Deemed “Star Trek Day,” September 8, 2022 was an odd one for me, the basis of that feeling probably stemming back to 2016. It was that year which saw the publication of the two-volume oral history of Trek that Mark A. Altman and I had written, The Fifty-Year Mission, which had been a culmination (at least for me) of a lifelong obsession with Trek.
Seriously, I poured everything I had into those books, bringing in virtually every interview I’d ever done connected with the franchise and spending untold hours conducting new ones, all in my and Mark’s intent on writing the definitive history of the franchise. Did we accomplish that lofty goal? Obviously that’s for others to decide, but I’m pretty damn proud of what we did.
But when they were done, both volumes published by Thomas Dunne Books and we had concluded our PR duties, I was kind of ready to move on to the next project (which would result in an additional five oral histories published, two more completed and awaiting publication, and one I’m in the midst of writing). I was also prepared to take a break from Trek as both a journalist and a fan.
That didn’t last long.
Star Trek Beyond, third chapter in the big screen reimagining from J.J. Abrams, was released in 2016 and (realizing the hateful response I’m likely to get for admitting this) I loved it. To me, it felt the closest to the original series, but with the necessary modern action quotient. It was also the lowest-grossing of that particular trilogy, which was kind of a bummer and leads me to ask, “What do I know?”
When Star Trek: Discovery made its debut on Paramount+ the next year, I was ready to embrace it as both a fan and an entertainment journalist. After all, I’d been covering Trek since the beginning of my career over 40 years ago and really had terrific access to virtually everybody involved with TNG, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise and the feature films up until and including the aforementioned Beyond. I was ready to do the same with Discovery, although I found myself hitting walls almost immediately. Oh, I got an interview or two, but nothing that I would describe as full access, and was actually chastised by the show’s then publicist when I pushed for more.
The world of entertainment journalism was changing, I realized, and so, it turned out, was Star Trek, and neither of them necessarily for the better.
In many ways, season one of Discovery was a crushing disappointment and — I need to emphasize — this reaction had nothing to do with change. I’m also a fan of James Bond and have followed that film series through the very different actors who have played him, from Sean Connery to George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig — I’ve often joked that if Pee Wee Herman was cast as Bond, I’d still be checking it out on opening day.
So while Discovery was set about a decade before The Original Series, it was obvious that the title starship was far more advanced than it should have been; the Klingons looked more like those from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and, especially, The Next Generation and beyond; and rather than being episodic, it was serialized. But I didn’t give a tribble’s ass (if they even have one) about those things; in fact, when it comes to the latter, one of my favorite shows ever is undercover cop show Wiseguy, which pretty much introduced story arcs to television, anticipating the idea of binge TV before there was ever such a thing as binging. My problem is that the show simply didn’t feel like Star Trek in that we were not given a society as enlightened as it should have been given Kirk’s era was only a few short years away; Starfleet had corrupt elements within it, people were dropping the “f-bomb,” and much of the storytelling was contrived (just go back and look at the abrupt way they wrapped up the war with the Klingons or managed to get Mirror Universe Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) into this one).
But I put personal disappointment aside and continued trying to cover the franchise objectively. At the time I was the online American editor of the US division of Empire magazine, for which I was writing reviews of each episode as they aired. Here’s the highlight of that experience: when I got to episode eight, “Si Vis Pacem, Para Bellum,” I pretty much raved about that particular show and found it to be really solid stuff. But as much as I enjoyed that one, I despised the season finale, “Into the Forest.”
Ups and downs of a television season. Pretty standard stuff, right? Not when you get a phone call from the same chastising publicist who begins the conversation, “Hi, Ed. I just read your review of the latest episode of Discovery at Empire. I guess you really don’t want to cover the show, do you?”
Yep, I had written a negative review — with reasons supporting the criticism — and was basically being told that I was jeopardizing potential access (which I didn’t have anyway).
Which is about the point I decided I may have covered Trek enough for a while.
I still watched and thought season two showed some signs of life, much of that coming from Anson Mount’s portrayal of Captain Christopher Pike, who brought the proper nobility, gravitas, leadership and Starfleet values in virtually every scene he was in. Ethan Peck was a nice, and actually successful, addition as his science officer, Mr. Spock, and the season ended with Discovery heading a thousand years into the future to avert an AI threat to the universe. While season three attempted to more fully represent the tenets of Trek, its overall story arc of self-destructing dilithium crystals bringing the future Federation to its knees was drawn out and, in its reveal and resolution, ultimately ridiculous. As to season four … still haven’t brought myself to watch it. I will. Eventually.
Star Trek: Picard was next and its first season, like Discovery’s, simply didn’t feel like Star Trek. Virtually everything about it was bleak and there was little joy in having Sir Patrick Stewart back as Jean Luc. Season two’s time travel tale was somewhat of an improvement (John de Lancie’s Q is always welcome), but it felt like a “greatest hits” season in its storytelling. The third and final season promises to be something of a 10-hour Next Generation movie, reuniting the entire cast, which I’ll certainly check out with a wary Spock-like raised eyebrow.
I’ve seen a bit of the animated Lower Decks and Prodigy, but neither has me yearning to tune in on a regular basis (though the former is highly recommended). Yet the opposite is true with Strange New Worlds, the episodic adventures of Pike, Spock and the crew of the Enterprise in the days before the starship is handed over to one James Tiberius Kirk. The scripts for the most part were well written and I actually found myself looking forward to each episode. My inner dilithium crystals were beginning to spark again.
Then I finally caught the 10-part History Channel documentary, The Center Seat, and enjoyed the hell out of it. Watching a history I was very familiar with unfold should have been dull, but it was captivating and I found myself smiling frequently, reflecting on all of those years (decades) I’d covered the franchise and spoken to the vast majority of the people who were being interviewed on screen. By the time it was all finished, I was really fired up about Star Trek again, something I hadn’t really felt for the past six years.
On September 8 that fire was nearly extinguished when I watched “Star Trek Day” unfold on Paramount+, consisting of a stage presentation before an audience, featuring really bad jokes, and cast/producers Q&A sessions that, much as is the case on Comic-Con panels, reveal frustratingly little, except that fans should be excited by what’s to come. There were comic vignettes that fell flat and a real desire on my part for the whole thing to be over.
But the saving grace for me came that evening when I attended a big screen showing of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a 40th anniversary Fathom Event, and I have to say: it was glorious. The film, its story, its cast — all of the excitement I felt on June 4, 1982, the first time I’d seen it, came rushing back. Not just of the film itself, but Trek in general. I’m talking about memories of watching The Original Series on NBC in the ‘60s, becoming obsessed with the daily reruns on New York’s WPIX in the ‘70s, attending the first convention in 1972, the anticipation leading up to 1979’s The Motion Picture (including the aborted Phase II series, which I was the first journalist to cover in depth) and, then, of course, Khan, followed by the other films and television spinoffs that ran from 1987 to 2005; as well as the Kelvin films.
As that screening played on, I sat in disbelief that I had forgotten the experience that Khan provided, reasoning to myself that my memory of it may have been dulled by the fact that for the past 40 years I’d only been able to watch it at home on TV. But what I was discovering is that while it may not have had the sci-fi scope of its predecessor, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, what it did have was the heart of Star Trek, the depth of relationship, particularly between Kirk, Spock and McCoy; one of William Shatner’s finest performances as Kirk and Ricardo Montalban, escapee from Fantasy Island, who reminded us yet again why Khan Noonian Singh was indeed the greatest — and most deadly — adversary the crew of the Enterprise has ever faced.
I also remember when the film was released in ’82, the New York Times began its review, “Now this is more like it!” Oh, so true.
All of this is my way of saying, that as far as I’m concerned, Star Trek is alive within my heart once again, and it makes me feel … young.