Popular Mechanics has published an article entitled "Star Trek: The Next Generation Was the Future We Deserve" by Stephen Marche here. Marche's essential thesis was that TNG was the last American television program to reflect an unabashedly optimistic take on the future. I don't entirely agree with him. I wrote down my reaction on Facebook; below are my thoughts. I've put this in the Gen Trek forum because my reaction encompasses all of modern Trek. * * * I do not agree with Marche's premise. Rather, I think ST:TNG was the last major U.S. television program to be optimistic about the future without first deconstructing its own tropes and hopefulness first. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise all remained optimistic about the future--the difference for ST: DS9 was that it deconstructed these tropes before putting it all back together again. ST:ENT followed in ST: DS9's footsteps (though less adroitly). ST:VOY's optimism was simply less artistically satisfying because it was being produced in an era when television should have been more sophisticated, but its writing remained trapped in the '80s. I think it's important to bear in mind the larger political contexts in which these television programs were being produced. ST:TNG is very much a reaction to Reagnism, much as ST:TOS was a reaction to Camelot and 60s Kennedy/LBJ liberalism. This influenced ST:TNG both in terms of opposing certain common Reaganite values--Star Trek's anti-capitalist subtext is never more over than in the episodes produced during the closing years of the Reagan administration (e.g., their depiction of the Ferengi, episodes like "The Neutral Zone")--and in terms of reflecting a certain Reagan-like optimism. Early ST:TNG could easily be retitled Star Trek: It's Morning in the Federation. Whereas ST: DS9 and ST:VOY were very much children of the Clinton era, in both the best and worst senses of that term. In ST: DS9, we have a narrative that is in some ways more sophisticated and self-conscious about its own nature. It is a narrative that recognizes that it is telling a story about a society that is starting out as an indomitable superpower who has won a harrowing cold war--in this way, ST: DS9's depiction of the Federation's position in its early seasons reflects post-Cold War America and the ascendance of the U.S. to the position of unipolar superpower. But ST: DS9's interest is in interrogating that culture and its values, subjecting its representatives to situations with morally ambiguous resolutions. If ST: DS9 can be said to have a unifying theme, it's about how whether powerful liberal democracies can hold on to their values in the face of existential threats. Ultimately, ST: DS9 does assert the value and efficacy of liberal democratic values--but it does put them through the wringer first. ST: DS9 ended production in 1999, around the time of Clinton's petite war in Kosovo; but its themes would prove prophetic for the long-term crisis of political legitimacy facing the United States post-9/11. ST:VOY, on the other hand, reflects Clinton-era programming at its... well, not its worst. Its most mediocre. It has early potential, particularly as an overtly feminist manifestation of Star Trek's egalitarian spirit (a good thing, given Trek's far too common fall into heteropatriarchy and female objectification). But by the middle of the series, it's become clear that the writers are trying to emulate the tropes of mid-90s action/adventure television through an ST:TNG lens, but they are in doing so losing the quirkiness that made shows like Xena: Warrior Princess popular, and are not reflecting the increased sophistication of characterization that was becoming more common by the late 90s. One need only compare, say, the 1998-1999 seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: Voyager (Buffy Season Three vs. Voyager Season Five) to see how ST:VOY was lagging behind in sophistication in its attempts to, essentially, be a 90s action version of ST:TNG. As a result, its bursts of overt optimism--when it's not being distracted by its spectacle--are far less emotionally satisfying than ST:TNG's such bits had been years earlier. ST:ENT, the prequel series however, is very definitely a child of the early Bush 43 years. Its first season represented an overt attempt to "get back to TNG" in terms of making optimism about the future a primary theme again, and in terms of structuring it as a traditional "ship-goes-exploring" show. That worked in the immediately aftermath of 9/11 (when audiences were essentially looking for narratives that overtly reinforced social values), but had run creatively dry by Season Two. Season Three represented an attempt by the writers to bring Star Trek into the post-9/11 era by grappling with how a United Earth that has embraced left-wing liberal democratic values would react to a 9/11-style attack on a planetary scale; they experiment with overt serialization (which had become more common by this point, which was the start of the Modern Golden Era of Television) and with 24-style "grim and gritty" storylines and moral ambiguity. But the closing arc essentially reinforces the old Kennedy-esque Star Trek idea of learning to make peace with your enemy rather than demonize him. Season Four experiments with smaller "mini-arcs" and mostly spends its time setting up the Star Trek universe from the original series, though it does return to Trek's tradition of science fiction analogies for real-world politics in its depiction of a militaristic Vulcan government lying to justify invading Andoria as being akin to Bush lying about WMDs to invade Iraq. Alas, ST:ENT was cancelled both before its reactions to the Bush era could cohere into a single narrative--and before Hurricane Katrina and the continued costs of the Iraq War led to the public turning against the Bush agenda. The current onscreen incarnation of Trek, J.J. Abrams's films (Star Trek  and Star Trek Into Darkness ), meanwhile, I think reflect two distinct reactions to the Obama era. The 2009 film reflects a weary public looking to feel optimistic and hopeful about the future again--hence its unabashed feeling of space adventure, of salvation through cool technology, of a return to familiar characters in new incarnations. If Obama is the latter-day Kennedy, we the audience can go for Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as the latter-day Kirk and Spock. Yet even the 2009 film cannot quite escape the post-9/11 diminishment of American feelings of security and prominence. Audience-favorite alien world Vulcan is destroyed, and Earth itself is always depicted is grey and dreary tones that clash with the bright color scheme of scenes set aboard the Enterprise. Star Trek Into Darkness, on the other hand, represents the shift in public reaction to the Obama era. Where once Obama was seen as bringing about a latter-day Camelot, public dissatisfaction with Obama and the rise of concerns over government power and abuses begun under Bush and continuing under Obama come to the forefront in Into Darkness. Just as distrust in American institutions continues in spite of Obama's early redemptive promise, the audience in Into Darkness discovers that jingoism and state violence without democratic accountability are driving Starfleet Command, in the person of Into Darkness's primary villain, the head of Starfleet who wants to provoke a war with the Klingons and kill anyone he deems a "terrorist." If Star Trek (2009) reflects the optimism that a Kennedy-esque figure can restore us to greatness, Into Darkness reflects the reassertion of disillusionment with institutions. And yet! Even Into Darkness, Trek's most overtly cynical take on political institutions, ends with an assertion of the value of hope and optimism. For all that our leaders cannot be trusted to act without accountability, Into Darkness makes it clear that Admiral Marcus's plans were defeated and that liberal democratic values will carry the day. Like ST: DS9, it deconstructs optimism and then puts it back together. In my view, Marche is essentially overlooking that no television program is produced in a vacuum. Is Battlestar Galactica (2005-2009) heir to Trek's throne? Perhaps only insofar as it was the definitive space opera of the Aughts. Was it technophobic? Somewhat--but it was more, I would argue, misanthropic. It is ultimately a life-affirming work, but one that essentially seems to argue, "We aren't nearly as good as we ought to be yet. But if we keep holding on, we'll get there." It's a bittersweet theme, though not utterly without hope. It is, true, markedly different from Star Trek: The Next Generation and its status as a primary text in the world of post-Reagan science fiction. Yet if The Next Generation was more hopeful than space opera produced since, it is both because the world looked brighter for America as the Wall fell and in the immediate aftermath, and because Next Gen did not have itself as a primary text and trope-maker to be deconstructed and reacted to.