How Star Trek got Aristotle right

Reader, the spinal forecasts are woeful. I have, with some reluctance, been forced to admit that I have chronic pain. My day is meticulously managed to appease old Judas – my name for the eponymous backstabbing brute that plagues my lower back.

How does this relate to the title? Well, I’ve not misled you – I’ve just had a bit more time than usual to reflect and watch some old TV classics.

Having worked my way through Star Trek: Discovery (it’s barely Star Trek, and I still don’t know what they’re discovering), it came to me in a flash what the show is missing.

Now let me preempt your preemptive answer. “Well, it’s simple: Kirk, Spock and McCoy. No one will ever have the chemistry they did.” Yes, that’s part of it, but there’s also a science behind the charm of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley.

Aristotle, to be fair, got there before any of us did. His treatise, Rhetoric, dissects the art of oratory and identifies three ‘modes of persuasion’ that a speaker must rely on when appealing to the public. ‘Ethos’ is grounded in credibility, ‘pathos’ in the emotions of the audience and ‘logos’ in reasoning.

Now, I’m going to buck a trend and not denounce modern television as stupid. Contrary to some, I very much believe (most) executives, writers and directors are men and women of extraordinary talent living and working in an astonishing age of competitive creativity.

The 2009 Star Trek reboot series and Star Trek: Discovery have spared no expense in reintroducing and continuing the beloved series. Their budgets are massive, and both – in their own way – have done well to find new stories to tell in a 50-year old franchise. The problem isn’t so much with the effort, but the medium.

What I’m going to call the Netflix-epoch is trodding on the emotion and pathos of classic shows. ‘TV’ doesn’t exist much now – half of it isn’t watched on conventional channels, but instead through subscriptions while sitting looking at your iPad. There’s no slow burn, no episodes – narrative arcs are the fad, and everyone loves feeling like their watching a book.

It’s a remarkable thing, but to apply the formula that worked so well for Breaking Bad and House of Cards to all ‘television’ shows – particularly science-fiction – is inviting disappointment into the heart of a franchise rooted in comradeship, friendship and growth.

Consider Star Trek’s recent record. Captain Kirk dies in the second film, Into Darkness and Spock cries. The film was a riff on Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan when, after 20 years in pop culture, Nimoy and the franchise elected to (briefly) kill the warmest heart in the coldest mind. I know people who – cough, ahem, me – who still shed a tear when Shatner’s Kirk is fighting back tears. “I have been, and always shall be, your friend” murmurs Spock as he dies. (Leave me alone, it’s hayfever).

Now, no one is claiming this was a particularly innovative move. What it did do, however, was cash in on decades worth of stories in which we’d seen our characters in a plethora of situations and adventures. When the Enterprise itself was destroyed in Star Trek Beyond – in a parallel to its destruction in Star Trek: The Search for Spock (he wasn’t dead long) – there was no flutter of the heart. It was forced emotion, it lacked any kind of sincere cumulative reward for years’ worth of investment.

Stories today can’t be wholly blamed for the decline of the slow, episodic exploration of their characters. ‘Chapters’ in a linear story are on the rave. With that in mind, you can’t fake chemistry, and there seems to be a constant preference towards cast tension over agreeability and a surprise when we don’t get attached.

What Star Trek got right was to split one character into three parts. Kirk, Spock and McCoy comprise one human being – McCoy the hypersensitive emotional expression, Spock as the bristling logical voice and Kirk as the synthesised credibility that unites the three.

Here’s the catch – the reason this works so well is it never self-labels. Today, there’s an overplayed tendency for exposition to triumph over subtilty. Everyone has to cry and say how they feel. This, with some irony, goes against the grain of what Aristotle was talking about and certainly the original trio. Because there is no character balance and because everyone behaves like an emotional haemophiliac, any hope of a natural character equilibrium is wrecked.

The implications for using Aristotle to measure the quality of ‘television’ today are curious. There’s a deluge of remakes and reimaginations on streaming platforms that seem determined to modernise old formulas. While they do this, they forget that the format in which they were originally told is just as important as anything else.

One of the biggest shifts in television – which Discovery did – is to swap the conventional 20 odd episodes per season in favour of the 10 or 12 episode format. Somehow, audiences and critics are then surprised that the show has been unable to establish an emotional resonance like the Original Series when it’s just one, long story.

I’m constantly reminded of the ‘Library of Babel’ by Jorge Luis Borges. The short story imagines a library containing every 410-page permutation of a book with a specific format and character set – some make perfect sense, others are an inevitable combination of nonsense.

There are some exceptions to every rule, then. The remake of Battlestar Galactica was a seminal show, but that’s chiefly because it really did reimagine itself for a post 9/11 audience and only kept some of the names from the original show. Lost in Space, by contrast, is trying to replicate that formula but at the expense of the camp magic that made the original a cult classic.

I know, I know, I know – “you need to get over the nostalgia” and “you never left the 1990s.” These aren’t insults per se if they’re referring to something better that came before. It might be impossible to write in an unbiased way about characters and shows from my childhood, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were better because they were finely tuned to the format of their time.

It’s very telling that no show since has ever quite captured that particular twinkle of Star Trek: The Original Series. There have been Kirk’s, there have been Spocks and there have been McCoys, but none have ever achieved the natural rule of three outlined by Aristotle. An argument, perhaps, for more original thinking in a time of endless creativity.

It’s a passing thought, but one I hope is fixed.