Culture

Even if Modern Star Trek Doesn't Think So, the World Is Getting Better

Star Trek used to dare to say that things were getting better.

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For decades, various incarnations of Star Trek have offered mostly positive visions for the future of humanity—one in which we've set aside petty, earthbound squabbles in favor of boldly seeking out new worlds (and, of course, finding the occasional conflict). 

But the first three seasons of Star Trek: Discovery (Paramount+), the seventh television series in the long-running franchise, have too often seemed tied down by storylines that might have more in common with real-world politics of the 21st century rather than the unbridled optimism that was such an important part of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's original conception for the show. Discovery is highly serialized, more focused on a single calamity than a larger sense of exploration, and with far more internally focused characters who care more about their own interests than in a larger plan for society.

As a result, Star Trek now seeks to reinforce the trepidation and existential doubt that is a hallmark of our modern culture. Instead of showing the potential of what humanity can become, Discovery seems to reflect more on what the feelings of the human condition are today.

That's a shame, because society is actually moving toward Roddenberry's vision of a humanity that reaches beyond the petty conflicts of the day, rather than the fractured future presented in the newer Star Trek shows. Global poverty continues to decline, in part because advances in food production have dramatically decreased the number of starving people. War remains a threat to human civilization, but it is on the decline as the world grows wealthier. Incredible advancements in technology have in many ways already surpassed the supposedly futuristic tech imagined by the creators of the original Star Trek series in the 1960s. 

But as our world gets better, the world of Star Trek grows bleaker. When Discovery debuted in 2017, it created a future that was foreboding and plagued with mistrust. Much of the first season's serialized storyline focused on a conflict with the so-called "Mirror Universe," a lawless parallel dimension populated by violent versions of the show's characters. That laid the groundwork for double-cross after double-cross, as characters from the Mirror Universe invaded the main continuity.

The second season reintroduced popular figures from other Star Trek series, including Spock and Captain Christopher Pike (who, in Star Trek canon, precedes James Kirk as captain of the Enterprise), but significantly retconned their characters. The theme of mistrust carries over into the second season of the show, when Spock is accused of murder and flees from the Federation. Section 31, the clandestine, extra-legal organization introduced in Deep Space Nine and run by the Mirror Universe version of Phillippa Georgiou, is ordered to track him down. After regrouping with Spock, it's clear there is a traitor onboard the Discovery, and it's a race against time to track him down.

Shadowy conspiracies continue to drive much of the plot in the fourth season, which debuted in November 2021. In the recent episode "All Is Possible," powerful politicians conspire to get Discovery's captain, Michael Burnham, to involve herself in a complex series of events. After discovering the deception, Burnham insists that that kind of lying has to come to an end. The president of the Federation is, at best, non-committal.

To be sure, Star Trek has always had its share of duplicitous and scheming villains. But Discovery embeds that sense of distrust in many aspects of the show. Main characters are routinely and openly insubordinate. In the pilot episode, for example, Burnham is facing life in prison for mutiny.

To different degrees, modern Star Trek no longer seems interested in exploring a future where humanity has risen above the cultural and political swamps of the day. Through more than three seasons, Discovery has yet to produce an episode like "The Measure of a Man," in which The Next Generation's Captain Jean-Luc Picard made a convincing argument for why Data the android is, in fact, human. Or "Tuvix," the poignant early episode of Voyager that asked Captain Kathryn Janeway to make an impossible choice, one she confronts with conviction. 

That's true not only of Discovery but of other contemporary Trek series too. Star Trek: Picard depicts a retired and weary former starship captain now living as a recluse and processing the trauma of Data's death in Star Trek: Nemesis, the 2002 film that served as a send-off for The Next Generation crew. He comes out of hiding when he discovers that Data has a daughter and makes it his personal objective to protect her. With the help of a ragtag group of misfits and outcasts, Picard succeeds in his mission, but uncovers dark secrets about a society of androids that have hidden from humanity for decades. Though there is hope that the androids could be reinstated into society, that future is uncertain. Not least of which because they have the ability to call down a highly-advanced synthetic menace that could destroy the entire galaxy.

In some ways, the serialized nature of the new shows makes it much more difficult to simply revel in the sense of exploration and discovery that was such a core aspect of previous series. But other key components of the Star Trek formula are missing too. Discovery seems to go out of the way to make the differences in the characters a central theme. And while diversity has always been at the core of Star Trek, its true virtue is that diversity didn't need to be celebrated or condemned, it just was—the natural result of a multicultural, multiplanetary society.

When Star Trek debuted, the inclusion of a Black woman on the crew was a political statement about how diverse the future would be, and 60 years later, that dream has been realized. Culture, and entertainment in particular, is more diverse than it ever has been, and Roddenberry's vision for an equal society is closer to being fulfilled today than ever before, in more ways than one.

Maybe it's no wonder that the original series and The Next Generation remain incredibly popular on streaming services, while Discovery has struggled with low ratings. While everyone with a platform keeps telling the world that things are getting worse, Star Trek used to dare to say that things were getting better.