Was Star Trek Ever Really Intelligent, Grown-Up Science Fiction?

Star Trek fans proclaim their favorite series to have been sophisticated and mature — and, above all, brimming with huge philosophical questions. But was Star Trek ever really that smart? A Trek fan asked over at TrekBBS, and the responses are illuminating.

One thing about the exchange at TrekBBS: it may not convince you that Trek is smarter than other TV and movie franchises, but it will leave you convinced that Trek fans are cooler. There's remarkably little yelling and throwing of foam boulders, at least for the first few pages that I read.

User King Daniel Into Darkness asked:

Star Trek has a reputation for being intelligent science fiction. I'm not sure how it got it, because to me it's been about evil transporter duplicates, monsters in underground caves, ham-fisted morals, evil twin universes, tribbles and other comic book-style larger than life adventures with mostly (or not-so-mostly, in some cases) likeable characters. When Trek tried to be smart, it played out pretty much the same as above but with everyone wearing grim faces. There are always big gaps in common sense (V'Ger: A godlike entity which never thought to wipe the muck of it's own name plate), incredibly dodgy science (all that psychedelic screensaver stuff they fly through to get to V'Ger) and a cornball ending (It was an ancient Earth probe all along!)

How did The Next Generation ever manage to hold on to it's serious reputation after such undignified disasters as "Code of Honor", "Haven", "Rascals", the soap opera nonsense of "The Masterpiece Society" or the goofy Blob of Pure Evil in "Skin of Evil"? Is it the way the crew carry themselves, the technobabble, or late 80's/early 90's advertising hype building up the image of smart science fiction in fans' minds? As a kid who grew up watching TNG, I bought it at the time, but I don't see any substance behind that hype now...

What are the smartest (both in scientific and intellectual terms) episodes of the Star Trek franchise? What makes it more clever than, say, Stargate SG-1, the MCU or even the Trek reboot? It might be interesting to look into examples given and see how well they really hold up.

Responds 2TakesFrakes:

I suspect that if there is anything factual behind the so-called "Intelligent Sci-Fi" evoked here, it's in that there is usually some semblence of an investigation involved with most of the stories. The characters don't act rashly, for the most part. They gather facts, present them - and their ideas about them - to the captain and he acts on that. So, maybe it's this sort of detective-like process that's being referred to.

There is also this phenomenon at work, here, that's the same thing which is responsible for everyone saying crazy shit like "Led Zepplin" was the greatest rock band in history and you need that shit in your collection, or you don't know anything about music.

Adds Christopher L. Bennett:

You have to consider it in the context of what else constituted SFTV in the '60s and '70s. Aside from The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, '60s SFTV was pretty much defined by Irwin Allen shows like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, spy-fi like The Wild, Wild West and The Man from UNCLE, sitcoms like My Favorite Martian and It's About Time, Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation shows, and cartoons like The Jetsons and Jonny Quest. There was The Prisoner, of course, but that was seen more as a spy show than SF. Aside from that, the only contemporary of Trek that really tried for adult drama was The Invaders, and that was basically just a knockoff of The Fugitive....

The thing is, SFTV has matured considerably since then, largely because Star Trek set the example.

BillJ weighs in:

TOS was an avenue for Roddenberry to tell stories he couldn't get away with on your average western or cop drama of the day. Was it 'intelligent'? Yeah, I think it was. Was it 'intelligent sci-fi'? No, I don't think so.

Responds CorporalCaptain:

Was Trek ever really intelligent sci-fi? Of course it was. "The City on the Edge of Forever". "The Doomsday Machine". "The Menagerie". "Amok Time". "Arena". "Yesteryear". "Tin Man". Those are just some examples of intelligent science fiction in Star Trek. Some of those episodes were adaptations of published science fiction (or nominally so), some of those episodes were Hugo winners themselves, and some were Hugo nominees.

Just because there were certain unintelligent episodes dominated by pulpy DNA, that does not eliminate the episodes that weren't.

Says Runaway Starship:

Rod Serling had an interesting quote: "Star Trek was again a very inconsistent show which at times sparkled with true ingenuity and pure science fiction approaches. At other times it was more carnival-like, and very much more the creature of television than the creature of a legitimate literary form."

And let's give the last word to HaventGotaLife, who warns that the show's most popular moments are often the least intelligent:

I don't expect Trek to be intelligent all of the time. Many episodes were filler. This is one of my gripes about Star Trek, however, the more intelligent it is, has no relationship to how popular it is. Take, for instance, "The Best of Both Worlds." The Borg are science fiction about the limits and pitfalls of technology. Their greatness lies in the collective mind and they seem rather unbeatable. However, acting against Picard's instincts solves this crisis. They turned the collective mind on itself. It became their greatest weakness as well. They had established the link to Picard and gained all of his knowledge, but in the end, Picard knew enough about the Borg to end the crisis. It's a very intelligent ending and probably Michael Piller's best contribution to Star Trek. However, the resolution, which is referenced in this post, is not where people feel the episode shined. Many feel that the second half, where we out-think the Borg, is not the episode's greatest moment. They much prefer the first half where we are painted into the position of killing Captain Picard.

The whole discussion, including a side-track into whether science fiction has to be "hard science fiction" to be smart, or whether you can have smart science fiction with FTL and transporters, is well worth reading. [TrekBBS]