November 19, 2006

"Star Trek" in the dock

My sister Kate argues, contra my previous missive, that in Star Trek, "the science-fiction simply exists so that a story may be told in that setting" and that the draw of the series is its presentation of "old, old stories with classic structures (problem, climax, resolution) being translated into SF (or quasi sci-fi) terms," rather than any attempt to accurately forecast the future, or create a cohesive alternate universe over the entire arc of the series.

I don't disagree, especially these days where every television series has a showrunner as a producer, with episode structure starting with the old-fashioned cliffhanger serial drama at one extreme (Prison Break, 24), and never abandoning the progressive story arc at the other. I like the cohesiveness that a story arc lends to a season, but prefer its more subtle implementations. I simply can't watch cliffhanger serials anymore except on DVD.

I did stick with the strong arc of the third season of Enterprise, simply because I consider it by far the best of the Star Trek family. But it would have been interesting if Star Trek could have returned to the standalone format of the original, telling stories that "just happen to use the same setting and the same characters as that episode you saw last week," and again making it a showcase for freelance SF&F talent.

But my essential argument still stands: the episodicity of Star Trek notwithstanding, it was unnecessarily crippled by the lack of a tenable backstory, let alone marginally good science. Not just the standout stories that Kate cites, but the oeuvre in totality would have been greatly improved by greater attention to both human and technical realities. The backstory need never have been mentioned. But it must be there.

A good example of this came in the third season of Enterprise, when the starship is badly damaged in its battles with the Xindi. Watching these episodes I said to myself, "Aha! This is how Voyager should have begun!" Not just because when things get wrecked by powerful forces, they really get wrecked, and are hard to recover from. But because the people get wrecked too.

Drama is about human train wrecks, but on Voyager, a few episodes after supposedly going through a similarly cataclysmic confrontation, it's like somebody's rich uncle showed up with a platoon of lawyers, handed out wads of cash, hauled the vehicles off to the body shop, and made the accident "go away." Presto chango. The next day you'd hardly known it happened. A good day's work for the insurance company, but bad day for storytelling.

Another issue, addressed too late in the TNG series to any good, was the sheer irrationality of Riker serving forever as Picard's second. Finally an episode was constructed to give Riker a few skeletons in the closet that Starfleet might want to keep buried. But if only, I could not help but wistfully imagine, somebody had bothered to think the matter through earlier. Like in the first season.

But that was obviously too big of a snake to let loose in Roddenberry's floating utopia. Add Stewart's performance in First Contact, and you realize how much was lost. Lost in giving Stewart better material to work with, lost in the dramatic possibilities it would have created, lost in creating a character who had a bit of the Ahab in him. The original series worked--when it did--because Kirk and Spock and Bones were too idiosyncratic to fit in the utopian box in the first place.

Worse, the cast of TNG suffered from playing it straight. And, as my brother Joe points out, suffered from trying to make everybody so obsessively likable. (How I wish Deep Space Nine had been about Odo, Quark, Garak and Gul Dukat, back before the insufferably prim Federation took over. Such wonderfully flawed yet understandable and even lovable--but not necessarily likable--characters.)

To be honest, the original series was so bad it was good. And after ironing out the human wrinkles with a vengeance, TNG episodes did often work for the reasons Kate describes: as one-off dramatic productions. But other than alienating the affections of the fan base, it's hard to see how replacing both the characters and the actors (other than Brent Spiner's Data and perhaps Stewart), or everything else down to the setting and costumes would have significantly affected the quality of those individual episodes.

But can you imagine House without Hugh Laurie? No, you can't. It's the excruciating humanness of his character, and how those around him react to him in turn, that anchors the series. We buy into the human equation. Not the medical technobabble (though we trust that it's accurate).

It should be pointed out, as does Kelley Ross in the aforementioned article, that Firefly has its own problems with hard science. (The very similar Cowboy Bebop comes up with a much better reason why the Earth is uninhabitable.) But it's the moments that make you say, "Yes, this is how people really would behave," even when confronted with bug-eyed monsters, that ring true in the most fantastic of contexts.

So it's not the future that becomes any more plausible, but the people inhabiting it. The X-Files is utterly implausible scientifically and politically, but it is successfully consistent in the application and execution of its own axioms. It follows its own rules, and that foundation (being by definition static) provides the constant against which the human variables can be accurately judged both according to the standards of an individual episode, and over the long arc of the series.

According to this criteria, the Star Trek universe has to be static, because it essentially turned into a traveling theatrical troupe. The whole fashioned by the sum of its parts always had to exist outside the individual performances on any one stage in any one town. Because, ironically, a big reason for Star Trek's longevity was that it could always pack up and move on. Until it simply ran out of gas.

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