Star Trek is NOT Space Opera.

I’m not typically inclined to get terribly pedantic like this, but I’ve gotta say it, guys. Despite what I hear people saying constantly, Star Trek is not a space opera. I don’t like to get all fanrage-y, usually, but the line must be drawn here! This far and no farther!

Star Trek is not a space opera! Well, maybe sometimes.

Jean-Luc. You broke your little ships.

Yes. I realize the irony here.

“But Josh,” you say, “You’re normally so calm and cool. You usually just roll with people’s crazy assumptions, knowing that reality will sort them out eventually!” And it’s true. That’s usually my MO. If I were pressed, I’d say this probably isn’t worth breaking all my little ships. If I were pressed, I’d say genres are fluid and subgenres are even more fluid. But I’ve been running into this idea lately that soft scifi– which Star Trek most definitely is, despite its fondness for sciencing its problems into resolution– is automatically space opera. It is not.

Exhibit A: Logan’s Run.

Why hello there, Jenny Agutter.

Why hello there, Jenny Agutter.

I love me some Logan’s Run. It freaked me out terribly as a little kid, and I’ve grown to have a soft spot for things like that as I’ve grown older. If you’ve not seen it, it’s, at the risk of sounding hipster, dystopian before dystopian was cool. (Actually, probably not. There were a lot of dystopian works coming from the 70s.) In Logan’s Run, people live carefree, libertine lives in the City of Domes until they turn thirty, at which point they are sent to a public event called Carousel to be “renewed,” at which point they are theoretically reborn as babies. Some people don’t believe this, and become Runners, people bent on escaping the City of Domes for the legendary city of Sanctuary, where you are allowed to be come old. Logan is a Sandman, someone who hunts down Runners, and is ordered by the City of Dome’s master computer to become a Runner and locate Sanctuary. Hijinks ensue.

The film is a lot of things– a little cheesy, a little melodramatic, and a lot of fun– but what is is not is hard SF. It has ray-guns, antigravity, and killer robots. Does that make it space opera?  Perish the thought. I don’t know if you even see the sky at night in this film, much less travel to other stars. What it is is a literal YA dystopia. (I’m sorry, I had to.)

Exhibit B: the Alien franchise.

Queen Xenomorph

Why, uh, hello there, Xenomorph queen.

The Alien films, both fantastic and terrible, are another example of soft scifi that’s not space opera. We’ve got killer aliens, space marines, travel to other stars, and in a movie I’d rather forget, genetic engineering and clones. Surely the stuff of space opera! Well, not entirely. That sort of thing is certainly not foreign to space opera, but the tone of Alien certainly isn’t space opera, it’s horror. (Elements of psychological horror, body horror, and arguably just a tinge of slasher.) The first film has an almost Lovecraftian air about it– human beings caught in something old, ancient, and uncaringly malevolent. The second exchanges horror for action, but we’re still in a dark place. Even if the horror is mitigated by pulse rifles and APCs, we’re not quite into space opera territory.

So what the devil is Space Opera?

It’s pretty gauche to cite Wikipedia, but you know what? No one’s grading me. So here’s how wiki defines space opera: “Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, set mainly or entirely in outer space, and often romance (heroic literature). It usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons and other sophisticated technology.”  Space Opera gets its roots from EE “Doc” Smith, who wrote the amazingly fun Lensmen novels and the Skylark novels, which I need to finish one day. Space opera’s pretty frequently– but not always– about square jawed heroes facing off against villainous forces. It’s frequently soft, but not always. (The wonderful and goofy anime Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is ultimately a space opera, but so is John C. Wright’s fairly hard Count to the Eschaton series.) Sometimes the heroes are military– there’s a pretty heavy overlap with military SF in space opera– and sometimes they’re space pirates or something similar. (I’d probably call Brian Niemeier’s Nethereal a space opera.)

Macross Plus

I swear, the focus isn’t really on the hardware…

It’s usually, on some level, a war story, but the focus isn’t really on the military hardware or weaponry. Even in space operas where the hardware is a big draw– I love you, Macross!– it usually differentiates itself from military SF in tone and verbiage. If there are more than four capital letter acronyms in a sentence on a regular basis, you’re either reading Tom Clancy or military SF. Macross/Robotech (and even Star Wars) does, on some level, draw some of its cool from the weapons and spaceships, but the concern is more “Gosh, wow!” sense of wonder than it is hardware porn.

To be honest, though, of all the subgenres, military SF and space opera are probably the two hardest to differentiate between. It’s really a gut-level feeling thing, and I’d guess that both sides of the military SF/space opera equation probably know instantly which camp a work falls into.

So what about Star Trek?

The thing about Star Trek is that, despite a recurring cast (including whatever ship a particular series centers around) Star Trek is essentially an anthology show like The Outer Limits or The Twilight Zone. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine broke from the mold, and Voyager and Enterprise attempted to, but, by and large, very little changes from episode to episode in Star Trek.

Tholian Web

One wonders how Tholians do this if the ship won’t sit still.

You can watch TOS in any order you like and your experience will be largely the same. (Unless you start with something terrible like “Spock’s Brain” and never finish, I guess. For the love of Kirk, please start with “The Doomsday Machine” or “The Tholian Web.”) Within a given season of The Next Generation, or Voyager, you can largely do the same. My experience with Enterprise is more limited, but at least during the first season or so, you can jump around in a similar manner. In the interest of self-disclosure, I’m not terribly fond of shows that don’t have an over-arcing story, but I understand that’s how shows were made until recently. I’m old enough to remember how different Babylon 5 was when it aired for having an ongoing story that would take years to finish. But what this means for the various Star Trek  shows is that they are, at times, a very different show tonally or thematically from episode to episode. There are some comedic episodes– and man, I’d love to see Harry Mudd in nu-Trek– and there are some very dark episodes. “Conspiracy,” in particular, traumatized me more than anything except for maybe the The Blob when I was little. (And I mean the 1950’s The Blob.) There are episodes that are little more than courtroom dramas, and then there, are, yes, moments of true, high-falutin’ space opera. “The Best of Both Worlds,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” The Wrath of Khan, and DS9’s overarcing story all qualify.

So what does all this mean?

Nothing, really, I just wanted to get it off my chest. FTL, rayguns, and aliens don’t make something a space opera. So Nyaaa. On the other hand, if you’re like me, and you are madly in love with space opera, a clearer picture of what is and isn’t will help you find more space operas to experience. My favorites are the Macross universe, Babylon 5, Hyperion, and the Lensmen books. Got some favorites of your own? Chime in! think I’m an idiot? Chime in! I can take it.

  • Anthony M

    The conclusion drawn doesn’t seem to be “Star Trek is not Space Opera” so much as “Only certain Star Trek episodes/movies are space opera”. Considering that “Wrath of Khan”, the consensus best thing the series ever produced, is a space opera, is it really unfair to say that “Star Trek” is a space opera? My understanding is that, at least, a fair number of episodes deal with things like war and adventure in space.

    • I think it is. It’s an anthology show with recurring characters. The tone isn’t space opera; the tone varies greatly from episode to episode. To call it a space opera because some of the episodes are space opera means it’s just as fair to call it a time travel show, because a bunch of the episodes are time-travel episodes. Probably more than are out and out space operas, given the temporal cold war, the future Starfleet, and that Starfleet bureau that deals with temporal crises. But calling it a time travel show puts it in a category with Doctor Who and Continuum, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t belong there.

      • Anthony M

        Well, I would have no problem saying that it’s a time travel show as well. In any case, do space operas preclude time travel, necessarily? I’m not so sure.

        • I think it’s a matter of focus. Space operas don’t preclude time travel–Babylon 5– being an excellent example, or Star Trek’s one true claim to a space opera show: Deep Space Nine. And time travel shows can certainly have space opera moments (Doctor Who’s The Stolen Earth comes to mind.) But Star Trek -doesn’t- focus, generally. Which is my contention: It does not focus on being a space opera or a time travel tale or political drama. It’s a hodgepodge of all those things, and more.

        • It’s worth noting that even some of Star Trek’s space opera-y moments include time travel, I suppose. (Yesterday’s Enterprise, First Contact.)