Let's See What's Out There, Part V: Odds & Ends
Some thoughts about actors and characters.
- As I wrote in the previous entry, one of the pleasures of returning to The Next Generation as an adult was rediscovering, and learning to fully appreciate, Patrick Stewart's performance as Picard. The rest of the cast, however, proved a less pleasant surprise. Whether it's because the show was considered a bad employment risk when it first started casting, or because Gene Roddenberry and the other producers just had bad taste, The Next Generation's starting lineup leaves much to be desired. Jonathan Frakes has turned out to be a good director and producer, but his acting is hammy and overdone, and he's frequently stretched even by the material the first season throws at him. It's almost amusing to watch the show try to pit him against Q in "Hide and Q," the trickster character's second appearance--one imagines the writers planning a series of episodes in which Q interacts with each of the cast in their turn, then realizing how inert the pairing of Frakes and John de Lancie is, especially when compared to de Lancie's crackle against Stewart, and making Q Picard's antagonist for the rest of the series. Gates McFadden is a comedienne, and there are episodes and moments in which the show uses her well in this capacity--the occasional humorous scene, but also episodes like "Remember Me" and "Attached" in which she's allowed to be cranky and sarcastic. But for the most part Crusher's role is a dramatic one. She's the staunch humanist whose belief in the sanctity of life trumps the most cherished Federation values--the Prime Directive in "Symbiosis," or the need to respect other cultures' values in "The Enemy" and "Ethics." McFadden is lost trying to convey the gravitas and depth of conviction that this role requires.
McFadden is also a good example of a phenomenon that occurs more and more often as the series's success translates into prestige and a higher production budget, in which the main cast is outclassed by recurring or guest actors. In the second season a contract dispute led McFadden to leave the show temporarily, and Crusher's role as ship's doctor was filled by Diana Muldaur's Katherine Pulaski. I was pretty young when I watched the second season, so my memories of it and of Pulaski, going into this rewatch, were rather hazy; and like, I suspect, a lot of fans, I imprinted on The Next Generation's cast as it was in the show's middle seasons, with Crusher as ship's doctor. I thus wasn't particularly eager to rediscover Pulaski, and it was a surprise, a delight, and, once I remembered how little time she had on the show, a bittersweet pleasure to realize that Muldaur is every inch the actress that McFadden wasn't. She effortlessly brings across the stubborn self-assurance of a person who can pit their cherished principles against Picard's or Worf's, and refuse to budge in either case. There's something very McCoy-ish about Pulaski (right down to her casual bigotry towards Data), a down-to-earth, no-nonsense quality that suits her role on the ship very well. When Crusher and her breathy overacting returned in the third season, and especially in episodes where her role was to stick by her guns and represent the humanist point of view, it was impossible not to wish that Pulaski were there in her place. Similarly, one might compare Denise Crosby's performance with Michelle Forbes's five seasons later. They're playing essentially the same character--an orphaned young woman raised outside the Federation in troubled circumstances, who escapes to Starfleet--but where Crosby's Tasha Yar is shouty and unconvincing, Forbes completely sells Ro Laren as tough, damaged, both driven and undone by anger.
As the show's writing improved, the writers also got better at playing to the cast's strengths, and to their stronger castmembers. This means that Brent Spiner, who, with the exception of "Datalore," is used mostly as comic relief in the first season, and Michael Dorn, who was originally only a recurring character, both of whom turn out to be versatile, charismatic actors, get more and better stories as the show grows. Less fortunate are LeVar Burton and Marina Sirtis. Geordi LaForge turned out to be The Next Generation's O'Brien--a character I had remembered liking and enjoying, but who turned out, upon a second viewing, to be one-note and not very ably portrayed. Burton is given so little to do with Geordi, however--after the first season, in which he's a young bridge officer learning the ropes of command, he loses that story to Wesley and spends the rest of the series spouting the week's helping of technobabble--that it's hard to gauge whether the problem is with him or the writing. Sirtis, meanwhile, is a game performer who handles all the abuse the show flings at her--episodes like "The Price" and "Man of the People," not to mention whole stretches of doing nothing but sighing and rolling her eyes during the Lwaxana Troi episodes--with enough dignity and good humor to make me think that with better writing at her back, Troi could have been a breakout character to rival Worf. What's interesting about Troi is how imperfect she is. Against the other Starfleet characters' thoughtless courage and effortless selflessness, Troi is whiny, and her kindness is frequently undercut by a strong streak of self-centeredness. Both of these qualities manifest themselves when Troi is challenged or taken out of her comfort zone, as does her underlying strength. It's a combination that had a lot of potential, as the brilliant "Face of the Enemy" demonstrates, but one that the writers didn't quite know how to write for (or, to take a less charitable tack, didn't know how to write for in a beautiful woman). Troi is thus shunted off to the side or relegated to romantic storylines.
(For completeness's sake, Wil Wheaton was a cute kid who grew up into an average-looking adult and a poor actor. But The Next Generation is hardly the only television show to run into this problem with its child actors, so I'm willing to give the show a pass in this case.)
- A few more thoughts on Geordi. Wesley was supposed to be The Next Generation's gateway character, and for me he was--I wanted to pilot the ship and save the day just like him. Those who came to the show a little older than myself developed the disdain for Wesley with which the fandom has by now become synonymous, and would have been more likely to identify with Geordi. Like O'Brien on Deep Space Nine, he's the everyman character--not a special snowflake like Data or Worf, not a paragon of virtue like Picard and Riker, and not a woman, which as we all know invalidates Crusher and Troi from being audience identification figures. He's the guy you can imagine meeting for a friendly drink without feeling completely outclassed and intimidated. Star Trek, already a franchise that tended to skew towards niceness, was thus deeply invested in keeping Geordi likable, which I think is a big part of the reason his character stagnates. The fact is that once you take a closer look at Geordi, there is clearly something not quite right about him. He's a guy who gets along better with machines than with people, and not just because he's an engineer and very nearly a cyborg. His best friend is an android. He's the first member of the crew to bond with Hugh in "I, Borg." He falls in love with a computer program in "Booby Trap." In that same episode, and later in "Transfigurations," Geordi is shown to be shy and awkward in social situations (though a friendly alien cures him of the worst of his shyness in the latter episode). He's much better at connecting with people, and with his own emotions, by using technology as a buffer--when he watches the title character's log entries in "Aquiel," or when he says goodbye to his recently-deceased mother while remote-controlling a repair drone in "Interface."
There's obviously a story to be told here, and it's one that the show ignores even as it piles on the evidence for its existence. Though it's obvious that maintaining Geordi's nice guy cred is a big part of the reason, I also think The Next Generation's resistance to the notion of artificial life (as already discussed in the case of Data) is a factor. When the real Leah Brahms shows up in "Galaxy's Child" and disappoints Geordi by not being the woman of his dreams (and, of course, by being married), the show argues that Geordi's problem is that he can't separate the fantasy from the real woman, who is under no obligation to cater to his wishes and desires. While there's no denying that Geordi has some creepy hang-ups about women that the show, in keeping with its conception of him as a geeky, nice guy, is all too willing to forgive ("Galaxy's Child" ultimately comes down on the side of his friendship with Leah, and in the "All Good Things…" future they are married), there's a more interesting possibility that the episode leaves unexplored--that the Leah from "Booby Trap" is not just an idealized version of the one from "Galaxy's Child" but a completely different person, one who is perhaps worth loving in her own right. By the time Voyager comes along, holographic people, and their romantic entanglements with those of the flesh and blood variety, are par for the course, but such as story is a little too risque for The Next Generation, as are almost all the stories suggested by Geordi's affinity for machinery. Possibly LeVar Burton couldn't have handled these stories--even when he's given the chance to emote in "Interface" he comes off as stiff and shallow--but it might have been nice to see him try.
- Geordi isn't, of course, The Next Generation's only geek identification character, but against his competence and almost-coolness, the show pits the neurotic, awkward, stammering Barclay. His introductory episode, "Hollow Pursuits," is another example of the show failing to acknowledge the creepiness of the story it's telling, and for much the same reason as in Geordi's case. Barclay's reaction to professional and social frustration is to fashion, and sink into, elaborate fantasies in which he places caricatured versions of the main cast so that he can enact violent vengeance against the ones who intimidate him and give free rein to his lust for Troi and Crusher. This is very disturbing, but the show treats it as an unfortunate foible, as the main cast band together to help Barclay overcome his problems. The reason, clearly, is that Barclay is an audience stand-in (and that in the pre-internet era it was not yet considered cool and funny to cruelly mock your fans by representing them as pathetic and sometimes villainous characters on your show). The next Barclay story, "The Nth Degree," finds him still functioning as the cast's special project, still so unprepared for power and independence that the gift of super-intelligence turns him into a threat to the ship. So it's a relief when "Realm of Fear" shows us a Barclay who is clearly growing sick and tired of being treated with kid gloves, and of how indulgent the senior staff are of his neuroses and phobias. The story sees him rejecting Geordi and Troi's patience and understanding, their willingness to accommodate his fears. Instead Barclay examines his phobic reaction to the episode's events and tries to dismantle his fears, in the process realizing that they are rooted in reality and saving the day. It's not quite a character arc, but it's a more attractive portrait of a geek than the one in "Hollow Pursuits"--not as someone who needs to be protected from reality, but as someone who finally realizes that being shy and awkward is no justification for not behaving like a grown-up.