This “Rodenberry Rule” Nonsense

There is a lot of hype going around about CBS’s new Star Trek show, Discovery — I suspect to distract from the deeply unappealing decision to make it exclusive to their paid streaming service, and thus not a part of their normal network line up (hooray, getting fans to pay $9/mo for a TV show). The current way of generating interest — apart from the novelty of its cast — is by talking about the “Rodenberry Rule” that supposedly forbade conflict and cruelty amongst the main cast members.

As part of Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future (and one that Trek franchise executive producer Rick Berman carried on after Roddenberry’s death in 1991), writers on Trek shows were urged to avoid having Starfleet crew members in significant conflict with one another (unless a crew member is, say, possessed by an alien force), or from being shown in any seriously negative way.

This was limiting but it was bogus: one can find plenty of examples from every series where this “rule” was violated for the sake of good story telling (from McCoy’s blatant racism toward Vulcans in the original series to Sisko murdering diplomats to bring Romulans into the Dominion War). The most often way it was broken was for a main character to mistreat a minor character — think of the long running gag with the entire cast of The Next Generation hating on Reginald Barclay for episode after episode. Moreover, this was a rule that only applied to humans — despite Rodenberry’s pretensions, the aliens on Star Trek always, always, always, had moments where they behaved negatively, with cruelty, and against the main characters (even beloved Worf).

Now, one could make the argument that abandoning the freewheeling optimism of the series (even DS9) is a big deal, but it is also a nod to the demands of good story telling. Voyager was not optimistic so much as it was cynical and lazy, where conflicts never had any effect on the characters and the stories were more or less stagnant. Abandoning a weekly reboot back to baseline is a good thing: it allows characters to grow over time and prevents stagnation.

I’ve been catching up on The 100 and in the first two seasons you can see every major and minor character undergo this process: sure, the show is unrelentingly dark, but you also see these people start the series one way and get changed by their experiences, and that change then drives future plot development. Even if a character somehow escapes gruesome death, there is an in-universe reason for it, and the consequences of that death resonate for the rest of the series.

In contrast, on Voyager, we have Harry Kim, who starts the series as a naive and inexperienced ensign on the bridge, and ends a seven year nightmare of body possession, torture, abduction, near-death experiences, and constant privation as a naive and inexperienced ensign on the bridge. His character experiences zero growth despite years of surviving an unending stream of traumatic experiences. None of the other characters on the show seem to care that their original Kim is dead and they inherited one from an alternate universe — it is never acknowledged again in the series. He is stagnant and uninteresting, but was a staple on the show because it needed a foil to make other characters feel parental when the plot got stale.

So why would people find it remotely weird that the “rule” that required characters to be uninteresting unless it was broken is being officially discarded? I’ll take the serialized, conflict-driven, and growth-oriented perspective over the “traditional” reliance on laziness and stagnation, thanks. Enterprise, the worst Star Trek show, stuck to the Rodenberry rule and it was unwatchable tedium — and canceled early for good measure (with an embarrassing middle finger of a final episode, to boot). Avoiding the pitfall of that garbage fire of a show is a good thing, not an act of rebellion.

I’m still not sold on whether I should bother giving CBS so much money for a single show, but I’m at least willing to give it a shot if the production crew is trying to make it worthwhile.

Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.