Thursday, April 07, 2011

Let's See What's Out There, Part III: "Optimism, Captain!"

Picard: In my century, we don't succumb to revenge. We have a more evolved sensibility.
Lily: Bullshit!
Star Trek: First Contact, 1996
My first forays onto the internet coincided with the height of my Star Trek fannishness, and one of the first websites I can recall checking regularly was a cache of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine reviews by Tim Lynch, who was writing weekly recaps + reviews long before it was the revolutionary, web 2.0 approach to writing about television (a helpful Wiki collects the reviews today). Looking back, it occurs to me that Lynch must have been the first reviewer I read for pleasure, and the source of some of my first inklings that reviewing was a worthy endeavor in its own right. I don't remember much of his actual writing, but the review that sticks in my mind is for the sixth season episode "The Chase," in which Picard's old archeology mentor bequeaths him research that points to a message concealed in the DNA of many of the humanoid species in the galaxy. The message, when decoded, turns out to be the revelation that all of these species were seeded on their home planets by a single parent race. Lynch, a scientist and teacher, was incensed at such an unscientific take on evolution, arguing that it bordered on supporting the theory of intelligent design. Though he's right about the fundamental inaccuracies of how "The Chase" portrays evolution and how they dovetail with creationist attempts to undermine the theory and its acceptance, watching the episode a second time it seemed obvious that its take on evolution was entirely in keeping with the series's general approach to this topic, an approach that is inextricably bound with original Star Trek and The Next Generation's most contentious and, these days, most maligned attribute, their optimism.

Evolution, in The Next Generation, is a purposeful, directional process, deliberately set in motion (sometimes, as in "The Chase," by a specific individual or group) and with a definite goal in mind. That's still a common misconception, but it was more prevalent in the 80s and 90s, and The Next Generation was not alone in interpreting "more evolved" not as better suited to its environment, but simply as better, more perfect. And, also like a lot of other stories in and out of genre, The Next Generation applied the concept of evolution to societies as well as species, sociology and politics as well as biology. Humanity's progress from our violent, greedy present to the 24th century's egalitarian, post-scarcity utopia is repeatedly described as the result of evolution, and other species encountered over the course of the series are described as being in the process of evolving towards this ideal form. When Riker visits a matriarchal society persecuting a group that has been agitating for men's rights in "Angel One," he argues that what is happening is not revolution but evolution. When the Ferengi are first encountered in "The Last Outpost," Riker explains to the representative of an ancient space empire that "I find them very much as we were a few hundred years ago … they may grow and learn"; evolution is not mentioned explicitly but it is strongly implied. "The Chase" itself is strongly bound up in notions of evolution as a social process. The purpose of the message hidden in the DNA of humanoids is to reveal their common ancestry and foster unity between them, and though the Klingon captain who learns this sneers at the notion of sharing ancestors with humans and Romulans, the episode ends with Picard and his Romulan counterpart exchanging a less chilly farewell than the current relations between their species would warrant, both obviously spurred to thoughts of peace by the discovery they've made.

You can't make evolution one of the central metaphors of your story without raising the specter of it going wrong, and a lot of Next Generation episodes involve the Enterprise visiting a social evolutionary dead end--the luddites and cloners in "Up the Long Ladder," the genetically engineered "Masterpiece Society." In both cases Picard shakes his head over the foolishness of trying to shape humanity on such misguided principles, but implicit in that reaction is the notion that it is principles that guide evolution--the evolution of societies, but perhaps also of species. The Next Generation never quite comes out and says this, but it strongly implies that it is not just human society that has evolved in the 400 years that separate the show from us, but human nature, that humans in the 24th century are fundamentally different from us--more moral, more tolerant, less violent. It's not until First Contact that we get a counter-example, in the scene quoted from at the head of this post, in which Lily concludes, and Picard ultimately confirms, that beneath his civilized exterior he still craves violence and vengeance. But First Contact is a very un-Star Trek-ish movie, and in the space of the show itself there is no human who surrenders to barbarity in the way that Picard very nearly does in that movie (perhaps the closest is Dr. Marr in "Silicon Avatar," when she kills the crystalline entity that killed her son).

The show's take on the future of human evolution is, similarly, guided by values rather than biology. In the episode "Transfigurations," the show strongly excoriates an alien species who are persecuting and exterminating a minority who are "evolving" into energy beings, but when Barclay becomes uplifted in "The Nth Degree," the reaction from the Enterprise's crew is fear and incomprehension. In other words, it's OK for evolution to fundamentally alter aliens, but humans had better stick to a familiar baseline. On the other hand, in "Home Soil," the Enterprise discovers sentient silicon-based life on a planet about to be terraformed. The aliens reject contact with the Federation on the grounds that we are too primitive, and tell us to come back in 300 years when, presumably, we will have outgrown our petty carbon-based prejudices. The aptly-titled third season episode "Evolution" tells a very similar story that also concludes that humans are not ready to be in contact with a non-humanoid lifeform (this time, Wesley's science experiment--by no means the first or only time that someone on the Enterprise uplifts an artificial being for fun or a good grade). At the end of "The Host," Crusher tells her Trill lover, now transplanted into a woman, that she can't handle that kind of change, a deficiency she ascribes to her species, not to herself: "Perhaps someday our ability to love will not be so limited."  So again, evolution, for humanity, is treated as a social rather than a biological process, and one whose "proper" form is guided by principles that just happen to coincide with Gene Roddenberry's hippie, California liberal values--tolerance, equality, non-violence, all that good stuff.

To say that this is problematic is to understate the issue quite considerably. Roddenberry's values are unobjectionable on the macro level, but one need only watch the series with a bit of distance to see how far from perfect its vision of 24th century society is. Geordi LaForge is the only black member of the Enterprise's senior staff, and gets the least development and the least stories dedicated to him (Michael Dorn is also black, but as all Klingons have the same skin tone regardless of their portrayer's race, I think it's safe to say that Worf is not a black Klingon). Crusher and Troi get only a bit more attention from the writers, but both just happen to be in nurturing, caretaking roles, and their stories often revolve around their love lives (it's interesting to watch the show become more aware of this in its later seasons and try to give both characters more to do on the ship, for example making them both bridge officers; the results are decidedly mixed--on the one hand, the magnificent Troi episode "Face of the Enemy" or Crusher saving the day in "Descent II", but on the other hand, the unmistakable take-away that there's nothing interesting or exciting about being a doctor or a ship's counselor, and by the time the later movies come along neither character's profession is of any importance, and they're both just waving phasers about). Then there are episodes like "The Outcast," clearly well-intentioned and, for their time, perhaps even progressive, but today what was intended as a statement in favor of gay rights comes across as homophobic--the episode clearly opposes persecuting homosexuals, but can't bring itself to come out in favor of being gay (right down to casting a woman in the role of Riker's androgynous lover). Or throwaway scenes like the one in "The Wounded" that make it clear that before they were married, Miles and Keiko O'Brien never lived together--perhaps never even spent the night together, since Keiko is making breakfast for Miles for the very first time. Like the cell phones besides which original Star Trek's communicators, so revolutionary in the 60s, seem bulky and of limited use, Roddenberry's allegedly advanced, egalitarian future society seems positively regressive when compared to the norms of your average TV show in 2011.

Even if we accept that Roddenberry had his heart in the right place but was still a product of his time (and had to appease his broadcasters and the court of public opinion), there are still the fundamental questions raised by his optimism--is it dramatically satisfying? Is it realistic? Is it moral? In "Time's Arrow II" Samuel Clemens is accidentally transported to the 24th century. A famous curmudgeon whom we'd seen, in the story's first half, railing about the fundamental wickedness of human nature, he's at first unable to believe that the peaceful, wealthy society he's arrived in is the whole truth of the future. Surely, he tells Troi, all this opulence is achieved on the backs of the poor? Even allowing for the dim view that we might take of Troi's claim to live in the perfect society--look at her outfit, for crying out loud--and for the things that a man of Clemens's era might not consider an improvement--look at her outfit, for crying out loud--the message is clear. Clemens is a stand-in for us, for any cynic who believes that humans are inherently evil and that the human race is doomed. The Next Generation, like Star Trek before it, is the story that tells us that no, humanity is going to overcome its problems and create something wonderful. That's a powerful statement even if you acknowledge the imperfection of Roddenberry's perfect society, but it's one that the genre has reacted very strongly against in the last twenty years. So strongly, in fact, that there's been a backlash against the backlash.

I think it's safe to dismiss the argument that you can't tell good stories about utopia--quite apart from the fact that The Next Generation was often a very good show, there's a persuasive argument to be made for Iain M. Banks's Culture being a more sophisticated, more developed version of the same concept as the Federation, and Banks has written some cracking stories in and about it. As for realism, I've probably said my piece about the trend of dark and gritty science fiction and its dubious claim to that trait. Like Roddenberry's utopian approach, it is rooted in truth without fully encompassing it, and seems to be driven more by its writers' preoccupations (and sometimes by fashion), than any attempt to realistically portray human nature. Whether or not either of these modes work is down to the writer in question, but I don't think that either one can lay a claim to realism--and this is not even to address the question of whether realism is an ideal, or even the ideal, to which a work of fiction should aspire. The real question, to my mind, is an ethical one. Is the kind of aspirational utopianism Roddenberry baked into Star Trek a moral good? Does it teach us to reach for the stars, or to smugly congratulate ourselves on being there already?

There is a great deal in The Next Generation that suggests the latter. Much as the Federation represents humanity's future it is also, and particularly in its dealings with the Romulans, intended as a stand-in for the US during the Cold War. In episodes like "The Enemy" or "Data's Day" the Federation behaves with scrupulous even-handedness and reacts with wounded dismay when the Romulans, the series's Soviet stand-ins, interpret its actions as underhanded or conniving. The parallels to Cold War-era notions of the two sides in the dispute are clear--the West is open, ethical, and law-abiding, while the Russians are distrustful, perceiving their own immorality in others. By presenting the Federation as the perfected, evolved version of the democratic US, The Next Generation reinforces its audience's image of themselves as being the good guys, leaving no room for the possibility that this image is at least partly a self-imposed delusion, or for an acknowledgment of the underhandedness that came from the West during the Cold War. More generally, by positing the Federation, with its obvious Western antecedents, as the end result of humanity's social evolution, The Next Generation engages in a level of cultural imperialism. Unlike the series's blindness to its own sexism or racism, this is something that feels baked into its utopian premise. You can imagine the Federation as a less blindingly white society, less gender-segregated, less heteronormative (and later Star Trek series went some way towards portraying it as such). It's impossible, however, to imagine it as less Western.

I've been using the Federation and humanity as interchangeable terms in this post, which is one of the things that threw me during my rewatch of The Next Generation, coming to it as I was with Deep Space Nine, whose cast was largely alien, as my last foray into Trek. Humans are not simply the majority on the Enterprise. They are so much of a majority that the presence of non-humans on the ship usually requires an explanation. Main castmembers who were not human usually had some connection to humanity that profoundly affected their lives. Troi was half-human, and her alienness was strongly downplayed, both through her appearance and her behavior. Worf was raised by humans, had spent his life trying to regain his Klingon heritage, and kept bumping up against what were to him the pernicious effects of human culture when trying to raise his part-human son. And then there's Data. Data is the most high-concept character in The Next Generation cast and, of the three main castmembers who can be said to have a character arc (the others being Picard and Worf) the one whose story seems to have been the most thought out at the series's outset. The premise of that story, as laid out in "Encounter at Farpoint," is that Data wants to be human. Not sentient, not feeling, but human. This is for the same reason that the Enterprise's crew is so overwhelmingly human--because humanity is The Next Generation's business. Just as the perfection of the Federation is intended as a demonstration of humanity's potential, Data's quest to be human sheds a light on what humanity actually is.

This has the effect of contorting Data's story in ways that seem particularly glaring today, with the concept of artificial intelligence and machine life having received a lot of interesting and sophisticated attention in genre, and in light of Deep Space Nine's more nuanced handling of its own outsider character, Odo. It's understandable that Data wants to be a person rather than a machine, but why does he want to be a feeling person--why does he aspire to the one thing that is obviously beyond his programming? Star Trek features aliens who are sentient but not emotional, and though Data raises the question in his diary entries in "Data's Day," or his conversation with Spock in "Unification II," he never truly explains why he's chosen to emulate humanity rather than Vulcans. In the later seasons of the show, there are episodes that edge around a recognition of the fact that Data's personality is bound up in his lack of emotions--"In Theory," in which he tries and spectacularly fails to engage in a romantic relationship, "Descent," in which the temptation of feeling emotion overrides his most cherished values. When he finally becomes capable of emotion in Generations, Data becomes a completely different person, and the fact that this was inevitable, and that much of what we valued about Data--his patience, his even temper, his generosity--was rooted in his lack of emotions is never acknowledged. To do so, and thus to admit that Data can be a person without having emotions, would also mean the show saying that he can be a person without being human.

This resistance to the notion of alien--truly alien, not humanoid with forehead ridges alien--sentience informs a lot of the episodes that try to discuss Data's rights. In "The Measure of a Man," Bruce Maddox, trying to argue that he should be allowed to dismantle Data against his will, asks whether, if the computer of the Enterprise were to refuse an upgrade, the court now discussing Data's case would allow it to do so. He means this as a rhetorical question, which of course it is, but not in the way he thinks. If the computer of the Enterprise possessed the self-awareness and will to understand the meaning of an upgrade and refuse it, its wishes would have to be respected. That neither Maddox, nor Picard, nor the judge recognize this simple truth is because they are hung up on hardware rather than software. To them, the issue isn't what kind of machine Data is, but the simple fact that he is a machine, and not human. This attitude persists in "Measure"'s follow-up episodes, "The Offspring" and "The Quality of Life."  Partly this is due to the trope being undeveloped--by the time Voyager comes along, the idea of an electronic person is a lot easier for both the writers and the audience to swallow (compare Voyager's Doctor, or even Deep Space Nine's Vic Fontaine, to Moriarty in "Elementary, Dear Data" and "Ship in a Bottle," where it is inconceivable that the sentient holodeck character might have a life, and a meaningful one, despite being, and knowing that he is, a hologram). A more important reason for the show's resistance to the notion of artificial sentience, however, is that the purpose of Data is not to explore the possibility of different forms of sentience, but to hold up a mirror to humanity, and a rather flattering one at that. Here is a super-intelligent, super-strong, virtually immortal creature, who repeatedly states that he would give up his many advantages to be more like us. As Odo is once told, "What higher flattery is there? 'I, who can be anything, choose to be like you.'" For Data to aspire to be human implies that humanity is pretty hot stuff.

Which brings us back to optimism, and to the notion at The Next Generation's core--that humans are, indeed, hot stuff, that we have great potential and are capable of great things. The very foundation of Star Trek, after all, is the notion that humanity will become a leader on the galactic stage, one of the most important and influential races in the quadrant and beyond it, and there are a lot of instances in The Next Generation in which humanity is described as exceptional. Sometimes this exceptionalism reaches absurd degrees, as in "When the Bough Breaks," when our attachment to our children is described as unusually strong, or the aliens in "Allegiance" who call morality "a very interesting human characteristic." There is, as these examples demonstrate, a pernicious side to The Next Generation's cheerleading of humanity, especially when one considers how homogeneous and Western-derived 24th century humanity is. But there's also something admirable. The fact is that Roddenberry allows himself to imagine something audacious and, especially in our present moment, almost impossible to believe--that it all turns out all right, that we make good, that we get it right. The sheer chutzpah of the act is impressive in itself, but I keep going back and forth about its moral implications. Is Roddenberry giving us hope for the future, or is he telling us that we're fine just the way we are? Does his work spur us to bigger and better things, or help us to ignore what's wrong in the here and now? The answer, obviously, will vary from one viewer to another, but I would dearly love to know what effect, if any, Star Trek had on the generation of people, like me, who took it down as our first introduction to SF TV--and what effect did the myriad works tearing down its optimistic premise had. Did it make us self-satisfied? Did they make us cynical?

In lieu of an answer to that last question, which I don't have, I'll close with one more episode. "Chain of Command II" came up quite a lot in conversation a few years ago, when torture was the hot button issue, both in real-world politics and the entertainment industry, and Jack Bauer was waterboarding and ripping out fingernails at the drop of a hat. So I thought that I was well-prepared for the episode when I sat down to watch it again a few months ago. It still took me completely by surprise. What I had somehow forgotten about "Chain of Command II" is that it is determinedly, unequivocally anti-torture. Not only in the sense that, unlike so many episodes of modern TV that try to raise a "tough question" by having the protagonists commit torture, here the torturer is the bad guy and the victim is Picard. And not only because the torture is shown to be brutal and cruel. "Chain of Command II" is anti-torture because it concludes that torture doesn't work. "[It] has never been a reliable means of extracting information. It is ultimately self-defeating as a means of control. And so one wonders why it is still practiced," Picard says to his torturer. In late 2010, with pop culture having almost uniformly accepted that torture is an effective and reliable means of information-gathering, which repeatedly enables heroic characters to save the day, this came as a genuine shock, but no more so than the answer the episode gives to Picard's final question. Picard never gives his Cardassian torturer any information, but he does break--famously, he sees five lights where there are four. This is necessary for the episode to have an effect--if Picard had held out, "Chain of Command II" would be a story about how much of a badass Jean Luc Picard is, not about how awful torture is--but it isn't necessary for the torturer. By the time he makes that last push against Picard's defenses, the one that finally tumbles them, his side has lost. Picard is about to be released. The torturer is, in fact, defying orders to clean Picard up and get him ready for transfer. There is no possible reason to keep torturing Picard except pride and cruelty. And that, the episode concludes, is what torture is ultimately for.

There is much of the hypocrisy and self-congratulation that underpin The Next Generation's optimism in "Chain of Command II"'s conclusion. The episode assumes that the Federation--which is to say the US--doesn't torture, which in the real world wasn't true even at the time. But it is also underpinned by the recognition that torture is wrong and that we should be above it, neither of which are things that are taken for granted anymore, in either entertainment or the public discourse. Perhaps that, if nothing else, is the value of The Next Generation's optimism, of its starry-eyed take on humanity's future--to remind us of the values we've lost, and of those that we've allowed ourselves to relinquish.

22 comments:

Ian Sales said...

In late 2010, with pop culture having almost uniformly accepted that torture is an effective and reliable means of information-gathering...

Is that true, though? The UK has repeatedly insisted it does not torture or condone torture. Nor does it "extraordinary render", or allow that to take place on its own soil - so much so that British intelligence services have admitted to withholding information from the US because they knew what the US would do... And this has been pointed out in British popular culture - specifically the BBC's cold-case police procedural drama series Waking the Dead. In 'Deus Ex Machina' (Series 6, 2007), which featured a secret UK society of torturers, it's made clear that torture is ineffective at revealing the truth of any matter. And, more recently, in 'Conviction' (Series 9, 2011), a member of Boyd's team, ex-Anti-Terrorist Squad and with contacts in the intelligence community, repeatedly insists that the UK does not render.

Anonymous said...

Much of this, I think, results from basing one's optimism on the Whig interpretation of history: it justifies the interpretation of US exceptionalism as human exceptionalism, and leads to the strange teleology you point out when applied to evolution. That this seductive idea is apparently no longer credible says quite a bit about what has happened in the West since TNG was made -- as I don't think the current predilection for "dark and cynical" dramas is any more realistic (it's usually just an excuse for bad behaviour). Shows like BSG are ultimately more "mood pieces" than that they have anything coherent to say about the complicated issues they try to address, which makes on suspect that an alternative vision, even a pessimistic one, is lacking.

I would say TNG was most definitely more inspiring than sedating. It was always hypocritical (and ultimately wrong) in the ways you point out, but it came with a strong call for living up to one's professed principles that went beyond mere speeches - for instance, there are numerous instances of nonviolent conflict resolution (and indeed the ultimate trekkie trope of "it's not trying to attack us at all, we just haven't understood it").

The challenge would be to come up with a more realistic basis for hopeful portrayals of the future, or at least one that appears believable in our jaded present.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Ian:

Good point. I should probably have restricted that to US pop culture.

Anon.:

Nicely put. I like your point about characters on TNG living up to their principles. One of the things that most frustrate me about the dark n'gritty trend in modern TV (and in public discourse in general, actually) is how often ideals are treated as luxuries, something to be adhered to in times of plenty and abandoned when the going gets tough. The idea that ideals should provide guidelines for a way of life, in all circumstances, is treated as a childish fantasy, while in TNG-era narratives it was more commonly accepted.

Joshua Herring said...

In a way, though, this is what bothered me about TNG. On the one hand, I appreciate the show for exactly the reasons you (Anon. and Abigail) give - that values are not luxuries but are actually deeply held. On the other hand, it comes at this from the wrong angle - from the "have faith in your values and the universe will see to it that it all works out for you in the end" angle, which sells the whole concept short. Granted that there are some exceptions, most episodes in the show have things *just work out* for whoever seemed to be putting things on the line for his values. No one is ever led to question his values. More often than not, it really is of the "it's not trying to attack us at all, we just haven't understood it" stripe. Which is a cheat, because in the real world sometimes things really are trying to attack you. What I'm getting at is that I don't think anything has really changed from the 1980s to now, or that the present is any more jaded than the 1980s were. It's true that there isn't anything like Star Trek on TV now, but I think you're inferring cause from effect. I think a lot of what's on TV now may well be a reaction to Star Trek in some ways, but more because Star Trek was such an obvious cheat than that the world has changed for the worse. I wholly agree that most of the "dark-n-gritty" stuff is "an excuse for bad behavior." But I think it's also true that it found a wider audience in part because Star Trek refused to get its hands dirty. When people rebel against after-school specials, they usually turn to stuff their parents don't approve of. It doesn't mean they don't eventually grow up and get over it - they almost always do. But no one ever goes back to watching after-school specials either, for all the obvious reasons.

Anonymous said...

Joshua: I wouldn't disagree, and I suppose DS9 in fact tried to address some of these issues. But my point is that things *always* "just work out" one way or another, because the writer has her fingers on the scale. The question is how, and whether there is a balance. The newer "grittier" dramas cheat just as much, by only ever portraying a state of exception where extreme measures (might) be said to be acceptable. This goes well beyond portraying a reality that is full of complicated messy situations where there are no perfect choices.

Abigail: Ideals as luxuries, that's a good way of putting it. I have a sneaking suspicion that one could put it together with the changed climate. If one wants to read TNG as confirmatory/consolatory with respect to a certain vision of the US and its principles, then it is an interesting concidence that narratives portraying (and therefore in a way legitimizing) "tough choices" and "there is no alternative" arise just as there would seem to be a need for some absolution, as ideals have been ignored in much more blatant fashion recently. In this sense the "darker" dramas are just as confirmatory/consolatory as TNG was.

Matt Hilliard said...

While the Federation is surely a Western civilization and there are some Cold War analogies made with its foreign relations, I'm not sure I agree that it is as closely identified with the US of its present day as you say. During the Cold War the three principles that defined the US in opposition to the USSR, in Americans' minds anyway, were individual freedom, democracy, and capitalism.

The Federation's attitudes toward freedom seems quite compatible with American ideas in the 1980s, so that's one out of three, at least.

What about democracy? The Federation is nominally democratic, but I can't remember ever seeing anyone vote, or even really discuss political issues. Foreign policy is considered the province of the professional diplomatic corps (which--what a liability this must be when it comes to building trust and staffing embassies!--doubles as the military). Picard doesn't ask himself what Federation voters are going to think when he is hammering out some compromise with the Klingons or Romulans. Occasionally he has to justify himself to flag officers back home, but that's the extent of it. The Enterprise, which is really the only part of the Federation we clearly see, is governed as an enlightened despotism. Given his apparent autonomy, it's fortunate indeed that Picard is a wonderfully genial ruler who is very respectful of those in his power, civilian or otherwise. BSG, for all its flaws, was a thousand times more interested in government in general and democracy in particular.

As for capitalism, well, the Federation is famously so fervently post-capitalist that its "post" is indistinguishable from "anti". The use of money is constantly decried as barbaric, and the Ferengi are presented as the end state of capitalism...another evolutionary dead end. These days it is fashionable to speak of the evils of capitalism (with no credible alternative--increased regulation is still capitalism--such talk is cheap) but when TNG was first airing there was a nation still thought to be a superpower that looked a lot more like the Federation economically than the US. The comparison with Iain M Banks is a little deceiving because unlike him, TNG's writers didn't demonstrate any clue as to how a post-scarcity economy would really work, nor did they have super-intelligent AI central planners to hand-wave the five year plans.

Certainly the Federation was probably an image of the US as Roddenberry wished it was, but this was clearly far different from what was. It could frequently be smug, but it was smug about what are--from our perspective--impossible advances. It doesn't matter how well we treat the poor, for example, because just having poor people at all shows we are backward, uncivilized, and immoral compared to the wonderful Federation. No doubt democracy is kept safely out of sight for much the same reason...in the perfected future there are no more Republicans, and for that matter there are no issues about which reasonable people disagree (you could point to the Prime Directive shows as a counterexample, but notice when these rules are broken there aren't any consequences...apparently the reasonable people in high command agreed that an exception ought to have been made).

From this moral high ground, attained by writer fiat rather than by concrete policy, the show criticizes the society of its audience. While I obviously dislike the smug tone it often took, it probably deserves credit for being willing to make those criticisms at all.

William B said...

Lovely post. I share your ambivalence about TNG's optimism. On the one hand, it can feel smug and self-congratulatory. On the other, it really does place value on the possibility of humanity being better. It doesn't reject the idea out of hand. It's actually kind of stunning to look at now. And there are certainly some episodes that argue that doing the right thing is not always the option with the best consequences. Many episodes end with appeasement. A classic example is The Wounded, in which crazy man Maxwell is absolutely correct about the Cardassians' evil plans, and Picard, to preserve the peace, gives Maxwell up. It's a decision Picard doesn't doubt--but encoded in that is the acknowledgement that Picard is putting a man away for being right at the wrong time. And further, the non-resolution with the Cardassians hints at the fact that they will continue to be the bad guys. We can say that the Federation are all good and the Cardassians all bad, but The Wounded further establishes that O'Brien and Maxwell are genuinely damaged--more damaged than the Cardassians we see in the episode. And the "right thing," which is appeasement to preserve the peace, doesn't necessarily lead to the right results, since the Federation and Cardassians continue, within TNG even (and within DS9 more obviously) to have tensions that go unresolved that eventually explode into war. But perhaps we can view The Wounded, with its Cardassians and O'Brien character arc, as a precursor to Deep Space Nine more than representative of TNG?

On the portrayal of the female characters: it is interesting that Crusher actually used to be used as a kind of idealistic moral voice in some of the early episodes--I'm thinking the admittedly awful Symbiosis and also The High Ground--in ways that had nothing to do with romance or caretaking.

I agree that the major arcs in the series are Picard's, Data's and Worf's. But I think Riker has one as well. To an extent, his character arc actually closes out very early in the series, around the fourth season. But he does have a definite arc of moving away from an ambitious climber, using the Enterprise as a stepping stone to an even-better command than the one he gave up to be the Number One on the flagship. By The Best of Both Worlds, he has genuinely moved out of being ambition entirely, and in a way that is more or less believable (if not given much focus). Riker's softening on both ambition and in his womanizing gets pointed out explicitly in Second Chances and Thomas Riker's introduction.

Anonymous said...

I think the most interesting aspect of Star Trek's optimism is that on the surfaces it often posits that the humans in the future are actually "better" than us, yet TNG and especially DS9 showed that it's not really the case of humans being better, but living in a society that allowed them to act "better" than most of us do in the present. Given the right conditions, most citizens of the Federation could just be as cruel. This was the reason I actually liked Star Trek. While the idea of a wide-scale morally enlightened humanity crashes my suspension of disbelieve, the idea of a better social framework I could believe in.

That's also the reason why I think the answer to your question "Is Roddenberry giving us hope for the future, or is he telling us that we're fine just the way we are?", is YES to the first and NO to the second.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Joshua:

You're right that TNG's optimism lets its characters off the hook. Even instances like the one noted by William aren't a case of having to choose between your principles and survival, or the survival of your civilization. That's something that DS9 dealt with, most notably in "In the Pale Moonlight." But as Anon. says, that kind of complexity is absent from most modern dramas that try to deal with these issues, which usually just plump for the opposite extreme of portraying characters engaging in all sorts of depravity without giving any thought to their principles and cherished values - usually because they don't have any.

I do, however, sense a change in the way society thinks about morality and principles. Granted, I'm seeing American society through the window of pop culture (and a lot of the change I feel directly is what's happening in Israeli society) but it really does feel as if doing the right thing and being the good guys is a lot less important today than it was in the late 80s and early 90s.

Anon.:

(I don't suppose you feel like signing your comments? A handle would be fine - I'd just like something to call you.)

I definitely think that it's the shift from the Cold War to the war on terror that determines the change between TNG's attitudes and something like BSG's. A big part of the Cold War was the war of ideology. It was important to people on both sides to prove that they were the good guys. But when the other guys are flying passenger planes into buildings, it's pretty easy to claim the moral high ground, and when the other side's tactics fail to distinguish between war and peace, between combatants and non-combatants, it's tempting to throw out the rules of war and everything that goes with them. I see this shift, as I said in this post, in both pop culture and the public discourse.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Matt:

I'm not with you on democracy. You're right that Roddenberry isn't interested in how the Federation's government works (and that it probably wouldn't work given its scale) but there are enough hints in the show that something like a system of government exists - there is a constitution, guiding laws like the Prime Directive, a system of law and rights that are guaranteed within it. And that system is close enough to Western democracy that I think it's safe to conclude that we're meant to take the Federation as democratic in some vague sort of way. DS9, by the way, introduces an elected president, but it's not really any more interested in how the Federation works than TNG was.

You do have a good point about capitalism, however. Especially in its early seasons TNG actually comes out very strongly against capitalism - the Ferengi, as you note, but also the character of a cryogenically frozen 20th century businessman who is defrosted in the first season finale "The Neutral Zone," and whose preoccupation with money and the prestige it confers Picard finds absolutely baffling. That said, while I obviously don't know how it would have seemed to 80s Americans, the Federation is clearly not a communist society in the way that we, or its contemporary viewers, think of it. It is, as you say, a post-scarcity society, where every citizen is, by our standards, absurdly rich and privileged (see Clemens's assumption that Troi is one of the elite and that there are unseen poor supporting her opulent lifestyle). I'm not sure that a contemporary viewer would see the Federation as a criticism of, for example, the absence of universal healthcare in the US - rather, it presents a fantasy in which the Western lifestyle can be maintained without any of the guilt associated with it.

I think it's also important that for a lot of people in the West, the Cold War was not a battle of economic systems but of the guiding principles of society. The West cherished the individual. It guaranteed civil liberties, due process, freedom of expression. The Soviet Union prioritized the state and felt free to trample individual rights by curtailing the freedom of the press, unleashing secret police forces on the civilian population, and displacing individuals and groups at the government's whim. (These are, of course, simplifications. I'm talking more about how a Westerner would see themselves and the USSR than the actual truth.) That opposition is undeniably reflected in how TNG portrays the Federation and the Romulans.

William B:

I'll actually be talking about Crusher a little later in this series. I agree that she was often meant to represent humanist principles, but Gates McFadden was rarely up to the task.

I'm not sure I'd say that Riker has a character arc. As you say, he goes from brash up-and-comer to the eternal XO, but this doesn't feel like a process. Every time he's offered his own command - which happens at least once before "Best of Both Worlds" - he says no, and this never feels entirely organic to the character. What cements this feeling is the fact that there are actually two things that Riker wants when he joins the Enterprise crew - to be a starship captain by the time he's 35 and to marry Troi. At the beginning of the series he's given the latter up in order to achieve the former, but having decided that he's going to stay on the Enterprise, what possible reason - besides the writers' determination to maintain the status quo - does he have for not getting together with Troi? "Second Chances" tries to address this question but falls flat because the writers don't have a persuasive, character-based reason for Riker's having abandoned the two things he wanted most in life (and also because Jonathan Frakes isn't terribly convincing as one version of Riker, much less two subtly different ones).

Keef said...

Is Data's desire to be human (rather than any other alien species) a product of his creator "father" being human and Data being (necessarily?) built in human form, rather than any comparative choice on his part?

Dan said...

(aka first and second Anon, but not the third... I'd actually tried signing in but my usual openID failed to be passed on for some reason. Let's see if this works.)

Kit said...

In this sense the "darker" dramas are just as confirmatory/consolatory as TNG was.

This, a lot. I think there's a lot of modern smugness about not having principles, honestly- "We're so clever because we're realistic and realize that when you chop wood, chips fly, unlike those bleeding heart liberals with their silly conventions against torture!"- in both the political and the entertainment spheres. You can see this in the UK too, in lesser forms- the current furor about the ECHR, or Tony Blair smugly patting war protesters on the head and telling they were so lucky to have him defending their right to protest. But in the US it's right at the surface, leading to the grotesque spectacle of every Republican candidate in the last presidential primary falling over themselves to announce they would torture prisoners, or Justice Scalia citing 24 as a basis for rulings.

Whereas during the Cold War I think there was much more of a sense that cynical realpolitik, both in terms of foreign policy and in terms of human rights, suppressing dissent, torturing enemies of the state, etc. was a weapon of the Enemy and we Westerners were above such things. A lot of this was a false impression, but I think it was pretty widespread. So the smugness of that era was self-congratulatory over its human rights record, not over its lack of one.

Doctor Who is actually a pretty good place to look at this- the Doctor has always, at the end of the day, been a cold eyed killer, but the show's treatment of this varies hugely over the time gap. When Seven commits genocide the camera and Ace look at him askance- when Ten does it, he gets triumphal music and we're obviously meant to think he's awesome because he's so hardcore.

CrazyCris said...

Oh boy. This was such a long and complex and interesting post, touch on so many different points... I feel like I should have been taking notes of what I wanted to comment while reading it! :p

First of all, "The Chase". I've always both enjoyed and disliked this episode for scientific reasons! Ugh, because it kind of does away for evolution in favour of something akin to intelligent design. But on the other hand it finally addresses the extraordinary fact that 99% of the alien species we come across are humanoids, and hybridization is possible (which biologically shouldn't be since we're all different species... the ONE thing Enterprise got right).

Two: Data. Let's just leave it that Data is the best character in TNG. Right before or after Picard, I can't decide!

Three: Dr Crusher. Damn, I had such high hopes for her! In part because she's a redhead and there are so few of us out there! :p But because she's an intelligent woman in a position of authority... who never really gets to prove herself in that capacity. I think the Doctor on VOyager actually got more to do than she did! :s

Four: Politics and Economics. I always assumed the Federation to be a democracy, but since the series wasn't about politics all that was somewhere behind the scenes. I was all in favour of the post-currency or post-capitalism ideas.

Five: how has TNG influenced my outlook on the future of humanity? I recognised a long time ago the impact this show had on me: I'm an optimist. I believe that humanity as a society can reach something similar to this utopia. I just wish it were in my lifetime. In this I also agree with Anonymous:

"it's not really the case of humans being better, but living in a society that allowed them to act "better" than most of us do in the present. Given the right conditions, most citizens of the Federation could just be as cruel. This was the reason I actually liked Star Trek. While the idea of a wide-scale morally enlightened humanity crashes my suspension of disbelieve, the idea of a better social framework I could believe in."

I think that's an accurate representation of TNG's humanity.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Anon./Cris:

the most interesting aspect of Star Trek's optimism is that on the surfaces it often posits that the humans in the future are actually "better" than us, yet TNG and especially DS9 showed that it's not really the case of humans being better, but living in a society that allowed them to act "better" than most of us do in the present. Given the right conditions, most citizens of the Federation could just be as cruel.

As I say in this post, I don't think this is true for TNG. It's something that First Contact, and to a greater and more interesting degree DS9, argued, but TNG itself never showed humans surrendering to depravity, and its emphasis on evolution as a social process seemed to suggest that humans had changed fundamentally, not just in their circumstances.

Keef:

But who decided that Data's creator was human, or that he should be built in human form? I doubt the writers ever seriously considered the alternative.

Keef said...

I see what you mean Abigail. It does seem that in TNG that humans create the most advanced technology (with a few exotic exceptions). Holodecks, fastest warp drives, Data and so on could only have been created by humans in this universe, whereas the Klingons, Romulans and others still seem stuck with their TOS era technology. Only very few times was the Enterprise outclassed.

In fact, going forward, in Voyager the Doctor is in the image of a human, 7 of 9 was originally human and nearly the entire crew of the ship are human, so this trope continued for a long time.

Johnny said...

William B said...

A classic example is The Wounded, in which crazy man Maxwell is absolutely correct about the Cardassians' evil plans, and Picard, to preserve the peace, gives Maxwell up. It's a decision Picard doesn't doubt--but encoded in that is the acknowledgement that Picard is putting a man away for being right at the wrong time.

Are you sure you are not encoding this yourself? Even if Maxwell has his facts right he is not exactly doing the right thing. We might see his actions as a protest, a way to force the Admirals to take his warnings seriously but I don't think we can condone his actions. The Wounded always seemed to me one the least ambiguous episodes, very much in the TNG vein. Maxwell could also be said to do wrong at the right time. That's why he was put away. Or at least so I always interpreted it.

William B said...

Johnny: I agree that Maxwell was in the wrong ethically. My point was more that the episode confronted the difficult fact that the price of being in the right ethically was that some degree of safety had to be sacrificed. Maxwell was wrong in his actions but correct about the threat the Cardassians posed, and so Starfleet lost a capable soldier and empowered the Cardassians to do more harm against them. We are not intended to doubt that Picard did the right thing, but the consequences of the episode are still that the Cardassians are not stopped from violating the treaty, the first in a series of compromises with the Cardassians that become more and more difficult for the Federation to maintain. Anyway, my point is more directed at the idea that there was never a sense within the show that the "right thing" ever had negative consequences--I think here was an example where, in a limited way, there were.

Stephen said...

"And, also like a lot of other stories in and out of genre, The Next Generation applied the concept of evolution to societies as well as species, sociology and politics as well as biology."

I always liked the inter-media-franchise response to this in the first X-Men film, when Patrick Stewart (playing Professor X, but what matters is that it's Patrick Stewart) says to Ian McKellen/Magneto vis-a-vis the Holocaust that it wouldn't happen again, "Mankind has *evolved* since then", and McKellen/Magneto responds with: "Yes. Into us." And that is allowed to end it.

(In general: fabulous post, & great discussion too.)

Cy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"Like the cell phones besides which original Star Trek's communicators, so revolutionary in the 60s, seem bulky and of limited use, Roddenberry's allegedly advanced, egalitarian future society seems positively regressive when compared to the norms of your average TV show in 2011."

Can't argue the main points but it is unfair to hold a late 80's/early 90's network show to the same standard as something made in 2011 (or anything in the last five years). Punishing a show for not being as good as what we have now is easy. Shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Mad Men have massively redefined what a show can be in so many amazing ways and that's just four off the top of my head. STNG was pushing the envelope (if only very slightly) but it's still a product of its time and more importantly, it's genre. A sci fi show in prime time is uncommon today, let alone during the STNG time period, and overcoming that hurdle was hard enough. Expecting it to be something more visionary or progressive, dealing with social issues in a more radical or honest way (given the utopia premise) is natural but unrealistic given the time it aired in and more to the point, the constraints all shows of the time had. - KeeperOTD

TK said...

TNG was too human, and white, and Western to keep up with the sweep of its 150-planet Federation premise, and it rarely used its rhetorical powers in the defense of anything terribly contentious to a moderately cosmopolitan 20th century American. I gently cringed at the human-exceptionalist language, especially when I really suspect the writers were trying to cast a wider net.

Someone should have realized Data was the Tin Man, not Pinocchio- already possessed of an unconventional heart, that he displayed every day. Data was Data, a good person, and implying his quirks were deficiencies was disingenuous given how often his good nature saved the ship. The most baffling instance of human vs. machine triumphalism might come in "Booby Trap," when La Forge urges Picard to abandon the ship's guidance systems and hand-fly the ship and trust in "the human factor," when he a) is best friends with a robot and b) developed a likely workable plan in conjunction with a computer program he has a crush on, c) the eventual solution seems like just the sort of move the computer could have worked out, and d) he lives inside the most computerized object ever built.

The real allure of Trek is that it is one of the few instances in television where someone bothers to make a relentless defense of post-Enlightment modernity, and it is so stark in contrast to standard Campbellian storytelling that it sizzles by comparison. The costs of modern living are real, and well publicized- so much so that the steady decline in how many of us die at each other’s hands comes as a massive surprise despite its many-century curve- with similar surprise at the steady increase in the fractions of the world that can feed and clothe themselves, the rising intelligence of the young, and nearly every other metric of human welfare. These trends are not in perfect lockstep-witness the disconnects between the rise of industry and the decline of racism and nationalism that brought us the Holocaust and the Cold War- but they are nevertheless demonstrably real, and they all seem to track back to a patiently tended basket of ideas- methodological naturalism, meritocracy, and others.

Such notions are so new relative to our primate selves that they hardly ever get any credit, or care, in most speculative fiction. The Lord of The Rings hands rule of a continent to a man because his ancestor 3000 years ago had the job- and was terrible at it. Both Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter gain their fantastic powers by being born with them, beyond rational understanding. When the straight adventures are picked out, the tale where Man Grew Proud dominates the conversation. The likes of 24 treated civil liberties as the playground of the naive, and BSG suddenly concluded (after a few episodes of genuine interest in other choices) that the only way past the sins of the father and the perils of technology was to not get past them at all.

TNG serves as one of the few fictional reminders that we are living in the midst of the better way- that modernity is a helpful set of tools for living a good life. Rationalism towards the natural world has gotten us far, but has the skeptic ever been as well defended as in "Who Watches the Watchers?," when Picard dresses down an aggrieved scientist for suggesting they the Mintakans to a supernatural world view? Picard might be a bit anvilicious in "The Drumhead," but when was the last time someone described civil liberties as a strength rather than a liability- even if they were defending them as worth the costs? Most of the good in the world is done by people who studied hard and not those with birthrights, and scientific understanding can alleviate problems, and one ought not to start shooting wars on the chance you can't win, and leaving people free to live their lives provided they are content to let others do the same tends to work out for the best, and Trek said so amidst the perpetual reactionary impulses of our ancient stories.

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