Opinion: Star Trek needs to look forward again, not keep revisiting the past

Contributed by
Aug 24, 2017, 2:30 PM EDT

Growing up, there were two times when you simply couldn't say a word to my dad: when The A-Team was on, and when Star Trek (the original series) was on. It didn't matter that those Star Trek episodes, now into the 1980s, were twenty-year-old reruns and he'd seen each of them 10, 20 times or more. My dad was so entirely engrossed, he wanted nothing more than to pick out every detail. To him, this was the pinnacle of science fiction. He loved series like Doctor Who (4th Doctor, in particular) and The Outer Limits for similar reasons, as they all held science fiction constraints that told stories exploring the nature of humanity and life itself.

That's one of the things that made me fall in love with science fiction, too, and keeps me so engrossed in genre entertainment over the decades (indeed, my dad's love of Star Trek and my brother's love of Star Wars very much brought me to my career today). Now, Star Trek is at a renaissance, and has all the potential to break through to become the favorite franchise of a new generation. The only problem is, the franchise once built entirely on looking to the future is now stuck in the past.

I've been a fan of the Star Trek film universe rebooted by J.J. Abrams. Seeing new, modern adventures of Kirk, Spock, and the gang had been fun for me, and yes, I even liked Into Darkness and Beyond quite a bit. I'm just a fan of that world, and though I have my criticisms, they're fun action films to watch even if they can't quite capture the exploration and discovery of the original series they're based upon.

Likewise, with the word right there in the title, I'm excited for Star Trek: Discovery, which should actually explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations. The series will also do something new, telling an entirely serialized story, instead of a set of sometimes very loosely connected individual episodic stories. That's very exciting … but it's still hardly boldly going where no one has gone before.

And that's because Discovery, like the new set of films, is built on nostalgia. The series is set around 10 years before the original Star Trek (and thus about 90 years after Enterprise). There's nothing inherently wrong with this – the idea of looking to the past to discover new things about the present is a common one in fiction, and can be done very well, and the new type of storytelling as well as the diverse cast are very intriguing.

But wouldn't it be nice to see Star Trek instead return to discovering something brand new? When the franchise jumped forward roughly a century for The Next Generation, we got to see a brand-new Starfleet, and thus a brand new take on the universe. The landscape had changed, and new allies were made just as new enemies emerged. It was compelling – so compelling that the world expanded and was explored for a decade and a half across three shows.

Now, I'd argue, it's time to do that again, instead of being lost in what once was or could have been. We need a new future. Each Star Trek series, and even more so each era, has been at least partially a political response to the times. By looking even further into the future, we could look at today's world, one fraught with division, with religious intolerance re-emerging as a terrible threat, with hatred and racism and sexism as a viable political platform, with fear and reversion reigning supreme; we could look at all of that through the lens of a world that has conquered those things in many ways. We could look to a world that did it better, and find some inspiration to do better ourselves. Rather than revert to the past and say, "remember when…" and imagine some better yesterday, we could look to how we can build a better tomorrow. That's what Star Trek has done so well in the past, and the thing that we should be nostalgic for, not the actual time period and conflicts. Give us strange new worlds, and give us a whole new way of looking at the world through the lens of a changed universe.

100 years after TNG, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, what's happened? Are we in a new era of peace? Have we discovered galaxies with civilizations beyond comprehension? Are humans no longer the dominant species in Starfleet (and how do the current humans feel about that)? What of religion and philosophy? What of disasters and technological advances, and thoughts on war?

Those are stories that are begging to be told. Yes, you can do some of that with looks into the past, trying to view that past, that era that's already been mined, from a new angle, but you can't do it the same way you would if you actually moved forward.

So while the films, the new TV series, the comics, the novels, all sit themselves firmly in the past of Star Trek, and are often telling exciting, fun, good, and thoughtful stories, it's time for the franchise to also not forget what it's always been made to do: Boldly go where no one has gone before. If Star Trek doesn't get back to doing that soon, they'll be left behind while others explore for them.