Nerd Factor: To Boldly Go Where $9.99 a Month Will Allow

Dr. Mike Robinson, LC Communication Studies Professor~

Popular culture in general and science fiction in particular fall victim to the escapist complaint.

The charge is that entertainment is somehow invalid precisely because it entertains. The assumption is that one cannot simultaneously have fun and also do serious thinking.

For the sci-fi fan, the quick defense against this is “Star Trek.” Since the original television program’s debut in 1966, “Trek” has earned a reputation for challenging ideasand exciting drama. The newest Trek series, “Star Trek: Discovery,” is about to join the franchise on CBS’ streaming service. But I wonder, is that the best place for Trek to be boldly going?

Trek rightly deserves praise. Over six television programs (yes, I counted the cartoon), 13 films and countless other products, “Star Trek” has relentlessly pushed a positive view of the human future. This optimism says that not only will we survive as a species, but we will thrive. Pushing past our prejudices and fears, we will cast off all our negative qualities and move out into a wondrous future of exploration. Now Trek is by no means perfect in execution, but by and large this is a franchise that has some good lessons for life.  

For example, the original show aired in the 1960s when our country was undergoing a period of tremendous change and conflict. For an hour on the small screen, a viewer could at least see the possibility that we would get by this, that the dark and selfish forces that sought to divide us would not win. More importantly, the show took on concepts such as racism and tyranny, explicitly labelling these ideas as ridiculous faults that impeded our progress.

Famously, the original show did not do well on broadcast television. Its true success came in syndication. Re-runs across various independent stations added legions of fans. Although my mother says I was a fan in utero, I really discovered the program through repeats. As a kid interested in science, I devoured this stuff.   

So why worry about a new Trek series going to an internet exclusive delivery model? After all, that’s progress. My concern is that as we move away from broadcast and cable television where multiple channels arrive for free or at a pre-set cost, we lose the ability to just stumble across good television.  

Think about how much your television viewing life is now like reading books. People are constantly recommending things to you. “You know, you should really be watching such and such on Netflix.” “Have you seen this on Hulu?”

However, unlike a book, which can presumably be loaned to someone, it’s hard to just pop over and catch a show on a service you don’t already have. Sure, there are free month sample subscriptions and free trials, but “Star Trek: Discovery” is not going to drop all its episodes at once.

 

Being a fan is sometimes like being an addict, and CBS is a canny dealer. The first one is free on network TV. After that, kid, you pay for your boldly going.

And I just really wish Trek would be easier to run across. Maybe I’m optimistic, but the way life is right now, I think we could all use a little good old fashioned Trek positivity. I would never argue it’s an antidote, but it certainly can’t hurt.