Monday, April 11, 2011

Let's See What's Out There, Part IV: Keep Flying

"I should have done this a long time ago."
Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation, "All Good Things…", 1994
I think it's safe to say that if it hadn't been for Patrick Stewart, there would be no modern Trek, and we would still think of the franchise as a cult TV series from decades ago that spawned a couple of movies and, in the late 80s, a short-lived spin-off.  In The Next Generation's first season, Stewart is the only member of the cast with both acting chops and the opportunity to use them, and he makes Picard, and the show, his own, elevating the cheesy material and blatant speechifying.  In his hands, Picard's wanderlust, his geekish enthusiasm, his commanding presence, and his deeply held and frequently expressed convictions, become genuine and heartfelt.  Stewart brings Picard to life--that fascinating, complicated mixture of whimsy and stolidness, humor and gravitas, thoughtful diplomacy and indomitable will.  There is a popular theory that the show improved so dramatically in its second and third seasons because Stewart kept acting above the material the writers provided him with, and whether or not that's actually true, the fact that The Next Generation ever achieves the magic of slipping into the world of Trek and making it its own, becoming part of a grand storytelling tradition rather than just a bunch of bad actors traipsing about in ugly spandex, is largely down to that one man and his performance.

It's easy to lose sight of Picard's complexity when you watch the later Star Trek films, which reconfigure him as a shoot first, ask questions later action hero.  Part of me thinks this transformation happened as a sop to Stewart's vanity, was maybe even instigated by him, and if that's the case then I suppose that after all he did for the franchise he's entitled to have his ego stroked--after all, it's not as if Insurrection or Nemesis were ever going to be masterpieces.  But it's worth keeping in mind that this is not who Picard was, that the real character was a great deal more complicated--a man defined, in fact, by his contradictions.  In "Samaritan Snare" Picard tells Wesley about the incident that caused him to require an artificial heart (the significance of which, for a man so invested in controlling his emotions, is surely obvious), in which, as a young cadet, he picked a fight with three Naussicans twice his size.  Picard tells the story as one of a hard lesson well learned, a punishment for his arrogance and devil-may-care attitude, an experience that taught him to buckle down, as well as a bit of humility.  But in "Tapestry," when Q gives Picard the chance to undo the fight altogether, to become that more humble, more serious man he thinks he needed to be ahead of schedule, the result is a small, grey life as a mid-ranking science officer.  The lesson of "Tapestry" is that it takes the two men--the adventurer who laughs in the face of danger, and the thoughtful, reserved nerd, who on their own are just a silly child and a stodgy old man--to make Jean Luc Picard.

Of all his contradictions, perhaps none defines Picard as much as his conflicting desires for adventure and a more quiet, ordinary life.  As the series opens he's chosen the former, and a lot of Next Generation episodes revolve around Picard considering the roads he chose not to take on his path to a stellar career in Starfleet--the lover he abandoned in "We'll Always Have Paris," the career he might have had as an archeologist in "The Chase."  But as the show draws on The Next Generation seems determined to shake Picard's conviction of having made the right choice.  In my posts about Deep Space Nine I wrote that that show's deliberately mundane tone allowed its writers to inflict losses--of lovers, children, homes, jobs, and sense of self--on its characters that in a more dramatic story might have seemed over the top, and The Next Generation takes the same approach with Picard.  He starts the series gruffly telling Riker that he has no room for children in his life.  Seven years later, in Generations, he's weeping for the children he'll never have.  Along the way, there is much loss.  He seems to discover a son in "Bloodlines," only to learn that he has no claim on him.  He bonds with a child in "Suddenly Human" but must give him away.  He falls in love in "Lessons" but is forced to give that love up for the sake of his duty (the same might be said of "The Perfect Mate").  In "The Inner Light" Picard, after a long struggle, surrenders to the kind of life he has always sought to escape.  He becomes a loving husband and a doting father and grandfather, living a small life in a small village.  And just as he's grown not only to accept but to love this life, it is snatched away from him, leaving nothing behind but memories and a single keepsake.  Perhaps worst of all, Picard forms relationships that place him in the role of mentor and surrogate father with Wesley Crusher and Ro Laren, whom he shepherds on their Starfleet careers, but both of these "children" choose to leave Starfleet, and thus to sever their ties with Picard.

Wesley and Ro leave Starfleet for largely the same reasons.  "Journey's End," Wesley's farewell episode, is terrible, an early harbinger of Ronald D. Moore's penchant for prioritizing real-world references over the integrity of his world, in which Native Americans--in space!--are still suffering the effects of European colonization in the 24th century.  Ro's goodbye, "Preemptive Strike," meanwhile, despite some mawkish plot points, is one of the few strong episodes in the seventh season (Michelle Forbes and Wil Wheaton's respective talents play a part in the episodes' relative quality as well).  But in both stories, Wesley and Ro are disillusioned by Starfleet's actions and its policies--relocating settlers on the Cardassian border and hunting down the Maquis who attack Cardassian settlements on that same border.  That Picard sides with Starfleet, however reluctantly--he is conflicted about relocating the colonists and sympathizes with the Maquis, but in both cases ultimately decides that preventing war with the Cardassians is the greater good--shatters his bond with his two protégés, permanently in Ro's case, ambiguously in Wesley's (it is one of "Journey's End"'s many flaws that it doesn't give the two anything like a proper farewell but also isn't willing to cap their relationship on the negative note that "Preemptive Strike" ends on). 

This is interesting because, though in its early years Picard stands for the Federation as much as he stands for The Next Generation, there is a sense as the show draws on that Picard and the Federation are falling out of step.  In "Too Short a Season" Picard discovers that a Starfleet admiral traded arms to aliens in exchange for Federation hostages, and prolonged a costly civil war.  In this first season story, the tone of the episode makes it clear that what the admiral has done is beyond the pale.  Later seasons return to the well of the shady admiral who betrays Federation principles and is exposed by Picard, but each time the story repeats his staunchness seems less convincing.  When the admiral in "Ensign Ro" agrees to break Federation neutrality in the Bajoran-Cardassian conflict in order to appease the Cardassians, or Riker's former commanding officer violates a treaty with the Romulans that prohibits the Federation from developing illegal cloaking technology in "The Pegasus," it's hard not to wonder whether Picard is the only honest senior officer in Starfleet--and if so, what that says about Starfleet.  There's a compelling reading of late Next Generation in which Picard is regarded by his fellow officers and the Federation's top brass as an increasingly out of touch throwback, a moralist who won't recognize the difficult realities of the political situation in the quadrant, and who insists on clinging to his ideals come hell of high water, and regardless of what his principled actions, such as exposing the forbidden cloaked ship to the Romulans at the end of "The Pegasus," cost the Federation.  (Insurrection, in which the Federation council is so shattered by the Dominion war that they conspire with a race of arms dealers and bioweapon manufacturers to displace an entire people, only for Picard to commit mutiny against them, really only makes sense if you apply this reading to the show.)

In this take on The Next Generation, the Enterprise is a fool's paradise that keeps flying about to diplomatic missions and scientific studies, even as the events of Deep Space Nine unfold and the rest of the galaxy burns.  This is probably taking it too far, but it's hard not to watch "Journey's End" and "Preemptive Strike" without concluding that for Wesley and Ro, Picard is Starfleet and the Federation.  They would love to serve in his fleet, on his ship, in furtherance of his ideals, but when they get a taste of the real thing (and when Picard falls in line with that reality) they recoil.  Nor are these the only occasions on which Picard's Enterprise is held up as an ideal.  In "Ménage à Troi," Wesley is stunned to realize that there's no guarantee he'll be returning to the Enterprise when he graduates from Starfleet academy, and the ship's convivial atmosphere is what halts Riker's previously-meteoric career in its path.  The Next Generation got a lot of guff over the years for keeping the ship's senior staff static for so long, in contravention of the reality of most military bodies (and most workplaces, for that matter).  Though this stagnation was obviously driven by the producers' fiat and 80s TV mentality, within the show it seemed believable that no one on the Enterprise wanted to move on, because they were all too happy and too comfortable where they were, in a working environment that suited them all to a T (by all accounts the cast felt this way as well).

Which is why "All Good Things…" is such a perfect cap to the series.  Despite a plot that hinges on the destruction of the human race, that's not where the story's emotional core is to be found.  "All Good Things…" is an episode about the Enterprise crew.  It switches between three time periods that describe that crew's lifecycle--the present, in which the Enterprise is an ideal working environment, all its parts moving together in perfect synchronization; the past, when the crew is just on the verge of coming together; and the future, when it's all come apart.  Which is what happens in any workplace, of course.  Even if you're lucky enough to find a job you like with people you enjoy working with, sooner or later someone will leave, or die; close friends will quarrel or drift apart; others will try to transmute their camaraderie into more intimate relationships, with mixed results.  And if by some chance you manage to hang on through all those changes, eventually you'll get to be too old and feeble to do the work.  This is the great tragedy of The Next Generation, and of Picard's life--in lieu of the family he'll never have, he forms one with his crew, but it is ephemeral and doomed.  The series ends with that famous, lovely scene of Picard joining the other officers at the poker table, reaffirming their unity in the face of the knowledge--now more certain than ever--that its days are numbered.  In its gentle sadness, its deceptively light tone, and its inherent contradictions, this is the perfect ending to The Next Generation.  One of these days, the crew will be dispersed.  The Enterprise will be put in mothballs.  Starfleet will complete its transformation into a body that none of them particularly want to serve in.  But for now, their voyages continue.

14 comments:

Dan said...

Great post. In parallel with the portrayal of Starfleet changing over the run of the series, there is also a matching closing-in of space itself. In the beginning (and the original series), space seems boundless; towards the end it is claustrophobic, and the Enterprise very rarely goes boldly where no one has gone before. Arguably this fits with the parallels to the frontier of the West, a shift from exploration and first contact to much nastier struggles. It's a really good point that towards the end of TNG, little is left holding up the original "optimism" but Picard himself.

But since space, unlike a continent, is truly vast, this again reflects a choice on the part of the writers, on what they thought would make for interesting plots... In particular it is a change of direction towards more straightforward "political" plotlines and away from intrinsically science-fictional, or more "scientific" ones.

Matt Hilliard said...

It's interesting to note that not only has the "happy crew" dynamic of TNG been more or less abandoned by "gritty" SF shows like BSG, people like Ronald Moore pointed to it as one of the show's problems. If everyone's getting along with each other, I think he has basically said, where's the story?

Yet for all TNG's faults, it must have been doing something right in this regard. I vastly prefer DS9 as a show, but I can't deny that when it comes down to it, I like TNG's cast more. Why wouldn't I, given that DS9 made sure every character had demons to wrestle with? Characters like Kira and Garak can be fascinating, but I'd rather hang out with the happy-go-lucky TNG people. Later shows like BSG took this to a soap opera extreme, of course.

I don't really know what to make of this. Can characters like those of TNG coexist with the moral grays of DS9's world? Because I'll sacrifice the former for the latter if I have to, but I'm not sure this isn't a false choice.

CrazyCris said...

"if it hadn't been for Patrick Stewart, there would be no modern Trek"

I completely agree! Although Data is another character many people see as key to TNG, he wouldn't have gotten as far along to be interesting had it not been for Patrick Stewart being so strong straight out of the gate. To this day I'll see Patrick Stewart in just about anything!

It did seem odd that Riker never moved on... no sense of time going by. 7 years for us could have been half that time for them (like many high-school shows nowadays do by trying to have one season cover only half a school year). But like Matt I loved that crew so much I was happy they never split up! Ditto I'll admit that most of the DS9 stories were more interesting. But give me Picard over Sisko any day. Or Data over Odo!

I remember I was so glad that the movies were continuing this crew's adventures, because I sure as hell wasn't ready to say goodbye!

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Matt:

I think there are a couple of issues here. Moore's edict that characters can't get along or there's no story has, as you say, been taken to soap opera extremes, but I'm not sure that DS9 is a good example of it. The characters on that show start out distrusting and sometimes disliking each other, but that fades away very quickly. By the end of the first season the crew is quite cohesive, and they become even more so as the show draws on. The difference between TNG and DS9 is first, that though both shows start with the crew just coming together, the Enterprise characters click from day one, whereas on DS9 we see the process of the crew coming together and overcoming their differences. The second difference is that unlike the family relationship on the Enterprise, DS9's characters had a more professional type of relationship. They liked and respected one another, and some of them became fast friends and even lovers, but others were simply amiable colleagues who in their personal lives had entirely different social circles. Kira and Sisko, for example, had a good working relationship, and she came to his house for dinner and attended his wedding, but they weren't friends and probably wouldn't have had anything to do with each other in their personal lives - the kind of relationship you'd have, in other words, with a boss you like but don't have that much in common with. So I'm not sure I would say that modern depictions of fractious crews are an extension of DS9's approach, because that professionalism - the recognition that there are people you have to work well with even if you don't like them - is usually entirely absent from them.

The other issue you raise is one of personal demons, which is something that I agree TNG was not particularly interested in exploring. But I don't think that's something that grows organically from the show's premise. Most of TNG's characters had the potential for inner turmoil - not BSG-level drama, but who the hell wants that? I talk about Picard in this post, and Worf and Data get a bit of handling (though Data is problematic on the turmoil front), but there was potential in Riker and Geordi as well - see the next post in the series. (Crusher and Troi don't have that kind of potential, because women are naturally placid and composed.) I think that if you'd plopped Riker, for example, in DS9 (and gave him to another actor), he'd be an interesting character.

Matt Hilliard said...

Abigail, you're right that the DS9 crew gets along most of the time. I was using it as an example because I like it, not because I'm assigning blame for the current trend or because it was really a problem. I like your professionalism distinction. It certainly matches with my personal experience. But if Moore were here defending himself, I think he would say that the professionalism of a normal work environment is boring, just like the normal day in the life of a cop or a doctor is boring. Kicking the workplace strife up to 11, in that line of thinking, is no different than the constant stream of dramatic crimes or mysterious medical conditions in procedural shows.

Having thought about this more, I think the difference between TNG and almost all the other shows we've referenced is that its focus is almost always outward. BSG is at the other extreme and almost always focused inward. In a way, the protagonist of TNG is not Picard but just The Enterprise Crew. Picard as captain (and best actor) gets a lot of the limelight but usually it is strictly in the context of his important role within The Crew. Viewed this way, although DS9 had a similar command structure, the emphasis is generally on different points of view within the group. Kira thinks one thing, Odo thinks another, and Sisko has to decide, for example. That happened occasionally in TNG but more often, I think (I don't have the advantage of having watched it recently), the focus is on The Crew interacting with external entities. In making difficult decisions about the Prime Directive, diplomatic choices, and so forth, the emphasis is on working out what The Crew's (or perhaps even The Federation's) values are instead of any one individual.

Dan said...

the difference between TNG and almost all the other shows we've referenced is that its focus is almost always outward.

I think there's a lot to this. The episodic structure with the "reset button" after 45 minutes probably favours it, as real strife between the characters couldn't realistically be forgotten by the next episode. Even the episodes set entirely on the Enterprise are often about some problem (ethical or scientific) which is not purely character-driven.


the family relationship on the Enterprise

I always thought there was a stiffness and emotional awkwardness to the characters, which in a funny way actually worked, even if it was possibly partly due to bad writing or acting. Basically a group of highly qualified geeks, solving problems the universe throws at them...

(Not sure I've quite found the right words here for what I'm trying to get at.)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Matt:

if Moore were here defending himself, I think he would say that the professionalism of a normal work environment is boring

I'm sure he would :-) Doesn't make it true, though. A subject is only as boring or as interesting as the writer handling it can make it. Not to mention that professionalism doesn't automatically translate into a harmonious, perfectly functional work environment. You'd think someone who works in the entertainment industry would know that.

I like your point about the uniformity of opinions within the Enterprise crew. I think this connects to the show's utopian, evangelical goals. The crew had to agree with one another because their stance was the correct, moral stance, the reflection of their evolved morality and the Federation's progressive attitudes. Disagreement usually came as an opportunity for the writers to teach the dissenting character better (which is why the dissenting opinion often comes from Worf, who is the least congruent with the Federation's ethos). Though there are episodes that offer no obvious right choice, in which Picard finds himself completely at odds with a member of the crew - for example, "Symbiosis," where Crusher wants to help a species who have been unwittingly addicted to a drug by their trading partners, and Picard won't because the Prime Directive prevents him - these are by far the minority.

Dan:

I'm not sure emotional awkwardness is quite how I'd put it. Emotional shallowness, maybe. The writers are so committed to making paragons out of these characters that they can't imbue them with anything like the full complexity of a real person. Only the best actors in the cast manage to rise above that limitation. It's one of the reasons I like Troi despite the fact that she's given such terrible stories - because she's the most imperfect character on the show.

Dan said...

Emotional shallowness, maybe. The writers are so committed to making paragons out of these characters that they can't imbue them with anything like the full complexity of a real person.

Yes, that's much better :) And yet it works somehow, because of Patrick Stewart's Picard, and because of the outward-facing plots where the crew acts as a team. Maybe the geekish aspect is less important.

Having said that, it is really noticeable how much the show improves when another character gets an actor able to give a role some depth - I remember in particular a few episodes where Dr. Crusher was replaced (unfortunately I forget the name).

Matt Hilliard said...

Abigail:

Not to mention that professionalism doesn't automatically translate into a harmonious, perfectly functional work environment. You'd think someone who works in the entertainment industry would know that.

While the entertainment industry may not be a harmonious work environment, I'm not sure that there's a ton of professionalism either, except among the oft-vilified "suits". Then again, perhaps the dichotomy between the creative talent and the studios isn't so different from, say, engineers and managers.

But I'm not sure (and I mean genuinely not sure as opposed to politely disagreeing) about this:

A subject is only as boring or as interesting as the writer handling it can make it.

This sounds a lot like the "I'd listen to X read the phone book!" I don't think I've ever heard anyone say "I'd read a phone book cover to cover if X wrote it!" I'm sympathetic to the idea that great writers can elevate material...I guess I want to believe this. But as a software engineer, I have frequently thought about how horrifyingly bad the depictions of programming are in popular media. While much can be ascribed to simple ignorance, there's no getting around the fact that programming, and even hacking as it's actually practiced, just seems inevitably, well, boring to outsiders. Maybe this just shows I'm not one of those great writers who can elevate the material, but when I look for examples from written fiction I don't get a lot of help. Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon is probably the best example I can think of. In Vernor Vinge's Deepness in the Sky I believe Pham Nuwen is introduced as a "Programmer at Arms" but just what that might actually entail is kept off screen despite the fact Vinge was a computer science professor.

To desperately try to tie this back into Star Trek, isn't it often stated that the TNG shows that supposedly involve applying engineering or science to solve an issue don't really work? "Inverting the polarity stopped the cascade! We're saved!" Since the audience doesn't know anything about science, and the writers are mostly making it up as they go along anyway, these resolutions feel cheap. The first part of "Best of Both Worlds", for example, is fantastic, but watching it a few years ago I felt the second part was rather a let down...a series of quick fixes to what were set up as tough problems.

Dan said...

Matt: Regarding professionalism, "normal" work environments, and the boringness of arcane, even geeky details: How would you compare the West Wing to TNG in this regard? It seems to me there are some significant parallels (the 'family' of high-fliers with the father-figure up top, the policy wonk technobabble (which is more - but possibly also just superficially - convincing), the sometimes quick fixes to the problem-of-the-day) but also some big differences. I'm intrigued because I think Abigail is right in saying, essentially, that food doesn't have to be super spicy to be tasty.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Matt:

This sounds a lot like the "I'd listen to X read the phone book!"

That's not what I meant, no (and anyway that saying is usually used to praise an actor; if the person in question is a writer than presumably the text is more interesting than a phone book). Nor do I mean that, to take your example, writing about programmers means writing about programming (though as you point out in your example of Stephenson, that can be made interesting as well). There's human drama in anything, and what I object to is writers who seem to believe that drama means a very narrow set of circumstances and interactions, and who port these over to any setting they use - for example the fact that so many workplace shows come to revolve around romance. The counterexample I like to give is The Office, a workplace show about people whose job not even they find particularly interesting, but which manages to tell stories that are organic to that setting and would be out of place in, say, a hospital or a police station, without getting very deep into the mechanics of selling paper supplies.

Dan:

That's an interesting comparison. There's certainly a kinship between Roddenberry's utopianism and Sorkin's, though the obvious difference between the two is that Sorkin writes about people who are changing (or trying to change) the world into a better place while Roddenberry assumes that the change has been accomplished. Both works are unrealistic, but I think that Sorkin's approach short-circuits some of the smugness I identified in Roddenberry's (while introducing other forms of smugness, of course).

Matt Hilliard said...

Dan: I haven't watched West Wing, so unfortunately I can't comment on that, but regarding spiciness: I used to think that I found the law too boring to ever enjoy a legal show. Then I saw the first season of Damages and really enjoyed it. But thinking about it after the fact, it struck me that it really didn't have anything to do with the law. It was an intrigue story and the legal trappings, while providing an interesting "flavor", were really only skin-deep.

Abigail: The Office is a good example, though. Like I said, I want to believe this proposition. I'm obviously having trouble putting my finger on why I have doubts.

Perhaps it is my background as someone who is principally a reader of science fiction and fantasy. Mainstream critiques of these genres often seem to say: if these writers were any good, they wouldn't need spaceships or elves to keep the reader interested. This feels the same argument, just with a different definition of what's spicy. I get intellectually, though, that you are arguing the opposite: a broadening of horizons, a view of drama that explores life beyond the usual violence or romance, just as science fiction and fantasy use different settings to get new perspectives.

agentofdespair said...

Great post. We always joke about the crazy Admirals of Starfleet. What if Picard is really the crazy one?

Heavy stuff.

Anonymous said...

On the why of how the Trek movies went off the rails and got the Michael Bay treatment, I got two words: Rick f'n Berman - KeeperOTD

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