The Golden Age of TV, the Television Renaissance, or whatever you want to call the upsurge in quality for the better part of the past decade has been marked by several common denominators, grittiness being at the top of the list. This works well enough in shows that are striving for verisimilitude or some approximation of reality as it enables non-traditional stories to be told. There is a different effect on science fiction however, while other genres are able to tell more stories, it narrows the narratives that can be told.
Shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Orange is the New Black’ have received part of their critical acclaim due to their use of societal issues that wouldn’t come up in more traditional media; toxic masculinity in the case of the ‘Breaking Bad’ and intersectional feminism in the case of ‘Orange is the New Black’. These shows are that way because traditional narratives about the real world don’t permit these things to be acknowledged. Science fiction may have its own host of traditional narratives, but they’re not tied to the modern day in the same way. It can raise topics in a way that other shows can’t, but they don’t. Instead, they have also embraced being gritty.
So what exactly am I talking about? Think about the scifi shows on television today. Now exclude the ones set in the modern day such as ‘Person of Interest’ and what does that leave? By my count, there’s ‘Defiance’, ‘The 100’, ‘Dominion’ and ‘Doctor Who’. I’ll be ignoring ‘Who’ on the grounds of not knowing much about it. All of these shows are post-apocalyptic. ‘Defiance’ wants to be a space western meets ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘The 100’ is downright fatalistic and ‘Dominion’ is about angels trying to murder humanity. If you take a more historical look, it doesn’t get much better. NuBSG started out as keying in on the zeitgeist of post 9/11 America, turning into an argument for maltheism. Stargate as a franchise became darker and edgier as it went on. ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ may have had its problems, but being Star Trek in name only wasn’t one of them. Yet at the same time, in order to find a mainstream scifi show that wasn’t epressing on some level went off the air a decade ago. Why?
There are a number of reasons for this shift. Part of this is a general backlash against Star Trek and wanting to tell different stories. Another part is a general disinterest in that kind of aesthetic and a desire for more varied sets and special effects.. This general move also matched the zeitgeist. On one hand, we’ve become more inclusive. On the other hand, there are countless structural problems that make any outlook on the future bleak. It leaves our capacity to think of a better future underdeveloped and leaves us thinking that all roads lead to the apocalypse. Utopian science fiction, even optimistic science fiction is something that can be done, so the question becomes how?
The seemingly obvious answer to this is to make another Star Trek series. As the rights for the shows and the movies are split between Paramount and CBS; there’s no reason why a TV series set in the original timeline, after the Dominion War, can’t happen. This split is also the only conceivable way that an optimistic Star Trek series could be made given the directions of the new movies, but that’s a different discussion. I find this answer to be unsatisfying though. Star Trek has built up a number of idiosyncrasies that make the franchise special, but also mean it’s not what I want when we’re trying to revive the idea of optimistic science fiction.
Star Trek has a lot of continuity built up, and while that continuity was developed on the fly, there is a level of cohesion that makes it hard to write in. The best example of this is are the Klingons. It’s one thing for them to be an analogy for the Soviet Union, it’s quite another for them to space Vikings, devoid of any meaningful real world analogy. And it’s Star Trek, how are you not going to use Klingons, or Vulcans or any other iconic species? While the timeline could be jumped a few hundred years and an Enterprise is exploring a new part of space, it would eventually have continuity problems in that Star Trek doesn’t really map well to the current zeitgeist.
The idea that the Federation is paradise is accepted, but looking at the Federation as presented means that paradise has a lot of asterisks. Star Trek is firmly bioconservative, a ban on genetic augmentation on one hand and the Borg on the other show this. Such a show would be hamstrung in addressing one of, if not the biggest, trends in scifi today. Not only that, but it’s idea of growth and spreading paradise is disturbing as it assimilates everyone in its path, erasing cultures outside of quirks. Ideas about paradise and diversity have grown beyond a homogenizing force as you’re subsumed into a paradise that reads as an ideal liberal America. Which isn’t to say that I’m against the idea of another Star Trek series, but such a series would be uniquely Star Trek, its existence wouldn’t magically fix the problem. Nor should it, there are a multitude of quality TV shows out there, why can’t optimistic scifi have even half as many takes as post-apocalyptic gritty scifi?
So do I want, in broad strokes at least? Diversity of human characters, aliens are fine, but they’re no substitute for actual human representation. Not only that, but this diversity can’t be tokenism or left hanging in the background. If a character isn’t straight or nonwhite or disabled then it shouldn’t be the focus of a very special episode or tokenism; it should be normalized and apparent. It should be about good people doing good things. Those two things as a basis and there are lot of directions you can go and a lot of ways to fill in the blanks.
The future may look bleak, but it doesn’t have to. Till next time.