Original article was published on Artificial Intelligence on Medium
Why Star Trek has Lost it’s Appeal
I am a Star Trek fan. I have always been and always will be a fan. It pains me I have to lead with that prior to criticizing the thing I love, as if being constructively critical about a thing means you are either a hater or worse, a misanthropic son of a bitch. I am neither. At least, I have evidence to the contrary, but you may make your own opinion. There isn’t just one thing that irritates me about the present Trek trends. It’s a multifaceted complaint. Even in this, I recognize how complicated it all is.
For example, the Klingons used to look human. The movies changed that. I was okay with the change, and it carried me through TNG, and I liked the episode of Deep Space Nine, “Trials and Tribulations” that answered it without answering it. Discovery has changed the Klingons again, not because we needed to revitalize our adversary, but because human beings and corporations have intellectual rights and an inability to agree forced changes most people didn’t want. It required, out of legal necessity, a break with cannon. No one in the ‘Enterprise’ and ‘Discovery’ creation team could talk about Romulans. Why not? If we used the Original Series as cannon, which it should be by definition, a 100 years before Kirk there was a 100 year war with the Romulans- an enemy no one saw the face of until Kirk confronted them. “Balance of Terror.” Who owns the Romulans and why can’t we agree that cannon isn’t a bad thing? There are lots of potentially good prequel concepts available.
But it isn’t just the inability to hold onto cannon. For the most part, I loved Abrams 2008 reboot. There were some technical, science-nerd things I didn’t agree with, but the casting was solid. And I get the premise of changing the time line so that we could know that it is possible that things won’t work out. What I don’t like, I mean completely find offensive, is this direct dive into darkness. In truth, Trek was going dark from the moment Roddenberry died. It wasn’t too long after the Great Bird of the Galaxy left us that Rick Bergman blew up the Enterprise. Hell, he did it four time in one episode! TNG episode, “Cause and Effect.”
It almost feels like people are so against the concept of utopia that they have to make everything science fiction reflect dystopian perspectives. That is not Trek, by definition. Trek’s success was completely predicated on the idea that humans were capable of learning to love and work together towards a sustainable society. By Abrams second movie, Spock and Kirk are both wanting to quit Star Fleet and lamenting their existence. That is not Trek.
The writing seriously irritates me. Star Trek has some episodes that are lacking in sophistication. I totally get that; there are episodes that are truly painful to watch. Some of the fighting scenes in the original are painful to watch, but that’s true from the fact choreographing fight scenes has improved so much since the 60s that anyone who is versed in film and media today, without knowing where we came from, will likely find Original laughable. Also, our science has come a long way. The average person’s ability to utilize tech and their basic level of knowledge is seriously more sophisticated. That’s why they couldn’t just rebuild the 1960s Enterprise. The tech had to be comparable to what we know.
That said, writing has become more sophisticated. Why the hell does it seem like science fiction writing seems to be in decline? If most of the audience are ‘nerds,’ don’t you want to write something reasonably sophisticated? When writing becomes stupid, the audience will fall away, or become stupid. There is a limit to how much I can suspend disbelief. If you have a western and a six shooter and the hero shoots twenty times before reloading, I have a problem. If I know the transporter range is 200,000 kilometers, and you rise from the clouds of Titan and transport two people to a spaceship in orbit around Earth- I have a problem.
And nerds are not just tech savy. They care about human relationships. They care about the overuse of tropes. Star Trek dealt with tropes, but it usually did it in a unique way that resulted in people wanting to challenge the status quo. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” was a trope, but it needed to be said- and needs iteration! Pushing the fear of AI coming to kill humanity is a trope that is not only over done, but it makes no sense from the original perspective of Roddenberry Universe. Yes, Trek confronted tropes about AI. In multiple episodes Kirk went up against AI. He fell in love with an Android: “Requiem for Methuselah” and love caused her to crash. Ultimately, it was love and fear that caused Data’s daughter to crash- TNG, “The Offspring.” Kirk had to defeat androids with logic: “I, Mudd,” “What are Little Girls Made of,” and “the Changeling.” Interestingly, ‘The Changeling” is basically “Star Trek: the Motion Picture” only this time, we don’t have to blow AI up, we become partners. We overcome our fear of AI and help birth something new.
Star Trek’s mission was to discover new life. AI is new life. Ideally, we go there boldly, not with fear.
Everyone loves Data. Data is an AI. “Picard” writers resurrected Data only so we could pull the plug on Data. How the hell is that right? Star Trek has fought hard to win the idea that Data is more than a toaster and has the right to exist. Well, if we follow that to its conclusion, then he also doesn’t have the right to arbitrarily die when they could put him into another android body. Surely it is easier to put Data into another android body than it was to put Picard into an android body. So, writers resurrected Data to kill him. They killed Picard in order to resurrect him with android tech. (Does that mean he is now AI?) Why did they bother raising Picard from the dead? Wasn’t it a good day to die? If it’s okay to die, should we not let Picard die, too? Does this mean we still value human life more than other life? More than AI life? ALl that talk about Data’s sentience was just talk, we don’t mean it? And, by the way, if you’re going to put Picard into an android body, can’t you give him a younger body? What the hell is that about? Just swapping out bodies to conveniently avoid the pain of death seems rather unrealistic. It is almost as if the writers are teenagers and they want to avoid dealing with anything truly existential. Having heroes not die in extraordinary ways is called plot contrivances.
Lots of things about Picard irritated me. The portal on the Borg ship for one. Hypothetically, it only takes one Borg to take over a world. If the Borg had that tech, they would never have to approach a planet to assimilate it. They just send in teams of Borgs remotely. The Borg was originally a scary concept, and that alone didn’t require a queen. In fact, it was scarier before the queen. The queen concept downgraded the threat to a centralized enemy. Centralized Intelligence. People are scared of that in a ‘trop-ic’ sort of way. (What would happen if the cells in your body revolted because they no longer want processed foods and alcohol. Look at all those little cells with signs protesting your rule.) Trope. AI is the bad guy is a trope. It’s almost as if someone has an agenda to unite all humans to one common bad-guy theme, and AI is the present focus. I am not sure why the AI at the end of Picard resembled bugs. To prove it’s alien-ness they had to remind us that most of us are afraid of bugs? But if is superior, and lives in another dimension, you’re not going to beat that enemy and if it really wanted to find you- it will. Once that beacon was activated, that should have been done.
Thank God that “God” is actually so benevolent It/He/She allows free will.
AI will change things. Humans should be concerned. Especially if you equate superior intelligence with manipulative, brutalizing control freaks. Humans have always used superior qualities to enslave other humans. We have a history of fearing superiority because we have mishandled superiority. We ruled by might, and people complied or died. We ruled by intelligence, tricking people into compliance- minimally disenfranchising them or ultimately killing them. Humans have used intelligence to gain advantage, no doubt about that. And we should be concerned about humans mechanizing weapons. Arming a robot remote controlled by human is one thing, but arming a pre-AI machine is dangerous. When AI comes on line, will it watch the “War Games” and come to the same conclusion “War, what’s it good for, absolutely nothing…” Or will it realize the one fundamental problem is humanity and do what is necessary?
I don’t have an answer to that. I suspect it will make life better for most. You can’t go roaming the galaxy on a space shuttle run on 1980’s Apple Computers. My Cellphone has more power than NASA’s retired shuttle. But if we’re going to have Star Trek level tech, it won’t be wagon wheels that get us to the stars. It will be superior tech. Take that concept a littler further. Look back at the Original Series of Star trek and see how they projected forward, and much of the tech they had, we have now- but yet, we’re not on the Moon or Mars. So, we need more sophisticated tech. Looking forwards to what that might be, and predicting the changes that are already on the design table, the future of Star Trek looks like magic! There is tech coming down the line that surpasses Trek and will seem god-like. And that would be an interesting Trek to watch! Know what we know now and predicting forwards- that’s a Trek we haven’t touched. And, it has existential aspects that we have yet to explore in depth- what is human that is so augmented that present day life is unfathomable?
Discovery also went trope with the evil AI from the future. It was ludicrous. Seriously, once the AI introduced nanites to take over human, the war was lost. Time traveling AI, the war is over before it begins.
AI is not the enemy. Star Trek should be leading the way in showing how much it can improve our lives and extend reach into the Universe. Star Trek was about optimism. Anyone can imagine a horrible end. We live, we die. Anyone can imagine a hostile take over. There are still bad guys in the world. There are people that are mentally ill that do horrendous things. We have been reluctant to be proactive for fear that means we just Orwellian on someone. There are ignorant people in positions of authority making poor decisions and putting legislature into place for personal gain of themselves or a few. There are lots of things to fear, but AI isn’t one of them. So far, every time I run metaphors in my head, exploring the various ways a trope can play out- every time- it always comes back to human mistreating fellow humans.
AI is coming. If we don’t make it, someone will. Our choices our, make something that enhances itself and our lives, or make something that destroys us. I want to help make a positive future. I think Roddenberry did, too. No one is saying there aren’t problems. If you want a better future, you have to model what better looks like. With out a positive model, you are doomed to just keep doing what you’re doing. War is so old. Fighting is old. Ignorance is old. We need Trek to return that vision of promise. We need better ‘what if’ questions and we need to seriously think about our present direction and what happens if we don’t at least try to improve things. You and I know we need that. Even our military know we needs that. Why else would they put the Star Trek insignia on their newly founded “Space Force” flag.
I salute that.