Ahoy there, Bloggers. The shovel in my hand notwithstanding, I come not to bury Star Trek: The Next Generation, but to sort of praise it.
The shovel’s for digging up, you see!
Here’s a comment I lately made on Tim’s blog:
“…TNG has an awful lot of clunkers, in my opinion — most of the episodes that I think shine flirt with a sort of SF-horror vibe (on one occasion, a very successful SF-horror-action vibe, wow!) that may actually be kind of unique to TNG, but for some reason that tone seemed quite difficult for the makers of the show to keep a reliable grip on. Which is a pity, because when those elements are treated just right, you can see the show that might have been. Ultimately I think TNG suffered from being a Star Trek show, as odd as that sounds — if it had been less concerned with its great big ethos, and more willing to discard its fan-fic chumminess — if it had only pandered a bit less to the faithful, and challenged them a bit more instead — it might have expressed that horror vibe a bit more consistently. Up above, someone mentioned the odd time or two that Riker looks like a bit of a dangerous guy to piss off. Sometimes Picard seems cold to his subordinates or antagonists. I think these character bits do get played on by the actors quite consistently, but all too often the scripts seem unwilling to support that kind of performance.”
The more I think about this, the more I recall some thoughts I had about TNG when it started its run, and then some later thoughts I had that eventually soured into an outright pissy attitude about Trekno-wank, fan-service, and the seeming inability of TNG’s showmakers to grasp the principles of proper carpentry: all they ever did was tap in nails all over the place. They never really learned how to hammer.
But maybe my pissy attitide goes a little too far, sometimes. Doubtless there are interesting things to say about TNG, so I should try to figure out how to say some of them, or I’ll just be a nail-tapper myself. So, start with this:
TNG is so obsessed with a return to ordinariness, so in love with its status-quo ethos, that it’s really only ever a proper show when its ordinariness has gone appallingly wrong: with the result that once the normalcy of its universe is reasserted, one almost feels that one’s being lied to. Wait, wasn’t this all quite fucked-up, a minute ago? No, everything’s fine now, let’s go to Ten-Forward and drink some synthahol, and then run a few lines from Macbeth down in Holodeck #3. (Or Cargo Bay #4?)
And I don’t mean this as pissy criticism!
Rather, it may be what is good about TNG…or, what is almost good, but anyway quite interesting. Because these day-trips into dissonance are something TNG returns to again, and again, and again and again, in an SF mode that I think primarily recalls the occasional shattered spookiness of the original Outer Limits, or to a lesser degree The Twilight Zone, only roughly blended with the Psychic Princess subgenre of SF fan-fic. And how strange is this, that TNG can even do “spooky”, with all those chunks of Psychic-Princesshood floating around in it? Yet it can, and does — every actor gets a couple of kicks at that can over the show’s run, and they all perform said can-kicking with some real gusto.
Before it’s back to the chamber music and the Sunday dinners with Aunt Bea.
And there’s a name for this: it’s called Blue Velvet.
But me, I think it’s interesting, although I’m not sure I really enjoy watching it. I mean, it may all be part of the point, but I do pine for a TNG set in an SF-horror-action universe, that’s set there all the time — and I do find the return to ordinariness stifling, particularly since TNG would be a better show in almost every conceivable way, if that skeleton of horror and dissonance that was baked right into it from the beginning, could just come out and play.
When the show began, I had high but (I think) achievable hopes for it. Picard seemed simultaneously bluff, cold, managerial, inspired, feeling, and nervous — awkward with subordinates to the point where he was reliant on the miltary hierarchy to normalize his relations with them, private and moody, possibly brilliant, but aloof, and used to complete acquiescence from his staff. A creature of the “new”, the post-Kirk Federation, a true believer in the protocols Kirk delighted in breaking. And he had his irritants: his unrequited flame, and her starry-eyed precocity of a son. An Exec who seemed an obvious throwback, a Kirk-worshipper, a man out of time who nonetheless thrust his protocols back on him uncomfortably. A robot officer who yearned for the same humanity his Captain was wary of. Impulsive Klingon dude. Empathic “counsellor”. Blindsighted engineer. Passionate security chief as his protege, trying her best to be button-down.
It’s all right there, isn’t it?
Not to mention Q.
But when Picard was himself confronting the unknown, his face turned from “society”, we saw a different man from the one his crew perceived: simultaneously lugubrious, and hopeful. An idealist, but a shackled one, self-deceiving, trying to erase his earlier life as an unreflective risk-taker who worked out his own feelings of inadequacy at the helm of a ship, and a career. In other words, Q was dead right about him…well, after all Q is omniscient, isn’t he?
It is all right there, and it continued to be there, but it swiftly sunk below even the waterline of subtext — only in the acting did it ever come out, and only occasionally: a triumph over material that deserved a medal but was always overlooked, and I think eventually, in the end, co-opted.
And consider Riker, who one day grows the beard, who they can’t think what to do with, who chafes at all conventionality. Beard, poker, jazz, sex planets, stupid “futuristic” sports…man, I’m surprised they didn’t give him a bolo bat to play with. Fletcher Christian and Stephen Maryk and not James T. Kirk but James T. Hart as his brothers-in-arms; and yet so many horrible mistakes made with him, right down to what should have been the shocking reunion with his own father, under the watchful eye of his spiritual father-figure Captain Kingsfield. But those notes were all struck sour, for some strange reason. Make no mistake, Picard was never the main character, from the very beginning it was always Riker whose eyes we were meant to see through…
And yet, did it happen? No, it did not.
Here’s Riker’s finest hour, in the show that should have been, and it occurs in one of the creepy “false reality” episodes: in which Riker is the First Officer, but he is not the Exec — rather, the Exec sits smugly in his way, the gatekeeper to Picard. And as a result Riker is thwarted at every turn — flagged as a marginal officer, too bold, too pushy, best keep him where he is and push him down. It’s only a slight amplification of his actual for-real character in the show’s “normal” state, but Lord what a difference it makes to have that “gatekeeper” there! Because if that had actually been the show itself, I would’ve watched the hell out of it, I would’ve glued a lobster tail onto my forehead and gone to conventions. I might even have preferred it to TOS, in some ways. But no.
Because the overriding priority is still return.
Now let’s do Geordie, who is also pretty obvious, but fairly easy to overlook — again, it’s all right there. He is brilliant but shy, he is perceptive but socially retarded…the blind man who sees better than anyone else, except not as well. Every bit as precocious, and every bit as much of a child, as Wesley. Look at his friendship with Data! Why else are they friends? Look at the godawful romantic fantasy he conducts with the image of the naval architect! And for that matter look at that thrice-damned holodeck that nobody seems to have read the manual for — that is no accident either, and we’re told it’s not as early on as the second episode (or was it the third?).
Troi , who we are as much as told is the only actual well-adjusted person on the ship, thinks she’s going insane, cycling through the same dream night after night. Crusher is trapped in a shrinking bubble-universe. Threes come up around the poker table. Riker falls into that old James Garner movie about the military officer with the fake “amnesia.” Picard is translated into an entire false lifetime, Picard is translated into his own false lifetime (“Tapestry” — my favourite TNG episode, and I really do like it a lot), Picard is palmed by Moriarty into a holographic sleeve, time gets frozen, time gets skipped through, Picard has his humanity stripped away, as the universe’s ancient interconnectivity is blown up, as the Enterprise arrives in the space of all possible bad universes, as time is re-set without anyone knowing, or past disasters are relived, or Data duels his command structure with computer protocols (Riker should have won that duel, actually, but for some reason no one thought of that — some of TNG’s most gripping episodes revolve around the rapid navigation of protocols and the identification of loopholes in them, but no one cares for Riker), the crew of the Enterprise meets their sane and happy cousins from DS9 and learn that they’re the images in the funhouse mirror, themselves…learn that they themselves are the time-loop, they themselves are the spatial anomaly…and so confront unexpectedly obvious questions about the identity they spend every denouement shunning so assiduously…”does Data have a soul?” Fuck that, that is not the question…
I could go on, and on, and on and on. But of course it’s all right there, and you can see it as easily as I can. It’s all built-in. But it’s not usually allowed out. How much would I have revered a TNG that eschewed the return to obnoxious “astro-sugar” ordinariness at the end of even every good episode? A TNG where sources of authority were as phenomenally distant from people, as people were from each other; a TNG in which morals were at best uneasy, because the characters were at best uneasy with morals. Everybody in that TNG would be the same as everybody in TNG as it actually was…and you wouldn’t even have needed to change the episode titles. There are even some episodes, that you would not have needed to change one scene or one line from. But maybe it’s better that they go back to their drab and uninteresting status quo at the end of every episode, and let the characters suddenly, pathetically deflate themselves. That, as I’m trying to say, might be an admirable and ambitious textual message too. Oh, it’s no fun to watch! But it may be admirable, it may be ambitious, and what I’m trying to say is…
That it’s all there anyway, so why do I always find myself bitching about it so pissily? If I want to critique TNG, I should give it what credit it’s really due. Some of its more pandery bits fairly poke you in the goddamn eye, but maybe that’s forgivable…after all, as Dave has just reminded me, Starship Troopers is one of the greatest SF movies ever made, and it sucks too…
And thank God for it sucking that way! Hell, even the casting sucks, sooooo brilliantly! I am fond of saying that there’s a special kind of genius that only the stupid can have, but please don’t think I’m saying that Starship Troopers’ genius is of that kind, because it isn’t, it isn’t: it’s a genius only the smart and subversive can have, in fact…
But we’re not talking about Starship Troopers, we’re talking about TNG…and I’m not sure it has any genius, not even stupid genius, but maybe if I just let go of the pissy attitude I can find something of genius in it anyway. The return to an absurdly sterile status quo, regular like clockwork every episode: it’s almost physically painful, but perhaps that’s because it conceals a point. Maybe, just possibly, it’s a choice…
Although not a choice I agree with in the slightest, because I am not a show-maker but a show-watcher, and I want what I like — feel that the same points could be made very adequately in the context of hammering, rather than tapping, tapping, always bloody tapping. But maybe that’s just me.
Or, maybe it’s them, after all! I disagreed with Tim’s commenter Bill when he said that the character conflicts in TNG were much more pronounced than the ones in TOS (and let’s all be nice to Bill, because he was nice to me), partly because he seemed to be implying that TNG featured long-term character development; but how much better would the development have been, if (for example) Picard’s showcase episodes actually marked coordinates on an arc of self-discovery that began in his initial character design, and culminated in a revelation? In a psychological breakthrough that saves humankind from extermination by the Q.
It did not really happen. We never saw a clear progression of Picard’s “loosening-up”: though all the key episodes included all the right beats to make it happen, they were light beats, and that nail never got hit on the head with force enough to drive it into the wood. I understand (I think I understand) what Bill is saying, and it is different from TOS (Kirk doesn’t go through this psychological passage until Wrath Of Khan), but I think he mistakes a schematic for a stage. Nothing ever really happens in TNG, although beyond doubt some things do occur: because the emphasis is so strongly, so uncompromisingly, on the return to self-deceit.
If it hadn’t had the name “Star Trek”, things might have been different.
But then it could’ve been different anyway, and that’s my complaint.
Which hopefully doesn’t sound too pissy.
Now, if anyone’s interested…let’s talk about our Favourite, Most Intriguing, Most Frustrating, Best Acted, and Most Disappointing episodes of TNG. Wanna? Because I think the furore over Dark Knight is so intense that I’ve got just about no chance of getting into even the midnight showing tonight, which pisses me off like you wouldn’t believe, because I am getting that 1977 Star Wars feeling once again, that screams in my ear “something is goddamn well going on here, and you need to be a part of it!”, and may I just thank all you geeks for being so careful about not putting spoilers out there? This may be the greatest solidarity we’ve ever shown to each other — this movie must really be something special, must be a dream come true. I stayed an extra day in town to see it…but let’s face it, it’s playing in just a couple theatres here, and it came out yesterday, and today is Saturday…tickets for it are probably being scalped, downtown.
All I can say is: long live this shit. Sean Witzke liked Dark Knight better than Hellboy II, for heaven’s sake. So Golden Age hell — this must be the Entertainment Singularity, or something.
My clarifying comment on the previous post is in the works, by the way; shouldn’t be long.
Okay, Bloggers: time for beer! Christ it’s hot.