Sunday, April 03, 2011

Let's See What's Out There, Part I: Introduction

"Seven years ago I said we'd be watching you, and we have been. Hoping your ape-like race would demonstrate some growth, give some indication that your minds have room for expansion. And what have we seen instead? You spending time worrying about Commander Riker's career. Listening to Counselor Troi's pedantic psychobabble. Indulging Data in his witless explorations of humanity. … It's time to put an end to your trek through the stars, to make room for other, more worthy species."
Q, Star Trek: The Next Generation, "All Good Things…" 1994 
Reexamining my youthful SF TV loves has been a recurring theme on this blog, with decidedly mixed results. Babylon 5 was a profound disappointment. Deep Space Nine an unexpected delight. I held off on revisiting Star Trek: The Next Generation for a long time because I had the sneaking suspicion that it would fall on the former end of the scale, and because my attachment to it runs a lot deeper than to either of these shows. The Next Generation was my first fannish love, a childish rather than a teenage one, and one that was bound up in some of the major events of my life and the process of my growth into fandom. The first time I saw the show was on a visit to the States, just a few weeks before my tenth birthday. A month later, the first Gulf War erupted, and one of that war's consequences was that Israel, a nation that up until that point had held back the tides of the telecommunication revolution, opened itself up to twentieth century entertainment. We needed CNN to tell us what was happening in Iraq, and commercial TV to keep hundreds of thousands of scared children docile and distracted while the schools were shut down for the six weeks of the war. Over the next decade, commercial channels, cable and satellite TV, the internet, and the cellular revolution became fully integrated into Israeli society, and helped to revolutionize it, but in the early years of that revolution its significance, to me, was in how it affected my ability to access Star Trek: The Next Generation. Would my cable carrier drop the foreign channel that was airing the latest season? Could I convince my mother to buy a VCR to record the episodes that aired while I was at school? The Next Generation, to me, represents not only my childhood and my earliest forays into SF fandom, but the first steps along the path that has brought me here, to this blog and all the opportunities and friendships that have resulted from it. The possibility that I might return to the show and find what my hazy recollections strongly suggested would be a staid, stiff, preachy series with little but nostalgic associations to recommend it held me back, for a long time, from revisiting it.

Right now seems like a good time to reexamine The Next Generation, however. As I wrote in my contribution to an SF Signal Mind Meld just recently, the current lull in science fiction television, though obviously driven in large part by the growing popularity of fantasy, and urban fantasy in particular, also feels like the result of the field having finally exhausted the ways in which in it can react to Star Trek: The Next Generation. When I reviewed the new Star Trek film unfavorably, it was suggested several times that the concept of Star Trek I felt the film had betrayed was actually The Next Generation's take on the franchise. In hindsight I think that's probably true, but I also think I'm not alone in that. I'm not the only geek of my generation whose first introduction to SF TV and SF fandom came through The Next Generation, and who formed her impression of Star Trek--and of what SF TV should be--from that show. For twenty years, The Next Generation has been the springboard from which nearly every science fiction series has launched itself, first in imitation and later in opposition, but always with The Next Generation in their rearview mirror. In 2011, it seems as if we've reached the point where there is nothing more to say in response to either the show, its spin-offs, its imitators, and the shows that rebelled against it. The field is waiting for the next Gene Roddenberry to come up with its next dominant paradigm, and in that moment of silence it seemed appropriate to take a look at the series that set those tumultuous two decades in SF TV in motion.

I'd like to report that The Next Generation defied my fears and turned out to be just as thrilling and engrossing as it was when I was a kid, but I can't. On the other hand, the show isn't the nearly unmitigated disaster that Babylon 5 turned out to be when I rewatched it. There are moments--specific characters, or episodes, or scenes--that I genuinely enjoyed, and if you ignore the shakiness of the first two or three seasons (and the hit-and-miss, but mostly miss, final season) the series is well-made and well-written. In fact, what keeps me from loving The Next Generation is less any flaw in its execution and more the fact that it is so much of its time. When I wrote about Deep Space Nine, I called it a hybrid series. Its baseline is The Next Generation's 80s-style episodic, low-continuity storytelling, but as the 90s draw on and the shows around it start bucking against that model, Deep Space Nine also starts to experiment with it, though it never fully abandons the Trekish plasticity that so many other genre shows rejected. The Next Generation is fully on the other side of that divide. It's an 80s show, right down to the big hair, and stayed that way almost to its end, when you could sense the writers straining against the limitations of their own format to do some of the things that the cool kids were doing, and finally deciding that they needed a blank slate on which to tell that more complicated story. This didn't bother me as a child because it was all I knew--plot arcs meant a two-part episode or a season-ending cliffhanger, character continuity meant a very special episode that referenced the events of a previous very special episode, which had gone unmentioned in the interim--but I came of age around the same time as the television medium, and especially SF TV, did, and nowadays there's so much I expect from the television I watch that The Next Generation doesn't do that it was hard to get swept up in the show. 

The conclusion I ended up drawing about The Next Generation is not so much that it's a bad show, but that it isn't particularly interested in any of the things that I watch television, and particularly SFnal television, for. While it can't be said that the show does no worldbuilding--much of what we think of as the modern Trek universe comes from it, not from original Star Trek or the movies--it isn't the elaborate, lived-in construction of alien cultures that I've loved on shows as diverse as Farscape and Caprica. Rather, The Next Generation draws the broad strokes of its universe--the various alien races and their relationship to the Federation, cherished concepts like The Prime Directive, the types of technology available and their limitations--and leaves coloring within those lines to Deep Space Nine. There's little character development, almost no recurring characters or settings, and of course no plot arcs. The themes that interested me in Deep Space Nine--the clash of cultures and their cherished values, the challenge of multiculturalism, the impossibility of immersing oneself in an alien culture without becoming altered as a result--are completely absent here. I was therefore more interested in The Next Generation as the series that set the stage for Deep Space Nine and created the modern Star Trek universe than as a work in its own right. So this series of posts, which will not be as long or as detailed as my discussion of Deep Space Nine, will be about those things. More specifically, I want to talk about how the definition of Star Trek changes over the course of the series--because of Gene Roddenberry's death, because of the changing times, because of the other Star Trek series and films that emerge around it, and because of the changes in television itself.


CrazyCris said...

"The Next Generation was my first fannish love, a childish rather than a teenage one"

Ditto! A friend who was visiting from the US (we lived in Mexico at the time) kind of forced me to sit down and watch it with him (forgoing an episode of MacGyver which was my passion at that time). And the rest, as they say, is history!

I'm definitely a TNG trekkie. I have trouble sitting down to watch TOS because it feels so dated. And yes, while the first couple of seasons of TNG feel more dated, I think they improved remarkably from there! And I believe I was old enough to compare it to other TV shows and realise the second half of the series had changed things a bit, there were more B-stories and more continuity in character development (see many tales relating to the loss of Tasha Yar)

LupusSolus said...

I cut my ST teeth watching the reruns of TOS after school. To me, TNG first season was very shaky. It was definitely too "touchy-feelly; group hug". The characters never seemed to mesh like they did on TOS.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy it ... especially after the first season. It had its moments.

I liked DS9.

I really liked Voyager after Seven became a character ... Not because she looked good in that outfit but I liked watching her character learn to interact.

Surprise, surprise ... I really liked Enterprise despite Bakula's poor performance as a Starship captain tho towards the end he was finally settling in. The rest of the cast meshed so well!

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