Experience And Exploration

As often is the case, Serdar and I were discussing media and creativity, centered around exploring media properties. I was discussing how I enjoyed “Lower Decks” and how it explored elements of the Star Trek universe that needed it. He noted missed opportunities. This got me thinking (which obviously, as usual, turns into something like blog posts).

I began thinking about “universe” projects, projects that involved a deep exploration of the setting and often via multiple books, movies, etc. When you have a big setting to play in, there’s a lot one can do. What one choses to do on the other hand can vary.

First, the universe one creates can be explored. You can understand the repercussions of the world(s), track cause and effect, dive into possibilities and results, and so on. A setting can be a huge playground that lets you do all sorts of things – often to your own surprise. It’s a place to ask “what if” and see where you go.

Secondly, a universe can deliver experiences. Settings with a given flavor allow you to have certain feelings, scenes, and so on that are desirable to you and the audience. Settings have certain emotional, cultural, and psychological resonances that some will want to experience. They can deliver the “hits” people want.

In any media franchise, big-universe project, single-setting series, creators can deliver both. Now I am biased towards exploration but the experience is important because sometimes that “feel” is what helps you get the exploration.

However I think we see that big, corporate-owned franchises tend towards the experience part of the equation. The big universes create certain feelings and people want that. Companies want to make money, so they deliver said experiences If you explore too much, you risk changing things and not delivering the experiences people want.

We’ve probably all seen cases of series, series endings, books, etc. that explored a bit too much for people’s expectations because they were used to things hitting certain emotional resonances. I could point to recent examples, but it would A) date this column, and B) probably make some people I know mad at me.

But you set some expectations, don’t allow too much change, and that happens.

On the other hand, we’ve also assuredly seen cases of big, moribund media franchises getting a chance to explore and going hog wild. I’ve sung the praises of Star Trek: Lower Decks because it “went there” on so many occasions I really felt things – and it somehow delivered the Trek experiences I’d come to expect. I feel the positivity towards The Mandalorian was well deserved – especially as it’s thematics of a slow-moving character drama seemed at odds with much of Star Wars media.

I mean I didn’t care about Star Trek and still don’t care about Star Wars anymore and I’m praising these works.

The Exploration and Experience labels give me a better way to understand media and creation. I consider Exploration to be valuable – it’s what I’m inclined to do and if part of the value of fiction. I consider a focus on Experience I can be a trap – but also that you need a certain “feel” to communicate the Exploration part I love. I’m not saying they’re equal or opposites, but useful tools.

Now I wonder how I’ll see various media differently.

Steven Savage

The Capstone of Star Trek

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I haven’t been interested in anything Star Trek in years. I mean, we’re kinda Voyager here. Yes I’ve heard great things about Discovery, I can appreciate the ideas behind Strange New Worlds retro-forward work. It’s just that I’m tired of Star Trek despite the fact that like many a geek, it was formative in my life.

But now Trek seems over-saturated and overdone. I mean it’s not Star Wars level and definitely not Marvel, but you know, haven’t we kind have done all of this? Do we have to keep rehashing things? What the hell is up with the various Spock plots and time travel? Can’t we, I dunno, move on for awhile?

So you’d think I’d be incredibility indifferent to the animated Trek dramedy, Lower Decks. I mean I even tried to get into it twice, and though I appreciated it, the show just didn’t do it for me. Well, didn’t do anything until a friend got into it, and I gave it one more spin.

Then I was hooked. On a Star Trek show.

If you’re not familiar with Lower Decks – and maybe you are, it’s fine – it’s an animated half hour show set in “recent” Star Trek continuity, the 24th century of the imagined future. The show doesn’t involve glamorous front-line flagships, but the Cerritos, a class of starship used for support, transport, “second contact” and less spectacular activities. The story also focuses on four friends who are “Lower Deckers,” relatively new spacefarers of low rank stuck with uninteresting and menial tasks, even if those drag them into adventures.

It’s Star Trek from the bottom up, but it doesn’t stop there.

The show is steeped in Trek lore, sometimes carrying concepts and even entire past episodes to their logical-if-ridiculous conclusions. People are used to strange energies evolving others into insane gods or temporarily switching bodies. First contact with aliens has to be followed up by someone doing the real work of shuffling around annoying diplomats and hooking planets up to communications network. For that matter, what do you do with all those monomaniacal computers endlessly plaguing alien civilizations – oh and has anyone checked up on those societies lately?

It’s every Trek trope and plenty of obscure lore falling on capable-if-neurotic shoulders of the Lower Deckers and the Cerritos crew. In many ways it’s akin to the Venture Brothers, which seemed to be a parody of cartoons, but was more of a heartfelt homage. Lower Decks just operates with a more defined property, the entire Star Trek janky extended universe.

It’s probably the most Star Trek of any Star Trek if you get my drift. I enjoy it because it’s not just another Star Trek show but an extrapolation by some talented writers.. The decades of continuity sort of roll downhill to the back-of-the-line Cerritos and the Lower Deckers.

It’s a kind of capstone for Star Trek, summing so much if it up in a way both funny and sometimes touching.

However, when it is done, I also can’t see Star Trek interesting me again. Lower Decks really does feel like a capstone, that there’s nothing more to do beyond this. Maybe that’s why the fact there’s even a Lower Decks RPG resonated with me – it feels like Trek has been done so often it’s best in everyone’s hands.

Thus I approach Lower Decks with a kind of bitersweet sadness. I’ve got the same Trek rush I got with TOS and Net Gen – but also it’s the end of that as well. I also know people will try to keep Trek going as its an institution – I just won’t be interested.

But I’m glad to have Lower Decks as a way to rediscover and close out a love of Star Trek.

Steven Savage