It was a shot heard round the world.
Well, not a shot, really. An explosion. And everyone picked it up at different times. And it was in space, rather than the world. Which, now that I think about it, means no-one could have heard it at all. Except those poor Klingons, I guess, but they all got blown to bits, so really-
I’ll start again.
It has been suggested that when Admiral James T. Kirk spat out the code which spelled death for his beloved Enterprise, it was actually the franchise trying to draw a line under itself so thick and final it would never be crossed. It was perhaps a vain hope; trying something similar with possibly the show’s most adored character had already failed. That’s why The Search For Spock exists in the first place.
If a plan it was, it was unsuccessful; the Enterprise’s Viking funeral did not burn the franchise down alongside. Just three years later Star Trek: The Next Generation proved that Roddenberry’s creation could not only survive the loss of the first and most famous Constitution-class vessel, but entirely without the original cast. Soon it was clear TNG was outpacing its predecessor to an astonishing degree. It did so well it spawned a spin-off to the spin-off, and when it ended, there had to be another spin-off to replace it, so that the first spin-off’s spin-off wouldn’t be lonely.
(That might be dogs I’m thinking of, actually.)
Everything was coming up space-Milhouse. But the upward trajectory could never continue into infinity. Sooner or later even science fiction franchises must come back down to Earth. Deep Space Nine inherited a healthy proportion of TNG viewers, but was unable to hold on to them. Voyager found itself watched by even fewer people, and Enterprise could only wish it was Voyager. After almost two decades of continuous interplanetary antics on the world’s TV screens, the franchise faded out with a mournful whimper.
The diagnosis-by-democracy was simple: franchise fatigue. Can that old up, though? After all, there’s almost no genre the franchise can’t simply fold into itself whenever it wants. Drama on a space station. Romance on the moon. Slapstick comedy whilst orbiting a comet. Saying you’re tired of Star Trek is like saying you’re tired of stories set in the 19th century.
If we can’t pin Trek‘s collapse on people getting bored of the future being a thing, then where do we lay the blame? That’s actually hard to figure out. The problem is simple: anyone who’d amassed enough experience of the franchise to comment usefully on its post-imperial phase must also have seen so many episodes that each new instalment could easily be likened to an earlier one. The expert’s own weight of knowledge tended to crush the experience into a lens through which only one stellar body was ever looked for: the original story. Critical analysis kept collapsing into a memory test. And anyone can do that.
I want to change the game. I want to think about the highs and lows of the Trek franchise in a way that doesn’t involve just watching Voyager and tutting about how Picard did it all first. I think that maybe, if you want to sensibly compare the six shows (The Animated Series totally counts), you shouldn’t watch them in the order they were broadcast. Not only does that set up for the Originality Trap, but you end up doing self-evidently unreasonable things like comparing DS9‘s first season to TNG‘s sixth. Shows change as they move forward. There isn’t time to IDIC in a day. The timescale of a show’s life is far more important than piffling details like an actual date.
That’s why, starting next Thursday – fifty years to the day since the world first met Captain Kirk and his crew – and continuing weekly, Geek Syndicate will be exploring the six (soon to be seven) shows in the only sensible way possible: comparing them episode by episode to finally answer the question of which show climbed the peaks of Mount Awesome to the highest ledge.
Over the next six weeks I’ll be discussing the first-broadcast episode of each of the six Star Trek shows (I’ll work out how Discovery fits in later), ranking them as I go. Once a full ranking of all six “pilot” episodes (many of you will understand the need for speech marks there, I’m sure) is complete, we’ll start over with the next set of six, and so on, with a new post every Thursday. I won’t be doing comparisons between episodes of the same shows as well – that’s a step too far into ludicrous ambition even for me – but I will be keeping a record as we go regarding how the six shows are doing as a whole.
Welcome to Infinite Diversity, Finite Combinations. Join us, please, this time next week, when I’ll be boldly going where millions have gone before. Hopefully though, never from this direction.
GS Blogger: TheScholarlySquid