Alien Space Potatoes and Why Star Trek Matters

The sixth live-action iteration of Star Trek, called “Star Trek: Discovery,” debuts on CBS next month. And at the risk of outing myself as a nerd (wait, what?), I’m pretty excited about it.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had at least a little trepidation about it, as well, based on what’s been made publicly known about the show, its setting, and the story it’s telling.

Before I fall down a canon hole and write 1,200 words about why the “Discovery” Klingons look completely different, I want to talk about why Star Trek matters.

Because it does matter. Nothing that’s lasted this long, had this much money spent on it, and influenced so many people doesn’t matter.

It premiered in 1966, when America was just a few years removed from nearly being blown to atoms over Cuba and losing a once-in-a-generation leader to an assassin’s bullet. Vietnam was sucking everything around it into it. Nukes could fall from the sky at any moment.

Star Trek showed that we got through all that, that civil rights actually made people more free, and that humanity was able to put aside its grievances and touch greatness.

It presented a vision of the future that was hopeful, optimistic, and featured the smartest people banding together to do the most important things; not for money or revenge, but because they had to be done, damn it.

Over the course of five series, the various captains and crews of Star Trek saved marginalized people, cured diseases, secured justice for the wronged, stopped conflicts, and discovered things nobody had seen before.

The franchise could take on racial strife, the politics of terrorism, euthanasia, the dangers of technology, and social justice; and wrap them in high-adventure stories where stuff gets blown up real good.

The show didn’t always work, and sometimes the moralizing was so ham-fisted you could serve it with an orange glaze for Easter. But at its best, Star Trek could and still can tell stories with a combination of parable, adventure, and social commentary that nobody else can touch.

Here’s an example of the whole packaging working, a clip from the Deep Space Nine episode “Hard Time,” about PTSD, torture, and the morality of prison; centered around alien implants and time acceleration.

When that vision goes off the tracks, however, it’s bored actors in stiff jumpsuits spouting nonsense about tachyon emissions, and you want to sue Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s ghost to get back the hour you just lost.

And in almost every case, the show was at its worst when it drifted too far away from that mix of storytelling and commentary. The best Trek embraced it. The worst Trek ignored it, and almost always suffered. And at bottom, it disappeared up its own ass in a frenzy of technobabble and meaningless slam-bang action.

Here’s an example of the conceit failing disastrously, a Next Generation episode, where an alien space potato disguises itself as a dog and kills people. Yes, this happened.

Fortunately, these duds are spaced far apart enough to not drag down the overall batting average of the show. Some Treks embraced the darkness more than others, Deep Space Nine’s five-season arc about a gigantic war being the most obvious. But even they managed to do it in a way that held true to the social and political commentary that the Original Series perfected.

When it’s great, it’s great. And when it’s bad, at least it’s short.

Star Trek’s optimism might seem hokey in the face of modern TV’s endless sampler platter of zombie holocausts, wedding massacres,  hard-drinkin’ anti-heroes, and serial killers. But the Utopian leanings of the Original Series gave way to a decade of dystopian, post-nuclear movies like LOGAN’S RUN and the SOYLENT GREEN, and people clung to it anyway.

It mattered to people then, and it matters now. It’s tempting to say it matters now more than ever, but it’s not like the stakes in 1966 weren’t high, either.

I don’t know if “Discovery” will be more complex parables, or more alien space potatoes. To be honest, the show’s creators might not know, either. Every Star Trek series has taken at least one year to find its space legs, and “Discovery” isn’t guaranteed anything.

Even so, I hope it has the courage to be optimistic, complex, and adventurous all at once. That’s what the best Star Trek always is.

And if it doesn’t, we’ll always have the half-black, half-white guys and their hatred that the Enterprise crew just can’t understand.