I just finished watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine all the way through for the first time. I know, I’m very behind almost anyone interested in science fiction. I’m pleased to say that, although I caught a handful of episodes when I was a kid and they were on TV, I went into the series mostly-unspoiled and had a great experience. DS9 is, for me, the best Star Trek series I’ve ever seen, including Next Generation.
When I retreated to the internet for customary post-consumption binging of opinions on whatever show, book, movie or video game I had just completed, I found very quickly that there seem to be two major “camps” in Star Trek fandom, at least from my very cursory overview. This is, obviously, a major reduction in complexity and Trek, no doubt, has as many fandom niches and sub-groups as any good comic book fandom, but essentially the divide is drawn between those who hold up DS9 (and similar style Trek storytelling) as the best of the series and those who hold up TNG (and similar style Trek storytelling) as the best of the series.
Even more simply-put (because arguments like the one I’m going to make must reduce complexity to be palatable), there are those in Trek fandom who think grittier, morally-ambiguous Trek is superior. Others prefer the unchanged, Roddenberry “purist” vision, where Trek and its protagonists are unwavering forces and beacons for good. This is most aptly reflected, I think, in the perspectives and actions of both series’ captains.
Captain Sisko is a good man, certainly, but bends rules and makes decisions that go against Federation ideals that Picard would never entertain. Picard is one of the most morally-upright people ever put to television, Captain America included. So where The Next Generation has Picard solve problems according to very strict, utopian ideals, Sisko solves problems in messier ways, often requiring some moral wrestling or bargaining to accomplish whatever objective he’s after that episode.
So where am I going with this?
I think that the divide (again, massively simplified, since I’m sure there are a few who think Voyager is the best, or Enterprise, etc.) between DS9 and TNG represents a greater lesson in fiction appreciation and fandom that you can see in all sorts of examples. I’ll pull a controversial and common one out just to stir the pot.
I’m not going to get into whether or not Luke’s journey or character development in The Last Jedi was good or not, because there’s no surer way to derail a conversation than to start debating that massive topic. Instead, I just want to point out that the camps drawn there – between those who like Luke’s total failure, more morally-gray depiction and subsequent wrestling with ideals and regret, and those who are absolutely pissed that Luke wasn’t a pure Jedi who saved everyone, guided Rey without fault, and/or drew a laser sword and cut down Snoke – seem awfully similar to the Trek camps I described above.
And so I started thinking about other examples of this trend, which I’ll call for this article, “Changing the Fantasy”. It usually happens when a writer for a particular story or character wants to change the story, write a sequel, or do a reboot. Examples of this include moments like Superman snapping Zod’s neck in Man of Steel, or entire story arcs such as Harry Potter and friends not having a final school year like the other books during Deathly Hallows.
Anyone who has studied story design to a rudimentary degree will hopefully agree with me when I say that story, in a nutshell, can be described as, “Character A starts one way and CHANGES to become a different way”. This fundamental idea, where a person starts off with a certain problem, flaw, or characteristic, and through trial and pressure placed upon them thanks to the story changes in a core way is the basic tenet upon which almost all tales are molded. This is because most people like to watch action. We like to see change.
Watching Superman handle the bad guys and not have to make any big decisions to alter his character in a fundamental way is boring. Or is it?
Story design would say so. But why, then, is there always a layer of complaint in dedicated fandoms, such as Trek, Star Wars, comic books, or practically any franchise where the world is arguably as important as the characters, where some or most of the fanbase is displeased when big change comes about? When a character fails or dies or does something they disagree with?
I think it relates to escapism, the other half of this idea. You see, after reading about the DS9 vs. TNG divide, I got to wondering how on Earth anyone could think TNG was better. It did have character development, sure, but DS9’s entire series was wrapped around how the characters and the political situation in the Alpha Quadrant morphed as the pressures continually-introduced mounted. TNG couldn’t really change to that degree because, like the original series before it, it’s premise was based on “episode in a bottle” serial-based storytelling. The Enterprise had to remain essentially the same with essentially the same character so that each week the problem-solving capability remained.
But I read a bunch of arguments from those who love TNG and dislike DS9 for its focus on war and the compromised ideals of the Federation. Obviously I can’t know for certain, and the internet is a poor tool for discerning true meaning, but it seemed to me that the arguments against DS9 boiled down to one ultimate feeling: it had messed with the “essence” of Star Trek. Essence, in particular, seems to be quoted a lot in those kinds of discussion.
So then I thought about Luke Skywalker. And how a very vocal part of the Star Wars fanbase disliked (to put it mildly) how his essence had been ruined. How, from their perspective, the entire core of Luke Skywalker was gone the moment he thought about nephew-cide.
I think you can translate those kinds of ideas (along with those who hate the idea of Superman killing once, to learn to never kill again, or those who hate Deathly Hallow, since it took them away from Hogwarts) even further. Folks who dislike the essence of something being changed dislike that the escape has been altered. The holodeck no longer takes them to Vic Fontaine’s casino but instead somewhere else.
This is something I think I’ve understood for a while but never really been able to solidify. There are two reasons for consuming media, I think: escapism or entertainment. Within these two broad categories you can fit every single story ever told, in my mind, and franchises, for better or worse, tend to eventually fall into escapism once they achieve a certain level of cultural and fandom inertia.
Watching Star Trek, even, in 2019 isn’t about being entertained, is it? The shows haven’t aged very well, and the moral messages they send about complicated topics have been done in the modern era with more or equal nuance in a lot of cases (although, of course, Trek helped pioneer the first progressive attitudes on TV in its day). So watching Trek nowadays can’t really be about finding quality entertainment, right? Arrival is a better take on alien communication than Star Trek, most of the time. A few stand-out episodes might compete.
I think a huge proportion of folks who like these kinds of serialized stories – Trek, Star Wars, comic books and their films – like them because they offer an opportunity to escape from the real world. I know for a fact that I watched DS9 because it was nice to enjoy a universe where the problems of my life were not only nonexistent but where every one of the protagonists was, at heart, a good person doing cool things with their friends. This is, I suppose, entertainment, too, though not in the way I meant earlier with my broad categorization.
“Escapism”, in this sense, is about relaxing the mind and enjoying oneself without challenge. It’s awesome. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of media, and I think everyone needs it sometimes. And it’s also entertaining.
But “Entertainment” as I mean it for this post, is about intriguing character change or challenging one’s convictions or ideas. A lot of great books and films are fantastic to read or watch once, but then not really ever touch again. I loved Wind River, for instance, but I’ll probably never watch it again.
I’ve rambled for a long time now so I’ll get to the point.
I used to think that those who thought The Last Jedi was a terrible movie were wrong. I still think their actual criticisms are incorrect, although that’s a bad hill to die on since it sounds like I’m claiming that I know what they feel better than they do. That’s not what I want to do. But anyway, I no longer think they’re blind for disliking the movie.
Just like I can’t fault those who enjoy Next Generation better than DS9. It’s their escapism. Like Luke Skywalker was the escape, along with the original Star Wars movies, for hundreds of thousands of people. The folks who hate that Superman killed Zod in Man of Steel aren’t stupid. They know, I think, that Superman being perfect is boring story design.
But they just want to have fun watching their hero do cool things. Man, do I relate to that.
Bottom line: I think hardcore fans, particularly the vocal, loudmouth ones who like to scream insults whenever they disagree with something, need to check themselves with all the relentless critiquing of their favorite series’ when things change. Maybe look hard in the mirror and wonder if they’re just salty that their perfect universe got messed up. I know I’ve felt that exact emotion before (coughcough Star Wars EU).
But what do you do if you’re a writer, director, etc.? Are you just supposed to never change your characters or stories for fear of messing up numerous peoples’ fantasies? I don’t know. If you ever are successful enough to have a series with a popular following, I both envy you and wish you luck. How can you balance preserving an escape while making the story entertaining, which requires tearing the fantasy down at some point?
I don’t know if you can. And I wonder if maybe fans, even those who try to roll with the punches like me, are basically doomed to always be disappointed eventually. You have a favorite series, you treasure the original run, then you look into the new line only to find that it’s different than you remembered, and all you’ve got left are memories of the first time you experienced that story. Only now they might be tarnished by the thought that your hero eventually suffers and never gets the happy ending.
Well that ended up gloomier and more dramatic than I intended. Time to go watch some Next Generation, I guess.