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Star Trek isn't as good at social commentary as it thinks it is
Seth MacFarlane as Ed Mercer in the new space adventure series "The Orville" from the creator of "Family Guy." - photo by Jared Whitley
Stephen King who, let's face it, is having an amazing year wrote that symbolism exists to adorn and enrich, not to create an artificial sense of profundity.

I've been thinking about this quote with the upcoming Star Trek series, premiering this week, as well as the parody/homage series "The Orville." For 50 years, Star Trek fans have boasted that the show's brand of storytelling allows it to provide social commentary on events of the day through the genre of science fiction.

Series creator Gene Roddenberry and other writers for decades said that the trappings of science fiction allowed them to tell stories (about race, about Vietnam, etc.) that otherwise would have never made it past conservative TV censors. We are promised that both "Star Trek: Discovery" and "The Orville" will lean on the same kind of allegories.

Theres just one problem with this: Star Trek isnt really that good at social commentary, and artificially profound allegories usually doesnt make for good storytelling. (OK, thats two problems, technically.)

Despite the fanfare, Star Treks best episodes are not the social commentary ones. The Trouble With Tribbles, Arena (where Captain Kirk fights the lizard-man), Mirror, Mirror (where the USS Enterprise team meet an evil, bearded Spock) and Best of Both Worlds, along with the rest of the top rated episodes, arent homilies disguised as sci-fi.

The exception to all this was Star Treks masterful recreation on screen of the Cold War, with Klingons standing in for Soviets. Making America's enemies aliens helped the country better see how human they were.

But the Cold War ended 25 years ago, so maybe its time to move on.

However, while Star Trek hasn't excelled at social commentary, it has led by example with stories about courage, teamwork and friendship through adversity, which, I have to say, generally works better than ham-fisted allegories.

For example, Star Trek's classic space-racism-is-bad-episode is Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Its the one with the half-white/half-black aliens played by Frank Gorshin, The Riddler from the old Batman series. This episode, while iconic, is not particularly beloved. It doesnt generally appear on fan's top 10 list of episodes.

The most eloquent way Star Trek rebuked racism, be it in space or otherwise, was simply putting a diverse cast of characters on screen and showing non-dogmatically how well they worked together. Ironically, that first televised inter-racial kiss episode thats talked about so much (Platos Stepchildren) wasnt about race at all.

Now none of this is to say fiction cant have a deeper meaning but when youre talking about ray guns and spaceships, simple, universal messages work better than strict allegory.

Arguably the franchises most beloved installment is "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," wherein a genetically engineered nemesis returns to menace our hero with a doomsday weapon while said hero is dealing with his mid-life crisis.

The fundamental message in this story is pretty simple: humankind should accept its limitations namely old age and the inevitability of death rather than trying to play God and change the rules of life. Humans shouldnt cheat death and pat themselves on the back for their ingenuity.

This universal theme is something that has the same application today that it did 30 years ago. And so the story works a lot better than if the whole thing had been a note-by-note allegory.

Moreover, and this is the real thing Star Trek writers don't seem to realize, conservative TV censors don't exist any more. On the contrary, you need to cloak your message in allegory only if you want to tell conservative stories. "Breaking Bad" used meth-dealing to explore the collapse of masculinity in modern society, and "The Walking Dead" uses zombies to discuss the collapse of rural America.

Long-running franchises can have an amazing appeal. They can connect with readers over decades, then again with future generations, through the power of storytelling whether thats Star Trek, Stephen King or any of our favorite writers. But its a lot harder to do that if youre just copy-pasting the news of the day.
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