9/11/12

Star Trek: Asterisk "Sailing On the Arc"

When Star Trek started out, it followed the same basic format as the rest of the shows of its era. One episode was one story compartmentalized in a single hour timeframe that never affected any other episode. TV was this way in that time because it was still pretty much a novelty. A popular novelty, to be sure, but the only time anyone took it seriously was when the news was on. As TV grew and matured and as people began to see it as a proper artform, stories began to take a broader shape. The continuity of story that one might have only previously found in a book or movie series started to find its way into the craft of television. Characters began to evolve, stories began to stretch the resolution between several episodes - even whole seasons! Story arcs became not just popular, but expected. And for Star Trek, it all started in the movies.

When we came out of the 70's, Star Trek faced a daunting future. They had done well in syndication, but now they were facing the epic grandeur of the silver screen. After a mediocre first try, they started realizing that to be really successful they had to shift their focus from the story to the characters. The story is important, to be sure, but these characters are the ones with whom we are sharing the journey. The characters are the people we've come to love and count as friends. The stories may teach us a grand lesson about life in general, but the characters give us a feeling of family - they're the glue that holds everything together.
Where everybody knows your name.
The Wrath of Khan took a deep emotional hook from The Motion Picture and expounded on it. Spock's decision not to go through with kolinahr was a big step for the character and culminated with his bonding in friendship with Kirk and his eventual death at the hands of Khan. His death lead into the main plot for The Search for Spock finding him alive, but broken. And although his healing was not complete, he continued rediscovering himself throughout The Voyage Home. In only one of these movies was Spock a central part of the plot, but Spock grew more and more with each credit roll. The last two movies, The Final Frontier and The Undiscovered Country, focused heavily on the friendship between Kirk, Spock and Bones, thus expanding Spock's personal motivations out to his closest friends.

The preceding followed just Spock's arc through the movies, simply because it's really the easiest to follow, but Kirk does not take a backseat to the story. All along the way he's coming to terms with his old age. He learns he has a son, tries to get back into his life, loses him and then faces the reality of resentment and the temptation of revenge. In the movies we see Kirk facing challenges that his five-year mission could never have afforded him. We've seen him act brilliantly in battle, we've seen him command a starship like a pro, but now, in his midlife, we see him face the challenges of fatherhood and age - things we humans have to deal with every day.
Things like dealing with your son falling for a Vulcan.
After the movies became a success, it was time for a new Trek. Gene Roddenberry proposed The Next Generation and with it came a slight bit of return to the same formula that he believed made The Original Series great. There wasn't much in terms of story arc in the first few seasons of The Next Generation. Sure, there was Q who returned now and then, but in all the stories were relatively modular. As time went on, however, they began to get more and more involved. We started following not just the stories, but the characters. Wesley's story of being a genius and leaving Starfleet, Troi and Riker's imzadi story, Picard's encounter with the Borg, all these things and more started coming to the forefront and replacing the importance of whatever the circumstances were surrounding the plot.

By the time Deep Space Nine came around, the producers were keen for a full-on soap opera with episodes that flow on to the next one as smoothly as a movie cut for television. Voyager cut back only slightly on that, but still found time for some heavy arcs, and Enterprise followed basically the same structure as Voyager. As Trek grew into a full on cultural phenomenon, we were taught more about Trek's universe than Trek taught us about ours. Continuous stories pumped up the drama between characters and dropped little nuggets of truth where in The Original Series the nuggets were boulders and the drama was consequential.
As the Station Turns...
Is there a right or wrong way to handle story arcs? Is having an episodic show better than a serial show? I don't know. I love The Original Series, but I love it in quite a different way than I love the movies or the last few seasons of The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine. I'm not here to cast judgement on story structure, but it is interesting to note that, when it comes to popularity, Star Trek is at its best when it's sailing on an arc.