A Field Guide to Mary Stewart's Romantic Suspenses
A Matter of Oaths: An interview with Helen S. Wright

He Said/She Said: Star Trek, Reboots, Discovery and The Final Frontier

Star Trek Discovery

In He Said / She Said, we're too lazy to write things properly, so we interview one another. A bit like a podcast, but with much worse production quality. 

Jared: Star Trek is something we talk about every now and then (including a whole theme week in 2009!), but even then, we've only ever scratched the surface. I mean, there's a lot of Trek: TOS, TNG, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise (which I had completely forgotten ever existed), Discovery, a whopping 13 films, and a vast ecosystem of merchandise, books, games and other spin-offs. 

From this whirling mass... which is your Star Trek? When someone (like me) says 'let's talk Star Trek', what comes to mind?

Anne: Star Trek is such a part of my mental cultural landscape I hardly know how to begin unpicking it, much less where to begin. Much like Star Wars, I've never known a time without Star Trek. I presume I was first exposed to the show, which my mother loved and used to watch when she was a teenager, and which was discovering a new lease on life in syndication during my early childhood. But that said, we owned the first three films on VHS basically from the time we got a video-player, in 1985/86, and I definitely watched all three a lot.

My favourite was, of course, The Wrath of Khan, although I primarily liked it as a kid because of the horrible earwig monster. We started watching Next Generation when it began airing, in 1987, (my aunt even did the PR for the first season and met all the actors, which was about as close to Hollywood Awe as it got for me back then), and watched it all the way through its final season. I tried with Voyager and Enterprise and DS9, but they never resonated with me the way TOS and TNG did.  


But, at the end of the day, Kirk, Spock and Bones are the essence of Star Trek for me - if someone says 'Star Trek' I immediately, instinctively think of  'still...old...friend!', 'damn it, Jim!', and 'the needs of the many...' It's those three who, like Luke, Leia and Han Solo, are at the very top of the box in my brain marked Star Trek. That's not to say TOS is 'my' Trek (honestly; Wrath of Khan is probably the best answer to that question). But the characters, the actors, the fan responses, the show, the films, the fan theories and academic papers and endless blog-posts about what it all means - all that, boiled down, reduces into three things that are my Trek: Kirk, Spock and Bones.  

Jared: My first Trek memory is, appropriately, "The Cage". Always start with first principles! But it was a total accident: I was at my aunt's house as a little kid and left to my own devices with daytime TV. A rerun of Star Trek came on, and, voila. I don't really remember anything at all about the episode. But... my next Trek encounters - Comedy Central reruns of Shatner's appearance SNL, James Blish novelisations, Star Trek 6 (at the drive-in!) - initially confused me, as they featured Kirk, not Pike.  


By the time I'd sorted out TOS in my mind, I was already captured by Next Generation. I can't claim to have watched it from the first series (I realise these confessions make me sound 83, but I would've been 8 when TNG first aired!), but from series 3 or 4. TNG was the thing that my grandfather and I loved watching together. And it was always a topic of conversation whenever we met. We tried the other Trek series, and even Babylon 5, but none of them grabbed us in the same way. 

If Kirk, Spock and Bones constitute the essence of Trekness, how you do feel about the new movies - the reboots?  

Anne: I'm not remotely a purist. I am more than happy to see reboots of beloved (and less-beloved) properties because, you know, it's interesting to see how (ahem) the next generation reimagines the sacred cows of the previous. Sometimes those remakes or reimaginings are terrible (the mid-newish Spider-Man films don't seem to have any reason to exist at all), sometimes they're done really bafflingly or don't contribute anything meaningful to the property (that Psycho remake), and sometimes they're great. And the Trek universe is unique in its ability to absorb remakes and reimaginings. The structure of the original series lends itself to endless permutations and explorations on its themes - infinite stories about new planets, new species, mirror universes and god-like creatures can sit alongside interpersonal drama and philosophical ruminations on the nature of - well, essentially whatever.

The best Trek movies have been like good, long episodes of the show, exploring those elements, rather than good films - Khan and First Contact aren't trying to reinvent the wheel or introduce Trek to a new generation, but instead assume the audience already knows and loves Trek, and these films use their run-time to explore issues raised by episodes of the show.   

But the new films: well, they are trying to introduce a new audience to the property. And in some ways they succeed, and in some ways they fail.  

Chris pine captain kirk

All of which is a long way of saying that I don't hate the remakes. I don't love them, either; the first one is ZOMG ACTION KERSPLOSION TIMELINE WIBBLING OMG ITS OLD SPOCK?!, the third one is (thank god) The Fast & The Furious In Space, and the less said about Into Darkness the better. But the remakes do reimagine Trek - and specifically the original cast - in a way that injects some much-needed energy and enthusiasm into a bunch of characters who are so much a part of the cultural landscape of mainstream SF now that they're basically a joke. I shouldn't admit this, but I have a hard time separating Zapp Brannigan from James T. Kirk, even though Brannigan's character is a play on the idea of Kirk (as a vain, corset-wearing idiot philanderer) much more than he's based on the actual Kirk. The new Trek films seem to miss a lot of the gentleness and the philosophical underpinnings of the show, even as they reimagine and reassert the characters of the main cast and how they play off each other.   

But they have been successful enough to bring Star Trek back to the small screen, where it really belongs, with Star Trek: Discovery. And that, I think, adds a check in the 'win' column. What do you think?  

Jared: As you say, the new films, fundamentally, are 'reimaginings'. They're rebooting and rewriting, but within the confines of the original parameters. You can imagine how it is briefing people to operate within certain constraints. Movie must include: 1 x Kirk, 1 x Spock, etc. Recipe requires 1 x Khan. 

But simply polishing the existing icons, no matter how shiny, has limitations. Chris Pine's brawling young Kirk may be slightly more now, but it isn't any more new. It is still operating within the same style and bounds of Kirkness. TOS to TNS was a leap - it created new archetypes for a new generation of viewers. TOS to Reboots isn't: it is a re-introduction.   


Lorca? Burnham? Now those are some new icons. We have characters unlike anything we've seen before. Discovery's cast goes a step further - than TNG, even. They're deeply flawed and deeply human. All previous iterations of Star Trek have given us shades of perfection, set against the background of a perfect-plus Federation, spreading its unarguably Utopian vision. Discovery gives us broken, shattered people - seeking painful redemption for real crimes; scared, scarred, lustful, angry, and nakedly ambitious. All previous iterations of Trek treated any aspect of human frailty as a form of conflict, something to be resolved in the space of an episode, so we can return to the placid emotional norm. Kirk gets angry - resolve and reset. Spock gets horny - resolve and reset. Barclay is creepy - resolve and reset.

Discovery treats weakness as an essential, unavoidable, and lingering part of human nature. Pain isn't something to be brushed aside, but something that stays with you. Heroism, as we learn in Episode 9, is surviving. Heroism isn't being cured by the end-credits; it is doing your fucking job despite being a million little pieces inside.  

But Discovery also takes a lot of shit. Why is that?

Anne: Oh man, what a loaded question.   

First things first: I love Discovery. By which I mean, I love episodes 3-9 of Discovery, and the editor in me thinks that eps 1-2 should have been relegated to a five-minute prologue and flashbacks spread out over the course of the season, so you start by knowing only that Burnham is a traitor who's been stripped of her rank and is meant to spend the rest of her life in Trek prison, and then learn why over the course of the season. That mid-season finale of Episode 9? That's where we should have learned that she betrayed her captain.

But, that quibble aside, I love so much about Discovery - I love watching Burnham's journey as she's forced to redefine herself. I love that the ship is a war-ship, run by a war-mongering fanatic with a death room, whose motives are always suspect. I love that Burnham's roommate is bubbly and insecure and incredibly ambitious. I love that the central stable romantic relationship we know is between two men, and that their love for each other is tested, over and over, by their duty to Starfleet. I love the incredibly brave decision made to give a male character PTSD - because he spent nine months in a Klingon prison, and the only way he could survive was by having sex with his captor. That is crazy bold storytelling. I love that the crew parties. That the crew drinks. That the crew cuts loose. That the crew argues. I love that the crew swears. I mean, someone said fuck on Star Trek. As an open expression of awe. That's, erm, so fucking cool.  


Mostly, though, I find that I love that the show is constantly juggling that most Trek of questions: which should prevail in any situation? The needs of the many or the needs of the few?   

But yes, responses to Discovery have been mixed. I suspect that all the stuff I like about Discovery is the stuff that some Trek fans find most repellent about it. I've seen complaints that the ship's lighting is too dim, given that the show takes place ten years before the (very brightly lit) original series, and that the technology is too advanced for where the show sits in the timeline. That the show's moving too fast, or that it's not spending enough time with individual characters. That it's too close to Battlestar Galactica, and too distant from, well, Star Trek.  

None of that bothers me because the mark of a good franchise lies in the strength of its underlying idea, which should translate across space (see, eg, The Office UK and US) and time (1962's Star Trek, 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 1987's Next Generation, and so on.) Star Trek is endlessly mutable, finding new ways to circle around and ask the same big (and small) questions, over and over, and pose answers appropriate for that audience's generation. Star Trek: Discovery isn't about Star Trek. It's about us, the audience watching it in 2017.   

Do you think Discovery is true to the underlying spirit of Star Trek? And what even is that spirit, anyway?  

Jared: This is probably oversimplifying, but isn't the spirit of Star Trek 'to boldly go where no one has gone before'? A celebration of human progress?

Running with that, that may be why Discovery is so fascinating. TOS and TNG (et al) all operate on the underlying assumption that humanity has already solved all of its fundamental problems. Our heroes - and they are indisputably heroic - are jetting around the universe to spread the doctrine of moral superiority. The Prime Directive exists. The Federation exists. The discussion is over; the Utopia developed; no more bugs in the system. We have achieved the greater good, and the conflict comes from how that goodness interacts with the rest of the universe.  

But... Star Trek has never examined the journey to perfection before. When Trek has encountered the past (Khan, Star Trek IV, "Time's Arrow", "City on the Edge of Tomorrow", numerous holodeck episodes), it was always presented as a stark contrast to the show's glossy present. The past is always barbaric. Human history can be romanticised (bless Picard and his charming fetishes), but only in an exoticised way; Picard's penchant for disaster tourism.


The fact remains that, sometime between the alcoholic-infused shenanigans of First Contact and "The Cage", humanity sorted its shit out.  As a concept, that's really lovely, and, as we've seen, Trek's built an excellent platform for further, physical, exploration of the unknown. Perfect people versus an imperfect universe. 

Discovery is set in that temporal gray area, the tipping point between the primitive and the perfect. The people kind of suck. The Federation kind of sucks. As you point out, even the technology kind of sucks. But everyone can see, just faintly, a future where the suck is gone. 

So, yes, I think Discovery is in the spirit of Trek. This is very much a show about 'boldly going where no one has gone before', but the sense of the moral frontier. These are the people making all the horrible, difficult decisions that make the sleek, perfection of Star Trek possible. 

This is also where Discovery comes together both canonically and, uh, thematically. Everyone in this show knows that they have no future; they are doomed. Burnham knows she's going back to prison. Saru knows he will never live without fear. Lorca knows he has no role in a world without war. Stamets knows he's going to die. Even the viewer knows that Discovery has an expiration date: it is gone before TOS begins.


These are people making impossible decisions and incredible sacrifices, giving themselves up - body and soul - to be the bridge to a better future. Is there a more heart-breaking scene than Lorca and Stamets discussing the worlds that they will be opening up after the war; both in full possession of the knowledge that they, themselves, will never see them? Discovery's crew are Star Trek's Moses, leading people to the Promised Land, but too flawed to ever be allowed in.   

On that grand note, should we end with a speed round? What are your favourite - and least favourite - Trek moments?   

Anne: Okay, fav moments (in no particular order and favouring the films, TNG and TOS because I'm less conversant in the other shows):  

Basically all of The Wrath of Khan. I mean, seriously. I must have half the dialogue from that film memorised. Also the earwig gives me the shudders.  

Picard-centric episodes of TNG, particularly those where he was removed from his day to day routine, like the infamous episode where he's on holiday on some sort of pleasure planet and just wants to be left alone to read his book (a dude after my own heart), or the episode with his brother.  

Data watching Tasha Yar's holograph. I still get a little misty about that.  

Worf fighting with a Borg while the Enterprise is in orbit around Earth in First Contact. He kills the Borg but punctures his suit in the process, and so creates a tourniquet out of his enemy's arm to keep himself safe as he gets back into the ship. That moment is PEAK WORF.  


Sulu and his sword in 'The Naked Time'. I remember watching that on tv with my mom when I was very young, and my mother explaining that sword-fighting was Sulu's hobby. I took fencing lessons for a year as a result.  

The Crystalline Entity. Trek really likes to pit its people against god-like characters. This is my favourite of them (sorry, Q) because I've always really dug an utterly implacable enemy.  

And yes, I'll say it: Lorca putting in his eye-drops so he could watch the Klingon ship explode on Discovery, and then turning away from it because fuck the Klingons, I guess? That was awesome.  

Least favourite moments:  

The Ferengi, full stop. They always just kind of feel like horrible racist caricatures.  

Riker + Troi. TNG really struggled with its female characters, and hooking up, then unhooking, then ultimately rehooking Riker & Troi has always struck me as lazy. Honestly, I thought she and Worf had a more interesting pairing. (I'm really coming across as a Worf fan, aren't I?)  

'No, Benedict Cumberbatch totally isn't playing Khan!' Even JJ Abrams has admitted he was wrongheaded about that one.  

Uhura's fan-dance in Star Trek V. W. T. Ffffff. I first watched V when I was, oh, ten, and even then I was embarrassed.  

Star Trek: Insurrection. Guys, it's a magical planet where love slows down time. *barf* Even Salieri couldn't save that one.   

That was fun! My question for you: what are your favourite and least favourite aspects of Star Trek's legacy? (eg, 'space is for everyone', Galaxy Quest, Futurama, etc?)  

Jared: That is really, really hard. Trek is - fairly or unfairly - responsible for so much: modern genre television, science fiction literature, actual, like real proper science stuff, etc. I'm going to go really narrow: Trek's had a hugely mixed impact on how we identify as a science fiction fans.

Take, for example, the "Star Trek vs Star Wars" feud. This is a weird and long-standing lie, and, yet, somehow it has become the archetype for the fannish mindset where everything has to be a binary. Obviously this isn't fair to blame on poor Star Trek (it is one of the victims here), but I hate the very idea that being a 'real' fan means being an 'exclusive' one.

Also, as important as Star Trek is, at what point should it stop being the de facto symbol for all things Science Fictional? Take, for example, Redshirts. It is a book about science fiction identity; weaving a cozy sense of insularity and aren't-we-special-ness for a capital-c-Community. (See also: the previous-Hugo-winner, Among Others.) This is fine, and the book itself is, indeed, fine. But Redshirts won its Hugo award almost fifty years after the original series first aired. What does it mean that a prominent slice of SF 'fandom' thinks that the best way for science fiction to talk about itself still through the medium of a show from 1966? The way Star Trek - original Trek - and SF's 'identity' have become intertwined: I find that a little scary, a little insular - canonisation that feels exclusive. 

I suppose this connects what you were saying on how Discovery. This latest iteration of Trek, with its post-colonial, messy, daringly-critical interpretation of Trekness, can be misread as an 'attack' on a fundamental part of what it means to be part of 'SF'.

But then,.. I credit Star Trek, again, TOS, with fan fiction, for example. Star Trek opened up a huge universe where people could see themselves - a testament to the world building and the visible inclusivity of the original series. I think it is fantastic: Trek inspired people so much they picked up pens and expanded that universe themselves. Especially in a pre-internet publishing environment, the level of passion it required - the thought you were basically putting yourself forward (often literally, Mary Sue) into the unknown - is awe-inspiring.

I've seen the copies of stories that got passed, literally, hand to hand, until they fell apart. As you noted, Trek made space for everyone, and fan fiction was the way people could launch themselves into it. 

Also, Worf was the best.