I’ve been (slowly) re-watching Star Trek: Deep Space 9 for the last few months or so and I just got to that episode in season 3 where Nog, son of Rom and nephew to that scoundrel Quark, declares to Commander Sisko that he wants to apply to Starfleet Academy. It was a subplot I had sort-of half forgotten about but then came raging back all at once – Nog’s struggles, his long journey, and his eventual triumph. I just love that subplot. In fact, it might be my favorite Star Trek subplot of all time.
Now that I’m watching it as an adult, this storyline has some extra resonance for me. Besides being an author, my day job is as a college professor – a teacher – and Nog and his quest represent a very important lesson we teachers need to remember. To look at Nog from a distance, the kid is obviously a fuck-up and a lost cause. He gets bad grades in school, he is always goofing off, he gets arrested by Odo on a semi-regular basis, and his uncle Quark is a known criminal and low-life who associates with known criminals and low-lifes. To top it all off, he’s a Ferengi! No culture is more opposed to what the Federation represents – they are greedy, dishonest, selfish, and cowardly. There’s just no way in hell a kid like that has any business wearing a Starfleet uniform.
Sisko knows this. Hell, Nog knows this! Nog knows nobody expects him to amount to anything. His father is a permanent, laughable loser and his culture would never accept him going to Starfleet even assuming he could get in! But you know what this kid does? As soon as he comes of age, he scrounges together what money he has, walks into Sisko’s office (Sisko – the most powerful person on the station by far), shakes his hand, looks him in the eye…
…and offers him a bribe.
Because of course he does! That’s how Ferengi society works! This, to Nog, is what being a man is all about. This is responsible, adult behavior. And Sisko – bless him – realizes this. Everything tells him to show this kid the door – it’s probably a trick, a trap, some kind of prank – but…he hesitates. Sisko does something that makes me love him forever: he gives this kid a chance. He decides to trust him. He gives him a day alone with a cargo bay full of valuable stuff and lets Nog prove himself.
And you know what? Nog earns his trust. He proves he’s the hardest working kid on the station. He wants to be taken seriously. He wants this.
What I take away from all of this – the person I identify with – is Sisko. As a teacher, one is often faced with students who are…well…less than impressive at first glance. They show up late. They sleep in class. They don’t seem to be taking their education seriously. But the thing that I need to remind myself of is that I just don’t know what this kid is actually capable of. I can’t judge them based on superficial characteristics. Yeah, maybe they aren’t much good in my literature classes, but this person could very well become an excellent doctor or nurse or scientist. Hell, they might even have within them to become a wonderful writer or artist. As a teacher, it is part of my job to give them that chance – to allow them the opportunity to prove themselves, no matter what they look like or even how they act. Will I be let down? Sure, sure – happens all the time. But if a kid who’s been goofing off all semester comes up to me and asks if I can help them clean up their resume or give them advice on how to bring up their grades or ask me to recommend books for them to read to improve themselves, I remind myself of Sisko, sitting in Ops, looking at that sack full of latinum from an eager young Ferengi…
And I say yes.
And, like Sisko, I am often pleasantly surprised.
It took me a very long time to make my way through Season 3 of TNG again, but what can I say, I’ve been busy.
Anywho, I finished it a few weeks ago and finally find myself with a little time to give you my picks for the best and worst episodes of the season. Part of the reason I’ve put it off is that the decision on either end is a very tough one. Honestly, none of the episodes were truly abysmal and a great many of them were very, very good. How does one pick from among the episodes “Sarek”, “The Most Toys,” “The Enemy,” “Who Watches the Watchers,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” and, of course, part one of “The Best of Both Worlds?” Man.
Well, here’s what I decided. Your commentary and personal preferences welcome:
The Worst: “Menage a Troi”
First of all, just look at that title. Look at it, I say!
Just a little skeevy, isn’t it?
Well, that about sums up the episode in general: a little bit skeevy. Now, it doesn’t quite go to the lengths of actively offensive, but it flirts with idea.
Synopsis: A Ferengi, Daimon Tog, falls in love with Lwaxana Troi for no particularly good reason, even though she violently and publicly rejects him. No matter – he decides to kidnap her and also manages to kidnap Deanna and Riker, too. Then they fly off. There’s a Ferengi doctor that wants to study Betazed physiology to try and make mind probes or something. You know what? It hardly matters. This is an episode about a Ferengi forcibly abducting and then sexually harassing and assaulting a woman.
Now, the Ferengi are depicted as hopelessly incompetent and goofy and Lwaxana is basically in control most of the time. She tolerates his attentions in order to give Deanna and Riker time to figure out how to escape and signal the Enterprise – they do. At the end, Picard has to pretend to be Lwaxana’s jilted lover in order to force her return. We all chuckle. The end.
The thing wrong with this episode is twofold: (1) The Ferengi are unpardonably stupid at every single juncture and (2) the whole schtick with this episode is a bit creepy. Almost everybody is forced into unwanted romantic and/or sexual situations and they are played off as a laugh. Granted, the Picard bit is funny, but everybody else seems to be cutting the Ferengi a bit too much slack here. This is the episode (I think – it may have been mentioned in an earlier episode) where it is revealed that the Ferengi don’t believe women deserve clothes and, while our heroines are appropriately displeased, it seems like, in the end, everybody’s going to treat this like some kind of ridiculously funny anecdote instead of something that is really, really upsetting. Given how cartoonishly stupid the Ferengi are here, I guess that makes a degree of sense – they are absurd – but still, I feel like this kind of thing should be really bone-chilling.
On a darker note, the episode does make me wonder what the kidnapping/rape situation is in the 24th century. I mean, if you’re a psycho bent on sexual assault, can’t you just beam your victims up from anywhere? That seems to be really, really worrisome – terrifying even. Did Star Trek ever accelerate the creep-factor on this to its rational conclusion? I’m not sure – I don’t think so. Still, it is something that chills the blood.
Except not here because, you know, funny.
The Best: “Who Watches the Watchers”
First of all, an explanation is in order: I did not pick “The Best of Both Worlds, Part I” for two reasons. Firstly, it would be a bit obvious and, secondly, the first part is really just the set-up – the good stuff doesn’t happen until the next episode in Season 4. Perhaps I’ll talk more about it then.
Synopsis: The crew accidentally reveal themselves to a primitive culture while observing them for study, leading the primitive people to being believing in a god figure they now call “Picard.” Riker and Troi infiltrate the society to try and undo the damage, but bad things happen. People are accused of heresy. The poor guy on the planet starts begging Picard to bring his dead wife back to life. Crazy pants nonsense ensues. The only way Picard can stop it is by having the prime believer shoot him with an arrow to demonstrate his mortality. Finally, then, they are able to convince the primitive people that they are not gods, but just mortals with advanced knowledge.
I picked this episode from among many other fine episodes this season because I feel it exemplifies what Star Trek is (and should) be all about: the triumph of reason over superstition, fear, and violence. The frustrating Picard feels at being equated with a god is palpable – he is angry and upset over how such a misunderstanding will likely set these people back. They will abandon what they can learn with their eyes and ears and minds for the subjective “truth” of an unknowable god who dictates to them through prophets more likely to be chasing their own personal demons than being in touch with the Almighty.
Aspects of the episode are silly, but the performances are very compelling and the drama very real. It is the embodiment of Clarke’s insistence that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and it shows the lengths one must go to dispel that illusion. I think this episode is right at the heart of what this show was basically about – intelligent beings trying to be the best they can be without needing to fall back on mysticism or hogwash to make them great. I love it.
Anyway, those are my picks. What are yours from Season 3?
Congratulations on your new command, Captain! Now, before you begin your sojourn through the cosmos, there are some things you need to know that haven’t been covered in your Starfleet manuals and likely haven’t come up prior to this time. Below is the collected wisdom of captains like yourselves, who have experienced the Final Frontier enough to know how it all works. Read carefully – this might save your life someday.
Directive One: Have a Safe Word
One you become captain, at some point you are going to be replaced by an impostor. Just get used to the idea – it’s gonna happen. The hyper-intelligent gas cloud, alien hologram, or curious Q or whatever will likely be very familiar with your mannerisms and will pull off a charade just convincing enough to prevent being removed from command immediately.
To prevent this kind of thing, just verbally inform your crew of a password (like “potato salad with crotons”) to be uttered to confirm your identity. Make no record of this password in any manual, message, or database. If you have an android on board, don’t tell them. This way, the only way you (or one of your senior staff) can be replaced is by those creatures that can read minds and assimilate memories. This ought to cut down on the rate of impostors by a good 65%.
Directive Two: Screw the Holodeck
I know, I know – crew morale. We’ve all been there, believe me. Take it from us, though: it just isn’t worth it. You should see the reports on this stuff. On simply ships called ‘Enterprise’ alone, there have been dozens of nearly catastrophic incidents related to the holodeck. It takes over the ship regularly, it threatens crew-member’s lives, and it can lock up senior staff for hours on end while they have to figure out the Murder on the Orient Express for the billionth time.
Just get rid of the thing and install a rec room. A pool table, some Ping-Pong, a bunch of board games, and so on. Keep a replicator around to make any and all recreational objects whatever alien needs for his/her/its version of alien foosball, but that’s it. No ship in the history of the Federation has ever been threatened by a Foosball table.
Directive Three: Every Energy Field is Super Important
If your engineer or security chief or Ops officer or whoever mentions to you that they’re getting some ‘odd energy readings’ or ‘a minor systems fluctuation’, we recommend immediately going to yellow alert. Why? Well, probably because an energy alien has just sneaked aboard your ship, or one of your crewmembers has become a robot, or you just entered an alternate timeline, or whatever. It’s always bad, but it wouldn’t be as bad if you guys didn’t spend the next three hours sitting around on your beige couches staring at the view-screen. Get ahead of that shit!
Directive Four: Always Believe Time Travelers
If you meet a future version of yourself, a future version of your ship, or a person who is clearly from the future, believe what they say. Why? Because they’re from the damned future, that’s why! If you went back in time and told some idiot in the 20th century to avoid buying a Pinto, wouldn’t you think he was an idiot for not believing you and getting his face burned off? I mean, why do you even think they’re back here, anyway? Tourism?
Directive Five: Just Play Along With Q
The primary reason the omnipotent Q shows up to bother us is because he thinks we’re interesting. You know why he thinks we’re interesting? Because we always struggle and fight and argue with him. If he shows up and said ‘we are going to play checkers for the fate of the Earth’s Moon’, just say “s’cool – what time?” Watch him get bored and leave. Isn’t that better than spending all that time yelling at a god? I know, right?
Directive Six: Don’t Believe Utopian Societies
They are never utopias. Not ever. They either have some kind of weird disease and are going to steal your children or they’re indentured to some giant evil computer or they don’t know that people can die and will throw your young ensigns off cliffs for fun or whatever else. Repeat after me: I am from utopia, and everywhere else sucks. Again: I am from utopia, and everywhere else sucks. Earth is where it’s at, and keep that in mind when being offered to “join in the love ritual” with some stupendous busty redhead. Don’t buy it. It never works out.
Directive Seven: When You Go On Vacation, Bring a Phaser
Seriously, you should see the logs. Pretty much every time somebody goes on leave, they get kidnapped or attacked. Every. Single. Time. Go armed, at least with one of those little dinky phasers you can slip up your sleeve. You’ll thank us later.
Well, that’s about it. Good luck out there, Captain. Oh, and if you happen to meet the Borg, make certain your crew has practiced running. Seriously, Borg drones are awfully slow.
I finished watching (or, I suppose, re-watching) the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation earlier this week. It was an interesting experience, especially since a lot of these episodes I hadn’t seen since I was nine or ten years old or so. I remember watching “The Naked Now” in 1987, furiously trying to figure out who was the ‘hero’ in this show, since nobody seemed to be cooler than anyone else. I remember that I wound up settling on Riker, since he was the tall white man with hair, and 1980s television had taught me that such men were heroic by default. It was confusing that he wasn’t in charge, though.
What was also confusing to nine-year-old me was what on earth Tasha Yar and Data were going to do in her bedroom.
Anyway, fast forward about a quarter century, and here we are: the best episode and the worst episode (in my estimation) in the first season of this iconic show.
The Worst Episode: “Code of Honor”
Since I want to end this post on the upswing, let’s start with the bad one, shall we? This episode has been called “the worst episode of Star Trek ever made”, apparently. I can see it, since this episode is borderline racist, overtly sexist, and entirely stupid.
The Enterprise needs a vaccine from this planet to help some other planets with a nasty plague. The aliens on this planet are intended to be like Africans from a semi-traditional African tribal civilization. Sort of. The important thing that comes across here is that all the aliens are black people. Now, this isn’t racist in and of itself (obviously), but the extent to which these actors are portraying a caricature of African Tribal culture comes close. They come off as silly and savage and they wear ridiculous, shiny outfits that look like the stuff a genie would wear.
Then, their leader up and steals himself a woman – Tasha Yar – and gives out an artificial, inauthentic triumphant laugh before beaming down to the planet.
Okay, so that’s silly. Of course, Troi is harping on and on about how that’s their culture and they need to play along with his little game and so on. Granted, it’s probably good that they did just beam up Tasha and then bombard that jerks house with photon torpedoes (peaceful relations and so-on), but still you want to say ‘seriously, Starfleet? We’re going to let this slide?’ This, of course, is why I would make a crappy diplomat.
Anywho, this dude is in the middle of some kind of land-grab attempt that involves switching wives or something (the women own the property, the men run the property). He wants to marry Tasha, since this means his current first wife will challenge her to a duel to the death. Tasha, to her credit, says “whatever, lady – you can have the jackass” to which the woman responds “how can you not love him? Is he not manly and attractive?”
Tasha’s response is “well, obviously I am attracted to my kidnapper, what with his strong manly body and what-not.” Wow. Like, just wow. Somewhere out there, a bunch of young men got a bunch of really incorrect ideas on wooing women. “I know,” they say to their buddies, “if I drug her and throw her in the back of my El Camino, she will totally want to do it when she wakes up in my basement!”
No, 1987 teenage boys. Bad.
Anyway, the episode culminates in a ridiculous duel between Tasha and Wife in a maze of neon tubes while wielding what ~amounts to fatally poisonous porcupines on one hand. All around them, the men cheer and hoot as though they’re watching a mud wrestling exhibition at a monster truck rally. At least the episode had the decency of having them wear clothing. As it stands, the fight isn’t so much sexist as it is really, really dumb. Whatever happened to just fighting with knives? Why are they jumping around in a neon box full of weird glowing tubes? What kind of battle scenarios is this planet used to? Do their wars always happen in jungle gyms? If they did, wouldn’t you devise a weapon that you were less likely to kill yourself with? Sheesh.
In the end, everything works out – doesn’t really matter how, does it? The fact is that, while I was watching this episode, I wasn’t sure to what degree I ought to be offended. I mean, if these ‘aliens’ weren’t arbitrarily cast as African Americans, would it feel as racist as it did? I don’t know, honestly. I felt like I was watching some weird offspring of Flash Gordon and a Blacksploitation flick. Not good, Star Trek. Not good at all.
The Best Episode: “Too Short a Season”
Now, this episode was a good indicator of how interesting TNG was going to become in future seasons. Don’t get me wrong – the first season of TNG wasn’t terrible by any means. There were about as many solid episodes as there were duds, and much of the silliness could be explained by merely shaking your head and saying “Oh, 1987, you cad, you.” When I think of
what this show was competing with on television – the likes of MacGyver, Dallas, Dynasty, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, ALF, and Matlock – it stands up just fine. “Too Short a Season”, though, was an episode with legitimate emotional depth and a nice, clean arc.
The episode deals with an elderly Starfleet admiral with a degenerative disease being asked to return to a planet he once negotiated a hostage release from in order to negotiate another hostage release. He beams up with his charming wife and caretaker, and the story gets rolling. Then weird stuff starts happening – the old man starts getting younger, becoming more virile, more like his young, brash self. You can tell he was once a hero of the Federation, clever and resolute.
How is this happening? Well, he’s taken an experimental drug to make himself younger. He hated being confined to a chair, to surrendering to old age, and so he risked the dangerous procedure to make himself strong and ready for the tough task of negotiating the release of innocent people from bloodthirsty terrorists. The cost, though, is alienation from his wife (whom he loves) and very nearly failing his mission.
At the same time as he is trying to become younger, he is also trying to atone for what he did to this planet in question years ago. To get the hostages back that first time, the terrorists wanted advanced weapons. So, he gave them to them, but he also gave them to all the other factions on the planet. He thought this would even things out and keep the peace, but instead it resulted in decades of bloody civil war and the death of tens of millions. By getting younger, he is metaphorically turning back the clock – he is trying to do the right thing this time. In the end, he gives his life for it. No one is pleased, not even the terrorist leader who simply wanted to make him suffer.
This episode had a certain weight to it. It was powerful at moments, and the acting was superb. Though not the best episode in this series by half, it was a very, very good one and showed just how far one could take the ‘morality play in space’ concept.
That’s it for now. When I finish watching the second season (whenever that happens), I’ll do this again, methinks. Anyway, thanks for reading!
Today, I saw Lt. Tasha Yar of the USS Enterprise get killed by an evil alien oil slick. The event was every bit as lame as I remembered it. It wasn’t so much that it was sudden – I have always been somewhat pleased that the evil alien oil slick just killed somebody to start off, since that makes sense (if only the Daleks were so direct) – no, my problem was that it was pointless and arbitrary.
Though, now that I’m thinking about it, her death was not significantly more pointless or arbitrary than Tasha Yar’s character as a whole, so in this sense, the death was fitting. Tasha’s character was sketchy at best; she came from a dark past, but we never really believed it. There was nothing about her that indicated a childhood of fear and anger and aggression. Yes, there was a lot of talk about ‘rape gangs’ (she was always itching to tell the bridge crew about the rape gangs), but her smiles were a bit too sunny and her personality just a bit too balanced to fill out the character. She was a woman who was good at martial arts and…well…something about rape gangs.
Denise Crosby, who portrayed Tasha, wanted off the show before a season was out since her character was not being developed, and I don’t blame her. I mean, what was she given to do, exactly? It almost seemed as if the writers got this novel idea for a (hold on to your hats, folks) woman who (get this) knows aikido and runs security! Then, after creating this character, they thought to themselves “well, jeez, any woman who knows aikido probably didn’t have parents and had to dodge rape gangs!” Shortly after this conversation, they ran out of ideas and then just had Denise Crosby talk about…well…nothing for twenty-some-odd episodes. Occasionally she lamely shot something with a phaser.
Tasha Yar, to my mind, was a victim not of an oil slick monster, but of two things:
- Screenwriters in 1987 had no idea what to do with a woman who could beat up men, so they didn’t bother trying.
- Gene Roddenberry couldn’t write believable ‘gritty’ characters if they wore skull necklaces and ate babies.
Apparently, according to the internet, Tasha Yar was supposed to based on Vasquez from Aliens – the tough chick with the giant machine gun. The thing is, though, while Vasquez was able to out-macho the guys in an environment full of machismo, Yar is stuck in a world of gender neutral clothing and a complete lack of the crass, devil-may-care attitude our culture assigns to ‘manly-men’. So, if your point is to introduce a female character who can keep up with the guys in the combat arena, but you stick her in a society where they don’t believe in fighting and do not indulge in the typical male posturing around warrior-hood, you quickly find that your character isn’t edgy or groundbreaking or even interesting. She’s just part of the furniture.
But, you know, that should be good, right? Tasha was so believable as security chief that it was never a big deal that she was security chief. Well, if they had played it straight like that, maybe it would have worked. Instead, though, they always had her obsessing over her femininity and went out of their way to show her as feminine (1987 keeps nudging you and saying “guys, she’s a girl! Get it! A GIRL!”). This starts to get weird and confusing. You, the viewer, start saying things like “look television, I understand that Tasha is competent and tough and am totally okay with that…but why are you having her complain about not having pretty clothes like Troi?”
In the end, the character was a hot mess, and not in the good way. She just didn’t seem to make sense; she was an incomplete sketch, more so than any other character on that show in the first season. The only real character hook she seemed to have was the possession of breasts, even though the whole point of the character was that it didn’t matter that she had breasts. What’s an audience supposed to do with that? What is an actress supposed to do?
Well, apparently, what is done is see to it that you are killed by an evil alien oil slick.
Fare thee well, Tasha. You set the stage for Ensign Ro Laren and, later, Major Kira in DS9, so you can be said to have not lived in vain. You also have the distinction of being more interesting than almost every character on Voyager. That, though, isn’t saying very much.
For Christmas, my wife got me the DVD set of every Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ever made. This was both unwise of her (she is going to be watching a lot of Star Trek now) and extremely kind (it’s amazing how much I miss that show). It has also made me keenly aware of how the show began airing in 1987, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the clothing worn by its civilians. Whether it’s Wesley’s ridiculous sweaters (seriously, kid, why do you constantly dress like a coffee-shop dwelling Maine hipster?) or whatever the hell thing Riker decides to wear off duty, everybody looks the stupidest they possibly could in clothing made from fabric. You suddenly understand why anyone in their right mind would want to join Starfleet – their primary color unitards are actually quite fetching by comparison.
But it’s the Future! Fashion Changes!
This is the common riposte here. In the 24th century, fashion has changed significantly and, therefore, the things they wear look strange and silly to us. The suit and tie, for instance, would likely look silly to people of the 18th century, western dress seems foolish to eastern eyes, and so on and so forth. Fair enough.
We should not and cannot forget, though, that works of science fiction and fantasy exist for and are created by modern society. It therefore follows that our modern cultural concepts of fashion have great influence, even if only subconsciously, on the clothing our characters are depicted as wearing. Even when we consciously deviate from it, we are deviating for a purpose. In Star Trek, it seemed as though the choice was made to make everybody’s clothing look comfortable and functional – a nod to the newfound utopian society that the Federation stands for, wherein social class and, therefore, status-as-image is a thing of the antiquated past.
Likewise, if I were to tell you that the fashions of my own fantasy setting, Alandar, are inspired by the clothing of the 17th-19th centuries in Europe, that is an admission that I’m discussing a society where status is deeply ingrained in clothing almost to the point of absurdity. Elaborate dress is important here on a variety of levels, and if I’m going to do the setting justice, I need to have some concept of what those levels are and how they are conveyed.
This, incidentally, is difficult work for someone not inherently concerned with fashion or clothing, such as myself. Indeed, I would say that I am far from alone in this regard: many men, and many of them geeks like myself, show only cursory awareness of fashionable trends, what they mean, how they are important, or why we should pay attention to them. My sense of style is primarily motivated by what I feel comfortable in (and what my job requires of me), and I give only scant attention to others in this regard. Tyvian, though, is quite the opposite – he judges people by their clothing regularly and incisively, to the point where he can judge a man’s prospects by the stitching in his doublet. Writing him in his world requires an attention to detail I typically overlook in my daily life.
As much as I might be alienated from the fashion world, I have to admit it has great power over how we see and understand others, even if we don’t comprehend or recognize that power ourselves. Accordingly, when creating fantastic or futuristic worlds, we need to be aware of two things: how fashion is understood in the world we’ve created AND how the real world will interpret that fashion. Let’s face it, it is difficult to take any of the civilians in Star Trek TNG seriously; they look like bozos. You meet a guy who’s supposed to be a gritty, self-reliant mercenary captain and he’s dressed like the owner of your local yoga studio, ‘intimidating’ is not the mood that will be expressed. It doesn’t matter how much you want to talk about ‘fashions changing’ and ‘their world isn’t like that’ – the effect of sartorial aesthetics is beyond your power to overcome, dear storyteller.
Even if we don’t care how we dress ourselves, we can’t ignore our characters own fashion decisions. At least not always. Clothing tells stories every bit as much as words do.
Don’t get me wrong – I love explosions in stories. Very exciting in movies, in books, in games, and so on. They can be cathartic, they can assist tension building, they can be fun to watch unfold.
They don’t count as conflict, though. They don’t, in and of themselves, do anything. They do not tell stories. If you don’t believe me, go back and watch Transformers. I challenge you to tell me what that movie (and franchise) was about, besides explosions for the sake of explosions. Same goes for GI Joe.
Of late, I’ve been hearing more and more backlash against Star Trek: Into Darkness. It has been criticized as a ‘bad movie’, as a ‘stupid tent-pole action movie,’ and the rest of it. Though I enjoyed watching the film, I can’t really defend it against such criticism. It was a stupid formulaic action movie. Fun, loud, but lacking anything approaching substance. What might make it a ‘bad’ movie (though I’m not really sure I can go that far) is that it pretended to have substance. It made reference to drone strikes, to government overreach, and to the idea of friendship. It did not, however, really care about those things. Mostly what it wanted to do is have a big spaceship crash into a city and then have Spock punch somebody in the face over and over on top of a garbage truck. That’s what it really wanted, everybody. You were duped.
Let us reflect for a moment on what Star Trek has lost as a franchise. It used to be a show (series of shows, movies, etc.) about something a bit more important and interesting than just fighting aliens and blowing stuff up. When I was a kid, I failed to appreciate this. When I saw “The City on the Edge of Forever”, I was bored by the lack of ray guns. I loved Star Wars over Star Trek, mocked the silly beige hallways of the Enterprise-D, and thought that the Federation was a sissy organization run by silly peacenik innocents who, by all rights, ought to have had their butts handed to them years ago by the Klingons.
But I was a kid then. I was, almost by definition, an idiot.
Star Trek is a morality play. Star Trek is, or ought to be, about the human struggle to do what is right in the face of all that is wrong, and how horrible and difficult that struggle is. There are very few franchises that have done this so well as Star Trek has, whether in science fiction or out of it. Those who turn their nose up at the franchise either lack the maturity to appreciate the messages it sends (i.e. the generation of adolescent males who prefer more ‘kablooey’ to more ‘thinking about their problems’), or hasn’t actually watched what they need to see about the series to make it all make sense. Those people I refer to episodes like “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “The Measure of a Man,” “Rocks and Shoals,” “In the Pale Moonlight”, “Family,” and, of course, “Chain of Command.” There are many, many more besides, plus movies such as The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country round out the great message and moral weight of the universe Roddenberry created.
Now, while I have enjoyed the Star Trek reboot as ‘good time films’, I am increasingly reminded of how much my enjoyment of those two movies is dependent upon that which had been done by the original series before it. Honestly, what relationship or character work has been done in this new series that isn’t entertaining simply because of the echoes from our old friends Shatner and Nimoy and Kelley? Did we really think Benedict Cumberpatch was cool as Khan, or were we just happy to see Khan again, regardless of his form?
I am not a Trekkie, but this, ultimately, is what all of us who love scifi have lost in Star Trek. This is what I hope somehow we regain, but that I sadly must conclude is gone for good. We have watched character be replaced with effects and story be supplanted by explosions. If it works, it is only because of the coattails it’s riding on. I mean no offense to the cast of the Abrams movies, nor even do I particularly dislike Abrams himself (he is playing to his demographic, after all – explosions sell). I do not think, though, that we will ever again see the likes of this:
Imagine a starship. Your ship. The steed that shall bear you to the stars and beyond, upon which you will rely for safety, comfort, support, and escape.
What does it look like?
Science fiction has given us a broad range of different designs and styles, but I think a lot of the ships we see boil down to a few riffs on the same couple variables (and a lot of them owing their origin to the difficult-to-escape legacy of the Star Wars universe). So, let’s run through them, bit by bit.
How big is this ship going to be? Is it a stunt fighter some psychic midget can yank out of a swamp, or is it some thing everybody will confuse for a small moon? The smaller ship is easier to maintain, but the larger ship has a bit more heft, has room for more options, carries more stuff, and is probably more comfortable.
Does your ship have the newest gadgets built into the fanciest hull yet devised by modern engineers, or is it a throwback – a hunk of junk that’s seen its share of battles, weathered a radiation storm or two? The new ship gets new toys – it cloaks, it has super-tractor beams, it goes faster than anything ever before, and so on. The old ship, though, has character. It’s more like a person than a vessel, from the way it creaks during re-entry or the way it pulls to the side when you try to climb out of the gravity well.
Do you fly this thing by yourself, or do you need friends? How many friends? You can have ten kilometer long starships run by one guy and his AI companion, and you can also have a ten meter ship that needs five people to operate its manually cranked solar sails (or something). Less crew gives you more freedom, but it also exposes you to the risk of being overwhelmed by space pirates or invasive aliens or whatever. More crew means you’ve got to manage personalities on long voyages, but at least you won’t be lonely and any trouble you run into will provide you with a bunch of folks to help you out. Heck, get that crew big enough, and soon they become redundant – lose an engineer? Well, there’s seventeen more where she came from!
Well, if it’s a starship, it has to be fast (interstellar distances don’t cross themselves, you know), but how fast? This one sees the greatest variations between vessels, ranging from telephone booths that teleport instantly to generation ships that take decades to reach their destination. Ultimately, though, any ship goes just about at the Speed of Plot, which is to say it goes just fast enough so that things happen and it doesn’t get boring. So, in other words, completely at odds with all other forms of travel known.
Is this a military vessel? A pirate ship? A smuggler? A garbage scow? Does it mount guns? How many? Where? Why? Some folks like their spaceships packed with phasers, proton torpedoes, railguns and the rest of it. Others prefer to use their wits and their diplomatic skills to avoid danger. After all, if you don’t carry guns, you are less likely to be shot. Then again, if you don’t carry guns and you are shot, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it. Invest in escape pods.
Well, what did you come out with?
For me, a ship is a story. It has to be. The age-old comic book store questions about ‘what ship would you rather have–the Enterprise, the Falcon, or Serenity?’ are filtered through a couple artificial lenses. I mean, if we were really handing out starships, I’d want one to myself that could travel instantly, never break down, and that could allow me to go in the backyard, have an adventure, and be back by suppertime (so, in other words, the TARDIS). That, though, isn’t a story by itself. It’s not interesting because there is no conflict, no problems, no difficulties – the story isn’t about the ship.
If we’re talking ‘what is cooler in the context of a story’, then we get into a more interesting conversation. I’m split down the middle between ‘big military ship’ and ‘speedy, characterful smuggling ship’. In other words, I’m split down the middle between the Enterprise and the Falcon. This shouldn’t be a surprise, since almost every central starship in scifi history falls into one category or the other, with an honorable mention going to the starfighters/giant space robots of the universe (and they’re mostly extensions of the big military ship, anyway).
Why is this, anyway? I’m not sure, but my gut says that our starships are just reflections of our heroes, ultimately, and our heroes in these kind of stories so often are split between those that uphold the existing order (Captain Kirk) and those who seek to change or topple it (Han Solo) and, therefore, we get our ships – mobile symbols of our heroic ideals. Like so many tropes, though, it doesn’t need to be this way. The galaxy is a large place, after all. Let’s branch out and see what other stories our starships can tell us.
A lot of times, when people learn I write scifi/fantasy, one of the first questions I get is ‘why that genre’. It’s a pretty deeply personal question, though I don’t think most people realize this. Asking somebody why they create a certain kind of art is sort of like asking ‘why’d your brain wind up so weird?’, except cloaked behind more trivial and superficial kinds of curiosity. For a long time, I answered that question with the answer to the question of what I think people really meant to ask, which is ‘what is interesting about scifi/fantasy as a genre’. This is a different question entirely, in that it doesn’t really have anything specific to do with me.
Now, though, I give them what I think is an honest answer: I write scifi/fantasy because the real world is a place I don’t particularly like most of the time. This is not to say I’m a lunatic who only finds joy in his ‘delusions’ (to use the pejorative term), but rather that I have difficulty keeping an even temper and a positive outlook the more I wallow in the present and the real. When I was a kid, my younger brother was diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder (Batten Disease, if you’re curious) that slowly killed him over a period of twenty years. During my formative adolescent years, I got to watch my brother and best friend slowly sink into a vegetative state, piece by piece, first losing his eyesight, then his fine motor control, then the ability to walk unassisted, then his ability to speak, and so on and so forth. Slowly. Year by year, month by month. I still have nightmares about it. They are the very worst kind, trust me.
Add to that all the usual horribleness of the real world. War, death, famine, injustice, racism, sexism, violence, and on and on and on. The kind of stuff that ordinarily makes your average teenager upset with the world. You can see now that fanciful alternatives held a certain appeal, yes?
Now, I don’t want to give off the impression that I’ve lived a particularly tough life. I haven’t. I have wonderful parents, a loving family, and, in many ways, luck as smiled on me in most of the ways that count. That said, my heart went through the wringer in a way I desperately hope most of you never experience.
Enough about me; let’s bring this back to speculative fiction, now. For a long period in my life, I read almost nothing other than space opera. Star Wars, of course, got me started, along with Star Trek and some other things (Babylon 5, Farscape, etc.). Over recent years, however, as I’ve been cultivating myself as a Serious Writer and Professor of Literature, I’ve been eschewing the ‘lighter’ stuff in favor of harder scifi, cyberpunk, and other styles that are more serious, more realistic, and, honestly, more grim. To be perfectly honest, most of these stories are better literature than much of the space opera sub-genre–there’s more interesting work being done about human nature, about what happens to us as a species, about what we need science to do or what we need it to stop doing, etc.. At the same time, though, they are also deeply tied to the real world. To ourselves. To all that ugliness and heavy-duty cynicism we fight with each and every day. It grows tiring after a time.
So, it’s with this running in the back of my mind that I stumbled upon what I think is a really, really cool idea for my own space opera universe. Alien species, improbably fast spaceships, laser beams and blasters, hell, maybe even psychic powers (silly as those are). High art? Maybe not, but who says everything has to be? Further, who says those things that aren’t high art don’t have something worthwhile to say? The challenge becomes, ultimately, to find something to say that all the other space operas haven’t already said (and boy do they ever repeat themselves). I’m in the middle of writing a different novel (urban fantasy) just now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tinker and develop and tweak and build. I want to see if there’s something cool and interesting I can do in this genre that I leaned upon for all those years. Can I do it?
Well, hell, stay tuned. If I do, you’ll hear about it here.
Just finished reading Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World (which I highly recommend; it’s like King’s The Gunslinger meets Steampunk during the American Civil War) and which got me thinking a lot about the tangible differences between fantasy and science fiction worlds. You might love them the same, but they might not both be places you would want to explore beyond the bounds of the story itself. Others, meanwhile, are places you feel like you could keep visiting forever.
In the former case, those worlds are somehow wedded to their stories and characters so inextricably, it’s hard to imagine those worlds outside the context of that story. If the characters didn’t exist, in other words, there wouldn’t be much keeping you invested in the goings on of that world. In this category I stick places like Westeros, Middle Earth, and Arrakis. Great settings, to be sure, but settings devised to support and explore the story being told there which is, as it happens, pretty much the only story in town. What would Westeros be without the contest over the Iron Throne? What on earth is there to do in Middle Earth besides fight the Great Enemy? If the Spice weren’t a big deal, do you have any other stories to play with in Arrakis?
Of course, the assessment of what gives a world a ‘life of its own’ is bigger than simply there being one story to tell. Even worlds with a lot of different things going on (the Firefly universe, for instance) need the attention to detail and the vibrancy of a well-constructed environment to make it somehow self-sustaining (which Firefly doesn’t quite have for me). The world needs a feel, a mood, a sense of possibility and a wealth of secrets ready to be unveiled. Star Wars has this, as does Star Trek, and I would say that it is that ‘something’ that gives those franchises a kind of eternal life. You can imagine yourself living there, but without needing to be aboard the Millennium Falcon or USS Enterprise to do it. Interestingly enough, Gilman’s West in Half-Made World, while really seeming to orient itself along a single story axis (the struggle between the Agents of the Gun and the Progress of the Line and those caught in-between), affords, with the creation of those two forces, a wealth and breadth of possible stories originating from various branches off that main axis. You have people who pledge themselves to the Gun but recant, you have those who fight off the Line, but still embrace its machines, you have idealistic republics and moral philosophers of every stripe that pervade the fabric of this vast society, and then, of course, there are the First Ones in the background and the simple realization that the world itself is not completely created yet.
This sprawling complexity coupled with a clear story and frequent places where one could see drama inserted and new stories born is key to making a fantasy world into a playground, a touchstone with infinite dramatic potential. All the best role-playing game settings have this, too (must have it, actually), and this places – these worlds that are fun to visit and always interesting to explore – can make for very long and successful story arcs or, if you like, RPG campaigns.
All of this, however, is not intended to denigrate those worlds that aren’t playgrounds and those worlds that are tightly wrapped around their creator’s narrative and thematic purposes. Worlds that are driven towards a single purpose, while perhaps not able to consume our daydreams, do have more narrative and allegorical power. Arrakis is a powerful metaphor for wealth, for faith, and for the greedy impulses that undermine both. Middle Earth is a story about the loss of the beautiful in the face of the practical, modern, and civilized. Arrakis and Middle Earth do this job better than worlds like Gilman’s or Roddenberry’s, because all of their narrative effort is devoted towards ‘the Cause,’ if you will. Their ‘playground’ may only have the one swing set, but it’s a damned fine one.
As I have built (and continue to build) worlds in which to set my stories and novels, I find myself teetering between these two poles – am I crafting a playground, or am I crafting a Message. The wise course is, perhaps, somewhere between the two. Inevitably, however, I find myself straying further and further towards the playground model, and keep making a place that not only suits my story, but that could suit stories far beyond those I, myself, have imagined.