Comics Ate My Brain

July 25, 2008

To Ramble Boldly Where Others Have Rambled Before

Filed under: dissertations, star trek — Tom Bondurant @ 1:24 am
Everybody’s talkin’ Next Generation — hey, me too!

It took me about six months, but I watched every episode of TNG, DS9, and “Voyager,” plus the four TNG movies, in a rough Stardate order. (I had to use a spreadsheet.)

Now I’m on “Enterprise,” heading into the home stretch after polishing off the season-long Xindi storyline … but there’ll be time for that later. Back to the 24C shows.

I feel pretty confident in saying that TNG’s greatest asset was Patrick Stewart. Stewart sold even the goofy early-season episodes with a great combination of calm and charm, taking that stuff seriously, although not to the point of camp. Plus, he had that British accent which, with us Yankees, counts for a lot. Stewart made Picard cool, so Picard helped make TNG cool.

TNG also benefited from Paramount’s seven-year commitment. Despite how you count the Original Series episodes, TNG had almost one hundred more. Clearly this provided room for all those character spotlights and political arcs. Yes, traveling from one mission to another no doubt leaves a lot of down time — perfect for rehearsing that play or practicing that instrument — but sometimes it felt like Picard’s crew spent as much time with their hobbies as they did with the lateral sensor array.

Allow me to digress for a moment. As it happens, here’s plok/pillock, commenting on his own post:

[…] clearly the main problem that faces the crew of the Enterprise-D is that they’ve got entirely too much free time on their hands. Christ, don’t these people have jobs? Everybody plays the violin, and everybody reads Shakespeare, and an awful lot of the military personnel of the future seem to be heavy into sculpting…and all the chicks wear high heels, and there! I’ve just summarized their culture pretty decently, I think. BOOOOOO-RING!

Of course, Riker’s trombone and Crusher’s dancing were meant to round out the characters precisely by getting them away from gadgets and technobabble. Still, when the Season 6 opener featured the crew hiding out in old San Francisco as a wobegone troupe of frustrated actors …well, I suspect you either thought that was an hilarious extrapolation of all those shipboard plays, or you wondered how much time there was on the Enterprise to kill.

And yet, the one character on TNG who I wouldn’t have expected to be exported so well was O’Brien. Sure, there was his star turn with his old captain in “The Wounded,” and his and Keiko’s wedding in “Data’s Day,” and he was showing up pretty reliably by the time he left. However, watching all those TNG DVDs, I was on the lookout for signs of DS9’s O’Brien, and I didn’t see too many.

It’s funny, and a little cruel, to realize that O’Brien — the guy TNG fans could look to on DS9, at least until Season 4, for a familiar Enterprise face — becomes DS9’s designated punching bag. He’s thrown into two different Jails Of No Return. He has to face the possibility of a suddenly-grown, feral daughter. His wife is possessed by a Pagh-Wraith. He’s briefly, but intensely, attracted to Kira while she’s carrying his child. He’s even replaced with a time-displaced duplicate about halfway through the series. Naturally, DS9 respected O’Brien’s TNG hobbies (kayaking, the cello), but pairing him with Bashir both expanded his horizons and gave his free time some structure.

Maybe that’s part of my frustration with the TNG cast’s free time — those hobbies are all so random. Picard loved literature, archaeology, and the theater, but had a wild streak finally curbed by that Nausicaan. Riker loved jazz and cooking, Crusher the performing arts, and Troi chocolate. Even O’Brien’s TNG hobbies seem to have come off some wheel of fortune.

What annoys me about the hobbies is that they distract from the more interesting parts of the show. Remember when the crew’s memory gets wiped by the new First Officer, and Riker and Ro theorize that maybe they were really lovahs? That never went anywhere. (Heck, nothing with Ro ever went much of anywhere.) Instead, we got Worf/Troi … which also went nowhere, except to show (in “All Good Things”) how much Riker still lurved her. Furthermore, would it have killed TNG to explain Geordi’s transition from navigator to engineer a little better? What about an episode where Wesley hijacks the holodeck for his own onanistic purposes? Yes, that’s what Barclay was doing, but who’s to say a desperate Wesley, petrified of his secrets being laid bare before a crew of a thousand, might not just blame the malfunctions on poor ol’ Reg?

(Speaking of whom, note how easily Barclay transfers to late-period “Voyager,” which also constructed episodes out of the crew’s leisure-time pursuits. Now, obviously the Voyager crew has more justifiable reasons for their hobbies, but still.)

I realize I’m not addressing either Tim’s central point (TNG was trapped by its fidelity to the sensibilities which millions of Trekkies held dear) or plok’s (TNG ignores its own implications about the universe in favor of a bland status quo). Well, from what I understand, TNG’s relentless devotion to camaraderie came from Gene Roddenberry’s directive that there is no conflict in Starfleet. (This, of course, led pretty directly to the built-in three-way crew conflicts of “Deep Space Nine” and “Voyager.”)

However, another Roddenberry directive, going back to the original “Star Trek,” was that Kirk et al. needed to be recognizable as 20th-Century humans. David Gerrold’s The World Of Star Trek quotes Roddenberry’s Star Trek Guide:

[T]he only Westerns which failed miserably [at the time] were those which authentically portrayed the men, values, and morals of 1870. The audience applauds John Wayne playing what is essentially a 1966 man. It laughed when Gregory Peck, not a bad actor in his own right, came in wearing an authentic moustache of the period [emphasis in original].

Gerrold then goes on to say, “What Star Trek is, is a set of fables — morality plays, entertainments, and diversions about contemporary man, but set against a science fiction background. The background is subordinate to the fable [emphasis in original].”

Now, to me that sounds more like “Galactica 2.0” than any of the 24C Trek shows. Just about every installment of the current “Battlestar Galactica” fits into the macro-plot. It has never engaged in the kind of navel-gazing, look-how-this-works episodes which were staples of Ron Moore’s previous employment, because by and large the show uses familiar, even retro gadgets. Sure, there are FTL spaceships and the corners have been cut off the paper, but one of the early Caprica episodes had Starbuck driving a Hummer, f’r goshsakes. There are no salt shakers standing in for laser-scalpels — the scalpels look like scalpels, and the salt shakers like salt shakers. The tech is not the point — “the background is subordinate.”

Of course, that could also have been the mantra of much of “Voyager,” with its self-repairing corridors and spontaneously-reproducing shuttlecraft. Ironically, I think of “Galactica 2.0” as “Voyager” crossed with late-period “Deep Space Nine” — all politics, intrigue, and survival, with a dollop of religious commentary. However, “Voyager’s” weekly renewals were in the service of its secondary message; namely Janeway’s desire to preserve Federation ideals and protocols thousands of light-years from home. “Galactica,” like DS9 before it, ponders what kinds of catastrophes must necessarily alter a society’s most cherished beliefs. “Voyager” responds overwhelmingly in the negative: the Federation is what we know, and true to the Federation we will remain, right down to steam-cleaning the carpets and replacing the lightbulbs after each week’s space battle.

And yet, “Voyager” is known for that episode where Tom Paris evolves into the lizard (making lizard-babies with Lizard-Janeway), plus a good bit of altered timelines and holodeck emergencies. Remember the 29th-Century Captain Braxton, stuck for 30 years as a homeless person in 20th-Century Los Angeles, cursing Janeway’s name the entire time? “Gritty Voyager” gets explored via “Year of Hell’s” alternate timeline, and in a roundabout way through the beleaguered crew of the Equinox [not Phoenix — must proofread more!]. The alt-crew even gets mashed up with the holodeck in “The Killing Game,” when they’re brainwashed into thinking they’re fighting Nazis in WWII France. Seven threatens to re-Borgify, the Doctor becomes an entertainer on two different planets, Janeway fancies herself da Vinci’s assistant. For a while the whole ship is even duplicated, and the duplicates have their own set of adventures before dying anonymous, ignominious deaths. Trek lore holds that Kirk’s Enterprise was the only Constitution-class starship (out of twelve!) to return from its five-year mission relatively intact — well, Voyager spit itself out of that Borg transwarp conduit better than new. No wonder Janeway (again, like Kirk) was made an Admiral….

And that brings us back to “Deep Space Nine,” a show that at times seemed all about the background. Not quite in the techno-philic way that TNG or “Voyager” were, but in the sense that a working knowledge of about a dozen characters’ backgrounds was really necessary to appreciating all the subtleties. There were no subtleties on the other two shows; at least not like on “Deep Space Nine.” Its characters, and I suppose its Starfleet characters particularly, were transformed from TNG’s brand of idealized-human into more recognizable people.

This was the exact opposite of “Voyager’s” secondary mission statement, which had Janeway and Chakotay reorienting their Maquis crew to regular Starfleet practices. Instead, DS9 found not just O’Brien, but Sisko, Bashir, the Daxes, and even Eddington, changed by their time on the station. The non-Starfleet characters (Kira, Jake, Odo, Quark) grow and change too, but their fundamental orientation to society isn’t challenged in the same way. (Well, okay, Odo’s is; but he’s a special case, needing first to find said orientation.)

See, if Starfleet represents the baseline code of ethics for the fictional Trek universe, it follows that challenging that code takes a lot. Even when Kirk or Picard runs up against Starfleet, it’s in the service of remaining true to the code itself, as opposed to the people trying to enforce an alternate interpretation. It didn’t take too long, though, for “Deep Space Nine” to have its characters explore those alternate interpretations themselves.

Both TNG and DS9 were self-referential. However, TNG concerned itself with refining the traditional Trek ethos whereas DS9 allowed itself to test the ethos’ limits. To appreciate those tests, though, required that aforementioned working knowledge of Trek.

Also, “Deep Space Nine” made much better use of its holodecks than did either TNG or “Voyager” (a baseball diamond! a Vegas nightclub!) … but I’m getting tired and this has gone on too long. I welcome your comments, because I hope it’ll help me focus my thoughts more.

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