Was Trek ever really intelligent sci-fi?

Discussion in 'General Trek Discussion' started by King Daniel Beyond, Apr 6, 2014.

  1. King Daniel Beyond

    King Daniel Beyond Admiral Admiral

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    Star Trek has a reputation for being intelligent science fiction. I'm not sure how it got it, because to me it's been about evil transporter duplicates, monsters in underground caves, ham-fisted morals, evil twin universes, tribbles and other comic book-style larger than life adventures with mostly (or not-so-mostly, in some cases) likeable characters. When Trek tried to be smart, it played out pretty much the same as above but with everyone wearing grim faces. There are always big gaps in common sense (V'Ger: A godlike entity which never thought to wipe the muck of it's own name plate), incredibly dodgy science (all that psychedelic screensaver stuff they fly through to get to V'Ger) and a cornball ending (It was an ancient Earth probe all along!)

    How did The Next Generation ever manage to hold on to it's serious reputation after such undignified disasters as "Code of Honor", "Haven", "Rascals", the soap opera nonsense of "The Masterpiece Society" or the goofy Blob of Pure Evil in "Skin of Evil"? Is it the way the crew carry themselves, the technobabble, or late 80's/early 90's advertising hype building up the image of smart science fiction in fans' minds? As a kid who grew up watching TNG, I bought it at the time, but I don't see any substance behind that hype now.

    Could it be Trek's occasional use of real or theorized scientific phenomena, like cosmic strings, dark matter and the like? But for each of those, there are two or three completely made up, misused or ridiculous things, like warp particles, dark stars, cold fusion, the ridiculous uses of the transporter or the depiction of a black hole's event horizon as an actual physical thing. Wormholes are twisted into pretty fantasy land tunnels full of godlike aliens. Relativity, something that would define space travel should it ever become a reality on a scale like we see in Trek, is completely and utterly ignored. The potentials of Trek technology, both human and alien, are too-often ignored to keep the status quo intact. To me, this says Trek is a comic book fantasy world, only loosely based on our own and how things work here, and no more scientifically accurate than Thor's corner of the Marvel movieverse. To think otherwise of the Trekverse would require mentally censoring at least two thirds of the canon and probably much more. Yet some people seemingly still do it.

    What are the smartest (both in scientific and intellectual terms) episodes of the Star Trek franchise? What makes it more clever than, say, Stargate SG-1, the MCU or even the Trek reboot? It might be interesting to look into examples given and see how well they really hold up.
     
  2. 2takesfrakes

    2takesfrakes Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    I suspect that if there is anything factual behind the so-called "Intelligent Sci-Fi" evoked here, it's in that there is usually some semblence of an investigation involved with most of the stories. The characters don't act rashly, for the most part. They gather facts, present them - and their ideas about them - to the captain and he acts on that. So, maybe it's this sort of detective-like process that's being referred to.

    There is also this phenomenon at work, here, that's the same thing which is responsible for everyone saying crazy shit like "Led Zepplin" was the greatest rock band in history and you need that shit in your collection, or you don't know anything about music. HmmBOY!!! You try listening to any of it and it's like, "... meh." But because Hippies got stoned to Zep a hundred years ago, we're meant to hold Jimmy Paige in such high esteem. I don't buy it, but lots of people do, just because of this sheepish instinct people have to follow what they think is hip to do and say, so they don't get bumped to the outskirts of the herd.
     
  3. King Daniel Beyond

    King Daniel Beyond Admiral Admiral

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    I like this answer. That the procedural format of TNG onwards (not so sure this applies to TOS, where problems were often solved by just Kirk or Spock) does give the impression that multiple avenues are being explored (as unscientific as they may be), as opposed to the heat-of-the-moment decisions made in modern action movies. You may well have hit the nail on the head!
     
  4. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    You have to consider it in the context of what else constituted SFTV in the '60s and '70s. Aside from The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, '60s SFTV was pretty much defined by Irwin Allen shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, spy-fi like The Wild, Wild West and The Man from UNCLE, sitcoms like My Favorite Martian and It's About Time, Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation shows, and cartoons like The Jetsons and Jonny Quest. There was The Prisoner, of course, but that was seen more as a spy show than SF. Aside from that, the only contemporary of Trek that really tried for adult drama was The Invaders, and that was basically just a knockoff of The Fugitive.

    And then as you get into the '70s, Trek reruns were competing with things like Space: 1999, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Man from Atlantis, Planet of the Apes, The Starlost, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Saturday morning fare like Land of the Lost and Shazam/Isis, etc. As for the '80s and the TNG era, the competition was stuff like Knight Rider, Manimal, ALF, Voyagers, and the like, along with a few smarter things like the Twilight Zone revival, Quantum Leap, and Beauty and the Beast.

    The thing is, SFTV has matured considerably since then, largely because Star Trek set the example. But at the time TOS was made, and to a lesser extent at the time TNG was made, it was one of the smartest shows on the air because there wasn't much competition.

    But yes, TOS definitely was intelligent SF by the standards of its time. It told character-driven dramatic stories that explored ideas and moral issues rather than simply being about action and spectacle and weirdness, which is more than could be said for most of its contemporaries.
     
  5. Bad Thoughts

    Bad Thoughts Commodore Commodore

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    Sorry, I don't buy the bullshit dichotomy. A show can be both intelligent and funny. And the failure of a few members of the organization to be thoughtful scientists or social critics does not impugn the entire enterprise.
     
  6. Push The Button

    Push The Button Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Well, Trek is more sci-fi than Lost in Space or the Star Wars movies. Making the stories more realistic in terms of the science and technology would have made the stories pretty dull.

    To make Trek more sci-fi, you would have to get rid of the transporter, all of the "humanoid" aliens (including Spock, of course), and add in the stretching/slowing of time from travelling faster than light, assuming that FTL travel would even be possible.
     
  7. BillJ

    BillJ Fleet Admiral Admiral

    I don't think that was ever what they were really going for. TOS was an avenue for Roddenberry to tell stories he couldn't get away with on your average western or cop drama of the day.

    Was it 'intelligent'? Yeah, I think it was. Was it 'intelligent sci-fi'? No, I don't think so.
     
  8. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    It's a myth that the level of scientific accuracy defines how "sci-fi" something is. Science fiction is fiction based on conjectural scientific or technological advances and their consequences. There is no requirement that the advances be genuinely possible, merely that they be treated as hypothetical science rather than magic or divine intervention, and that their consequences on human life be explored. A lot of science fiction begins with premises that are most likely impossible, such as psi powers or time travel, but explores their consequences in a realistic manner -- i.e. if this impossible thing did exist, what effects would it have in the context of otherwise real science, psychology, and sociology? E.g. Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination: if humans gained the impossible ability to teleport anywhere at will, how would that realistically transform privacy rights, law enforcement, the transportation industry, etc.? The key isn't what the initial hypothesis is, but how convincingly its ramifications are thought out.

    Scientifically plausible SF is merely one particular subgenre, known as "hard" SF. It's the type I personally prefer to write and read, but it isn't more valid or real SF than the "softer" kind, just a different flavor of SF. And it's got nothing to do with how intelligent an SF story is. There's a ton of intelligence in the soft SF of writers like Bradbury, Sturgeon, Butler, LeGuin, etc. The intelligence of science fiction is not just about its grasp of physics and engineering, but about its grasp of human nature, psychology, philosophy, ethics, and the like, not to mention the skill of its prose and characterization. Science fiction is still fiction, still literature, and its intelligence should be measured the same way you'd measure the intelligence of a mystery or romance or political thriller or any other genre of story. If it's well-written, if the characters are well-drawn and their actions and choices believable, if the plot is not cliched or obvious, if it makes the reader or viewer think, then it's intelligent. A crime thriller or courtroom drama can be intelligent in its portrayal of its characters and the ideas it expresses without needing to go into detail about forensics or legal technicalities. A hospital drama can be intelligent without needing to focus in depth on anatomy and surgical procedure. Such stories certainly can go into that kind of detail for added texture and as a stylistic choice, but that choice isn't what defines the intelligence of the story, because ultimately stories are about people and emotions and ideas, and that's where the true intelligence of a story lies. And the exact same thing is true of science fiction.
     
  9. The Wormhole

    The Wormhole Admiral Admiral

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    Intelligent sci-fi? No, not really. But there isn't really very much intelligent sci-fi on TV or movies. And that's fine, I'll take entertaining sci-fi over intelligent any day.

    However, there's a difference between not being intelligent and being completely brainless. The Abrams movies are completely brainless. I can deal with the wonky science, Trek never really did a great job with its science anyway. The problem with the Abrams movies is that all they really are is just someone going through a list of tropes that some Hollywood checklist claims are the ingredients to a successful movie rather than being a story that someone want to tell and feels has to be told.
     
  10. Forbin

    Forbin Admiral Admiral

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    ^This.
    Well said.
     
  11. BigJake

    BigJake Vice Admiral Admiral

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    You know, I love the Avengers and Pacific Rim, but I don't go around trying to tell people they stack up to Star Trek or ST:TNG as intelligent sci-fi or that Trek's instances of cheese invalidate its reputation as SF. I'm pleased others have seen fit to humour the OP, but if you're telling me you need it explained to you at length why this is, I'm sorry but I have to suspect whether the question is being asked in the best of faith. It basically looks to me like you're grinding an axe here.
     
  12. The Old Mixer

    The Old Mixer Clean Old Mod Moderator

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    I'd say that in its original incarnation, it was going for a balance...something somewhere in-between The Twilight Zone and Lost and Space. Sci fi of the latter stripe was seen as kiddie fare back in the day; and while TOS may have appealed to younger viewers, what set it apart was that it was trying to be smarter than that.
     
  13. SchwEnt

    SchwEnt Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    It can be. ST can be many things to many people, it has an ability to be all things to all people.

    There are morality plays that examine the human condition. There are commentaries on contemporary society. There are extrapolations on the future of humanity and our evolution with technology.

    There are kewl alien monsters to blow up. There are fazer battles and big ass ship splosions! Klingon attacks!!1!

    ...and pretty much everything in between.

    You can find what you will in ST.
    If it's intelligent sci-fi, it's there.
    If it's space battles and weird aliens, that's there, too.
     
  14. CorporalCaptain

    CorporalCaptain Admiral Admiral

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    Was Trek ever really intelligent sci-fi?

    Of course it was. "The City on the Edge of Forever". "The Doomsday Machine". "The Menagerie". "Amok Time". "Arena". "Yesteryear". "Tin Man". Those are just some examples of intelligent science fiction in Star Trek. Some of those episodes were adaptations of published science fiction (or nominally so), some of those episodes were Hugo winners themselves, and some were Hugo nominees.

    Just because there were certain unintelligent episodes dominated by pulpy DNA, that does not eliminate the episodes that weren't.
     
  15. JarodRussell

    JarodRussell Vice Admiral Admiral

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    No, Star Trek has always been stupid, King Daniel, so Abramstrek is perfectly in line with that, as it's the perfect recreation of the original series. So all the stupidity was perfectly recreated as well.
     
  16. Hober Mallow

    Hober Mallow Commodore Commodore

    The original series employed people who wrote science fiction for a living, so while they still wrote with the television conventions of the time and within the constraints of Roddenberry's vision, they regularly gave us more imaginative SF stories than we tended to get later when the SF authors no longer contributed.
     
  17. RunawayStarShip

    RunawayStarShip Lieutenant Commander Red Shirt

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    Rod Serling had an interesting quote: "Star Trek was again a very inconsistent show which at times sparkled with true ingenuity and pure science fiction approaches. At other times it was more carnival-like, and very much more the creature of television than the creature of a legitimate literary form."

    There's no doubt that the producers really wanted the Star Trek franchise to have some kind of meaningfulness, and this is true from day 1 up until present day. How successful (or unsuccessful) they have been is in the eye of the beholder.
     
  18. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    I think you have to consider how it evolved over time, though. Originally it was much more focused on being a naturalistic adult drama, but over time it was pressured to put in more action and danger and romance, and of course the third-season producers approached it with significantly less intelligence than their forebears.

    It's a matter of record that Roddenberry's goal was to create the first adult SF drama that wasn't an anthology. He pitched it using an analogy to Wagon Train, an esteemed drama series, and his writers' bible cited two of the classiest adult dramas of the era, Gunsmoke and Naked City, as examples of the level of writing he aspired to. His goal was to create a show that existed in direct opposition to things like Lost in Space, that showed that a science fiction series could be told on the same level of sophistication as any Western or police drama or medical drama of the era. And he certainly pushed the envelope in terms of sexual content. The skin and sexuality in TOS seems tame to us today, but it was constantly pushing the limits of how much skin and sexuality the censors would allow. Now, that doesn't necessarily constitute intelligence, but it does show that his goal was to make TOS very different from other shows of the era. Looking back from our perspective, we see a lot of similarities between it and its contemporaries, but that's because we're outsiders looking in and seeing things that were typical of the era but different from what we're used to today, so those things stand out more for us. People at the time would've taken those elements more for granted and been more aware of the differences.

    It's also a matter of record that the animated Star Trek was conceived and promoted as the first Saturday morning animated series targeted at an adult audience. The myth is that it was toned down for children, but aside from reducing the sex and violence, TAS was consciously geared toward older viewers, and its creators gave interviews specifically touting its adult focus. Both of the first two Star Trek series were consciously attempting to be exceptions to the rule, to exist in direct contrast to their contemporaries. But they still had to operate within the common ground rules of their era and context, and that's the source of the similarities we see when we look back at them. It's not that they were trying to balance older- and younger-skewing elements; it's that they were trying to get away from the younger- or dumber-skewing norm but were only able to gain so much distance given the limits of the medium at the time.
     
  19. Bad Thoughts

    Bad Thoughts Commodore Commodore

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    Brilliant! But does this mean that the stupidest Trek is the best Trek (or at the very least, the Trekiest Trek)? Should the next movie be "Kirk's Brain?"
     
  20. Warped9

    Warped9 Admiral Admiral

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    Yes. Can't really add anything to this.

    Or this.