Day-Trips Into Dissonance: Temporal Riffs, Character Rifts, And Latter-Day Star Trek

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.

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23 responses to “Day-Trips Into Dissonance: Temporal Riffs, Character Rifts, And Latter-Day Star Trek

  1. One of the ways in which I like to pretend that I’m not a total nerd is that I’ve never really been into Star Trek. My wife is a huge Star Trek: Voyager fan, and when I was in university there were always episodes of ST:TNG on in the common room, so I’ve seen quite a bit of the show, but I’ve never really been into it.

    And yet I do have a favourite scene. It’s from what I believe is an early episode of TNG; they’re on a gambling planet and for some reason it’s important that they win big. Data is about to make the crucial roll of the dice, and he turns to (I think) Riker, and says, in that earnest deadpan Brent Spiner has:

    “Baby needs a new pair of shoes.”

    How can you not like that?

  2. Quick thoughts. I didn’t watch any TNG until it was at its peak, and then it was sporadic, so you have a sense of the characters I don’t.

    Are you saying TNG would have been better if it had been the new BSG? Because the latter has those tensions between the person and his or her authority, and it has the action/horror tenor. Only seen the first two seasons of BSG either, but they were the hell edgy.

    I won’t fault TNG for what it was in its time, because its best model was the original ST, which was understood by all as a stable premise which divers writers could riff upon. If they’d being writing Tarzan, they would have brought him back to his Congo idyll with Jane each time too. But TNG’s time was one of radical change for theatre SF. It was just after Alien and Bladerunner, cyberpunk was seen to be sweeping all prior SF assumptions away, Cameron was kicking widescreen action-adventure into high gear. I don’t believe TNG could have caught all these waves at the same time. So at the cost of continuing to be a cosy, predictable relic, at least they held their concept together.

    Also, anyone who overestimates the commercial choices they had – Star Trek, for crying out loud – back from the dead by stalwart fan belief! – should compare and contrast the history of Babylon 5. Warner and Paramount are not exactly Lorenzo di Medici. (“We really don’t think your ceiling will meet our goals in this present form, Michelangelo. Perhaps a series of frescoes, spaced out over some years as the Purse affords?”)

    But let’s excuse TNG from history … while putting its astrosacharrine premises to the question.

    Now SPARE ME from the post-WWII American temptation to show how ST utopianism is too good to be true, and must fall apart by the bitter facts of human nature. Spare me Golding, spare me Hitchcock, and John Boorman too. I would not think it at all edgy to portray how the Enterprise microcosm decays from the inside. I would think it a sentimental cliche, good for 5 Wisdom Points.

    However, revive the original premise that the Enterprise is totally isolated, like you might be able to get a message capsule back to Earth in a year; and then drop it into Ridley Scott and H.R. Giger’s universe of bones and parasites; then showcase the whole crews’ presumption that post-Federation humanitarianism plus a futurized military ethos really is that good; and then show them trying to live up to it while being eaten alive; and I think we’ve got a show.

    How do we think the TNG cast would change under pressure? How would their etiquette and rituals change? What do they have to say about their ideology now?

    Very well, I will allow a little of Golding and Hitchcock in now. I think the figure of Picard, violated and traumatized by the Borg, seeing his reflection in Captain Ahab, gets a stronger, darker force. I think somebody takes an axe to the holodeck, when its consolation has been shown to be an addictive escape from the facts. I see them inventing and adapting like crazy, perhaps cyborging themselves, perhaps going off on mystical tangents with telepathy and warp drive weirdness. Inter-personally, I see them striving to reassure each other that they are still human beings. And now I can see the friction between Riker and Picard becoming a real clash of visions, even Shavian.

    All this isn’t too far from what actually played out. It’s a bit like Stargate Atlantis, which I really like, but darker than that. It’s a lot like BSG, as long as they keep the pressure on. And it’s really like David Gerrold’s series, The War Against the Chtorr, which had the good guys becoming really quite unpleasant as they descended to ever more drastic measures.

    And then in the N+1th season, I see the Enterprise returning to Federation space, where people are still congratulating themselves just on not being at war; returning, scarred and tattered and enhanced to hell, but still flying their little flag of human solidarity.

    Is this drawing out the sort of themes you want?

  3. It’s good, Jonathan…except it’s Voyager that you’re describing.

    A couple quick notes before I have to dash out the door: the thing about the holodeck is that it is the reality of pearly-white post-Kirk Federation types — again and again we’re shown that it’s a godlike technology that its makers truly don’t understand and can’t cope with, their technological imagination always becoming “too real”…how they manage this, and the transporter, and the subspace quantum inversions, and even the computer itself, is to batter their chaotic reality into submission with rules of protocol, lines of code…the hierarchy of verbal propositions that’s the ultimate goal of the thing we call Philosophy. Picard stands there spouting it, calming the seas with it, virtually Prospero, or perhaps Freud.

    And the Enterprise is isolated, of course: who even knows if they ever came back from the Universe’s “outer rim”? The Enterprise has much in common, always has in this iteration, with a ghost ship…but I think the point is, that any encounter with chaos only makes them more Federation

    And now, unfortunately, I must run. More later!

  4. I’m actually working through my thoughts on serial fiction and wondering if, you know, I’m growing tired of “neverending sagas” that promise character development and universe building but never really accomplish much because … if the characters truly changed the franchise would no longer exist.

    It’s like those old episodes of Family Ties where Alex would learn a valuable lesson, only to completely forget about it by the time the next new episode aired.

    This may be why I’ve recently preferred comic book movies like Iron Man and Hellboy to their written counterparts (well…I do still love the comic-book Hellboy) because we get story arcs and resolutions … as opposed to “let’s rewrite history and pretend that Tony Stark was always a futurist dick.”

    As far as Star Trek goes, I have a favorite scene from TOS. I always remember that episode where he made an android woman “human” by kissing her … what a stud. When it turns out the woman can’t handle the influx of true emotions, she keels over and dies. Kirk falls into a deep depression, which apparently is mind-wiped away by Spock in the very last scene.

    I always like to imagine that Spock mind-wipes Kirk after each and every mission. That’s why the Prime Directive is always battered to hell!

  5. I always remember that episode where he made an android woman “human” by kissing her … what a stud. When it turns out the woman can’t handle the influx of true emotions, she keels over and dies.

    Oh ghod. [Groan.]

    Barbarella Kirk.

  6. I think we look at TNG differently, in that you see it (at least the good stuff) as essentially a series of one-offs, while I remember more clearly the story arcs. There were several episodes in which the whole point was not to return to the comfort of “base reality.” One example that sticks in my mind is the first Borg episode, where the entire point, as Q says, is that the Federation needs to learn that there are things out there that are a lot scarier than Klingons or Romulans. At the end of the episode, everybody is back on the Enterprise but there isn’t the idea that everything is back to normal, but that things will never be “normal” again.

  7. Sure, TNG had its problems, but it was on during those years when I liked everything sci-fi/ action/ horror that wasn’t terrible (I was 11 when it debuted, 13-16 when it was in its prime), so I can’t be too harsh, and I watched it every week (or nearly every) before I hit college. It was entertaining! Usually.

    That doesn’t mean your version, with real conflict and forboding, wouldn’t be better, but…

    Riker. Ugh, what a waste. He was stuck being Not Quite the Captain, instead of a more interesting counterpoint. Spock got to be first officer AND an alien AND science chief AND the focus of half the episodes of TOS. Riker got to take the bridge when the Captain was away, and sometimes be loud. I think his best moment was when he took part in an exchange program with the Klingons. There, he got to be tough, smart, capable, and even edgy. I liked him, and would have loved to see him as a fish out of water with the Klingons for more episodes. Oh well. His non-romance with Troi was just grating.

    My favorite episode? I really like the one where Picard was dying, and Q offered to let him go back and change his life. The consequences of the Captain making old man decisions for his young man self were shocking. Good stuff.

    As much as I liked TOS, I think they reverted to the status quo after every episode. You never saw Kirk deal with the events of City on the Edge of Forever, for example, after the end of the episode. By next episode, it was like it had never happened. The endings in TOS were never as too-neat as in TNG (I don’t remember a “Let’s get the hell out of here” moments, except for when the Klingon council turned their backs on Worf) but there wasn’t a real sense of continuity (except mentioning “corbomite” or something twenty episodes later) or character development. It was a more active show, but still a series of done-in-ones.

  8. Mike, that episode you’re describing is my favourite one, “Tapestry”. So, good choice! And for the record, there are only about six or seven TNG episodes which I think are any good at all, and the rest I think are mostly just plain crap. Out of the six or seven, I like this one about a million times better than its nearest rivals, because — bizarrely for TNG — it happens to be about character stuff that actually interests me, in a classical SF storytelling scheme that I consider nice and neat. Plus, John DeLancie is funny.

    As to the matter of eternal return (heh), it’s for sure that TOS does it as much as TNG, as much as any Batman comic (trying for the Dark Knight matinee tomorrow — lineups, lineups everywhere!), but the meaning of the obsession with return to Origin is a different critter as far as TNG goes. What they all return to is a stultifying everyday life, filled with largely meaningless pursuits — it’s a pretty funny idea of a utopia, really: 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!

    By the way, apropos of nothing…have you seen this beer commercial that shows the guys “partying” or whatever, and then the screen flashes up something like “Rule #95: Go Big Or Go Home”. And I’m thinking, Rule Ninety-Five? Seriously? You beer motherfuckers have ninety-five of these silly-ass Rules, and “Go Big Or Go Home” is down at the bottom of the list? What’s Rule #1, “Don’t Puke In The Car”? Seriously, they start with Rule #95. That’s just crazy. Actually I think I may have seen a three-digit Rule, something like “Rule #231: Work Hard, Play Hard.” I just really, really need to know who came up with these, how long it took, and how many of them there are.

    I’ve always hated that stuff. Like Bryan Brown in Cocktail, to Tom Cruise: “Asshole’s Law #451: Never Eat Fried Chicken On The Bus.” Or whatever stupid shit he was saying there, for the love of God the guy was a bartender, how many Laws did he really need to have? It truly blows my mind how entrenched the idea has become, that one way to tell if a person is cool and interesting is if they stay up late into the night adding to their personal little book of “Laws”. Okay, you’ve seen through me: didn’t Wesley have a little friend who had a bunch of silly Laws? “Guest-Star’s Law #14,419: Robots Don’t Sweat.” Or, y’know, something.

    Who are these people? Who is encouraging this behaviour? Me, I could maybe come up with three Laws, if pressed: Long-Distance Relationships Usually Don’t Work Out, Ninety Percent Of The Time When Something’s Not Working Right It’s Because It’s Dirty, and…see, I’m out. Couldn’t make three, after all. And I’m in my forties. Wesley’s little friend was like, twenty, and she had hundreds of the damn things. How could she possibly have had so many? Keep A Phone By The Bed. Remember To Wear Shoes. Umbrellas Are Useful For Keeping Rain Off You. You could list a few hundred of those, but would they really count as “Laws”? Salt And Sugar Look The Same, So Always Check To See Which One You’re Using. That isn’t lawmaking, that’s acute anxiety cut with delusions of grandeur. These people need help, damn it!

    Sorry, just had to get that off my chest. Anyway, the “return” thing…I love the idea that Spock wipes Kirk’s memory after each episode, that’s absolutely perfectly perfect! But when Kirk “returns”, what’s he returning to, eh? Clearly, to an ever-more refined state of Kirktasticness — he doesn’t need to remember what he did last week, he just needs to become ever more super-Shatner-sized, damn it! By the middle of Season Two, Kirk’s turned into pure Jazz or something, he’s completely switched off his targeting system: he kisses girls and they explode, he yells at computers and they go right to pieces. Stuff just happens when he’s around. That’s why he’s turned into such a great subject for parody (by the way, have you ever seen Shatner’s own William Shatner impression? I saw it once on Bob Costas or something, and it’s goddamn impressive…), and also why Star Trek falls completely apart when people start remembering things in it, at least when they remember what we remember. ST fan-fic is stuffed to the rafters with this kind of thing, the characters reference past episodes all the time, and is it weird when they do! Holy Hannah, it makes your skin crawl! The comic-book version is like when you ask why Daredevil isn’t always walking around with a separated shoulder, it just destroys the basic conceit. Talk about dissonance.

    Speaking of comics, I got some, what’re they called, “Marvel Classics: Avengers” or something, reprints of the very early Lee/Kirby Avengers comics…and man, Stan’s pretty damn sloppy in those, even for him! I never knew. Quite amazing…

    But, back on target: so, what do the folks in TNG “return” to? Not Kirktasticness, that’s for sure: they just seem to have some kind of idling position where they do a lot of navel-gazing about their utopian lives. Then in the actual episode their lives get little hairline fractures in them — these being the “false reality” scenarios that are so prevalent in TNG. But then the cracks are all healed perfectly at the end of each episode, because whatever was causing them (or exposing them) just sort of dissipates. The blockage in “normality” goes away. That’s just what I’m saying, I guess: Kirk and Co. don’t overcome their episode-by-episode tribulations so much as they successfully pass through their emotional consequences…and then next episode it’s all forgotten again, but a large part of that episode previous was still about the emotional ramifications of the practical problems they faced, and so that stuff does get dealt with, even if nobody ever mentions it again. Whereas in TNG the emotional ramifications of the practical difficulty — the emotional consequences — are far less thoroughly dealt with onscreen. Everybody already seems to know all about them, you see! They tell us what they are. So what you’ve got with TNG is primarily a lot of tension that’s connected to whatever the technical problem is, but very little emotional throughput despite that. Kirk learns, but doesn’t remember; maybe Picard remembers, but without learning?

    Just a thought.

    But now, what would my “ideal” TNG feel like, if all that stuff up above was tuned-up in it? Would it feel like BSG? Hmm, I’m not sure about that…BSG’s edgy, but there’s no suggestion of utopia in it, and that’s the interior conflict “my” TNG would go around and around all the time. How do you live in a utopia if it really kind of is one? All the Federation bullshit would still be there, the obsessive genuflection to background details Tim was talking about in his post…but it’d sometimes be uncomfortable for the people in it. I make it sound so dull, don’t I? But you don’t need to tear down the utopia to show that all that “society” can get up a person’s nose from time to time. What TNG always implies but never really comes out and plain old says, is that its utopia is hard work, actually! Because it has to be physically held up by all the people in the funny suits on the ships, day in and day out. Kirk never had to do that, he was out on the frontier, in the utopia of the individual — Picard’s job, as has frequently been noted, is different.

    Whoops, it’s getting late again! How did that happen? Okay then, back to the refrain: more later.

  9. Part of TNG’s problem was its set-up: starship wanders around the galaxy and…stuff happens. Completely different stuff every week. Building character development into that isn’t easy. Three series from any given point, Picard would still be receiving emergency calls from Colony x-alpha-27 who’ve reported a hostile alien entity approaching from whatever. TNG was following the original series set-up, which also had this fault and got canned after a few years. Then there was that Planet of the Apes where Vernon and Burke (were they the names? can’t be bothered to google) would wander into a village, get shot, right some wrongs, kick some gorillas and escape at the end. Every single episode. They never had a coherent plan of escape. It was never heading anywhere

    Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, had a developing narrative which kept me hooked through several series, even though the entire cast had exactly one-tenth of the charisma residing in Patrick Stewart’s little toe. Voyager was in the TNG mold, only the Captain looked like the harassed head of Human Resources at an understaffed Logistics Firm.

    (Perversely, the construction of Deep Space Nine means I never want to watch it again. I know what’s going to happen. I’ll still glance at TNG if I’m bored, though. As long as it’s not a Wesley episode.)

    TNG, IMO, didn’t get going till the Borg turned up and there was a regular coherent threat. Even then it was patchy.

    Riker was a mistake from the very start. Rugged, masculine heroic types haven’t been in vogue for a generation, and anyway Riker was Kirk without the swagger, Kirk without the humour. He was utterly out-acted by Stewart and should have been booted out once Picard came into his own.

    And don’t get me started on Wesley Crusher.

  10. One of the problems that existed in the “world” of TNG (and I’ve mentioned this on Tim’s blog), is that, while the T.o.S. crew would beam DOWN to a planet to engage the threat du jour, and gain whatever “experience points” or “adaptive” learning process (that may or may not be worth mentioning in a later episode), the T.N.G. crew (due to the fact that, by this time, the Federation had had QUITE ENOUGH with having CAPTAINS go on away missions), Picard and his Enterprise would, more often than not, have the danger/alien menace/delemma manifest ON the SHIP.

    (Yikes! That’s a long [run-on] sentence.)

    This takes a lot of the learning process out of the situation, because once the threat is ended, it is effectively removed from their reality and they go back to the relative safety of their mammoth flying world.

    Thus, each episode ends with nothing gained.
    No new thoughts, no new insights (past what residual contemplation may provide for a day)… just back to the status quo.

    It’s much like the difference between tossing a rock into the ocean or a puddle.

    The Enterprise-D was so big (much larger and more luxurious than Kirk’s ride), that it was an “ocean-liner” to Kirk’s sex-yacht.

    But, for the sake of my metaphor, Picard’s in the Ocean, Kirk’s the puddle.

    Toss a rock (disturbance) into the ocean, and once the little ripples are smoothed out, there’s no memory of the incident. No trace evidence that the placid waters were ever disturbed.

    Have something go wrong on Kirk’s Enterprise (the rock in the puddle) and it was ALWAYS “breakin’ up, Captain”.
    Redshirts died, and when Kirk wasn’t sexxin’ his way through alien agendas to get “on top” of the situation, he was cracking wide the Prime directive or bluffing his way out of being burnt to a cinder by space gods.

    Kirk’s Enterprise was like living out on the U.S. FRONTIER.
    EVERYTHING was a potential death-dealer.
    Bluster and bravado were the primary tools for him to keep his crew alive.
    Especially on a ship that was always being threatened with imminent destruction or capture.

    Picard’s Enterprise was a much more BATTLE-WORTHY vessel and as such, the threats weren’t as awesome (until they were MINDBLOWINGLY HUGE).

    The “D” could fight it’s way out of most messes.
    Kirk had to pull the ruse of “Corbamite” out of his ass.

    T.O.S. was pitched to the studios as a Space-WESTERN.
    TNG was a fairy tale of Sci-Fi futurisma.

    TNG tried to be cerebral, and as such lacked immediacy.
    It was colder, cleaner, future-ier.

    ToS was more FELT.
    It was visceral.
    It used emotion as a weapon (against both the aliens as well as the crew).

    Picard saw his ship as his job and his duty.
    Kirk saw his ship as his love.
    They would both willingly die for it, but Kirk FELT it more.
    Picard would view defeat as being defient in his duty.
    Kirk saw his death (or that of the ship) as being torn away from the love of his dreams, and he fought against that more fervently than Picard did.

    Picard was tough as nails at times;
    “THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!”, even though he was close to cracking.
    However, Kirk would NEVER give up.
    He wouldn’t come close (unless he was in some way mentally altered);
    “I AM KIROK!!!”

    OOpsie. Took a slight tangent there.

    Anyway…
    You know What ALWAYS bugged th shit outta me about TNG?
    That damned HOLODECK!

    I HATED that thing.

    You would think that it’s be closer to the X-MEN’s “Danger Room” powered by Shi’Ar alien tech, that SHOULD have gone far more awry, more often than it did…
    but the HOLODECK is just crazy!

    Half the time it malfunctions or gains sentience and you’d think these guys would have some techs there to service and run diagnostics on it every day or two to prevent such wackiness.

    But, I always got the idea that it was tech invented by a far superior race of beings that the Federation just turned into a toy.

    MY ultimate TNG story would be where after their mission is all over, the ship is preprogrammed to return to Earth, and when it does, it is discovered that the HOLODECK had malfunctioned and reversed it’s perameter settings; everything OUTSIDE of the chamber was made into a computer generated fantasy and the only reality was if you were were locked INSIDE the room.

    SO, the Earth dignitaries board the ship only to find that the entire crew is living out their own false fantasies, and are living like drug-addicts; emaciated, filthy, atrophied, twitching and foaming at the mouth.

    Then, they open the holodeck and Picard (or Data) is within, completely immune, but still to have LOST their shit, because they couldn’t help the crew.

    Maybe it’s circuitry got fused or crossed with ship’s computer, but each room (quarters, forward, gym, bathroom – is there more than ONE on the “D”?) is it’s OWN holodeck, and it’s resident(s) are players in their own dramas.

    The bridge crew is together, living out the SAME false events as each other.

    No telling how much of the 5 year (or however long) mission was real, and how much was just peeks into the separate “fantasy-mindscapes” of the crew.

    THAT would be your dark (technology is NOT our friend) future.

    Yeah… DATA would have to be the one trapped in the Holodeck, then.
    Because otherwise, he’d probably see thru any fallacy in the fiction on the bridge.

    Maybe he was having robo-sex and the holodeck’s throws of orgasm sent the primary pulses into the ship’s computer, thusly dooming the ship.

    I dunno.
    I’m tired.

  11. Oh, that’s “Tapestry.” I thought you were talking about the episode in which Picard lives out the life of an ordinary man on a doomed planet. I liked that one, too, but not as much as the episode that actually _is_ “Tapestry.”

    Anyway, I just realized that Kirk & Co. were the Federation flagship, but they broke the Prime Directive every week. They got to be rebels. Picard’s Enterprise felt more like a “flagship;” the biggest & best ship manned by the best crew. It’s funny how the more rebellious characters were treated: Worf was wrong 9 times out of 10 (the times he was right being the Worf episodes), because he advocated force over acceptable diplomacy. Ensign Ro was written out. Picard got to be the rebel as long as it was against an even stuffier Starfleet beauracracy, but was almost never wrong as the ultimate authority.

    Kirk got to define himself against the Federation, whereas Picard became the shining example of a Federation officer. In fact, Scotty could be a maverick engineer, making it up as he went along, whereas Geordi couldn’t pull it off. Bones was all emotion while Beverly was so reserved. Spock (fighting his human heritage, trying to be more Vulcan) could do more than Data (always wanting to be human). Worf had more going on than the Sulu, Chekhov, and Uhura put together (no wonder they moved him to the superior DS9), but was reduced to being belligerent or useless when convenient. Troi, Riker, & Wesley alternated between boring and annoying, with occasional good moments.

    Why was First Contact the best TNG movie, maybe the best Trek movie? It played like a TOS story, with more action and humor than we usually see from TNG.

  12. Seriously for a second here –
    For me The Next Generation is a Brave New World style warning against an emotionless Xanax/Prozac future where everyone is happy and there is no conflict and annoying know-it-all children are actually meant to be respected rather than locked in the holodeck with duct tape over his mouth. The ship’s psychiatrist sits next to the Captain on the bridge. When the Federation fought the Borg it was essentialy robots vs. robots. I couldn’t care about any of these people if I tried.

    The original had space rays cause Sulu to go crazy and think he’s pirate and try to kill Kirk. It had women in miniskirts crawling through air ducts. It had Spock routinely making a coup for control when Kirk almost-died every third episode. It had Nazi planets and sucker punches. It had the spawn of Genghis Khan for fuck’s sake. IT wasn’t any good but it was berserk and horny and made for three bucks in the station’s basement. I’ll take insane trash over bland respectability any day.

  13. … didn’t Wesley have a little friend who had a bunch of silly Laws?

    That would be Ens. Robin Lefler, progenitor of the annoying “Lefler’s Laws,” played by Ashley Judd. I have to stand up for Ms. Judd (if not Lefler), since she and I were undergraduates at the University of Kentucky at about the same time; and we are both irrationally supportive of the men’s basketball team.

    Too bad she got stuck Wesley-sitting. I guess he turned out OK, but man, while he was on the ship he was a weenie.

  14. There is one question SF is always poised to address, in a way that no other genre is. What do we want to be when we grow up? As a society, as a species.The question supposes that change is possible, change in our circumstances, change in our values. We’ve all been growing up personally, so we know it’s true. The way things are aren’t how they will always be.

    In their clumsy, cuddly way, ST and B5 were addressing the question. “The human adventure is just beginning!” That was the motto of ST:The Motion Picture, and I seem to remember it was a TOS staple as well.

    This is why I’d be sorry to lose the utopian presumption in Trek, in favour of a presumption of never-ending Western-Civ-type individual struggles against the menaces of the universe. If the one is merely making a posture of progressive wisdom, the other is turning back to the posture of the muscular hero taming the West or Darkest Africa, who never learns anything.

    Instead, we want the series to be a bildungsroman, don’t we? A chronicle of personal development, reacting to or against alien values, made by alien circumstances, which might turn out to be adult values we need to incorporate.

    Well, we sort of do get that; but it’s laced through the major action-adventure structure as a minor counterpoint. There are human crew who see something admirable in Worf, or that Vulcan bird in Enterprise, and set themselves to undertake the discipline. I always liked the Minbari in B5; they seemed to me a nice miniature of Gordon R. Dickson’s Splinter Cultures in his Dorsai series, each refining one face of civilization to a transhuman gleam.

  15. TNG was an evolution of TOS behind the scenes. It was stuck with the Rand Corporation style humanist propaganda, just like the original, but in a world where the people who had blown JFK’s head off had been in control for a quarter century. Uniformity, futurism enslaved to cryptofascism, nothing was by accident on TNG. It had a careful religious message, just like TOS, but the message came through so loud and clear so often it was a miracle even science fiction desperates didn’t wake up to it in the end.

    The real reality check in TNG came when ratings plummeted and the NWO of the stars had to go back to basic storytelling with a bogeyman stolen straight from Dr. Who’s cybermen. It’s no accident ST8 / First Contact did so well- it is much closer to our real world and therefore more relatable. NWO fantasies of control only work in fairy tales and the real NWO, and its media puppets like the ST franchise are due for their own rude awakening.

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