The Final Frontier — Watching Star Trek TV For the First Time In Your 30's
I was never a trekkie when I was young, and never thought I’d end up watching the TV shows, let alone becoming one. Then last year, my girlfriend and I started watching Star Trek: The Next Generation from beginning to end. We finished it sometime in the summer or fall (skipping the occasional irritating holodeck episodes), and slid right into Deep Space 9 (skipping some of the irritating Ferengenar episodes). Now we’re just getting started on Voyager (it’s looking bad for episodes centred on Neelix). I see what I was missing out on, but also I’m struck by how unusual the Star Trek series’ are in their vision of a utopian future, plots built around ethical dilemmas, and the sheer variety involved in the format.
Ever since Christopher Nolan rebooted the Batman series, it’s feels broadly as if sci-fi and needed to be gritty, covered in sand, grease, and dust, and featuring bleak and dystopian futures. Part of what makes watching TNG so foreign 30 years after its release is that the universe is one where humans, having solved the problems of a terrible 21st century, are now exploring the universe, seemingly for the fun and intellectual exercise of it.
Far from grizzled, world-weary veterans, the Enterprise’s crew are curious, kind people trying to understand the complex of the far reaches of their universe. DS9 introduces more conflict into that universe, and a few more cynical characters in Odo, Garak, and Quark, but ultimately the main characters in that show are all ultimately good.
All this to say, it’s genuinely refreshing to watch TV shows that remind us that the grim realities of 2019 can be different. No, I don’t mean I expect replicators and warp drives, and jeffries tubes, but that things like global warming and starvation can be overcome by people working together. I don’t mean this in an escapist way, but the Gene Roddenberry’s optimism about the future is inspirational, even if tempered by the fact that things never go completely smoothly.
Compared to Star Trek, Game of Thrones seems like a high budget, but grim slog. Even DS9, which created a galaxy similarly war torn to Westeros, foregrounded the ethics of warfare to show how violent struggle affected people. In Game of Thrones, backstabbing and ruthlessness were valorized and unquestionably necessary. You have to be a bastard to get ahead in Westeros. In the Alpha Quadrant, there are consequences for bastardly maneouvering.
Star Trek not only forces its characters into moral quandaries, it used moral dilemmas to shape its characters. The most famous rule of Star Trek, the Prime Directive, is also one that is repeatedly broken. That tension between an excellent rule (don’t interfere with species that don’t have interstellar capabilities) and the temptation to break forms the basis for many episodes. But Star Trek also made hay out of Data’s sense of personhood, Wharf’s honour, and Garak’s and Section 31’s wartime tactics.
It feels like the gritty remakes take it for granted that ethics will need to be dispensed with. Going back to Batman, the Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne justifies mass surveillance to Lucius Fox as a one-off. The joke is that mass-surveillance is destroyed as a capability at the end of that movie, even as it persists in real life. The Dark Knight Rises doesn’t grapple with that fact. In Star Trek, that question of justifying mass surveillance wouldn’t be a tacked on plot device to catch the Joker, it’d be the foreground of an entire episode.
I’m sure part of this is caused by budgets limiting how much action they could shoot, but foregrounding the preambles and conclusions to violence by focussing on the ethics makes for better, and more memorable script writing. In a show with hundreds of episodes, an awful lot of them raise fascinating, if unresolvable questions. I can’t imagine everyone agrees with the result of Jadzia Dax’s trials for her previous hosts’ actions, but that the show would constantly go to those kinds of questions was amazing.
By far one of the best TNG episodes involved Reggie Barkley’s use of the holodeck to imagine an Enterprise where all the women loved him and all the men feared him. By implication, it raised the ethical revulsion at Barkley abusing the holodeck for wish fulfillment at the expense of hologram versions of his real crewmates, invoking an icky feeling but also laughs about a topic a technology that, unfortunately, has become relevant in real life.
The Box of Chocolates
Star Trek was also a variety show. Some episodes would be absurd period piece dramas set in the Gold Rush, or others would be romantic comedies such as the will-they-or-won’t-they-get-together drama of Riker and Troi, or Odo and Kira, and still others would be bizarre why-would-anyone-make-this-TV like episodes where the Enterprise kept exploding, or any of the Ferengenar episodes. In terms of quality, it could be a real mixed bag.
But I found that the show’s risks with the weirdo episodes was worth it, even if the screwing around in the holodeck episodes could drag. My anecdotal feeling is that TV producers are a little more risk-averse (seeya, Hannibal!), so it makes Star Trek standout for all the screwball episodes, particularly since the ones that worked, were among the best.
Darmok, for example, where Picard is forced to try and understand a species that only speaks in metaphor, is the type of thing that makes me wonder if producers would trust audiences with anymore. As a script, its repetitive and frustrating even with breaks for action, but it all works in spite of that. In 43 minutes, it captures what it would be like to try and communicate with an unknown species with nothing linguistically in common.
I’m not sure why I’m sharing this, except that it’s been a trip watching a TV show that was somewhat inspiring despite its obvious imperfections. TV’s changed a lot in the post-Sopranos world, so Star Trek almost feels like a relic of another era, but it was so experimental that so much of a show pumped out in bulk quantities holds up. TNG and DS9 are different, but unified by a similar spirit. It takes some wading into, and the Watch Lists might be valuable for people with less time on their hands, but the Star Trek universe is one worth delving into. Star Trek has an outlook that’s a tonic for the way things are, while being much less serious than so many Golden Age TV shows. I’m glad I’m catching up.