When I was entering high school my mother took me to a mall on Long Island and got my ear pierced. It wasn’t really something I wanted – I’m a huge baby about needles, so the idea of having one shoved through my lobe was terrifying. Also, it seemed weird to me. It was 1987, and earrings on men were pretty edgy. I was 13. I was very concerned, as a fat little 13 year old nerd who once had Nair poured down his crotch by bullies, about the messages an earring would send about my masculinity. At the time we believed that the ear you got pierced had deep meaning, a modern day Hankie Code, and that if I got the wrong lobe pierced I would be loudly announcing that I was a homosexual. In 1987 this was very frightening to me as a kid who had been immersed in low-grade homophobia from birth.
Eventually I got more piercings; I had about six when it was all said and done. The first one I got I used to very weird effect – I ordered a severed finger earring out of the pages of an old Fangoria and wore that around, looking like the world’s dipshittiest try-hard. I had a lot of fuzz on my face at this age, and a lot of acne, and I was a rotund little thing, with a permanent scowl on my unibrow and a severed thumb hanging from my ear. Eventually I toned down the earring – I wore a lot of studs, a bunch of little hoops – but I was very susceptible to infections, I didn’t keep the holes clean and I always had some smelly crud accumulating behind my ears. Over time I just gave up on them; I suppose the holes are technically still there, but nothing has been inside of them since Layne Stanley was alive.
My mom had the best of intentions. She was actually pretty hip for the era. We listened to U2 in my house, before U2 was big. She played the local college rock station in the car, so I heard all the alternative music of the 80s that movies today would make you think were the actual big hits of the time, but nobody actually knew about. You think wearing an earring was sending questionable messages about masculinity, imagine being the kid in my grade school who wore a The Smiths shirt and was thus immediately declared gay.
Anyway, my mom was ahead of her time. Earrings were cool, and when the 90s rolled around everybody was getting them. But in 1987 it was wrong for me, and in the long run it just wasn’t me. My mom saw that I was a deeply uncool little kid, reading The Silmarillion while drinking Hershey’s Syrup straight from the container (this is legitimately a thing I used to do), and she wanted to give me a leg up. She thought I would get eaten alive in high school, and she hoped to help me become the cool kid she thought I could be.
Watching the new iterations of Star Trek I keep thinking about this story. I have a difficult relationship with my mother – I haven’t spoken to her in many years, and I’m not sure I will ever speak to her again – but I don’t doubt that she, in her own way, loved me. This story is just one example of how she loved me but didn’t love me for who I was, and that’s what I see happening with Star Trek these days (by the way she once took me to a Star Trek convention. That’s a whole other trauma) – the people who are running Star Trek seem to love it, but don’t seem to love it for what it is. They really want it to be something else. They want to give Star Trek a piercing to give it a leg up with all the other cool, tough scifi shows out there.
I was okay with that when it came to Discovery. Because it was a new offshoot of the franchise it seemed fair to give the show its own vibe. Setting the first season in a war also gave the show some leeway to have more of an edge than we usually get in Trek, and I think the series did a nice job of at least nodding towards some of Trek’s more idealistic aspects. Knowing that Disco was just one of many new Treks to come I could enjoy the franchise trying on its own severed thumb earring.
Now we have Star Trek: Picard, and I gotta say the earring simply isn’t working for the franchise. It isn’t that Picard is particularly grim n’ gritty by modern standards, it’s just that the show does not feel like it’s set in the same universe as The Next Generation. Sure, 25 years have passed, but the future we saw in previous Trek shows/movies was mostly uniform – brighter, more positive, and moved on from a lot of the day-to-day shittiness of our modern era. The world we see in Picard is almost indistinguishable from our own, except for a couple of scifi gadgets.
I get this – the idea is to make the future feel relevant. That’s great… for not Star Trek. What has always set Trek apart from other scifi is that it doesn’t feel like our world playing out in space, it feels like a better version of our world playing out in space. It still addressed our current issues, but it did it in a way that allowed us to feel good about humanity’s future. That’s the underlying optimism of the thing, and we love it.
See, Star Trek is for nerds. It’s part of the appeal. Trek can’t bear the weight of being cool, because being cool is at absolute odds with Trek’s own ideology. Trek is, at heart, the teacher who tells the class, “You know what’s really cool? Saying no to drugs and alcohol!” and that’s what we love about it. Trek always has a smile on its face, even at its darkest. Trek is, at its heart, corny as hell. This is the beauty of Trek, and what has kept it alive for fifty years. It’s comforting to watch a version of the future where humanity has its shit together. The original Star Trek debuted in a period of epic American cultural upheaval, not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis had people literally convinced they were minutes from nuclear annihilation, and it presented the promise that we would make it through all of the current bad shit and be better for it. This is the core value of Trek: we will be okay.
But that’s not cool. It’s just not cool. Dystopias are cool. Raging against xenophobic power structures is cool and competent, positive power structures are not cool. Disaffected, angry people are cool. Smoking, good lord help us, is cool. Shouting ‘fucking’ at Jean-Luc Picard is cool. And it’s become clear that the people running Star Trek these days want it to be cool.
It’s not just the obvious stuff like that. Look at the clothes in Trek now, and compare them to what people wore in previous iterations. Trek’s future clothing, especially for civilians, was… weird. Ugly. Very futuristic in a very strange way. If you walked off the set of a Trek show in your costume, especially if you were playing a civilian, you’d stand out in a crowd. On Picard, a show mostly featuring civilians, you’d look maybe a little fashion forward. Nobody on this show wears anything even close to the kinds of baffling onesies Jake Sisko wore on Deep Space Nine. Yeah, fashion changes and it’s been 25 years, and it’s not really a big deal. Honestly it’s hard to imagine that a modern streaming show would have fashion even remotely like what the 90s Trek had, but it would have been nice if modern Trek had found strange new corny fashion to represent the future, not just Echo Park Barista Fall 2020.
Look, I’m no goober. I know that by the end of the season we’ll have some kind of positive turnaround, we’ll likely get the moles out of Starfleet (and believe me, I know all admirals in Starfleet, throughout history, have been secret bad guys), all that jazz. The drug-using and grumpy folks on Picard’s mission will be impacted by his goodness, but not enough to make them lose their edges totally. It’s standard storytelling, it’s fine.
But I can’t shake the feeling that the people behind these shows look at Trek the way my mom looked at me when I was a kid. Rather than embrace the weirdness there’s the instinct to buy a cool leather jacket, to get an ear pierced. To try and shape the nerdy thing into something a little more palatable. Hey, if I were running a zillion dollar streaming service I’d probably try that too. And look, I fucking love Battlestar Galactica. But that’s Battlestar. And while I appreciate Ron Moore pushing the boundaries of Trek on Deep Space Nine (doing it, of course, incredibly far away from Earth), I’m glad that he took a different franchise down that Battlestar path. I’m glad that exists, separate from Trek.
We live in a scifi saturated era. Spaceships and aliens and monsters and lasers are everywhere. This is why the instinct to make Trek cool is especially wrongheaded right now – what always set Trek apart is exactly what should be setting Trek apart in a cluttered landscape. We don’t need more rogue missions and cigar smoking on spaceships and tough guys in leather jackets and black ops death squads. We actually get that stuff all over the place. We need more earnest, smart people who are trying their best and have the institutional support to accomplish it. We need more nerds, more dorks, more people with bright attitudes and, frankly, clean spaceships. We need to make Star Trek impossibly square again.