Watching The Whole Of Star Trek In Chronological Order.

TV  For the past ten months, any conversation related to television which began, “Have you seen …” was usually answered with a negative from me, the reason being that for the past ten months I've been watching my way through the whole of Star Trek in stardate order, starting with Enterprise, through to Nemesis before flashing back and crossing realities into the Kelvin timeline. When almost the whole franchise was uploaded to Netflix, however much I tried to look away or find something else to do, the pull was too great. So on 11th July last year, the day after completing a binge through Gilmore Girls, seeking solace after the Brexit vote, I sat myself in front of Broken Bow, Enterprise's first episode and with the odd exception (MARVEL series, Elementary, Supergirl, Girls, Stranger Things, more Gilmore Girls) that's been about the only television drama I've watched since. Like my anniversary run through of Doctor Who and the Buffyverse before that, for the most part it's been an utter pleasure and a trip down memory lane, on this occasion to stories I hadn't seen for twenty years and even in some cases for the first time.

My guide on this journey has been The Star Trek Chronology Project, a thorough attempt to put the whole franchise in narrative order utilising the star dates as a guide. As the compiler acknowledges, some of the time the writers don't adhere to their own rules, in The Original Series (TOS), they seem to have been chosen at random and they don't really exist on Enterprise anyway, but become invaluable in the 24th century era as a way of slipping between the various interconnected series. It's possible now to see how Trek was accomplishing intricate cross franchise storytelling years before the MCU, notably the Maquis storyline which begins with TNG's Journey's End develops to set up part of Voyager’s premise, flows between the latter episodes of TNG into DS9 with characters and plot elements passing between the two more overtly than I remember. A couple of Admirals and Cardassian Guls even manage to appear in all three. It's also possible to see how, when viewed in this context, Enterprise so expertly manages to provide the opening movements of some epic battles which are still being fought years later.

That said, from the off, Enterprise feels like a show which was rushed into production with too many voices speaking behind the scenes. Apparently the initial idea was to show the trials involved in the construction of the ship which wouldn’t launch until late into the first season but the studio forced a rethink. That explains the number of flaccid early episodes with identikit premises which would have worked on any of the series with few modifications. In these initial episodes only T’Pol makes an impression, generally being right about everything and continues to be the linchpin of the show throughout. Like TNG, it’s not until a fresher mind, in this case Manny Cotto, that the show fulfils its potential providing prequels to later stories in other series and offering some deep background on the pre-history of the Federation. The ingenious explanation for how the look of the Klingons changes temporarily utilising Bashir and O'Brien's suggestion from the infamous scene in Trials and Tribble-ations is spectacular.  It’s just a shame they never could work out what to do with Hoshi.

Not having seen most of The Original Series since kidulthood, the biggest surprise is how not rubbish season three actually is, despite its stinky reputation. Granted, there’s some rotting gagh in there, notably Spock’s Brain, And The Children Shall and The Way To Eden. But everyone’s in character for most of the time and honestly, there’s probably as many decent to excellent instalments as previous seasons. There were even a few episodes I’d somehow missed first time around, That Which Survives and The Lights of Zetar both of which are pretty good. Parts of the show haven’t dated well. McCoy’s treatment of Spock is flat out racist at times and the gender politics is shocking. Plus both interracial kisses, usually much lauded, in Plato’s Stepchildren and Elaan of Troilus are against Kirk’s will as if to justify them happening. But when it’s good, it’s great: The Corbamite Manoeuvre, Tomorrow Is Yesterday, Mirror Mirror, Journey To Babel (which feels most like modern Trek with its Spock’s family orientated b-plot), The Tholian Web and of course The City On The Edge of Forever (just a pity Joan Collins didn’t heed the words of Edith Keeler and voted Brexit).

Despite the rudimentary, if pleasingly day-glo animation and shonky continuity (where exactly does Spock sit on the bridge?), The Animated Series is authentic enough that it should be considered the fourth season of TOS. With almost everyone back on voice duty and scripts predominantly written by the original live action writers, there’s some remarkable episodes in here amid the sequels and remakes. DC Fontana’s Yesteryear rightly wins plaudits for its depiction of early society and there’s also the strongly feminist The Lorelei Signal in which the female members of the crew end up saving Kirk, Spock et al for a change. There’s nothing in here that is really against canon. Indeed, much exposition is expended explaining how Harry Mudd escaped the android planet. Plus the comedy episode Bem establishes Tiberius as Kirk’s middle name. The brevity of the episodes, twenty-three minutes each, meant I watched the whole thing over three days (17th to 19th October) which did leave me able to hum along to the half dozen pieces of incidental music repeated ad nauseum.

Then straight into the TOS films ending with the first twenty minutes of Generations.  My assessment of them hasn't changed and it's pretty much as agreed critically, the odd numbered instalments weaker than the evens with The Final Frontier at the nadir, Khan at the top.  What's notable is how sympathetic they are to the source, despite Roddenbery effectively having been supplanted by Harve Bennett who hadn't even seen an episode before taking over.  Partly that's so as not to cheese off the fans which had kept the franchise going during their wilderness years, but it's also because if nothing else the rich mythology is a strong foundation to work within so why deny its existence.  Unlike Doctor Who, whose key asset is its flexibility, Trek's engine is its chronology and ability to build on what's gone before.  It's the films which really develop the verisimilitude which would make this possible feature feel like such a real, complex place even if its not always clear where exactly the various empires and quadrants are supposed to be.

Star Trek: The Next Generation took four months to watch but there’s much to be said for taking some shows slowly with having time to appreciate their merits. After the patchy first couple of seasons, which still have the odd classic like Measure of a Man, once Michael Piller became one of the producers the show began to sing. Perhaps most notably of the “exploration” series is how strongly it works to create an atmosphere of having what amounts to a small town floating in space, the crew members and their families, homes, schools, science labs and recreation although it’s also noticeable how often some writers forget as much when putting the ship in jeopardy. Like TOS, parts of it haven’t aged well; the Geordi and Leah Brahms business is just flat out creepy. But it’s somehow even an the initially one-note character llike Troi evolves into a working professional psychologist and diplomatic assistant not to mention commander who outranks Data. Too many favourite episodes to list, but I’m more of a fan of those with the more oddball fantasy elements like The Next Phase, Time Squared, Parallels, Remember Me and Timescape.

Nevertheless its Deep Space Nine that is probably Trek's masterpiece, a sprawling space opera which after the usual rocky first couple of seasons turns into a deep meditation on the nature of war and the human cost, utilising the future setting to reference almost all the major conflicts of the past century or so.  Like the other nuTrek series, it has its story genres usually about a particular race and I remember hating the Ferengi episodes first time around but now see how the allow the writers to talk about feminism and capitalism in a way which would be impossible with the Star Fleet characters for whom such things have already been overcome.  Dax might well be the cleverest creation that the show ever produced and the transition from Jadzia to Ezri is seamlessly accomplished - the Trill are almost the Time Lords of Star Trek (with apologies to the Q) as the memories but not personality are passed between hosts.  I can't even attempt to choose favourite episodes here.  Glancing through the list its easier to select the one which are just a bit average of which there are too few to mention.

Not so Voyager which is often a desert in its earlier series of derivative stories that pretty much ditch the Maquis culture clash much earlier than drama would usually necessitate.  By the end of season four I'd had enough and with my Who fandom growing apace didn't bother to watch much into the next season back then.  Of course, that's just the moment when the show finds its feet and from about half way through season five, about the time Bryan Fuller takes over, it's smashing.  Partly it's because they have a new toy and there's a period when almost every episode is somehow about Seven of Nine and her attempts to reclaim her humanity, a full on Pygmalion pastiche co-starring The Doctor who himself becomes the focus of a huge number of episodes.  It's delightful even if it leaves some of the blander crew members as nothing more than bystanders until the realities of their situation, the lack of career progress, the idea of bringing up families on board are explored.  If only they'd thought of that earlier.

So in all of the shows there's a moment when each finally realises what it's "about", what the format is capable of.  In TNG that's definitely season three, for DS9 it's four and in Voyager it's clearly five.  In some cases there are enough episodes remaining to explore the potential but in Enterprise and Voyager's case it happens too late.  There's enough in their final instalments to fuel another series or two and I'm rather pining for a season eight for Voyager which explores how the crew copes once they return home.  The final scenes of Endgame aren't quite as abrupt as I'd expected, and its fitting that the show should end with the crew on the ship, but I want to see Seven's first reactions to Earth, how The Doctor gets along, even Harry Kim seeing his parents again after all that time.  Similarly These Are The Voyages is a travesty; I can see why the creators felt like they had to cap off the revival but to have these earlier characters inserted into Enterprise and effectively make its final instalment about them is appalling.

The key problem with the Next Generation films is that although the series was very much about the ensemble with each character becoming the focus each week.  In order to wedge each story into a traditional screenplay structure, Picard and Data are essentially promoted to lead characters on every occasion, with some of their character development rolled back in order to accommodate the hero's journey.  First Contact is the strongest simply because it's also able to give Riker and the rest a sufficiently interesting subplot.  Generations is hurt by having to be a crossover and then wasting the appearance of the classic crew.  Insurrection is helped by simply deciding to make what amounts to a filmed double episode of the series.  Nemesis is similar but never quite feels right, all of the more useful character material in the deleted scenes, cut to make way for generic action sequences.  At least we get to find out what happened to Janeway after Voyager returned home (although I know that in the novels its a bit more complicated).

What's surprising about the "Kelvin" films is how much fidelity they have with the television series, combining genuinely exciting action with character moments in a way which Nemesis entirely fails at.  Plus the opening instalment includes what is, up until now, the final chronological filmed moment in the Prime timeline, as Spock enters the fissure.  In three films, we find seasons worth of incident packed into a few hours, fully embracing the possibilities of the motion picture.  On rewatch, even Into Darkness impresses; although it's clearly weakest when directly referencing old adventures it's no simple retread of Space Seed or The Wrath of Khan.  But it's Beyond which ultimately impresses not least because when watched in this sequence by referencing Enterprise so strongly, offers a decent bookend to the whole experiences.  Even so, When nuKirk mentions the five year mission, it's disappointing that we haven't actually seen those "smaller" adventures.  The IDW comic exists of course, but that still has to tread water somewhat due to the potential for a new film release.

Which is my ultimate take away from all this.  Star Trek is a format which works and works best when it's moving forward.  When Nemesis ends, it's with some sadness because it's the last we'll see of the rich 24th century mythology developed across twenty one seasons of television and four films.  But there's an obsession with the classic series, because of the icons which means that the franchise is currently obsessed with those glories, through prequel series and reboots.  What I would dearly love to see is a series which continues were Voyager completed either directly or further on again so as not to mess with the continuity in the novels with a new crew and a whole other set of challenges in a similar way to Doctor Who's revival.  That Seth MacFarlane has managed to get this spoof off the ground quicker than CBS has got its act together is an embarrassment.  I am looking forward to Discovery, but shouldn't Star Trek be always boldly going forward unable to find reverse?  Now I'm off to watch Galaxy Quest.  It's time.

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