Fixing Nostalgia: “Star Trek” Boldly Goes to Less Utopian Futures

“Picard” is perhaps the least utopian of any “Star Trek” media. But’s that because its political pragmatism shows how to build a better reality.

When Star Trek premiered in 1966, creator Gene Roddenberry offered an optimistic vision of space exploration. The show famously presented a utopian future in which humans have mostly resolved major conflicts among themselves and led a federation of planets across the galaxy. As in much of science fiction, their dangerous encounters with aliens were allegories for a less-than-ideal present Earth. Conflict between crew members on the original series was light—the human Dr. McCoy might quarrel with the Vulcan Spock, but their antagonism was not treated as speaking to the struggle of working across differences. The occasional crew member who discriminated against Spock was an outlier. Nor was the federation ever questioned as a force for good. But with each iteration, new writers of Star Trek have challenged the ideality of the federation of Roddenberry’s vision and worked to imagine a still extraordinary future in which human beings have nonetheless failed to work everything out.

This turn to more conflict and darker stories about a disturbing future could simply be read as a common characteristic of the reboot or as illustrative of the contemporary omnipresence of dystopian storytelling. But what is unique about this narrative when it comes to Star Trek is that the concept of a utopian future for humanity was so foundational to the show that the turn toward dystopia actually accomplishes the unexpected: it helps viewers reimagine an ideal future that rejects hagiography and can still regularly include deep conflict between humans and their allies.

Because Star Trek has long been moving toward managing intracommunity conflict as a generative thing to model as the franchise has progressed, I think of the different versions as trying to fix or respond to some issue within a previous series and not only focused on continuing the storyline. People are likely to disagree over whether any Star Trek series can truly be classified as reboots. A “reboot,” by definition, is a new beginning in response to failure or error and getting things going anew after something has shut down. By that definition, Star Trek has rebooted a few times.1

The first Star Trek film was a reboot of the franchise after it had been canceled. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–94) was sometimes described as a reboot because it started the franchise again on television after its short run from 1966 to 1968. And quite a successful reboot it was—there were new Star Trek television episodes from 1987 to 2005. Enterprise (2001–5) was a prequel that took viewers back to the beginning of the federation, suggesting an affective reboot that would bring in new viewers and “reenergize” the franchise.2 After a decade off the air, Discovery could be seen as a reboot of the franchise for television, albeit for a streaming platform.

Star Trek fans often express deep enthusiasm at the prospect of a new series, but while these shows are continuations or sequels of the original plot, they often have the creative foci of what I think of as the three overlapping Rs—remakes, reimaginings, and reboots—that are omnipresent in film and television today. The three Rs try to “fix your nostalgia” in two ways. First, reboots/reimaginings/remakes want to bring you back to the foundation of your deep attachment to the property. To be “Trek” is to depict the “exploration of new worlds” (as the famous voice-over states); an optimism about the future; a crew whose most important relationships seem to be with one another, scientific solutions that are informed by science but can entertainingly be deus ex machina to problems they encounter and charismatic captains that hold the crew and series together.

But at the same time, the three Rs often seek to address some problematic aspects of the original material. In the 1966 Star Trek, representations of race, gender, and sexuality were limited by the constraints of what the network would allow and what Roddenberry and the other writers could imagine in the late 1960s.3 White men were at the center, and gender roles were largely heteronormative and conventional. And the utopian future with little human conflict arguably modelled a future that is less than human.

Reboots are often seeking solution to problems—financial (bring viewers back or find new ones) or content (revision or update of material that feels dated or less suited to the media representation politics of the present). Deep Space Nine (1993–99) focused on the impact of colonialism and war and the struggle of different groups of people cohabiting on a space station. The show ended with many of the central characters going back to where they came from. It was thus a somewhat melancholy ending for a franchise that previously imagined the crews staying together in perpetuity or always found a way to bring them back to one another. But it has often been described by fans as the best Star Trek, arguably because of its realistic depictions of struggling under such serious conflicts. Star Trek Voyager (1995–2001) focused on the joining of two crews that are distrustful of one another but learning to work together to get home after they are placed in another galaxy. Enterprise showed the federation’s early struggles to get along with their possible allies and also depicted war. Discovery also chose to go the war route when it began, with a central character who is distrusted and hated by most of the crew.

“Star Trek” helps viewers reimagine an ideal future that rejects hagiography and can still regularly include deep conflict between humans and their allies.

The crew hating the protagonist isn’t really Trek. And it’s not the first time a particular series has been accused of lacking the Star Trek sensibility. David Greven has argued that Enterprise was unsuccessful and had a shorter run because of a conservative resistance to progressive values. Enterprise is set before the federation is established, and it has more of a “frontier” discourse in which the characters encounter a number of species who fear them and often threaten them. The captain, Jonathan Archer, was also a return to a white, masculine, action-oriented lead. Greven notes that at one point, a time traveler from the future asserts that Archer is the future, and Greven interprets this as a rejection of the women and people of color who were the leads in the previous two iterations of Star Trek (Deep Space Nine and Voyager). I would argue that while the road is a rocky one, the show ended with the optimistic Trek conclusion that was always its destination: they founded the federation and exhibited as much Trek utopianism as in any version of the show. The fact that they struggled to connect with different species and often fell into despair made the ending feel earned.

Initial intracommunity conflicts are arguably one of the reasons Star Trek: Discovery may seem to some viewers as “not Trek,” although that accusation often had covert or quite explicit racist objections to the diversity of the leads and the show addressing “social justice.”4

As numerous fans have noted, these complaints are nonsensical responses to a franchise that was designed to be diverse and address political issues. But in their own perverse ways, racist viewers recognize the real challenges to the creator’s 1966 vision: where once conflict came from aliens (who were inherently easy to “other”), now, some of the most important conflicts also come from humans and their allies.

In some ways, the third season of Picard is the most interesting example of how reboots fix nostalgia. We might call a change between seasons a reboot if it does something more radical than “retooling.” And, in season three of Picard, almost all of the characters from the previous seasons are gone, and the show leans into the nostalgia of having old characters return. Fans are treated to references to important moments in the series and films with the crew. At the same time, the relationships are occasionally almost unrecognizable, veering between deep affection and a sudden reimagining in which the crew is critical of their beloved captain, seeing him as controlling and dangerously egocentric. This rewriting of characters gives Picard a somewhat uneven feel.

But for many critics and fans, this reboot-within-a-reboot is the most successful season of the show. For all of its unevenness, part of what this reboot of Picard does is pair old and new: adding to the gradual evolution of what hope and utopia looks like in the Star Trek universe.

But does all of this conflict mean that a fundamental aspect of the franchise has been removed from Trek? Is it really presenting utopia? Or just the future? Heather Urbanski argues that “a narrative [is] in conversation with itself in a reboot,” which is constantly illustrated in the Star Trek franchise.5 Newer writers for Star Trek have moved audiences closer to understanding conflicted humanity and an imperfect federation as part of the utopian vision Star Trek put forth.

In the second season of Strange New Worlds (2023), the first officer of the Enterprise, Una, has been put on trial for hiding that she was genetically modified, something that the federation has prohibited because of previous experiments with modification that resulted in war. Una describes the discrimination she experienced as a child and how, despite the ways that the federation threatened her and her family, she still dreamed of joining an organization in which people who were so different could work together. She describes how deeply she believes in the motto “Ad Astra per Aspera”—“to the stars through hardship.” The federation is not perfect, but she believes in the possibilities it offers.

So many series offer a deeply troubling future. The original Star Trek series offered something lighter even as it presented plots about serious conflicts. Humanity is better not because all conflict has been eradicated but because people continue to work through differences, even some that are irreconcilable.

Representations of a utopian future for humanity need to show a world in which we continue to work through conflicts despite fundamental differences; in which we recognize that some relationships cannot be maintained, given commitments to home or identity; in which we accept that there will be people who continually do things that that seem insurmountable to coexistence, but we will still need to learn live beside them.

When we erase and displace conflicts to always being elsewhere, we obscure what it means to live with one another. The best future we can hope for is not one in which humanity has overcome all their differences. It is a continuous struggle that makes the world better, because we have to continue to survive, and even thrive, in a world in which we struggle with one another. icon

  1. Only the 2009 J. J. Abrams film is consistently described as a reboot of the franchise. It recasts the original characters and also creates a new chronology for the universe, known as the “Kelvin time line.” But the new chronology definition can be too narrow, as it ignores some other moments when Star Trek rebooted.
  2. Dan Snierson, “2001 A New Space Odyssey,” Entertainment Weekly, October 19, 2001.
  3. Daniel Leonard Bernardi, Star Trek and History: Race-ing Toward a White Future (Rutgers University Press, 1998).
  4. Not counting the “shorts” that are companion pieces to Discovery, there have been eleven live-action or animated series; thirteen films; numerous books, games, and other material that has made it possible for people to immerse themselves in Trek for over half a century. Not surprisingly, Discovery is not the first addition to the series that has been seen as both a new start and unfaithful to what “Trek” is.
  5. Heather Urbanski, The Science Fiction Reboot: Canon, Innovation and Fandom in Refashioned Franchises (Basic Books, 2007), p. 7.
This article was commissioned by Madeline Ullrich and Sarah Kessler. Featured image: Michael Dorn, Jonathan Frakes, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, and Patrick Stewart in “The Last Generation" episode of Star Trek: Picard (2023) via IMDb