Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Star Trek - The Next Generation Failed

(So yeah, it took a few days longer. Erm.)

Like many folks of roughly similar backgrounds, I enjoyed the heck out of Star Trek - The Next Generation when it first premiered, followed the show avidly through its seven seasons, and mourned its eventual passing. Although it sounds like the kvetching of the aged to say so, the fact is that kids today don't know how good they have it: was a time when the idea of having a moderately intelligent weekly sci-fi television program that didn't have asinine budgetary restrictions was simply inconceivable. TNG came out, was incredibly successful, and essentially recreated the entire genre of television sci-fi in its own image. That's hardly an understatement, as every significant sci-fi program to appear in the ensuing years has been strongly defined, either thematically, tonally or structurally (or all the above) by its relationship to TNG. Whether it's been established in stated opposition to the Trek "house style" (Babylon 5, Battlestar: Galactica, X-Files) or in slavish imitation (the various Stargate series, SeaQuest, any number of crap shows you can catch on late-night local syndication), the fact is that TNG changed the ballgame entirely. If you don't believe me, go back and look at how crappy something like V looked just a couple years before TNG. (And if you want to defend V in the comments, go right ahead, but that doesn't make it not crap.)

So yeah, you can't really say that TNG failed on any significant level except . . . well, have you watched it recently? Sure, everyone remembers the good episodes, "The Best of Both Worlds" and "All Good Things . . .", a couple of the Q episodes (because John de Lancie was one of the best character actors on TV for the duration of the show), maybe, if you're kind, a Klingon-heavy episode or two. And then, ummm, well. I had a DVR a couple years back and I decided to start recording the episodes of TNG that were being shown on Spike at the time. I rewatched the entire run of the show from beginning to end, and was dismayed by how badly the whole thing held up. And by dismayed, I mean horrified, because there had been a time when I had dearly loved the show. That time has passed.

Back when Trek was the only game in town, it was easy to overlook the problems. Those who loved the original series saw enough in the new show to remind them of why they loved the franchise, and enough new fans came aboard that the show became an honest-to-Goodness phenomenon, at least for a short time, until Paramount killed the franchise through overexposure in the late 90s. But it's not as if the problems are only valid in hindsight, with the benefit of a decade-and-a-half of better, post TNG television and film sci-fi to cull from. The show's problems were endemic from the very first episode, in fact, they were perhaps most obvious in the earlier seasons, before Gene Roddenberry died and some of the restrictions placed on the franchise began to loosen. As sad as his death was, the fact is that by 1991 his vision of the future was going nowhere fast.

Comparing Trek to Star Wars is a pastime as old as time itself, or at least as old as 1977, when the thunderbolt popularity of the first Star Wars films established the franchise as the second pole in sci-fi fandom's big tent. When Roddenberry returned Trek to TV in the 80s, he made many of the same mistakes George Lucas made when he returned Star Wars to film at the turn of the century. Primarily, he disregarded a great deal of what had made the original property so popular in exchange for accentuating background details which were, at best, incidental, and at worst superfluous to the property's appeal. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll label this phenomenon the "Han Solo Effect".

What do people like most about the original Star Wars trilogy? Lots of things, sure. But what made those first three movies really sing? Han Solo. Sure, you had a cosmic mythology and a classic story of good versus evil and all that Joseph Campbell bullshit*, but really, who do you root for? Who has the charisma? Who was a good enough actor that you forgave him the occasional churlishness of the material in exchange to see him shoot a blaster from the hip on occasion? That's right, Han Solo. Along with the really-more-frightening-than-intended Chewbacca and his dilapidated spaceship, he was the glue that held the entire movie - all three movies, really - together. Go back and watch A New Hope: the most convincing character arc is not Luke. Luke doesn't even have a character arc besides the gradual realization that he's some sort of Aryan Jedi superman. The real crux of the movie is Han Solo deciding to not be such a prick. He's the one who saves Luke at the end of the movie, after all. A lot of people forget that.

The problem was that Han Solo's success was partially due to elements completely out of Lucas' control: i.e., the fact that Harrison Ford was about to become one of the most popular movie stars of all time, and was therefore carrying around more charisma and sex-appeal in his back pocket than everyone else in all the movies put together, with the possible exception of Billy Dee Williams**. Considering that Lando Calrission was essentially the same character as Han Solo didn't really matter: everyone loves a rogue, and watching a rogue turn against his baser interests in order to find redemption is one of the most enduring stories in the history of the world. Screw the "Hero With a Thousand Faces" - everybody knows how that story ends. Give me Casablanca - or better yet, give me Casablanca with spaceships and call it The Empire Strikes Back.

I have never made any secret of my affection for the prequel trilogy - it's better than most give it credit for. The underpinning thematics aren't bog-stupid and downright reactionary in their leanings, and the political analogy set up in the second and third films actually - maybe - veers towards actual insight. But there's still something undeniably missing, some vital element keeping the later films from approaching the very simple believability that the earlier films accomplished so effortlessly. What's missing? Han Solo. Obviously, there could be no Han Solo, but there needed to be something to fill that roll, because without that kind of a charismatic lynchpin, sci-fi pageantry can easily turn into self-important drivel.

It's the same reason, really, why the Hobbits are placed at the center of The Lord of the Rings: sure, they're not rogues, but they're still the characters you're paying attention to when the camera is supposed to be focused on Gandalf or Aragorn pontificating about something or other. In order to pull off that kind of high-epic storytelling, you need something slightly off-grain to focus on, or the texture and emphasis can seem all wrong. You pay attention to Han Solo in Star Wars because he's mirroring your own reactions of slight disbelief at the crap he's hearing from those self-important Jedis. Similarly (and although the characters couldn't be more dissimilar in other ways), Frodo and Sam and Merry and Pippin are just agog at everything, and their reactions - both general awe and a little tiny bit of disbelief at the absurdity of the proceedings - focus the narrative. Doctor Who has made it so long because this function of the narrative is built into the very premise: the Doctor flies around time and space with a companion. There's a reason why there has only ever been one full Who adventure without a companion, because without that dynamic the series breaks down.***

So, given this, who was the lynchpin of the Prequel trlogy? Who was supposed to be the charismatic outsider who served as the narrative's focal point, or, barring that, the viewpoint character who defined the story through his interaction with unfamiliar elements? There's only one character that fits the definition: Jar Jar Binks.

Unless you' haven't been paying attention, I'll bet you can see where I'm going with this. James T. Kirk was another once-in-a-lifetime confluence of character and actor, and Roddenberry was smart not to try to attempt to remake Kirk when designing TNG. The problem was that they decided to eliminate all tension from the show's premise. Instead of a fairly rag-tag group of disciplined but very human astronauts cruising around a pretty frightening galaxy of unknown terrors, TNG presented the Federation of some fifty years later as essentially a utopia, with perfectly balanced space diplomats cruising around a fairly well understood and mostly domesticated post-Glasnost galaxy. A roguish asshole like Kirk, the kind who lied and bluffed and punched his way through adversaries many times more powerful than he was, just wouldn't fit as the captain of the NCC-1701-D. In fact, no one with any kind of personality defect more unfortunate than, say, an inordinate love of Dixieland jazz would ever be cleared for the Federation's flagship. No Han Solos or James T. Kirks to be found, but boy, was there plenty of time spent exploring the underpinnings of Federation ethics and philosophy. Hot dog! And we were even given, in lieu of any kind of charismatic rogue figure, two new POV characters who could react to the world of the 24th century not with disbelief, amusement or bemusement, but awe, wonder, genuflection and hope: Wesley Crusher and Commander Data.

The implications of this emphasis on utopian world-building were immediately felt in the show's writing. Without being able to show any kind of interpersonal strife or conflict - not even of the friendly rival variety, as with Bones & Spock - the writers were forced into a dizzying variety of compromise positions. They could introduce mind control, utilize or overutilize secondary characters who were granted temporary license to be imperfect, or use the metaphorical toolbox of hard sci-fi to externalize conflict. (This last one has always been Trek's defining engine of conflict, going back to the original series, with the Klingons, Vulcans, Farengi, Romulans, Cardassians and even the Borg all standing in for various facets of unpleasant human behavior which could never be openly explored in the context of the Federation itself, not within the strictures Roddenberry had painstakingly established.) All of these were used to excess throughout the seven-year run, and every overplayed strategy was an ultimately futile attempt to distract from the fact that by definition the show was unable to utilize the most basic of tools required for any narrative: conflict between primary characters. In the 24th century, interpersonal conflict was eliminated, but that had the unpleasant side effect of rendered everyone rather boring.

It is telling that for all the time spent on each primary character over the course of so many years, each characters' singular defining traits could only ever be touched obliquely. There was apparently supposed to be a romance between Riker and Troi, but if you never read a fan magazine you might never have picked up on it, because the two actors had all the chemistry of a 2x4. Riker himself had a lot of possibility that was never fully explored: he actually seemed to have the closest thing to a "dark side" or any of the crew, even Worf, but it could only be touched on very obliquely. There was a pretty decent episode late in the run that featured a transporter clone of Riker, who meets his alternate self after seven years' stranded on a distant asteroid or something. His first reaction when he meets himself is, what the fuck? I should have been a captain by now, not someone who routinely sabotaged his own career to play water-carrier for some bald Daddy figure. But of course, the show could never really do anything with that other than externalize the tension in such a way as to keep the main characters unharmed and unchanged.

In a similar fashion, there was a surprising amount of time devoted to Geordi's singular haplessness with ladies. Sure enough, there was a funny sequence where he fell in love with a holodeck simulation of an engineer who helped design the Enterprise - a surprisingly prescient plot development. But really, the fact that Geordi was a creepy internet stalker was never developed at all, and when he eventually met the engineer whose virtual personality he had fallen in love with, you'd be absolutely mistaken if you thought the sparks would fly. Any kind of sparks at all, besides the spark that hits the couch after you fall asleep with a cigarette in your hand because it's so fucking boring.

In fact, let's see if I can write the outline of a sample TNG episode right here:

Stardate XXXX

While on route to investigate a previously unreported subspace anomaly near the Glifhfksnene quadrant, the Enterprise received a distress call from the planet Denregdnew. We've been dispatched to help with an emerging refugee crisis, while also ferrying a group of diplomats from the Pdhrgeneiwkw gaseous cloud to help with negotiations. Meanwhile, Commander Data has decided to enlist the aid of the crew while he learns how to yodel.

More to come.

* I'm not just being dismissive, I really do think that stuff is grade-A bullshit, and the pernicious influence of Joseph Campbell's pop-mythology on pop culture, via Star Wars, simply cannot be overstated.

** Yeah, even Alec Guiness. Look, Guiness was many things in his day, but a Harrison Ford-level matinee idol was not one of them.

*** "The Deadly Assassin", in case you were wondering.

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