved.

The answer to this and the supposed evolution away from capitalism is that thanks to replicators, to quote Capt. Jean-Luc Picard in TNG’s “The Neutral Zone,” “We have eliminated need.” I’ve written before here how ludicrous that is. Basically if resources are unlimited, there should be no need for an all-powerful Federation and its Starfleet enforcement arm to administer those unlimited resources. Since not everyone in the Federation has a starship, obviously resources are in fact scarce.

The concern Star Trek fans have, and this is a valid concern, is that the new Star Trek will be full of the reboots’ explosions and lens flares, with bad stories and none of what made TOS and TNG work — the relationships between characters. (Sci-fi fans know that the Battlestar Galactica reboot was closer to “House of Cards” than to the original.) The no-conflict rule was a bad idea, but going completely in the opposite direction — say, the first officer scheming against her captain, or lieutenants looking to undercut each other — is no better.

As for how else to do a better Star Trek, read here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s