Saturday, 15 November 2014

Where to Start With Star Trek, Part One: The Television Series

As a franchise that has endured for nearly 5 decades, Star Trek has changed and evolved throughout the years. Different writers, producers, showrunners and actors have brought their own version of the franchise to the big and small screens. While the show has generally remained the same at its core, exploration and understanding new civilizations through communication, some fans like their Star Trek in one way only. Perhaps as a big blockbuster movie? Maybe as speculative fiction that tries to establish some of the problems humanity might face in the 23rd or 24th Century? Many fans of TOS consider the franchise to be at its best when it embodies creator Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a utopian future with an added element of swashbuckling for good measure. It’s clear that there are many different versions of the franchise and many different ways to experience and enjoy it. It’s normal then that it can be difficult to introduce someone to Star Trek or to get into it on your own.

It’s clear that existing fans have many different kinds of Star Trek to enjoy but the rich history of the franchise makes it difficult for potential fans to jump into the mix and start enjoying one of the most popular science fiction series of all time. Since I had a rather bumpy introduction to Star Trek which resulted in my taking years to explore the franchise with any conscious dedication, I want to provide a review of possibly good starting points for potential fans. Here’s a look at the series as a whole with commentary on whether or not particular series or movies are a good place to begin with or should be kept for later or even still, avoided at all costs.

Star Trek: The Original Series – Good Place to Start:
The most obvious place to start is with Star Trek: The Original Series. It’s hard to argue that this isn’t a good idea because a lot of elements that appear in later series were introduced in episodes of TOS. However, based on the kind of person you’re trying to introduce to the world of Star Trek you might want to skip this or select just a few episodes. You can’t deny that the special effects have aged poorly. It’s a clear deterrent for younger audiences. Personally, I can generally put aside my issues with old special effects but since there are so many other Star Trek series and movies that have significantly better effects (or simply effects that have aged better or are still appealing), it’s difficult to sit and watch the original show with its bare bones effects.

If you decide to start here I wouldn’t recommend watching all three seasons of TOS. Like most TV series, there are really terrible episodes to be found in this series. The Original Series is a good starting point if you only watch a few episodes. I would say no more than roughly a season’s worth of episodes. That way you can choose what the Internet will tell you are the best episodes (feel free to disagree with the lists you find) and then base the rest of your Star Trek viewing on that. You can either finish watching all of the TOS episodes or move on to another series. That nice thing to keep in mind is that because Star Trek is (often) episodic in nature you can jump around from season to season without having to worry too much about it. TOS isn’t my favourite series and a lot of that has to do with how old it is compared to the rest of the franchise. However, there are some truly interesting and excellent episodes to be watched and you’re doing yourself a disservice by skipping out entirely on the original adventures of Captain Kirk, Spock, “Bones” McCoy and the rest of the crew.

Star Trek: The Animated Series – For Serious Fans Only:
Most people would be tempted to follow their viewing of TOS with the next series to be produced and often times that will lead them to The Next Generation. In truth, there was another Star Trek series before TNG. It was an animated series with a very unoriginal title. The show is a direct continuation of TOS but in animated form and in episodes that were half the length. It lasted for two seasons. If we consider each season of TOS and TAS as representing one year of the Enterprise’s five year mission, then TAS provides us a look into the last two years. I’ve only seen a handful of these episodes and while I enjoyed them they’re nothing spectacular. The animation is quite old and while it’s clear, it’s also very stiff and lacks emotion. I would stay away from TAS if you’re new to Star Trek. I believe it only exists for the biggest fans of TOS who are rewarded for watching by having much of the original casts provide the voice acting for their animated counterparts. If you’re going to watch an episode of TAS I think you’re better off just watching TOS which is superior to it in almost every way.

Star Trek: The Next Generation – A Top Contender for Best Place to Start:
TNG will always be remembered as the show that heralded the modern age of Star Trek and it’s definitively one of my favourites. It certainly has a great deal of problems with it, some of which impacts whether or not it’s a good place to start watching Star Trek. Like TOS, TNG is starting to look old. However, it looks much better on screen than anything TOS ever had. As the first series set in the 24th Century, TNG is a very good place to start because it sets up and leads into a lot of things explored in Deep Space Nine and Voyager. It will be problematic for viewers who wish to watch the entire show from start to finish as the first season is very bad. The second season marks a distinct improvement and the series is very enjoyable from seasons 3 to 6 and slows down a bit for the final season. It’s true that TNG suffered from inconsistent quality from episode to episode but there are enough strong episodes to carry the entire series. It just takes time to get there.

If you’re thinking of starting someone on Star Trek with TNG I fully support it. Similarly to TOS, the show’s execution is still very episodic. Most of the individual episodes happen in a vacuum, but not all. There are a few episodes that have a big enough impact on some of the main characters (notably Captain Picard, Data and Worf) that deal with events from previous episodes. However, I do suggest that you use an approach akin to the one I suggested for TOS. Catch a few of the early episodes of the first season to get you acquainted with the cast (all in all, I think there are less than 5 episodes that are worth your time in the first season). From there you can basically skip to anywhere else you would like to in the series. There are key episodes that are so important they’ll continue to shape major elements in the franchise throughout the spin-off series but a lot of those episodes also happen to be the better ones of the series. As such, look for a list of best TNG episodes and stick to watching those in chronological order. If you’re looking forward to exploring more Star Trek you can then move on to another series. If you’re enjoying all of TNG then by all means, take the time and watch more of it, maybe even the entire series, right away. There is no need to rush into watching the other series; they’ve all been off the air for years anyway.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager – Save the Best for Last:
I think the title says it pretty clearly. DS9 and VOY are two very good series in the franchise and in their own ways they’re better than TNG. DS9 in particular excels in the areas where TNG failed, particularly in the relationships between characters and carrying over elements from episode to episode. As such it was the first Star Trek series to take a serialized storytelling approach. This is no less apparent then during the Dominion War storyline which is also considered to be one of the high points of the series. VOY was also given an overarching story for the series and it not only adds momentum to the show but it gives it an identity that differentiates it from all the Star Trek shows that precede it.  What makes these good series is that they build on the foundation that TNG has setup. For you to be able to enjoy these stories fully you need to be aware of what happened before. It’s crucial to keep in mind that DS9 and VOY are spin-off series.

Consider DS9, the teaser portion of the pilot directly references one of the key points of TNG by dramatizing the events of the Battle of Wolf 359 from Commander Sisko’s point of view. The series also has main characters of a species other than human which include Ferengi, Bajorans and Cardassians, not to mention the importance of the Borg after their introduction in TNG. There are tons of great things to like about these later series and there are many, many really excellent episodes but to start with these series is doing you a disservice. You’re not only missing out on the setup of many important species, ideas and interplanetary politics, you’re also missing out of the stellar episodes from TNG that helped setup or first introduced those elements. I would hold off on watching these series until you’ve had your fill of the best that TNG has to offer. If you’ve tried watching TNG and you’re just not enjoying it as much as you thought you would or if you just want to start with the good stuff, by all means, skip to DS9 but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Star Trek: Enterprise – Do You Really Want More?
Newcomers might be tempted to start with this series and why not? It’s a prequel series and so, chronologically, it’s the first. I like to point out that it’s probably the worst place to start. It doesn’t have any of the highs that the previous series had. Instead, like TNG, it had a lot of expectations to live up to and it had to tell engaging stories while also setting up its own identity because it takes place in a different time that TOS and all three series set in the 24th Century. The challenge of doing those things was made worse because of its prequel status: ENT had to be a good Star Trek series without employing many of the best elements from Star Trek in the 24th Century and it had to stay consistent with everything that happens after it, canonically and chronologically speaking. Those particular challenges make the storytelling of ENT rather difficult because you can’t really feed off of too many Star Trek stories despite there being a few hundred episodes by the time ENT began to air.

It’s not surprising that ENT struggled with its identity for four seasons before being cancelled. It’s a problematic series for several reasons and the biggest one, aside from what I’ve already mentioned, is that the focus of the show was always being pulled in two directions. The first direction was acting as a prequel to Star Trek, the entire franchise, and that in itself could have been interesting. How did the United Federation of Planets come to be created and what was it like in its early years? But a show like that could hardly exist if you focused on one starship in particular and that’s what happened with ENT. The other direction in which it was being pulled was that this show is the closest one to our time and so it was used as a show that depicted our future. I think it was just too much to ask of one TV series that it be expected to reconcile the differences between our real world history and Star Trek history to tell engaging stories. In essence, ENT tried to be about too many things and ultimately ended up being about very little; never coalescing into something cohesive. It didn’t pick up steam like the other series before it. 

We’ll conclude on Wednesday with a look at all 12 Star Trek films. 

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