Tuesday, July 14, 2015

In Defense of Star Trek: The Next Generation: Characters

In the world of Star Trek bashing, certain criticisms have long since become cliche, and they include criticisms of the characterizations.

The crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation is no exception.

Of course, the show might be said to fare better than most entries in the franchise. Much better, in fact. Jean-Luc Piccard, Worf and Data are on the whole very well-liked, enough so that they make the top ten lists for the whole Trek universe again and again, as at Ranker, IGN, the Mary Sue and Paste.

Still, other characters have been far less popular. They have their limits and failings, of course. But some draw much more than their fair share of flak, usually for reasons besides those normally given. Deanna Troi, for instance, seems to suffer somewhat because psychic powers are on the whole less fashionable in science fiction than they used to be, and more importantly, because telepathy, empathy and the like do not lend themselves well to depiction in visual media. That a lot of people dislike her mother Lwaxana likely hurts her all the more, their irritation with Lwaxana rubbing off on her by association. (And the gender politics that find their way into these debates don't help her much either.)

When people remember Katherine Pulaski, they usually seem to picture her prodding Data into the game of stratagema in "Peak Performance"--not necessarily the best thing she could have done in the situation, but she had the grace to admit it, and things did work out in the end. Besides, when I look back on the character, I also remember her in "Up the Long Ladder" telling a white lie to save Worf embarrassment, and then sharing a Klingon tea ceremony with him, a reminder that she had more likeable moments too. But they are the more apt to be overlooked because she had the problem of replacing a reasonably well-liked predecessor in Beverly Crusher, while Crusher's return made her presence seem that much more anomalous in hindsight.

And I suspect that a good many people hate Wesley Crusher (who often occupies the #1 spot on the "most hated" lists) because, underneath all the empty verbiage, as adults they find the idea of a kid out-smarting or upstaging adults threatening; because as parent and authority figure, they can't stand difficult children and adolescents on screen any more than they can in real life. (Indeed, while not written as super-kids, it seems noteworthy that TNG's Alexander Rozhenko and Deep Space Nine's Jake Sisko often make the lists of least well-liked characters, and that the same pattern is evident in other franchises. Wesley's Doctor Who counterpart Adric is equally likely to top that show's "most hated" list, while these same sentiments doubtless factored into the ire directed at the Annakin Skywalker-centered Star Wars prequel movies.)

However, the biggest criticism often seems to be not of individual characters, but of the cast as a whole--the group's dynamic. The characters were not without their baggage, or their rough edges, or their conflicts with themselves and each other. Still, on the whole it was a fairly harmonious group.

Dated, they say. Old-fashioned. Unrealistic.

But I have to admit that this happier dynamic does not seem unreasonable to me. This is, after all, the flagship of the United Federation of Planets' Star Fleet. It ought to operate fairly smoothly--and plausibly would operate more smoothly than any comparable effort today. If one takes the Federation as an example of the triumph of the "scientific world-view," a society which has embraced reason and humane values and succeeded in eliminating a great many of the evils we take for granted in the twenty-first century, then it stands to reason that we would be looking at a society which is on the whole saner than the one we now have, with this going for its individual members too--and the crew of a ship like the Enterprise representing the best it has. (It isn't as if Star Fleet fills its ships through a policy of impressment; or has people enlisting simply to escape hunger, and accepts them out of sheer hunger for personnel.)

Indeed, calling Star Trek unrealistic on these grounds is simply a failure to understand what it is they are looking at--a piece of science fiction imagining how, as the world changes, life changes along with it. In this case, it is change for the better--which seems to be exactly the problem many have with it.

This is, in part, a question of the fashions in our entertainment, all this being a contrast with what so much other television serves up as a matter of course: a reveling in the brutality and brutalization of rat race and marketplace, where every dialogue quickly turns into a pissing contest, or at least an occasion for colossal douche-baggery. A vision of every human heart as a heart of darkness, every mind as a basketcase of neuroses and delusions, every human being as consumed with getting ahead or evening the score or simply inflicting injury because they can; the sense that where two or three gather, there is a snake pit.

Those with a taste for such material don't want heroic starship captains, or explorations of humanity through devices like robots trying to figure humans out. (And we all know how they feel about having a character whose outstanding quality is her empathy aboard the bridge.)

What they want is soap opera, the meaner and nastier the better. They want the Enterprise to feel like the Galactica. Or King's Landing. Or the offices of Sterling Cooper. They want anti-heroes who do conniving and cruel things, brushed off with a "Whatever" or a "Get over it" or a "Welcome to the real world."

However, all but the most extreme misanthropes will acknowledge that what such fans take from those shows is hardly a complete or nuanced depiction of even our comparatively bleak era. And if the results can at times be viscerally gripping, it is far from being the sole basis for drama, or the best basis for it, or even a sure-fire basis for some minimal level of success. Indeed, however much the fashionable are ready to award automatic points for this sort of thing, it does not take any great skill on the part of a writer to give us a bunch of unlikeable characters tearing at each other--and it is not necessarily insightful or interesting or worthwhile, especially when everyone is doing this anyway.

In fact, I suspect that for those of us not addicted to what gets exalted as the "dark and gritty," it makes reruns of this edition of Trek a welcome respite from the rest of what passes for "drama."

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