Thursday, May 16, 2013

Star Trek

Matt Yglesias, who has watched every episode and movie in the Star Trek franchise, has written an appreciative essay about the whole lot of them. He regards The Next Generation as the best series of the bunch.
...Trek has a very particular take on what it means to be human. Part of what it means, the franchise teaches us, is participating in an ongoing progressive project of building a utopian society. Even though the bulk of Trek comes from the ’90s, the franchise launched in the mid-’60s, and the now-anachronistic spirit of midcentury optimism has remained at the heart of the franchise throughout
Fair enough. He also argues that Star Trek helped usher in the era of long-arc series TV. While discussing DS9 and Voyager he observes:
And both shows suffer for having been filmed during the awkward teenage years of television drama. Modern TV features a fairly sharp divide between shows structured around long plot arcs (Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones) and those built as a series of one-offs (CSI). But in the late ’90s, things were different. DS9, like Buffy and The X-Files, flits back and forth between a big-picture story and alien-of-the-week one-shots. This makes for disconcerting binge-watching. The sustained 10-episode narrative that concludes the series is the best run of Trek that’s ever been made. But it comes after years’ worth of television in which the grand clash between the Federation and the Dominion is regularly interrupted.
Tyler Cowen thinks Yglesias underestimates the original series, shrewdly noting:
... that the original characters have entered popular culture for an enduring period of time and we are still making movies about them forty-five years later. It’s not absurd to think of someone saying “Beam me up, Scotty” fifty years from now. I don’t see Data or any other later character receiving the same treatment, nor do I think that any of the later installments would have, on their own, generated an entire franchise of installments, spin-offs, sequels, and the like...
I agree with this, but I'm not quite sure what it means.

The original series started in the late 1960s and was cancelled after three seasons. But it came back on in re-runs where it developed a cult following. And then came an animated Saturday morning show (which Yglesias doesn't cover and which I never watched). Then we have the first two movies and, in the late 1980s, The Next Generation was launched.

So, just what does it mean to say that none "of the later installments would have, on their own, generated an entire franchise of installments..."? Let's imagine an alternative universe in which the original series doesn't exist but three seasons worth of TNG episodes have been show in the late 1960s instead. Is Cowen saying that those episodes would have died, like the original series did, but would also have failed to attract a cult following, etc.? If so, why?

The later franchises existed in a cultural ecology that had been "warmed" to science fiction by other films and TV shows. Perhaps they would have been even less successful in the 1960s than the original series had been. That is to say, perhaps the original series, though unable to remain on network TV, was nonetheless a better "fit" for the audience that then existed. And so it was able to secure 'squatter's rights' in the cultural landscape and secure a bit of territory which, in time, was developed into the later shows and movies. Though the later franchises have had many episodes and multi-episode stories that are better than those in the original series, they presuppose and are dependent upon a cultural world that didn't exist when the original series came out.

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Here's a post in which I discuss "The Empath," and episode from the original series. You can skip over the opening material and start with the Empath subheading.

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