|| Good news everyone! I have an opinion about Star Trek to share with the Internets! I know the Internet isn’t exactly lacking in Star Trek opinion pieces, but I just finished watching through all of Star Trek: The Next Generation courtesy of Netflix, and so it seems like an appropriate time. TNG had been on the watch list for awhile, but with CBS deciding to do the latest iteration of Star Trek as an exclusive for their streaming service I decided to watch it while I could. (Especially with DS9 and Voyager still to go, Enterprise isn’t currently on the list.) I’ve seen a lot of the TNG episodes, but I knew I hadn’t seen them all, and certainly never in any kind of order. So seeing them in order, as intended, was definitely something to look forward to. Unfortunately, by the end I found the series to be more, “Meh,” than anything; feeling more underwhelmed and disappointed than anything else. The characters were all familiar, of course, and I still enjoyed them, I just didn’t find I had liked the series overall.
I’ve put a good deal of thought since then to figure out why I felt so let down, and I think the first answer comes from contrasting TNG with TOS. In TOS the Enterprise was just one of literally thousands of starships plying the galaxy. There were worlds and phenomenon that had never been explored or encountered, and the Enterprise was on a five year mission to seek them out. One of the key differences happens right here in the difference between a “five year mission” versus a “continuing mission.” It may seem small, but the change is huge. It sets the scene for the isolation of the TOS’ Enterprise, and that they are far enough from home as to truly be on their own. Starfleet is still there of course, but it is far enough away that even messages take days, harkening TOS back to the days of the Age of Sail, and imparting extra gravity to the crew’s decisions.
TNG’s continuing mission though sees them almost always within easy communication with Starfleet. The sense of isolation is lost, and it feels as though there’s always a Starbase close by, making their missions less special and more routine. Except that it is written to be the opposite. In TOS it’s easy to imagine dozens of other Enterprises pushing the boundaries of known space in different directions, each reporting in from, “strange, new worlds.” In the TNG universe though, their uniqueness comes from their status as Starfleet’s flagship. It’s neither their isolation, nor self reliance, that drives their story’s conflict, but their status.
I think this tweak, minor though it appears, has huge ramifications in how TNG deals with its stories. I missed it when watching it piecemeal, but when I watched the whole thing as a body of work I realized how much they have to compensate for the increased mediocrity of their chosen setting. So there are quite a few episodes in which the life or death situation revolves around them losing control of the Enterpise. Like, a lot. To the point that you just have to wonder what the hell is going on with Starfleet that their Flagship’s Captain repeatedly loses control his ship doesn’t raise any kind of red flag. He’s still their best Captain, their best crew, and their best ship- so just what are all the other ships doing!?
It’s one thing to make it a one off, deeply dramatic occurrence, but multiple times? Multiple times to the Holodeck? Multiple times to Data? It doesn’t work. At some point there has to be an Admiral on the monitor saying, “Again, Jean-Luc? Really!?”
Along those same lines, just having characters say, “They’re the best,” isn’t enough for internal consistency, you have to show them being the best. For example, Worf is a Klingon Warrior. He was raised to fight since birth, having been tauaght and tested to endure and win at all costs, but he regularly loses fights. The idea I think, and I’m being generous here, is that by defeating Worf the enemy has shown how incredibly strong they are. But it doesn’t work, because Worf never really wins. instead it feels like contrived drama in lieu drama coming from the situation itself.
And, as long as we’re talking about artificially inflated drama, let’s talk about Q. The premier episode of TNG has the crew encountering a God. TOS certainly had its share of these episodes, but at least they showed how the “God’s” powers were explainable through science. They borrowed heavily from Auther C. Clarke’s positing that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” so they at least gave reasons for it. Tenuous, eyebrow raising reasons more likely to elicit a grunt than an, “a-ha!”, but reasons nonetheless taking it firmly out of the magic category and putting it into the tachology one. Q, however, actually is immortal, omniscient, and omnipotent: he is a God. He’s not just any old God either, but is straight out of Central Casting as a petulant God with a human fixation, if not fetish, centering around Picard. It isn’t just unneeded, it’s too much. How many times can a single starship crew really be responsible for all of humanity?
For example, the Borg would be an excellent opponent even without Q artificially bringing them into Federation space. Only, instead of them being overwhelming powerful, they could be just a smidge more powerful. Enough to challenge the Federation, and also allow for the exploring of the difference in philosophies between the collective and humanity. That is the lens through they could really, really explore some of our own society too. By turning it into a life or death battle against an overwhelming foe, all of that is lost.
In the end, I think that’s why I felt so much disappointment. The Universe Gene Roddenberry created and first explored with TOS is fantastic. The Universe TNG created is just as amazing, only instead of exploring it and let the Universe create the conflict, the writers instead opted for mashing their keyboards to create “Here Drama” everywhere. It doesn’t just feel forced, it is forced, and forced writing invariably fails. TNG is, unfortunately, no exception. Even the episodes built to primarily explore the ship’s characters feel forced, because the situations feel contrived, if not out and out sitcomish. The same feelings can be brought about through their exploration of worlds and the difficulties of their mission, without having it to be an artifically inflated occurance. Indeed instead of focusing on the threats to the Federation’s Utopia from within, TNG chose to focus on the threats from whithout. Once they started down that path, committing huge events and story arcs to it, they couldn’t then turn around and tell the smaller stories. It is the latter, I think, which would have been not just more compelling, but better able to reflect our own society’s foibles and embarrassments as TOS did.
As I mentioned above, I still have DS9 and Voyager to watch before the end of the year. I have seen very few DS9 episodes, but I did watch Voyager re-runs regularly years ago when it was one of the few things on late at night. I remember from the time liking Voyager more than TNG because they went places, and it reminded me more of the TOS. However, this was over a decade and a half ago, and I am curious to see if that assessment holds up. I also remember not being as interested in DS9 for the similar reason that almost all of the action takes place on the station instead of on the “strange new worlds” which made TOS so special. I look forward to reassessing that judgment too, as the Internet has made its opinions of DS9 and Voyager abundantly clear.
As for Enterprise, I saw the first episode and saw no reason to watch another. I still remember thiking as I watched it that the creators were doing everything they could to erase the memory of TOS, and create a continuity between Enterprise’s timeline and TNG, bypassing TOS completely. Nothing I have read about it online has changed that thought, but if time allows before CBS yanks it from Netflix, I may go ahead and at least start it.
The Internet is also skeptical of CBS’ new Star Trek show, and I am right there with them. Showing the first episode on the network proper and then having all subsequent episodes behind the paywall of their streaming site seems like a trainwreck hitting a dumpster fire. It doesn’t make sense to me that CBS has made the executive decision to make the best Trek they possibly could, and then have it only available on their struggling streaming site. What does make sense is that they are going to make a mediocre show and hope that there are enough Star Trek fans out there desperate enough for another show that they’ll pay.
As long as we’re talking about a new Star Trek series, I am once again going to throw out my idea for it. I’ve pitched this before on different sites and forums, and I have just much confidence that it’s going to be considered now as I did then: none. But, I’ll share again just in case! I would propose a Star Trek show that is episodic instead of serial. You could keep roughly the same cast, a la American Horror Story, but have them play different characters, on different ships, each week. That way you could tap into a range of stories and, unlike all the other series, it would be wholly possible for main characters to die on a weekly basis. From a marketing standpoint it would also let you have guest writers, directors, and stars, as Tales from the Crypt did, to draw in even more viewers. It would also be a way to give a large stage to a diverse range of voices and talent, while giving them a truly blank canvas with which to create their art.
Finally, I want to talk about Star Trek’s Universe itself, because it truly is amazing. A friend of mine on Facebook asked her followers a simple question, “If you could choose to live in any fictional universe, which one would you choose?” I struggled mightily with the question, thinking of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Wheel of Time and more. Ultimately I decided on the Star Trek Universe. As awesome as the others are for heroic endeavors, they really suck for day to day living. Much like Ren Faire re-enactors who are all either nobles, knights, or craftsman, while the peasant class that would be the vast, vast majority of the people are either forgotten or ignored. Star Wars would be a great Universe- if you’re a Jedi. Wheel of Time would be great as an Aes Sedai or Asha’man. Lord of the Rings if you’re Dunedain, or an Elf, Hobbit, or Dwarf in earlier times. Star Trek though, in Star Trek I could be a Starfleet shuttle pilot for an obscure research vessel and have an amazing life. (I even mentioned in my decision I could HoloLARP the other “heroic” universes!) It isn’t just that Star Trek is a Utopia, it’s that it is our Utopia. It is a future of us predicated solely on a greater understanding of science and technology than we currently have. Of all the various popular Universes out there, this is the only one which we have the possibility of achieving.