Orson Scott Card: Star Trek Was Bad Science Fiction
Orson Scott Card argues that “Star Trek” never deserved its prominence and that “it’s about time” it died.
The original “Star Trek,” created by Gene Roddenberry, was, with a few exceptions, bad in every way that a science fiction television show could be bad. Nimoy was the only charismatic actor in the cast and, ironically, he played the only character not allowed to register emotion. This was in the days before series characters were allowed to grow and change, before episodic television was allowed to have a through line. So it didn’t matter which episode you might be watching, from which year — the characters were exactly the same. As science fiction, the series was trapped in the 1930s — a throwback to spaceship adventure stories with little regard for science or deeper ideas. It was sci-fi as seen by Hollywood: all spectacle, no substance.
Which was a shame, because science fiction writing was incredibly fertile at the time, with writers like Harlan Ellison and Ursula LeGuin, Robert Silverberg and Larry Niven, Brian W. Aldiss and Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, and Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke creating so many different kinds of excellent science fiction that no one reader could keep track of it all.
Little of this seeped into the original “Star Trek.” The later spinoffs were much better performed, but the content continued to be stuck in Roddenberry’s rut. So why did the Trekkies throw themselves into this poorly imagined, weakly written, badly acted television series with such commitment and dedication? Why did it last so long?
Here’s what I think: Most people weren’t reading all that brilliant science fiction. Most people weren’t reading at all. So when they saw “Star Trek,” primitive as it was, it was their first glimpse of science fiction. It was grade school for those who had let the whole science fiction revolution pass them by.
Now we finally have first-rate science fiction film and television that are every bit as good as anything going on in print.
Charlie Kaufman created the two finest science fiction films of all time so far: “Being John Malkovich” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Jeffrey Lieber, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof have created “Lost,” the finest television science fiction series of all time — so far. Through-line series like Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Alfred Gough’s and Miles Millar’s “Smallville” have raised our expectations of what episodic sci-fi and fantasy ought to be. Whedon’s “Firefly” showed us that even 1930s sci-fi can be well acted and tell a compelling long-term story.
Screen sci-fi has finally caught up with written science fiction. We’re in college now. High school is over. There’s just no need for “Star Trek” anymore.
I enjoyed “Eternal Sunshine” and am a big fan of the “Smallville” series. I disagree, though, about the writing quality of the “Star Trek” series.
Episodic programming has to step outside its genre. “Star Trek” would have worked just as well, with rather minor changes, as a Western. A novel can subsist mostly on plot. A television serial depends on characters that the viewer wants to spend hour after hour with. Can anyone imagine “Eternal Sunshine” as a series? About two hours with Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski is about all I could take.
The original series offered some excellent characters, with the interaction between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy producing some of the best repartee in pop culture history. “Next Generation” offered some much more compelling science fiction and some enjoyable characters as well. That became less true once Roddenberry died and left the series under Rick Berman’s control.