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.
Star Trek: First Contact, 1996My 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.