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Star Trek is at its best when it’s fan fiction of itself

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Or, why holodeck episodes are great, shut up

I’m not a typical Star Trek fan in a lot of ways, but the most glaring might be my unabashed love of holodeck episodes. That is, any episode where the plot revolves around some quirk in the ship’s room-size VR solution, which is indistinguishable from reality, constantly malfunctioning, inexplicably capable of creating lethal simulations and in some episodes is even depicted as capable of creating a sentient computer intelligence because of a poorly worded user request.

Today, in honor of the franchise’s 50th birthday, I condense that love into a single reason: Holodeck episodes are great because of how the holodeck evolved into a tool for Star Trek writers to make fan fiction about their own show on the show.

Everybody’s favorite Star Trek moments are the ones where a character lives a different life

This morning, I did a simple thing that overwhelmed my Twitter mentions:

But as my feed rolled on — and on — there were a few clear themes to be found in which episodes and films in the 50 years of Star Trek that have stuck with people. Naturally, one theme was what Star Trek is perhaps best known for — presenting big questions about the nature of humanity, morality, the universe and our place within it through engaging allegory. In other words, the classic goals of science fiction itself.

And the other? In tweet after tweet, people described episodes where their favorite characters were torn out of their usual niche and forced to triumph in a situation at odds with their normal set of skills. Many, many people described Next Generation’s "The Inner Light," in which Picard lives 40 years as an alien man in what’s actually a few minutes; DS9’s "Far Beyond the Stars," where Captain Sisko lives a series of visions about his crew as science fiction writers in the 1950s; and Star Trek IV: The Journey Home, in which the crew of the Enterprise must learn to navigate 20th century San Francisco to save their future Earth.

This isn’t just people confronting an unknown new challenge: it’s familiar characters transported into a new situation, sometimes even living the rest of their lives their in their new situation (only to have things set right at the end of the episode through the magic of science fiction). In some, the episodes give us versions of our heroes who have never even been aware that they had ever once been (or would be, or had been in another dimension, or another life) an officer on a federation starship.

So here’s the thing.

Fan fiction is quite often about exploring what could never, or would never have been an official plot

Other honorable mentions from my feed this morning go to "Trials and Tribbleations," "The Best of Both Worlds" and "The City on the Edge of Tomorrow," all episodes with plots that can be encapsulated by fan fiction prompts, with reasonable accuracy. That is, a Crossover, What if the Hero was Evil, or 1930s Alternate Universe.

These are Star Trek’s time travel episodes, its brainwashing episodes, its episodes that rest large parts of the plot on bizarre space phenomena that create a psychic link between a main character and someone from the distant past. If the appeal of the episode is exploring a familiar character’s depths by radically reframing their situation, it’s the same appeal of imagining a medieval version of the Avengers or a modern, mundane version of the cast of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

For the writer’s room, the holodeck was a fan fiction machine

To be fair, sometimes Star Trek’s writers used the holodeck to have Geordi accidentally create a sentient Professor Moriarty. But sometimes they used it to craft a thrillingly tense two-parter where the mind-wiped crew of the Voyager don’t know they’ve been trapped in a Nazi-occupied France Alternate Universe, where Janeway believes that she’s a resistance leader and the suave proprietor of a club, Tuvok tends bar, Seven of Nine is a lounge singer, Chakotay and Tom Paris are American soldiers and the Nazis are all LARPing, murderous aliens.

It’s also clear that the holodeck’s potential as an in-fiction way to display "non-canonical" interpretations of the show’s leads was recognized early, as in "Hollow Pursuits," where we get to see the fictionalized version of the Enterprise bridge crew that the neurotic Lieutenant Barclay has created to spend his holodeck time with.

the holodeck evolved into a tool for Star Trek writers to make fan fiction about their own show on the show

The holodeck was an easy, no-exposition way to accomplish otherwise ludicrous changes in setting and character — the changes that fan fiction writers can narratively justify with the application of a few tags. And it’s those episodes, alongside Star Trek’s famous grappling with broad philosophical concepts, that remain nestled in the hearts of its fans.

The holodeck also let writers raise some pretty interesting questions about our relationship with fiction, including "amateur" fiction that posits alternative universes and timelines in opposition to familiar stories — i.e., fan fiction. The events of "Worst Case Scenario" largely revolve around a mysterious holonovel that depicts a mutiny on the Voyager. The simulation becomes must-see-TV for the ship’s own crew — and is eventually revealed to not have been intended as entertainment at all.

It turns out that the ship’s Vulcan security officer, Tuvok, began writing the program as a training exercise when he feared a mutiny, but stopped when crew cohesion improved. Given that the Voyager is stuck in Delta quadrant and has been cut off from all Federation media for years — and potentially the rest of the crew’s lives — Captain Janeway does the only thing that makes sense.

She orders Tuvok to finish his real person holodeck fan fic so they can all find out how it ends.