Our continuing mission

In recent months, The Girlfriend and I have undertaken a task that would have warmed my heart as a 13-year-old boy: we have worked our way through nearly the entirety of Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Of course, the notion that I could undertake such a project with a woman, much less that she would be the one to suggest it, would have boggled my mind completely.) While the first season and much of the second was trying, I have to say that it holds up well as drama — so that this particular viewing project was less purely nostalgia-driven than our slog through MacGyver. I’d even be so bold as to claim that it represents an improvement over the original series, retaining some of the philosophical ambition without veering into the pretension and heavy-handedness that marred so many of the original episodes. In short, the writers still fundamentally want to explore what it means to be human, but they are also comfortable letting the show be a show.

One area where they generally struck a good balance was preserving the illusion of consistency in their technology without harping excessively on the world-building element. There were cases where they “forgot” certain newly-discovered technological capabilities, but their motivation seemed to be that they would make plots too easy to resolve (such as a maneuver pulled off in one of the season 2 Dr. Pulaski episodes where it was implied that the transporter could automatically cure any acquired genetic disorder, which are apparently legion in space). Nowhere is this technological flexibility more apparent than in their complete bracketing of language problems with any humanoid race. They do make reference to universal translators (which they have to use with non-humanoid life forms), but overall I’d say their approach is delightfully incoherent. The Klingons, for instance, still have their own language that non-Klingons sometimes claim to be able to speak — yet they carry out all their political deliberations among themselves in English. There are never communication problems with humanoid races, even on first contact or in situations where crew members have been deprived of their comm badges (which I assume must be the seat of the translator?).

Simply leaving aside the problem of language does introduce a certain narrative economy, but it also resonates uncannily with the dream of globalization: we can encounter all the most exotic cultures, and lo and behold, they speak English! One can see a similar effect with the majority of the alien races themselves. Though the early seasons had many encounters with non-humanoid creatures, the majority of aliens (increasingly so as the series progresses) are humanoid — and they can interbreed! I’ve long suspected that the desire to contact alien life is fundamentally a desire to contact ourselves, and a late episode of ST:TNG makes that explicit in an episode in which representatives of four major species must cooperate to decode an ancient message hidden in DNA sequences spread throughout the galaxy. As it turns out, there’s a reason all the aliens seem so alarmingly similar: they all descend from a common ancestor, a technologically advanced species that existed billions of years before and seeded the galaxy with their DNA so that they could never truly die off. (This is part and parcel of an increasing political literalism toward the end of the series’ run, so that we are treated to a heavy-handed episode where it turns out that warp engines are damaging the fabric of space — and just in case you don’t get the connection, the effect is literally causing climate change on one particular planet.)

There is one key area where the show sits askew the ideology of globalization, and that is in the fundamental ethical principle of the Prime Directive. This principle mandates non-interference with any other species’ cultural or technological development — indeed, the Federation only contacts planets whose inhabitants have reached a certain level of political and technological advancement (a single planet-wide government and access to warp engines, respectively). The sequence of steps seems to be more or less unvaried, which is itself interesting, but for me the more interesting thing is the absolute respect for planetary sovereignty. Surely this is a product of the show’s historical moment: running from 1987 to 1994, it spans the tail end of the Cold War and the halting emergence of the new monopolar world order. In that setting, insisting on national sovereignty seems like a reasonable political course that cuts against both of the Cold War powers with their imperial ambitions (and against the emerging hegemony of the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”).

The faith that all cultures, if left to themselves, will ultimately converge on something like the peaceful and humane model of the 24th-century Federation is certainly optimistic. At the same time, the writers show their awareness of the dark side of this conformity with the Borg, the race of drones who are joined into a hive mind by means of technology and insist that every race be “assimilated” and incorporated into the Borg collective. While one could certainly equate the Borg with Communism (and perhaps specifically China, given Orientalist stereotypes), I think the Borg is best read as a kind of preemptive protest against actual existing globalization itself, wherein all cultures are flattened out and their “best aspects” (mainly their food, but sometimes their spiritual practices, etc.) are incorporated into the global mainstream culture.

In other words, the Borg isn’t China, it’s America, or at least a certain America — just as the Earth that forms the seat of the United Federation of Planets is a certain America. The future that the Federation shows us is certainly optimistic, perhaps overly so in the early seasons, when so much is made of the recent alliance with the Klingons, etc. In fact, one could even say that the Federation seemed too monolithic in the early seasons, so that the writers felt that a plausible “mythology” (i.e., overarching plot) would be an attempt to subvert the Federation from within by a mind-melding species of bug-like creatures. The attempt to introduce this mythology resulted in one of the worst episodes ever (with particularly horrible special effects), and the fan reaction was so negative that they returned to the drawing board — and came up with the Borg. But the Borg are only the biggest threat, as there are also the Romulans and, later, the Cardassians to contend with.

The peace seems more and more fragile as time goes on, and we are frequently treated to alternate timelines in which everything has collapsed into brutal wars that kill off entire planets full of people. The Star Trek franchise as a whole takes on a darker tone as it expands in the waning years of Next Generation and beyond — Deep Space Nine focuses on a more squalid space station and on various convoluted political machinations, while the crew on Voyager is literally lost in space. Much of Star Trek is utopian fantasy — economic want has been abolished, the ship (along with Data’s body) is apparently a kind of perpetual motion machine that can generate its own power, etc. — and many of its ideals (individualism, cultural autonomy, etc.) may seem naive in light of critical theory. Yet I think it’s still interesting as a thought experiment insofar as it tries to think out new problems and new possibilities that arise once, for example, the material conditions for full communism have been achieved. It stands in a certain relationship with its time and can’t be fully understood without that, but in many ways it transcends it.

In short, it is a good show, and it might even be an optimistic sign for the human race that it’s one of the most popular shows of all time. I’m glad I’m finally fulfilling my childhood ambition of watching it all.

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31 Responses to “Our continuing mission”

  1. Tom Elrod Says:

    There are never communication problems with humanoid races, even on first contact or in situations where crew members have been deprived of their comm badges (which I assume must be the seat of the translator?).

    The one exception I can think of is the episode “Darmok,” where they encounter aliens who speak only in metaphors. Even then, of course, Picard manages to overcome their cultural differences by talking about Gilgamesh or something.

  2. gerrycanavan Says:

    (This is part and parcel of an increasing political literalism toward the end of the series’ run, so that we are treated to a heavy-handed episode where it turns out that warp engines are damaging the fabric of space — and just in case you don’t get the connection, the effect is literally causing climate change on one particular planet.)

    I talk about this episode very briefly in the Appendix section of the Green Planets book, with respect to the show’s inability to stick to the allegory the episode insists on. The problem is too destructive of the series’s constitutive fantasy of endless expansion to be allowed to endure; it’s hardly mentioned again after that episode, and (I believe) never appears in any of the later series at all.

    The peace seems more and more fragile as time goes on

    Absolutely. The Federation in the TNG era careens from costly war to costly war against increasingly implacable enemies. It’s a real tension in the show, despite its reputation as an uncomplicatedly “optimistic” future.

    Do you remember the Kevin Sorbo show ANDROMEDA? It was Roddenberry’s attempt to imagine the end of the Federation, though he didn’t have the heart to make it literally the Star Trek universe’s future. But it takes place a hundred or so years after (its version of) the Federation finally collapses. There’s a interesting metatext there.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I thought that was a really tedious episode, but the concept was sound. They’re actually speaking in stereotyped references to legends, and when I figured out that all their language was citational, The Girlfriend declared them to be a race of academics.

  4. gerrycanavan Says:

    “Darmok” is pretty beloved just because it’s such an outlier on the use language cheat.

    Nothing about Barclay? He was an innovation at the time, and is used to great effect to solve the other hand-wavey thing people always complain about, the fact that the transporters OBVIOUSLY just kill you and make a clone in your place on the planet.

  5. Beau Thomas Jarvis Says:

    I remember having a real sense of doom regarding those bug-like creatures. The internal destruction from the leadership of the Federation, (it seemed anyone could be infected), felt so much more threatening and frankly terrifying than the external threat from the Borg. At least to a young teenager! Maybe it was just the cheesy SFX!

  6. Bo Eberle Says:

    Did you catch this article by sports writer Brian Philips on TNG? Thoughts? Like the bit about the TNG tapping into cultural contradictions which we all want to live into… Post colonial colonialism, non patriarchal patriarchy, individualism that rejects private property, conservative military hierarchy with liberal ideals like peace and understanding, multiculturalism that still appreciates the western classics, etc http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8435126/next-generation-turns-25

  7. Beau Thomas Jarvis Says:

    There was a real opportunity to break out of a mold with the Barclay episode where he takes over the ship and basically becomes part of the machinery. How much more exciting would the show have been with a ship that was sentient? Sorry to geek out.

  8. Greg Says:

    More corroborating observation than anything here, but: Last night I watched the late s7 episode of Laure’s return, where his “perfection” has turned the Borg into his minions, and where he comes onstage dramatically declaring, “I will destroy the Federation!” At that line I wondered why the Federation should inspire so much evil-genius focus—what’s so special about it when you have the entire universe? But there was a lot of hope as well as a lot of doubt in the Federation which by that point in the series was by no means as benevolent as it might be —think the admirals wishing to destroy mortal threats such as the Borg, and Picard siding with autonomy. (As you said, “The peace seems more and more fragile.”)

  9. gerrycanavan Says:

    The ship is explicitly sentient in ANDROMEDA, actually, and in love with Kevin Sorbo. The ship apparently has the power to create sentient hologramatic models in both TNG and VOYAGER, but nobody ever seems to follow up on the idea that this suggests the ship itself must have an intelligence vastly more complex than that…

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I had wanted to mention the combination of military hierarchy and liberal ideals but forgot — sounds like Philips really taps into the contradictions of the show. I’ll read it now…

  11. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Episode by episode re-watch of the series. Poor soul has been at it for two years and is only at S07E16.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That’s officially a good article. Thanks, Bo.

  13. Tom Elrod Says:

    The Girlfriend declared them to be a race of academics.

    Yeah, Patrick Stewart has even said that when he talks to academics they often cite it as a favorite.

    Any chance you’ll do a Deep Space Nine re-watch? As the first ST show developed post-Roddenberry and post-Cold War it seemed to be the most critical of the Federation and aware of its limits, and also paved the way for the non-utopian*/dystopian SF that’s dominated TV for the last decade-plus. (Ron Moore, the guy behind Battlestar Galactica, was a writer on both DS9 and the later seasons of TNG.) But I haven’t seen it since it aired, so it might not be as interesting as I remember.

    *Gerry, is “non-utopian” SF a thing? I feel like it describes a certain type of story: SF futures that aren’t a shambles but where a Utopian project didn’t work out. Is Andromeda in that category? (Haven’t seen it, so I can’t judged how “bad” things are in that show.)

  14. gerrycanavan Says:

    No, Andromedia is pretty deeply conservative, at least at the level of series bible; the project is restoration and reunification.

    The typical categories are utopia, dystopia (which has the utopian impulse in negative), anti-utopia (where the Utopian project turns monstrous), and anti-dystopia (where we already live in the best of all possible worlds). The non-utopia you’re talking about hovers kind of uneasily between the two anti- categories. A group of us are actually doing a seminar at ACLA this year on “Alterity Beyond Utopia,” attempts to think radical difference without just collapsing it one way or the other into the leftist project…

    Here’s the CFP: http://call-for-papers.sas.upenn.edu/node/47948

  15. A Few More Tuesday Links While I Procrastinate | Gerry Canavan Says:

    […] * Talkin’ TNG at Grantland and An und für sich. […]

  16. Scu Says:

    “I’ve long suspected that the desire to contact alien life is fundamentally a desire to contact ourselves, and a late episode of ST:TNG makes that explicit in an episode in which representatives of four major species must cooperate to decode an ancient message hidden in DNA sequences spread throughout the galaxy. As it turns out, there’s a reason all the aliens seem so alarmingly similar: they all descend from a common ancestor, a technologically advanced species that existed billions of years before and seeded the galaxy with their DNA so that they could never truly die off.”

    I use this example all the time when teaching about evolution and anthropocentrism. What is weird about this conceit, so popular in many sci-fi worlds, is that there is a fossil record. We know that humans came from this planet, and were subject to the same evolutionary pressures as other animals. But when writers come up with something like this, it is appealing because we think of ourselves outside of our animality, and we get anti-evolutionary dreams like this. Maybe we aren’t animals, maybe we are descended from a super advanced alien civilization….

  17. gerrycanavan Says:

    David Brin has a series that runs with that concept, Scu. When we make contact with the rest of the galaxy we discover that nearly all known sentient races were “uplifted” from pre-sentient species by other aliens; typically, the species has to do a kind of benevolent forced labor for their uplifters in order to earn their freedom and be ushered into the galaxy as a mature spacefaring race. Earth has no uplifter, and is one of only a tiny handful of wild planets where intelligent life apparently involved on its own with no guidance. Consequently, humans and similar species are viewed with deep suspicion and are basically viewed as insane (having lacked the proper education).

    There are a few good throwaway lines in the series that flip the creation-evolution debate on its head. In that universe, creationism is the leftist, progressive, forward-thinking position: we must have had an uplifter, who vanished for some reason known to us, and who perhaps will eventually return and explain our place in the universe. Evolution is the conservative, anthropocentric position: we evolved without any help, did it all by ourselves, and that makes us great.

  18. Scu Says:

    I read the Uplift series a long, long time ago. And I remember that humans were the weird one’s out (and we uplifted dolphins and great apes, right?). I didn’t remember that creationism was the progressive version, and evolution was the conservative one (though I have to say that idea that random forces of nature and pressure working on beings translates to we are special and did it on our won is totally weird).

    Now you are making me think I should reread the Uplift books.

  19. gerrycanavan Says:

    That should have read “unknown to us” above, but other than that, yes, I think the Uplift books are worth another look…

  20. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I should be ashamed I know this, but…

    Gerry! ” it’s hardly mentioned again after that episode, and (I believe) never appears in any of the later series at all.” Not true! The engines for Voyager are explicitly said to be the solution to that problem by creating different warp fields… or something. So it was brought up again, at least in the production notes, for the Voyager series but essentially to say “we did it!” and plug the hole.

  21. gerrycanavan Says:

    You’re right! I’d forgotten that. I wonder if that ever made it to dialogue in the series or if it was just in the background material.

  22. ambzone Says:

    Very enjoyable read. It puts the more recent ST movies and their product placement in a very stark light.

  23. SLHinchey Says:

    Anyone have any thoughts on the final episode “All Good Things…”?

  24. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I thought it was kind of lame. (I also note that they implicitly claim the warp speed limit problem is solved, because they’re constantly calling for “warp 13″ in the future timeline.)

  25. gerrycanavan Says:

    It also has a major plot hole one of my best friends from high school still can’t stop complaining about, regarding the creation of the anomaly in the future.

    Warp 13 is also weird because you can’t go past Warp 10 in the scale they use in TNG — it’s an logarithmic scale, and Warp 10 is defined as the speed at which you’re simultaneously in every point in the universe at once.

  26. gerrycanavan Says:

    But perhaps I’ve said too much.

  27. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And exactly what possessed them to constantly tease a pairing between Worf and Troi in season 7?!

  28. gerrycanavan Says:

    Even the actors themselves find it inscrutable. Of course it’s completely undone in the movies.

  29. Daniel Lindquist Says:

    “Warp 13 is also weird because you can’t go past Warp 10 in the scale they use in TNG — it’s an logarithmic scale, and Warp 10 is defined as the speed at which you’re simultaneously in every point in the universe at once.”

    Also it turns you into a lizard.

  30. Bill Benzon Says:

    FWIW, I’ve just been watching old TV science fiction and have been through all of season one and part of season two for both ST:TNG and ST:DS9. I’ve also watched Firefly, which I’d not watched when it first aired. I started thinking about the Western elements of Ff, e.g. the guns, clothing, cattle, some of the language, etc. and asked myself: Why? And that led me to thinking the Ff was, in a way, the opposite of the Star Trek franchise, almost an anti-ST.

    The protagonist groups in the ST world are all agents of a central political entity that is treated as benign and progressive, the Federation. They are, in fact, in the milatary, Star Fleet. The protagonists in Ff defy the central political entity, the Alliance, and regard it as oppressive and evil.

    The ST world revolves around exploration – “to boldly go…” – and involves alien races, often not even humanoid, and cultures. The Ff world is build around commerce. The small crew of Serenity lives by trading and smuggling. They’re just trying to survive, and stay free. Exploration doesn’t exist in their world. There are no alien races and cultures, just various subcultures of human culture (as displaced to a different star system). And of course the Western stuff evokes the “old West” of the 19th Century, which is chock full of comfortable cliches.

    While the Ff world does involved advanced technolgy – after all, space travel is routine in that world – we don’t have warp drive, transporters, replicators, holodecks, universal translators, and a know-it-all Computers.

    What Ff does have is a teenaged girl whose brain has been experimented on by the Alliance, River Tam. She’s a passage on the ship, along with her medical doctor brother, who sprung her from the Alliance. That experimentation has left her somewhat to deeply troubled and troublesome. Her erratic and problematic behavior is a constant motif thought the TV shows and the subsequent theatrical movie (Serenity). The ST world has Spock and Data and uses them as vehicles to explore the roles of reason and emotion in human life, which is not so disturbing at River’s fractured psyche.

    The politics of Ff seem liberterian (see remarks in the middle of this recent piece by Adolph Reed) and the outlook rather pessimistic. ST is optimistic and its politics at least look more favorably on the state.

  31. Bill Benzon Says:

    Concerning the Prime Directive, it was of course there from the very beginning in the mid-60s. So while it makes sense to read it against the world order that was emerging during the span of ST:TNG, it originated with the Cold War was going strong and so was the war in Vietnam.

    According to the Wikipedia Roddenberry was inspired by Westerns as well as Gulliver’s Travels. In that context I note that there was no Prime Directive in place for the settlement of the West. In THAT context the Prime Directive looks like historical revisionism. The Prime Directive also depends on an all but absolute difference in powers and technical capabilities between the Federation and those civilizations that fell under the Directive’s protection. That kind of difference didn’t exist between Native American tribespeople and settlers. In the large and over time, sure; but small bands of settlers were quite vulnerable to attack. So the Prime Directive serves also serves as a marker and protector of power and difference.


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