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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5 Comments »

  1. I’m stumped for a comment, because I agree with pretty much everything you say here…and where I diverge, it would take a reply of equal length to your post to explain it. It’s interesting to see how people who followed the series all have their own concept of the ur-Trek — the primal or “real” show that it presumably is always striving to be but rarely attained — and that our visions of precisely what that ideal show is are so wildly and irreconcilably different. (For instance…I love plok like a brother, but if his idea of the best Next Generation episode ever is “Tapestry” I fear he and I will never be able to agree about anything Star Trek.)You nailed one of my pet peeves about the Next Generation/DS9/Voyager approach, though: those damn hobbies. Sheer fanwankery that was presented in such cloying way it became impossible to believe in the characters. When we got to Picard giving Data Shakespearean acting lessons on the holodeck at the end, the winking at the audience was just painful. (On the other hand, Sisko’s baseball thing was well done because it was integrated into the character as an indicator of his personal nature, and used to good effect from the start.)

    Comment by RAB — July 27, 2008 @ 4:38 am

  2. Ooooh, now I just have to know what RAB’s favourite TNG is! Like all TNG episodes, “Tapestry” has its requisite tweeness built-in, but at least it was actually character-oriented…!I stand by the idea that the actor’s interpretations of their characters were not supported by the scripts they got…the proof being that the scripts gave them things to do that superficially explored character, but offered damn little in the way of integration of character and plot. DS9 was better at this, for sure, but still suffered from an appalling lack of “show don’t tell” — the hallmark of fan-fic, where everybody’s a Mary Sue, and all the time to boot. Of course Voyager is right out: as soon as you notice Seven Of Nine wearing stiletto heels, you know somebody’s not paying much attention. Not to mention that show even beats Lost In Space for pure astro-sugar.Glad you mentioned the “hiding out as actors” bit, Tom — which was the only thing I found enjoyable about that particular past-excursion, but sadly it was more than balanced-out by the typical Old Boring Fart interpretation of Mark Twain we see so often these days. Why oh why must Twain be shown as such a pathetic old man, sparkless and dull? It offends me as much as the similar Einstein bit people are always trying to pull. But anyway…that’s a little bit of truth peeping out metatextually, when they’re all “pretending” to be actors — the whole show is so deeply concerned with “false” realities, as I said in my post, that it just had to start crossing over with their “real” reality at some point. But then it all gets…I dunno, lazy? It all gets lazy again. So much pointless time spent on serene Guinan, so little on fractious Ro. One senses philosophical differences at the producer level.Whoops, gotta get to work! More later.

    Comment by plok — July 27, 2008 @ 7:48 pm

  3. I like “Tapestry” pretty well, although I haven’t given much thought to top-ten episodes of the particular series. I remembered one more thing I wanted to mention about DS9, and “Tapestry” reminded me of it: Q was another character who fit much better into “Voyager” than he did “Deep Space Nine.” In hindsight this seems perfectly obvious: in TNG and “Voyager,” the crew must contend with the presence of omnipotent beings. However, in DS9, Sisko himself “ascends” to the level of the Prophets.In light of my earlier comments about the DS9 crew shedding the trappings of TNG/”Voyager” idealized-humanity, that’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? (I suppose the revelations about Bashir are in the same vein, speaking thematically, but to a much lesser degree.)

    Comment by Tom Bondurant — July 27, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  4. I have a list of about a dozen episodes of TNG that are favorites to varying degrees…but for the number one spot I’ll pick Tin Man. Harry Groener is perfect as Tam Elbrun, the regular cast reveal characterization by how they respond to a situation rather than discussing their backstories in expository dialogue or learning valuable life lessons that help them grow, and the story is actually about dealing with strange intelligences (a sentient alien starship and a neurotic Betazoid telepath) and averting imminent danger. A gem of an episode.Other faves include “Heart of Glory” (the first time Worf interacts with other Klingons, and they are scary formidable), “Remember Me” (using an SF trope to illustrate an experience that could never otherwise be dramatized so vividly), “I, Borg” (best use of the Borg before they were ruint)…as I say, about a dozen good ‘uns.

    Comment by RAB — July 27, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

  5. Damn it, now you’ve all got me watching early episodes the last few days. Riker just got the beard.One of the more annoying “almosts” of TNG: the secret invasion of Starfleet. I seem to remember watching this and thinking “at last!”…and then the thing just fizzled. Too quick, boilerplate aliens, a lame ending. Too bad; there were some brief moments of coolness, drama, character…I always forget that once upon a time we didn’t know much about these characters, they were like strangers at a family reunion…and they might’ve been like anything, but instead they turned kind of samey. Ugh, tonight was the Wesley-decides-to-stay episode…Guinan and Pulaski. I find myself liking Muldaur’s acting quite a bit more this time around, Picard has a nice moment of awkwardness, also there is a Worf-driven laugh line which is not flubbed, but…jeez, so many missed opportunities.I’m fond of “Ship In A Bottle”, and indeed any TNG episode which is largely about how computer protocols work. Although really, I can’t stress this strongly enough, Riker should’ve outwitted Data in the episode where he’s called back to see his creator. So easy, I saw the answer right there, it was like they wrote it and then got rid of it…Sigh. Guess I’ve got to watch ’em all again, now. Blast you all.

    Comment by plok — July 31, 2008 @ 7:16 am


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