2016 is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. For 50 years, we have had our screens graced with a vision of humanity that is hopeful and believes that we will be able to overcome our human weaknesses. Star Trek‘s first episode aired in 1966, solidly in the period of science fiction that cyberpunk rebelled against. To quote Bruce Sterling’s introduction to the Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology:
“[For early generations of science fiction writers and readers} Science was safely enshrined — and confined — in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control.”
Star Trek‘s original run ended in 1969, followed by an animated series that ran from 1973 to 1974; finally, from 1979 to 1986 there was a number of films rooted in this “ivory tower” science fiction (not to disregard the two Original Series movies after this in 1989 and 1991). But then in 1987 something changed. Star Trek: The Next Generation came on the scene. Gene Roddenberry was heavily involved in the series creation, but he was no longer running the show. This honor belonged to Maurice Hurley, who is credited with creating the Borg, the most cyberpunk enemy that Star Trek has ever seen. This isn’t surprising as the cyberpunk movement was in full swing at this point and in 1991 Gene Roddenberry died leaving only the legacy of the world that he imagined. In the second season of the show, the series was handed over to Rick Berman, who would maintain control of the series all the way until Star Trek Nemesis (2002) and Star Trek Enterprise (2001-2005). It was this transition that began the slow erosion of Roddenberry’s dream. Rick Berman was quoted as saying to the Chicago Sun-Times (I apologize for the pay-wall, we hate those things):
“I don’t believe the 24th century is going to be like Gene Roddenberry believed it to be, that people will be free from poverty and greed. But if you’re going to write and produce for Star Trek, you’ve got to buy into that.”
Jacob Clifton, over at Tor, describes it wonderfully referencing William Gibson’s The Gernsback Continuum:
“Star Trek began its life cycle so indelible and pure—so perfectly Gernsbackian—that we’ve spent the rest of the franchise walking that promise back.”
Before Hurley left the show, he wrote two of the most cyberpunk episodes of early TNG: 11001001 and Q Who. Both of these episodes explore the idea of cybernetically linked minds. The Bynar’s from 11001001 are an alien race that is paired with another of their race. Each of these pairs acts as a single mind. This episode is also the first time that we see a holographic character seem to gain awareness. This episode shares elements with cyberpunk, but never really dives down to the visceral level that cyberpunk demands. Q Who, on the other hand, introduces the Borg.
The Borg are an excellent example of clashing world views that exist in the Gernsbackian vision of Star Trek and the dark world view of cyberpunk. Star Trek offered a utopian vision of humanity, whereas the Borg represents everything that we fear about technology. The Borg, like the Bynars, are connected mentally via cybernetic implants. Unlike the Bynars, who are only connected to one other Bynar, the Borg share a single collective consciousness. They have no individuality; each drone acts an extension of this unified hive-mind. Who we are and what the self is are common themes in cyberpunk; both Ghost in the Shell and Battle Angel Alita (Gunnm) are excellent examples of this. Where there is no individuality, there is no freedom. There is also a body horror element to the Borg. They “add your biological distinctiveness to their own,” meaning that your physical body becomes assimilated into the Borg Collective alongside your mind. This kind of loss of your body to machine parts is demonstrated well in Robocop and Tetsuo: The Iron Man (which focuses on the body horror).
Once Hurley left the show, and Berman had taken over with his different world view from Roddenberry, we also added René Echevarria to the Star Trek family of writers. Echevarria came on the scene with The Offspring, which involved Data creating another android named Lal. This concept of artificial life reproducing is a cyberpunk concept in itself, well explored in the recent Automata, but Echevarria’s future contributions to the franchise would be much more cyberpunk in nature. Notable episodes he wrote are Ship in a Bottle; I, Borg; and Descent.
Ship in a Bottle explores the idea of simulated realities within simulated realities. Beyond this, however, the question is posed: are we living in a reality generated by “a little device sitting on someone’s table?” Furthermore, does it matter? The answer given by the episode seems to be no, since the crew of the Enterprise traps Moriarty, a program that gained sentience after Data asked the computer to create a foe that could defeat him, inside of a data cube that is given the storage space to be able to endlessly generate a fictional universe for Moriarty to explore. Do we live in such a reality?
In Echevarria‘s other TNG contributions of note, we are reunited with the Borg. Hurley created an unbeatable super race, and Echevarria figured out how to beat them. In I, Borg, we are introduced to Third of Five, a Borg drone who has been separated from the collective. This separation allows the crew of the Enterprise to foster individuality in the damaged drone, who adopts the name Hugh. Picard decides that if they send Hugh back to the Borg, he may infect the collective with the concept of individuality and prevent them from being able to act as a single mind. It works. In Descent, we see the fallout from this plan – the Borg has fragmented into a confused array of individuals who can longer properly care for themselves. Lore, Data’s android twin, has adopted some and positioned himself as a machine god and plans to eradicate non-machine life. This plan is, of course, foiled. As the series progresses the Borg are ruined in Star Trek: First Contact and Star Trek: Voyager. The Borg are simply not the scary unstoppable force they were in TNG. They have been declawed. While we are on the topic of the Borg it would be wrong of me to ignore the famous two-part episode: The Best of Both Worlds, which introduced us to Locutus (the assimilated Captain Picard), and created Picard’s motivations for fighting the Borg in future episodes. Picard experienced having his individuality ripped away and then regained it, giving him a valuable perspective on the Borg.
Echevarria also went on to write nearly an entire season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the darkest of Star Trek, himself (24 episodes over the course of it’s run), including the most cyberpunk episode of Star Trek ever written: Honor Among Thieves. In this episode of DS9, Miles O’Brien is selected by Starfleet Intelligence to infiltrate the Orion Syndicate. This is the first episode that really shows that there are places in the Star Trek universe that have thriving crime. It is also the first episode that shows that cyberpunkesque neural interface hacking happens in the Star Trek universe, and furthermore, they introduce a concept called “Spiking” which is essentially biofeedback capable Black ICE, an electronic intrusion countermeasure that can cause physical effects on the hacker. The episode’s plot revolves around O’Brien befriending a mid-level crime boss named Bilby and engaging in noir style planning to assassinate a Klingon ambassador for the Orion Syndicate to create political upheaval. It feels a bit like Shadowrun, Blade Runner, and Star Trek had a baby – I would watch that show.
I feel I need to drop an honorable mention for the Nth Degree, which is basically a TNG retelling of Lawnmower Man.
Echevarria would move on from Star Trek to write several episodes of Dark Angel, James Cameron’s cyberpunk/biopunk television show starring Jessica Alba, just to add to his cyberpunk cred. I would have to say that Echevarria is my favorite Star Trek writer, by far, and he brought a lot of cyberpunk elements into the show. It is worth noting that John Shirley, one of the Mirrorshades Group, also wrote an episode of DS9 called Visionary, although the episode isn’t very cyberpunk, it does have awesome quippy dialogue. And while we are on the subject of DS9, the cyberpunk author K. W. Jeter also wrote two Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tie-in novels called Bloodletter (1993) and Warped (1995).
After the cancellation of the original Star Trek in 1969, Gene Roddenberry started working on new projects, some of these projects were not completed and brought to television until after his death. Two of these shows, Earth: Final Conflict and Andromeda, were created based on notes found by Majel Barrett, Gene Roddenberry’s wife and Star Trek Actress. I mention these two in particular because they have fairly heavy cyberpunk elements. Whether these shows had the cyberpunk elements added during the adaptation process or not, I don’t know. But upon production, they were there. Earth: Final Conflict is set on a modern Earth, where aliens have come in “peace” to help uplift our society. It is learned that this isn’t the case, and a resistance is formed to fight against the aliens, the first element. Agents of the Taelons, the name of the aliens, are implanted with performance enhancing implants that also act to control the agent and ensure loyalty, very cyberpunk. Frontera by Lewis Shiner used this trope to great effect. One of the primary characters in the show is a hacker named Augur, who lives in a stereotypical hacker lair filled with computers and defense protocols, where he commits criminal acts and also aids the resistance again the Taelons. Auger is easily the most cyberpunk character in the story. Watching this show always made me think of cyberpunk, especially in early seasons before the Taelons took more aggressive moves against humanity, rather than operating from the shadows to subvert us.
Andromeda was less cyberpunk overall but made heavy use of virtual reality in the visual style of cyberpunk. Nothing like the holodecks from Star Trek, much more like Johnny Mnemonic‘s visuals depicting visual representations of the insides of a computer. Major characters also included AIs that grappled with the nature of their existence (just as Data does in TNG and the EMH does in Voyager), like you might see in a cyberpunk story. Again, these elements may have been added beyond Roddenberry’s notes. But both of these shows demonstrate how Gene Roddenberry’s works beyond Star Trek began to see cyberpunk influences, just as Star Trek did following the “Cyberpunk Zeitgeist.”
Star Trek isn’t cyberpunk. But there are obvious examples of cyberpunk influences on the post-Gernsbackian Trek. Following the emergence of cyberpunk, people had a hard time believing in the visions of Gene Roddenberry, even the people writing and running the show like Berman and Echevarria. Perhaps it is like Agent Smith says in The Matrix:
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.
Perhaps, Star Trek is the perfect world and we can’t accept that as reality. Perhaps as a species, we can only find happiness when that happiness is juxtaposed with suffering and misery.
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I just stumbled onto this post! I’ve been struggling with how Trek has evolved since the TNG films. For me, Nineties Trek, including and especially DS9, was the high point of the fictional universe, as it complicated but did not undermine Roddenberry’s fundamental vision and aesthetic, and its soft integration of cyberpunk themes were very much part of that. Today, though, it feels aggressively cyberpunk-y, but not successfully. While there are still highlights (notably Picard’s recent third season), overall it just doesn’t feel like Trek anymore, especially at the aesthetic level. I’m sure a course correction is possible if the franchise really wants it, but I can’t shake this feeling that so far it has been an ineffective attempt at making “dark and gritty” science fiction on the basis of a Gernsbackian template.