If you are a Trekkie* like I am (current, lapsed or otherwise), you may have seen the announcement that the new series, Star Trek Discovery, has gone off the reservation, at least as far as Roddenberry’s precepts for the show are concerned.
Specifically, writers will no longer be confined to the “Roddenberry Box”, a prohibition against personal conflicts among the primary crew/cast members.
Think back to the original Trek. Other than light, humorous ranking-style banter, and absent alien possession, alien drugs, alien mind control, alien rut or strategies to overcome alien overlords, when did you ever see Kirk fighting with Scotty, or Sulu fighting with Chekhov, or Spock fighting with McCoy, or Uhura fighting with anyone?
Not once do we see these characters miffed over perceived slights, plotting revenge for perceived back stabbings or having a bitter, no holds barred political argument.
This was, apparently, by design. The Great Bird of the Galaxy rules by fiat and the Bird says, no personal conflict among crew members.
Now we all know that fiction requires conflict. I must confess that for years I have played with a story in which nothing ever happens to the main characters – nada. The closest I’ve come to something resembling actual fiction is a plot in which the main character always manages to avoid being in the wrong place at the right time; the bank robbery took place right after he decides to use the ATM across the street. And even that plot, while humorous at times, went nowhere, because, no conflict, no tension, no opportunity to resolve the conflict. Why in the hell should we care about a nebbish to whom nothing interesting ever happens?
The fact is, we don’t.
This writing trope is so well worn and so well incorporated into the writerly psyche that I had to ask myself: if Star Trek had no personal conflict, how in the hell did it last three seasons, even with fan assistance? How in the hell did it spawn four other successful, multi-year series?
There are two ways to resolve that conflict: either the rule about conflict is not true, or, it is true and Star Trek managed to camouflage conflict in some manner that not only circumvented the rule, but did so successfully. For hundreds of episodes and for a handful of decades.
Anyone interested in writing and familiar with the episodes knows what that sleight of hand was. Conflict and tension always came from outside of our circle of Starfleet Friends. Or our friends interjected themselves into an existing conflict in order to, ahem, resolve it.
But why? Why didn’t TOS have any episodes where one crew member’s behavior towards another crew member so negatively affected them that it caused a problem aboard the ship? Why wasn’t anyone moved to suicide-by-warp drive over a relationship gone bad? (Naturally the suicide would cause the warp drive to overload, threatening the ship and the entire crew…)
Why? Because the crew of the Enterprise are supposed to be monolithic. Their conflicts represented the real conflicts that humanity, as a species, ought to be concerned about, rather than the petty, emotional, ignorant BS we all argue with each other about daily. Kirk and Spock and Uhura and McCoy are not individual humans, they’re different aspects of humanity. Personal conflict between them would be akin to a psychosis. Unless you are Edward Norton/Brad Pitt, you don’t fight with yourself.
Ideally, we’re supposed to put aside our petty differences in order to more effectively face and handle the existential threats the universe throws at us on a daily basis. Star Trek TOS showed us how to go about doing that, and in so doing demonstrated the necessity of continually remaining outward facing. Maybe Roddenberry’s stricture was a bit heavy-handed (maybe), but it certainly makes the message all that much more pointed.
But now –
Star Trek, meet Facebook. Face, meet Trek.
I suppose it’s possible that by the mid-23rd century, humanity will be able to handle both interpersonal conflict and external existential threat simultaneously (in a survivable manner), but a lot of “pre-history” strongly suggests otherwise.
*That’s what we called ourselves back in the day.