Did Voyager Endgame wreck Star Trek?

Part One: The End of Time

In PopMatters, Nicole Berland puts forward an interesting idea: that the year 2379 is the end of Star Trek.

‘Star Trek’ and the Problem With B-4 and After 2379

While I think some of the connections made are an overreach, the core idea is very interesting.  Specifically, the idea that Voyager Endgame destroys Star Trek, and that beyond that the events of September 2001 broke American SF and post-war American idealism.

Idealistic, moral, open America, the Nuremburg Trials, Geneva Conventions, To Kill a Mockingbird America, Cold War moral high ground America, 60s civil rights (and race riot) America birthed Star Trek. Roddenberry’s message was clear: the future could be better.

Janeway effectively destroys that lineage when she uses a biological weapon to both do a targetted assassination of the Borg leader, and to destroy core infrastructure of Borg civilisation, with consequences for many or all of the slave drones that comprise Borg civilisation, all without even being at war with the Borg.

The moral high ground when TNG Picard refused to use Hugh as a technological weapon, and when even Voyager recoiled against Icheb being an engineered biological weapon, that moral high ground is lost.

And in a world of actions having consequences, Voyager gets off scot-free.  No one on Voyager has any consequences from the destruction of Borg civilisation.  It’s a kind of Star Trek introduction of sin.

And arguably the Star Trek primary timeline has been broken since then.  Since the return of the USS Voyager in AD 2378 (which aired in May 2001) there’s been no more optimistic moral high ground future.

When you add to that Sept 2001, which brought destruction and through later decisions broke the actual real world moral high ground, hopeful American SF may have been destroyed.

Part Two: Nemesis and Picard

It’s important to think about the context in which Star Trek: Nemesis is created and airs.  Set in AD 2379, it’s actually filming starting in November 2001, and airing a movie about a future in which a flying ship crashes into another flying ship on screens across America in 2002.

It bring the future into a very different present.  And aside from being a terrible movie (as humourously summarized by TV Tropes), it introduces a new Star Trek worldview that abandons hope.

All Star Trek since 2001 has featured destruction on a planetary scale, as if writers can no longer imagine personal-level tragedy and drama.

  • Nemesis: attack on Romulus, plan to kill everyone on Earth
  • Enterprise: planetary scale attack on Earth
  • Reboot: destruction of Romulus (and Remus presumably), destruction of Vulcan (which if Voyager’s Borg destruction didn’t already introduce sin to Star Trek, is ST reboot’s original sin).
  • Picard: Mars is on fire (plus Romulus was destroyed)

Star Trek was about a hopeful post-discrimination future.  The Next Generation was fundamentally about a hopeful, thoughtful, intellectual, post-capitalist future.  That’s the boundaries of the universe that Roddenberry created.

You can of course experiment with those boundaries; that’s the nature of art.  Galaxy Quest is great Star Trek.  The first season of The Orville is a fun tribute to TNG while exploring what it would be like to live in that universe as an ordinary person on a secondary starship, not a perfect character on the flagship.  The First Contact movie is an exploration of what it would take to transform Picard from his measured intellectual self to an emotional and violent man.  This is all legitimate.  This is exploring the world that Roddenberry built.

What’s not valid, what is universe-mining rather than world-building, is to set aside the rules of Star Trek, and to cast scorn on the fans and on science fiction.

I never really cared for science fiction. – Jean Luc Picard, in Picard 1×02

I argue that Star Trek II rescued Star Trek.  And did it by really deeply understanding and respecting the characters and themes of Star Trek.  ST: III and IV work with it to make a great movie trilogy.  After that V is terrible and VI is not great.  Generations tries to reach for a theme of immortality but would have needed a rewrite to reach it, and also gives Kirk a most unheroic demise.  DS9 is flawed, although it has some great episodes, but in many ways it’s barely Star Trek.  Voyager is a kind of Star Trek in reverse, trying to find something new to say by heading home rather than away.  But all of them, without exception, respect the rules of the universe.  Until Endgame.

After that, something was lost.  An attempt to reinvent what didn’t need to be reinvented.  A universe warped beyond recognition.  Nemesis directed by someone who didn’t like TNG.

Stuart Baird (helmer of only two other films, Executive Decision and US Marshalls, and long-time film editor) had no knowledge of Star Trek before becoming director of Nemesis. He even refused to watch any of the Next Generation TV series to prepare…

Den of Geek, Star Trek: Nemesis – What Went Wrong? (no link; autoplay video)

The reboot helmed by a Star Wars fan who didn’t understand Star Trek (and loved lens flare).

Jon Stewart asked Abrams for his perspective on the differences between the two properties. He likened “Star Wars” to a Western or Samurai movie and suggested that it “never felt like a sci-fi thing.” “Star Trek,” on the other hand, did.

“It always felt too philosophical for me,” he said.

That’s when Stewart … tuned out.

“I stopped listening to you when you said you didn’t like ‘Star Trek.’ – Los Angeles Times, J.J. Abrams reveals to Jon Stewart why he never liked ‘Star Trek’

And now Picard which tries clumsily to be adult (which was already done much better in The Orville) and which removes all of the hope and thoughtfulness of both TNG and Picard himself.

This is not the way to celebrate and extend a world and a future that fans enjoy and hope for.

When Roger Ebert reviewed Nemesis, his concluding line manages to convey my feelings about Star Trek post-2001:

Star Trek was kind of terrific once, but now it is a copy of a copy of a copy.

Star Trek II: The movie that rescued Star Trek

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan rescued Star Trek.

Star Trek I came out in 1979.  It’s not very good.  Wikipedia can tell you all about it in minute detail.  Basically it’s super slow, with long scenes that are nothing but flying through special effects.

Coming a decade after the original series (setting aside the non-canon 1973-1974 animated series with everyone except Chekov), the spectacular boringness of Star Trek I: The Lack of Motion Picture could easily have killed Star Trek.

1982’s Star Trek II addresses this directly.  It literally kills most of the main bridge characters in its opening scene, in the play-within-a-play that is the Kobayashi Maru simulation.  “What about my performance?” asks McCoy.  “I’m not a drama critic”, says Kirk.

Thematically, Wrath of Khan is about whether Star Trek has run its course.  Do we still need the characters, does the show have any more to say?  Is it out of creative energy?  “How do I feel? Old”, says Kirk (at 51 in real world age, 52 in Star Trek age1).

1 Kirk is born in AD 2233; Star Trek II takes place in AD 2285.

Star Trek II written by people who really deeply understand Star Trek and its characters.  Which is kind of amazing in and of itself, considering that Star Trek is two good seasons and one not-so-good season, 79 episodes of varying quality from which to derive the core personalities of the characters and the tone and themes of the show.

What they find is a show that is about the core relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy.  That has humour and also a kind of Shakespearean theatricality.  And a show that still has something to say.

By framing Star Trek II as a reflection on The Original Star Trek, by giving it the ability to explore the consequences of those past episodes and past behaviours, it’s able to add a richness to the story.

There’s a man out there I haven’t seen in 15 years who’s trying to kill me. You show me a son that’d be happy to help. – James T. Kirk

And it is able to give the characters a richness as well.  This ranges from calibrated humour:

“Humor. It is a difficult concept. It is not logical.” says Saavik.
“We learn by doing”, says Kirk.  [pause, turbolift doors open]
“Who’s been holding up the damn elevator?” says McCoy waiting outside.

to failure and tragedy and new insights.  Kirk, for the first time, really makes a terrible strategic decision in letting the Reliant approach without putting up the Enterprise‘s shield’s, even after being reminded of protocol by Saavik.  Spock calculates the needs of the many against the needs of the few or the one.  Consequences, for once, weigh heavily.  “I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death and — patted myself on the back for my ingenuity. I know nothing.” says Kirk

In the end, they exceed the limitations of Star Trek’s episodic format, and surface deeper themes.  Star Trek II saves Star Trek.

I feel young. – James T. Kirk

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