Saturday, March 09, 2013
Visiting a future via Star Trek: The Next Generation
It's heresy around my house to say it, but I doubt I could watch the original Star Trek series all the way through. It was just not good enough science fiction even the first time around. Furthermore I have a very limited tolerance for James T. Kirk/William Shatner. The fact that Kirk was given the Federation's best starship and allowed to keep its command says something rather alarming about the Federation.
ST:TNG, on the other hand, though it started out rather weak, was good enough in my memory to give a second chance. I have now been through TNG a second time, and I quite enjoyed it.
It still was not great science fiction. The superscience explanations of the technologies, of the threats to the Enterprise or other good guys, of the solutions to those threats were either gruesomely bad or laughable, depending on my mood. Another ST series, I forget which, wore out the phrase "reverse[d] polarity." In TNG, "interference," which prevented rescues or self-defense or timely reaction to some threat, explained everything.
Action/adventure plots were usually just as lame. So many preventable disasters so easily avoided if only the command staff had used common sense or had sensible security protocols! Here comes a mysterious alien ship that refuses to open communication! PUT THOSE DAMNED SHIELDS UP! (Blam! Too late!)
Then there are some of the odd unexplained features of the largely unseen future society of the Federation. Real ST fans have thoroughly explored the question of whether the Federation uses money (the evidence is contradictory). But it is certainly noteworthy that commerce is shown as a marginal and unworthy activity, indulged in by lowlifes. One wonders about how non-Starfleet Federation citizens get from planet to planet. Are there passenger ships (we see none)? If there are, can you buy a ticket? How much would a passage cost? Or do only people with Starfleet connections travel the stars, hitchhiking on Starfleet ships (we see that a lot) or use shuttlecraft size transport?
Is Starfleet a vastly privileged aristocracy resting on a subject population? Is it the 18th -century in space, minus the slave trade and distant plantations? (A dish of tea, captain? Earl Grey, hot?)
On the other hand, there were some really good aspects to the series.
When the show tackled ethical questions that sprang from real science fiction premises, it often, maybe more often than not, did a really good job. The episode where the Enterprise crew decides not to weaponize a Borg drone but to treat him like an individual rather than a walking computer virus -- thus giving up an opportunity to destroy the hostile and very dangerous Borg -- was one of the best ST episodes ever. Whether anyone could be that ethical is another matter, but they sure did not duck the issues.
Another thing that the real fans have debated is the mixed record TNG had on gender issues. Certainly the complete lack of gay people makes the future society look kind of old-fashioned. But what does one expect from an American prime-time show from the 80s and 90s? It is quite remarkable, however, that in most societies depicted, women and men were treated as equals in intellectual and institutional authority. I remarked to my wife as we watched that ST:TNG must have had more good parts for middle-aged women than any other show of the time. And that is no small thing, indicative of a real commitment to incorporating male/female equality as a basic feature of that fictional society.