Wednesday, May 18, 2005

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Why I love geek culture

Go read either James Lileks on the end (for now) of the Star Trek franchise or Harry Brighouse on taking his daughter to see The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and you will know what it means to truly adore a work of popular culture.

posted by Dan on 05.18.05 at 01:49 AM


RE: Lileks. Ick.

This was Star Trek's problem, one that got worse the longer the franchise stayed on the air: it was written for its own fans.

Enterprise could have been really interesting. For the Federation to have been created, lots of humans would have had to leave earth to colonize other worlds. Who were they? Why did some stay and others leave? Did they settle together for some reason, or did Chinese go to one star system and Brazilians to another? Was the point of Starfleet always to just poke around in completely unexplored sections of the galaxy, or did it develop as a way to mediate between alien civilizations and this big wave of humankind washing out from earth?

There is an irony here, if you remember the original conception of Star Trek back in the 1960s. Star Trek was supposed to be like a "Wagon Train to the Stars": a television drama that would do many of the same things other (mostly Western) television dramas did, in a different setting. The point is that there are good reasons the settlement of the American West became such a rich source of American fiction, and of film and television drama.

Enterprise could have used all of them, and instead chose to recycle story ideas the franchise had already used several times over. Aliens take over ship? Check. Aliens take over bodies of crew? Check. ABC system down to XYZ percent? Check. Ticking time bomb (or plasma conduit, or warp core, or whatever)? Check, check, and check. Hardcore Trekkies are used to these, and would be disturbed by storylines that didn't use them often. This helps explain why Deep Space 9, dramatically the deepest of the Trek series', lost much of the TNG audience.

You can't say a television franchise that broke an 18 year hiatus and kept four different series on television over the next 18 years wasn't a success. But of course it ran out of gas. It didn't change -- especially after Voyager started -- and apart from the hardest of the hard core fans the audience got bored.

Perceptive readers might guess that I'm not a non-fan of sci-fi myself, and if they are that perceptive they can see that my preference -- for story arcs designed by one author who knows the end before the beginning is aired -- has some problems from a commercial point of view. It's at the least no slam dunk that Star Trek should have taken that route. It's just that if you structure what you show the public based only on what you hear from your most devoted fans, you'll miss a lot of opportunities and pass your expiration date before you know it.

Incidentally, that applies to politicians too.

posted by: Zathras on 05.18.05 at 01:49 AM [permalink]

one of the more unpleasant experiences in my life was being stuck in a car w/ "Hitchhiker's" playing the entire way from Lake Tahoe back to San Francisco. It sucked. It's humor isn't dry, it's just not funny.

posted by: david on 05.18.05 at 01:49 AM [permalink]

I agree that Star Trek's problem has been repeating the same old story lines. I've thought for some time that Star Trek's problem was that the same people have been in charge of the "franchise" since TNG premiered (some guy named Rick Berman, and some other guy who married "7 of 9" from Voyager after she divorced that swingin' pol from Illinois). Perhaps, as Zathras writes above, they're "writing for the fans," but it seemed to me they were writing more for themselves -- the stories and themes they liked, over and over (maybe that's the same thing as writing for the fans).

I thought Lilek's essay was entertaining, but if you watched the two-hour Enterprise fiasco last Friday, you must realize that he is into Trek way too deeply. Rationalizing the final hour, especially, was a feat beyond abilities of those of us who haven't attended Starfleet Academy. The bulk of the episode (rescuing some kidnapped blue girl for her blue father, who apparently was an important person to the Enterprise crew) seemed like a standard episode. My impression was that they took that story, and just appended the "SERIES FINALE" stuff to it. (It was like reading Le Carre's last book, but that's another story.) It was especially offensive when that Trip (spelling?) character became a suicide bomber. Star Trek's never handled the death of a "star" too well, but that was completely ridiculous.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 05.18.05 at 01:49 AM [permalink]

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