Matt Yglesias appreciates *Star Trek*

You will find his essay here, and I have many points of agreement with him, but I think he undervalues the first series.  Characters and script were excellent in about sixty percent of the original episodes.  It is also noteworthy that the original characters have entered popular culture for an enduring period of time and we are still making movies about them forty-five years later.  It’s not absurd to think of someone saying “Beam me up, Scotty” fifty years from now.  I don’t see Data or any other later character receiving the same treatment, nor do I think that any of the later installments would have, on their own, generated an entire franchise of installments, spin-offs, sequels, and the like, where Matt can tweet something like “Animated series is non-canon, people. Get with the program.”  If you’d like a treat, watch some of the D.C. Fontana-scripted Star Trek episodes, noting that “Tomorrow is Yesterday” is one of the funniest and most profound takes on “the great stagnation” to be found in popular culture or anywhere else for that matter.  And it was written before the great stagnation even started, and by Roddenberry’s office assistant at that.  Magic was in the air.  As for “Spock’s Brain,” well, that is another matter.


"I don’t see Data or any other later character receiving the same treatment"

It's probably just me, but when I'm preparing a cup of tea, I still say to myself "tea, Earl Grey, hot"

Resistance Is Futile

Both really great counterexamples. Another entry:

"Make it so."


I don't agree that anywhere near 90% of the original series stories were that good, although they were entertaining nonetheless.

For example, a planet that is Earth's exact twin and the Roman Empire never fell. OK, so what happened with that planet in all the sequels?

The time travel meme has been overused to the point it is insipid. Hell, why don't we just time travel all the time? Oh, the temporal prime directive. Look how often the original prime directive got broken.

Star Trek now isn't as good as Star Trek then for one main reason that plagues all of Hollywood: they have run out of fresh ideas. It is a barren wasteland of sequels, adaptations, and remakes. You could (and probably will) give me a list of counterexamples. The list will prove the rule.

Willitts, people don't want new ideas. They want the familiar. The space of ideas that engage human emotions is finite. If you delve into mere idiosyncracy, the result is boring arbitrariness.

Hence the same topes and human interaction patterns, over and over again. (May not apply to the long tail, but certainly to blockbusters)

Dan, agree in part, disagree in part.

Yes, familiar stories are comforting, and yeah there may be a finite number of emotional triggers. Star Wars = L'Morte D'Arthur. First Contact = Wrath of Khan = Moby Dick, etc.

Let me provide some of my own counterexamples:

Slumdog Millionaire, Life is Beautiful, Hurt Locker, Argo, Life of Pi, King's Speech, The Lives of Others.

The best movies, both in quality and box office returns, are almost all fresh ideas. Adaptations like the Hunger Games are both necessary and expected, but how many remakes of Batman and Spiderman can the world tolerate?

New ideas are out there but are being quashed by Hollywood's IP and production monopoly. People reward fresh ideas if they make it past the filter of the Writer's Guild.

Bollywood is turning out good films.

Yeah, but you guys are nerds. I don't get any of those references.

A lot of people do. Of course, the movie is more indicative of attention than the memes/phrases. But that's because movies are still expensive.

In 50 years, we may have an unending stream of AI-generated movies and TV episodes at very low cost, and then all franchises of the past are continually expanded. No character will ever really die, even side characters.

The only people who will watch those thousands of AI-generated episodes of Gilligan's Island will be prisoners, as part of their sentence.


But seriously, I'm not so sure. The quality will be really good. I watched all the old episodes of The Golden Girls recently, and I could enjoy one per week forever.

@ Dan: that can't possibly be true. Golden Girls, really?

It's a good essay, but has the self-satisfied postcapitalist progressivism really worked narratively in any series other than Next Generation? (Not a commentary on the economics or politics, just the storytelling)

Not sure about TV series, but I have read books with touches like (I paraphrase) "Fortunately Captain Kirks hire-car came with with a medical kit in the glove-box thanks to the regulation that made the Federation great".

Not exactly as Utopian as what MY's take, but then maybe well regulated glove boxes are very much MY's style of Utopia.

Deep Space Nine was pointedly capitalist in counter point to the Next Generation. You had to buy what you wanted, even when wearing a spiffy Federation uniform.

I agree with the assessment that the original series crew has far superior pop culture status, but I believe this is much more about the success of "The Wrath of Khan" than the quality of the original TV series. I would hypothesize that more people have watched and quoted "Khan" than any other pre-Abrams Star Trek movie or TV episode, and that the success of "Khan" was the tipping point that allowed the whole franchise to endure. I liked the review, but the limited discussion of "Khan" was what surprised me the most. You get a warped perspective of relative contributions to the success of the franchise when you pre-commit yourself to watch every TV episode and lousy movie of the franchise.

Also, we're naive to ignore that this "review" is primarily a pitch for a new serial-drama Star Trek suitable for modern binge-watching, not an objective review of the whole franchise. So it's no surprise that the quality of the original series and the "The Wrath of Khan" are downplayed.

Actually, I think that Star Trek IV probably had the biggest pop culture impact.

Nah. The original series led to the original SNL satire which led to an infinity of satires of the original which had nothing to do with Khan fans. The generation that grew up with reruns of the original series (And the SNL satire) (There was no other sci-fi on at the time, unless you count the Six Million Dollar Man) has that implanted in our subconsciousnesses forever, for better or worse. All I remember about Khan is that it starred Mr. Rourke.

From the sixties to the release of star wars, star trek was in heavy syndication and was effectively the face of popular science fiction.

Like a poor marksman, MattY kept missing the target. Perhaps he no longer needs to try.

There's tons of highly rich fictional worlds (Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Dune, etc.) where the demand for fiction set in those worlds is vastly under-supplied relative to demand. Furthermore fiction set in these worlds, particularly after the initial work, tends to be poorly composed. Much like the Star Trek example of post original series.

There are thousands of very strong writers, directors, actors out there that are constantly struggling to build up an audience. Why isn't the talent migrating to meet the demand? The only issue I see is maintaining canon consistency among all these authors. But we can adapt the organizational structures of successful open-source software projects where a strong leader and a tight group of lieutenants rigorously scrutinize and revise contributions before allowing them to official status.

As far as I'm concerned the fact that there aren't hundreds of Star Wars movies and thousands of Game of Thrones books is a real loss to human welfare in the entertainment sector.

I'm in. You make the GitHub repo, I'll get use under Creative Commons. ;)

Perhaps people think they want fiction set in those worlds, when what they really want is high-quality writing, matched with internal consistency, that mark a prominent original, but that inevitably diminish in writing about a single fictional world over time.

No I don't think the market is after high quality writing. People like familiarity.

There are lots of third-rate books related to Star Wars or Dragonlance and a big audience who will read them. I've done so, and enjoyed the books even without being a particular fan of those worlds.

If huge amounts of Middle-Earth fan fiction came out, I would read a lot of it, even knowing that will likely be ham-fisted and in some sense spoil the purity of the thing.

Counterpoint: Comic Books.

Don't be surprised if this happens. Although obviously git-style patching will play less of a role.

The thing is that Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and maybe a few others have the potential go down in history along with The Odyssey and the tales of King Arthur etc. But that will only happen after future minstrels (i.e. fan-fictionist) have done their thing. Current copyright holders have no interest in this.

There is already a ton of "expanded universe" material (from books to videogames) for Stark Trek and Star Wars. Not to mention thousands of fanfictions of varying quality.

Stark Trek

Ah yes, 'Stark Trek', the great Game of Thrones / Star Trek crossover series.

"Winter is coming, Kahnnnnn!"

I'm holding out for 'Stark Trek: The Next Generation':

"You know nothing, Mr. Data."

The original series had a bigger impact on popular culture simply because there was much less to watch in those days. Everybody watched the same stuff because there were only a few networks.

This. No TV series today can have the cultural impact of a series of that time no matter the quality-

TOS had rather low ratings during its initial run. It was in syndication for decades, though.

Even TNG shows its age. There is better sci-fi out there, but Trek was the giant upon whose shoulders the rest started from.

I'm rather fond of "The Empath," from the original series, an episode, incidentally, that was once banned in Britain. Here's a post in which I discuss it:

The writers sometimes had a difficult time reconciling their post-scarcity universe with their portrayals of capitalists (like Harvey Mudd or the Ferengi). We still haven't thought it all through. Also, has anyone ever noticed how screwy the prices on DS9 are?

This cracked me up. I wonder if there's a web page out there by some astrophysicist ranting about how it took the Enterprise 3 days to get to Rigel VII at Warp 7, but only 2 days to get to Deneb IV at Warp 5, but everyone knows Rigel is three times closer than Deneb and who do these idiots think they're fooling. (answer: probably).

Maybe there has been a lot of inflation since the occupation?

And how much effect would replicators have on the service industries? They are really a manufacturing technology, after all.

And why does the Federation fly starships and runabouts out to DS9 from earth, instead of replicating them on the spot?

OK, I'll stop now...

What Would Data Do would make a good bumper sticker

Or now that Autism is sexy:

"Data, would you datum?"

I've realized there is no phrase in the whole World that would make a good bumper sticker.

That one would.

I don't see the connection between “Tomorrow is Yesterday” and “the great stagnation”. Help me out?

Meh. The original series had a handful of really good episodes (City on the Edge of Forever being the most prominent, with The Trouble with Tribbles a close second), another handful of just good episodes, and a Dumpster-full of crap. I.e., Sturgeon's Law reigned. Of course, that was better than most TV shows in the '60s, especially SF-themed shows (Lost in Space, Time Tunnel), which is why we remember Star Trek fondly.

But it pales in comparison to written SF from the same period.

Was listening to NPR about 7 years ago on an afternoon drive during the week. A senior official at the National Academy of Sciences was asked what one thing drove most kids to science. He laughed and said you will not believe me. The interviewer said try me. He said the original television series Star Trek. Star Trek made science and engineering cool. Most of the "escapes" and "solutions" on the show were driven by the science officer (Spock) or engineering (Scotty). The hero can be a scientist or engineer. Cool.

So yeah, Star Trek has staying power. And as far as the later versions. Make it so. Tea, Earl Grey Hot. Yeah, it resonates.

What would an Economist Trek look like? A spaceship full of economists arrives at the godforsaken planet to teach the inhabitants austerity, open markets, and free trade?

Prime Directive, dude.

Which is, in a way, meta-laissez-faire.

And which, like laissez-faire, is honored mostly in the breach.

Spock recites the definition of a public good during his Vulcan training in the new film series.

I also recall Picard telling Lily in First Contact that the economics of the 24th century are a little different. Well, no. Mankind has solved the problem of most resource scarcity, but there is still an abundance of scarcities to deal with such as starship commands, holodeck time, lifespan, crowding of intellectual pursuits. Economics is timeless and universal. Solutions only breed more problems.

What about when our civilization encounters an alien civilization with a totally different form of economics, such as a system which rejects the notion that labor accrues to capital?

We destroy the evil bastards.

Star Trek makes a lot more sense if you view it as future propaganda of a progressive dystopia. In reality, Romulans are the dominant power, the capitalist Ferengi are not the buffoons they're portrayed as but a major economic power or at least a market-dominant minority. The Klingon Empire isn't always on the brink of civil war but is a well-run empire. The Federation might well be the North Korea of the galaxy - and we're getting a sample of their internal propaganda. (In which case the Federation might be a pawn in the Vulcan/Romulan North/South Korea struggle, which unfortunately was won by "Earth".)

Watching it with this gloss helps paper over inconsistencies, such as the pricing anomalies mentioned above (you expect Soviet propaganda to have accurate supermarket prices?). It also makes for an ironic twist for the occasional holes in Federation dogma. For example, the episode where Voyager's Doctor simulates a family and advises his sons to make "nice Vulcan friends" instead of "brutish Klingon friends," this despite the Federation's official multiculturalism.

I have been known to argue that the Federation is a communist military dictatorship. They have no internal trade, and by implication no property rights, the only attempt to change the government we see is an attempted coup by a Starfleet officer, virtually every authority figure in the Federation is a Starfleet officer, and although Starfleet has all the guns and a military rank structure, and is constantly shown shooting at people, they always claim it is not "really" a military organisation. The Federation does its "science research" with battleships - what does that tell you?

"Though technically a spinoff or sequel to the original show, TNG is in most respects the “real” Star Trek."

I literally could not make it past this sentence, which will make it difficult for me to take anything Yglesias says seriously from here on out. And this is from someone from the "TNG generation."

What I find interesting about the article is the way Yglesias sees those traditionally humanistic values that are the center of Star Trek -- curiousity, bravery, loyalty to friends, strong ethical principles, a refusal to take shortcuts -- and completely misinterprets them as inherently *political* values which, even more bizarrely, he then assumes are specific to the Great Society.

We talk a lot about mood affiliation here, but this is a particularly striking example. It's like he's so wrapped up in the idea of being a "progressive" that he assumes that anything good MUST, ipso facto, be progressive (and, probably, vice versa); and anything bad MUST be conservative.

Anyway, long story short, Kirk >>> Picard, and the fact that this subject is even debated makes me question the future of humanity.

Modern socialists who label themselves with the euphemism "progressive" have been fooled by their own propaganda.

They should have learned their lesson with "liberal."

Yglesias is a twit. DS9 garnered the highest critical acclaim and Yglesias himself ranks it second only to TNG. DS9 did this precisely because the series showed some hints of the kind of intellectual maturity that Matt and other progressives will never possess. In other words, Trek's best series was also the one least in tune with Roddenberry's (and Yglesias's) soupy-headed progressivism. It's fair to conjecture that they could only move in that direction after Roddenberry's death—age seems not to have tempered Gene's hippie flair but only given it a New Age tinge.

Yglesias's attempt in the essay to get around this is a failure. One need only cite the religious role that Sisko is assigned in the first episode, a theme that the writers developed wonderfully over the course of the series (instead of letting it drop like they might have done), to see what a break that DS9 made with the Trek progressivism that Yglesias so adores.

The first 2 seasons of TNG are downright unwatchable by most standards, so I really don't know what Yglesias is talking about. The only character that is any good at all is Picard.

The first series had the advantage that it was working in an environment where everything was fresh. Some episodes deal with premises that would fit a sci fi book, not just 45 minutes of actual footage. Of course it's better. After it came back to TV on season 3, the show was clearly out of ideas.

Star trek should go back to its roots, but with a more modern theme: Who wouldn't watch Trek with a captain that is a mix between Kirk and Dom Draper?

FWIW, the phrase "Beam me up, Scotty" never appeared in the original series, though a similar phrase ("Scotty, beam us up") did:,+scotty&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

I wonder when the mis-remembered catch-phrase first appeared in popular culture.

There are two discrepancies, putting Scotty's name last, rather than first, and singular in place of plural. I ignore the first. According to usage in books, the singular caught up with the plural in 1980, long before it appeared in the 1986 movie. It took off only a few years earlier. see here.

I can't argue against your facts, but you can't argue against the cultural influence.

No argument about the influence. What I find interesting, in fact, is that the influential phrase was edited from the original.

Many quotes and oral history are altered, in some cases for the better to correct errors or to adapt to more general or modern circumstances. Extemporaneous wisdom can often be improved upon by pithy editing.

"Beam me up Scotty" is pretty succinct.

"Methinks thou dost protest too much" is a frequent misquote and often misused.

On the other hand, many people take quotes out of context. I've never met anyone who talks about the Military Industrial Complex who has read the entirety of Eisenhower's farewell address. In fact, they seldom do even after being admonished for it.

"To boldly go..." is actually incorrect grammar, but it sounds much better than "To go boldly..."

Yglesias article and list has a lot to cause people to disagree. It's the usual tripe from him which is one reason I stopped reading Slate long ago. However, it's just a list of personal preferences, and as such it's almost useless to disagree. We all have our lists of favorites.

The one thing that points out is how desperate he is to tie the show to a specific political agenda instead of just an optimism in the future that humanity will overcome its current problems. I am not saying Star Trek was apolitical - it definitely took a stand against racism and discrimination - but this is less bold than it may seem. Southern style segregation was rejected by the entire rest of the country, and showing an integrated crew with black Africans and Russians was original and bold, but not unheard of. In early WWII era movies, we'd see a mix of people of all colors and creeds working together to defeat the Japanese and Nazis. Watch almost any Humphrey Bogart of the era. People of all political persuasions can watch the show - especially the original series.

The Federation can be described as a post-scarcity economy, but I would disagree that it is a "post-scarcity socialist economy". In a post-scarcity economy, socialism becomes meaningless. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that "socialists" would ever have developed the technologies and economic infrastructure to create a post-scarcity economy in the first place. I'm sorry, Matt, but it was capitalists who would have done that.

It's also clear that the implications of a non-monetary base economy isn't taken seriously by the writers. There are things scarce even in the Star Treak galaxy. An entire episode of DS9 deals with Jake Sisko trying to obtain an rare, original baseball card for his dad. Captain Sisko's dad even runs a restaurant. He clearly can't be doing that for nothing except the joy of cooking. How are Starfleet personnel paying Quark while in his bar? References to various commodities like Romulan ale indicates a non-replicator trading system is in place. There is even organized crime! So some form of old fashioned scarcity economics still exists, and therefore some form of money must be present.

Yglesias says it's telling that Kirk's ship wasn't bringing trade agreements or opening markets, but I can't see how he can say that. The Enterprise was not shilling any specific commodity or business, but clearly cooperation with the Federation implied market access, technology transfer, and all kinds of peaceful cooperation that a society of free, independent merchants would enjoy. Multiple episodes make note of this especially whenever a planet is considered for membership of the Federation, or being wooed away from the Klingons. Furthermore, the galaxy is filled with independent explorers and traders like Harry Mudd or Cyrano Jones. I like to think it was one of them that was the first human ever encountered by the Ferengi.

There are numerous episodes where the Enterprise is brokering trade agreements or helping to settle territorial disputes or access to key resources.

The examples of economics at work in the original series and sequels are legion.

The ship was named Enterprise for a reason.

It's also noteworthy that the "Enterprise" was a warship.

Starship Diplomacy.

Purists and true believers will quibble with you about the Enterprise being a warship, but there is no doubt she had the capabilities of a warship and functioned like one.

In Star Fleet Battles, the Enterprise was a Heavy Cruiser.

It’s also clear that the implications of a non-monetary base economy isn’t taken seriously by the writers.

I think the Federation was intended to be a moneyless progressive utopia, much as Yglesias says. But we never see how it actually works from inside, because no one ever figured out how it might actually work.

Likewise, we never see an election in the Federation, because that would require showing conflict within the Federation, and Rodenberry insisted that there was no such thing.

I love Star Trek and the article was great. Here's a comment about Picard's claim that "money does not exist in the 24th century."


Currency definitely exists in Picard era Star Trek, despite Picards high mindedness in "First Contact". DS9 has multiple references to "gold pressed latinum", and it seems pretty clear that the merchants on the station are making profits from their activity. For much of the cannon though, there is simply no mention of how goods are allocated. Maybe on board the ship things could have been allocated hierarchically somehow. But the crew visits hotels, restaurants and shops on Star Trek earth as well as other planets in the star trek universe. How exactly would these goods and services be allocated without currency?

Replicators would pretty much doom commodity money.

Fiat money would have serious problems.

I suppose Star Trek hints at a return to a barter system, queuing, and meritocracy on coveted positions.

In the new film, I couldn't suspend disbelief in Capt. Pike telling young Kirk how quickly he'd get his own command. Given the size of space, its conceivable that Starfleet has thousands or millions of ships. The fiction is getting a bit ahead of the plausible. Things like transporters and replicators are most likely impossible because of Heissenberg Uncertainty. What's the solution? Why, a Heisenberg Compensator, of course!

TGS: the world will eventually butt up against limits of the laws of physics.

"I've got to have thirty minutes!"

I enjoyed the enthusiasm for Sci-Fi from Yglesias. But I tire if this endless tendancy of both Lib and Con pundits to view entertainment through this prism of current politics. It seems to share a root with the worst tendencies of the State censorship boards of the 20th century.

People come to Sci-Fi and fantasy to play with ideas on the edge of what currently exists, and the best writers in the genre leave the baggage of these politics at home. With a few exceptions, people who see some sort of political message in a script are usually seeing it through a distorted mirror of their own expectations rather than what the writer is bringing to the story.

There's an excellent piece on why a millenial didn't watch the original at all, then watched the entire series, and liked the original here.

For my part, I thought he sounded like someone who's just seen a handful of decent Shakespeare plays performed, and has just figured out what the fuss is all about.

Just because I grew up in the 80s, is Geordi La Forge not as high in cultural references & awareness as Kirk & Spock? It seems that if people are talking about Star Trek in a mass media way, they are saying "Beam me up Scotty" or are putting something over their eyes La Forge-style. Even a recent episode of Storage Wars mentions the look.

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