Star Trek and Storytelling

I’m a big fan of Star Trek. I grew up with it (on re-runs), followed the Next Generation and Deep Space Nine with interest. I did skip Voyager and Enterprise, but definitely follow the recent reboot movies.

Although I still enjoy the storytelling of Star Trek, I do have a problem with it that creeps into other shows as well. I noticed it again in the most recent movie. Because Star Trek is a franchise, almost by definition, none of the characters can actually die or change in any substantive way. Because of this, from a storytelling perspective, dramatic scenes are a lot less dramatic.

One way to see this also is to imagine spinning out possibly story lines, given only the pilot episode. If you did this for, say, Star Trek the Next Generation you would probably hit a few of episodes even as late as season 7. If, however, you tried to do it with Babylon 5 you wouldn’t even make it to late season 2. Perhaps this is the story telling equivalent of market failures with monopolies.

I enjoyed the new Star Trek movie (especially in 3D!), but I sometimes wish that this lingering constraint on the show were lifted. Imagine, for example, a series set in the Star Trek universe where the characters actually change? Where there isn’t a technological solution to every problem? Where the outcome wasn’t really known in advance?


About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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2 Responses to Star Trek and Storytelling

  1. Tim says:

    That’s why The Wrath of Khan was such a great movie. The first time I saw it, Spock’s death came out of nowhere. In those pre-Internet days, I had no idea what to expect going in.

    Which is also why the latest “Star Trek” movie falls short, IMO. In their attempt (once again) to duplicate the magic of TWOK, they only serve to show how lame the latest attempt is.

    [Spoiler alert!!]

    Honestly, for me the “big scene” with Kirk and Spock separated by glass was almost viscerally offensive. I almost walked out. That Abrams or whoever thought it would be meaningful to Star Trek fans to see a young just-out-of-the-academy Kirk and Spock (with maybe one or two missions under their belt) in that situation almost makes me angry. And then he resurrects Kirk 10 minutes later. Ridiculous.

    • brianblais says:

      Totally with you there. One reviewer (Simon Foster) I read over at put it this way: “Abrams works in scenes of friendship, honour, loss and loyalty, but the drama coasts on the emotional legacy of the series rather than creating any of its own heart or warmth.”

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