Stephen King — who, let's face it, is having an amazing year — wrote that “symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity.”
I've been thinking about this quote with the upcoming Star Trek series, premiering this week, as well as the parody/homage series "The Orville." For 50 years, Star Trek fans have boasted that the show's brand of storytelling allows it to provide social commentary on events of the day through the genre of science fiction.
Series creator Gene Roddenberry and other writers for decades said that the trappings of science fiction allowed them to tell stories (about race, about Vietnam, etc.) that otherwise would have never made it past conservative TV censors. We are promised that both "Star Trek: Discovery" and "The Orville" will lean on the same kind of allegories.
There’s just one problem with this: Star Trek isn’t really that good at social commentary, and artificially profound allegories usually doesn’t make for good storytelling. (OK, that’s two problems, technically.)
Despite the fanfare, Star Trek’s best episodes are not the social commentary ones. “The Trouble With Tribbles,” “Arena” (where Captain Kirk fights the lizard-man), “Mirror, Mirror” (where the USS Enterprise team meet an evil, bearded Spock) and “Best of Both Worlds,” along with the rest of the top rated episodes, aren’t homilies disguised as sci-fi.
The exception to all this was Star Trek’s masterful recreation on screen of the Cold War, with Klingons standing in for Soviets. Making America's enemies aliens helped the country better see how human they were.
But the Cold War ended 25 years ago, so maybe it’s time to move on.
However, while Star Trek hasn't excelled at social commentary, it has led by example with stories about courage, teamwork and friendship through adversity, which, I have to say, generally works better than ham-fisted allegories.
For example, Star Trek's classic space-racism-is-bad-episode is “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” It’s the one with the half-white/half-black aliens played by Frank Gorshin, The Riddler from the old Batman series. This episode, while iconic, is not particularly beloved. It doesn’t generally appear on fan's top 10 list of episodes.
The most eloquent way Star Trek rebuked racism, be it in space or otherwise, was simply putting a diverse cast of characters on screen and showing — non-dogmatically — how well they worked together. Ironically, that first televised inter-racial kiss episode that’s talked about so much (“Plato’s Stepchildren”) wasn’t about race at all.
Now none of this is to say fiction can’t have a deeper meaning — but when you’re talking about ray guns and spaceships, simple, universal messages work better than strict allegory.
Arguably the franchise’s most beloved installment is "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," wherein a genetically engineered nemesis returns to menace our hero with a doomsday weapon while said hero is dealing with his mid-life crisis.
The fundamental message in this story is pretty simple: humankind should accept its limitations — namely old age and the inevitability of death — rather than trying to play God and change the rules of life. Humans shouldn’t cheat death and pat themselves on the back for their ingenuity.
This universal theme is something that has the same application today that it did 30 years ago. And so the story works a lot better than if the whole thing had been a note-by-note allegory.
Moreover, and this is the real thing Star Trek writers don't seem to realize, conservative TV censors don't exist any more. On the contrary, you need to cloak your message in allegory only if you want to tell conservative stories. "Breaking Bad" used meth-dealing to explore the collapse of masculinity in modern society, and "The Walking Dead" uses zombies to discuss the collapse of rural America.
Long-running franchises can have an amazing appeal. They can connect with readers over decades, then again with future generations, through the power of storytelling — whether that’s Star Trek, Stephen King or any of our favorite writers. But it’s a lot harder to do that if you’re just copy-pasting the news of the day.