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Phaser Burn

May 5th, 2005

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, sci-fi scribe Orson Scott Card (author of the tremendously good Ender’s Game and a googolplex of unnecessary spin-offs) opines that “it’s about time” that Star Trek has come to an end with the cancellation of Enterprise.

In his view, the original Trek “was, with a few exceptions, bad in every way that a science fiction television show could be bad.” He adds “As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s–a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas. It was sci-fi as seen by Hollywood: all spectacle, no substance.” Card contrasts this with the fertility and variety of written sci-fi during the ’60s.

There’s some truth there, but it seems to be warped beyond normal space-time. Leaving aside the “bad in every way” hyperbole, it strikes me that much of the early interest in Trek was because of its substance, relative to what else was on the air at time: Lost in Space, Land of the Giants and The Invaders.

Several well-regarded sci-fi authors contributed to the series: George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, Jerome Bixby and Norman Spinrad. (David Gerrold, a first-timer when he wrote the episode The Trouble With Tribbles, went on to some literary notoriety as well.) If anything, the original Trek was the one incarnation that best incorporated literary sci-fi.

That said, I can certainly agree that Star Trek follows a direct lineage from Buck Rogers and E.E. “Doc” Smith through Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and Forbidden Planet. Some contemporary written sci-fi offered greater sophistication, and the genre has continued to mature over the ensuing decades. (Though it’s worth pointing out that there’s still plenty of crap at the bookstore.)

Furthermore, Trek eventually became a sci-fi Velveeta: a brand-name, highly-processed product resembling the real thing. In that regard, Card isn’t wrong. I primarily take exception to his opinion that it was never of value in the first place.

What struck me as odd was that in making the point that “we finally have first-rate science fiction film and television that are every bit as good as anything going on in print,” he chooses some questionable examples. Being John Malkovich? Excellent, intriguing flick, but where’s the science? Smallville? Fun take on the Superman legend, but highly formulaic and falling mostly into the spectacle-not-substance category.

What really got me was when he wrote, “Jeffrey Lieber, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof have created Lost, the finest television science fiction series of all time…so far.” Really? First off, it’s a bit early to judge, as we’re still in the first season and we’ve yet to see whether any of the series’ many mysteries will achieve a satisfactory pay-off. As much as I enjoy Lost, I’m not alone in fearing that it will eventually sink into the bog inhabited by Twin Peaks and The X-Files. Second, we don’t even know yet if it really is science fiction. For all we know, they’re in Purgatory (the theory favored by many, though I certainly hope not) or being dreamed up by an autistic savant (AKA, “the ol’ St. Elsewhere trick”).

I’d agree that there’s been some terrific sci-fi tubery in the past few years: Firefly, as well as the remakes of Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who. Still, I think it’s important to give Roddenberry’s brainchild its due; much of this legacy might not exist if it hadn’t been for Star Trek‘s generations.

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