Whom Rods Destroy: Speak To Me Not Of Your Picard, Nor Janeway

An earlier draft of this was originally posted on my blog Sloth And Dignity.

Look; I’m a Star Trek fan. Don’t talk to me about “Picard” or “Janeway” or “Archer” or whoever. Even the movies barely qualify as “Star Trek”, and they have the original cast. I’m not talking about some chick flick where they spend more time talking about feelings than getting into swashbuckling adventures with fearsome aliens on what was supposed to be a routine planetary survey of Gamma Hydra IV***. I saw an entire episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” where Picard did nothing but drink cosmopolitans and gossip with Charlotte and Miranda. I bet he’s never even once been trapped in a cavern lit by creepy red and purple klieg lights and cloned against his will by a scientist who sacrificed his essential humanity when he transferred his mind into an eternal, physically perfect android body. So why would I want to even watch that crap?

Gene Roddenberry is an idol of mine because he successfully accomplished something that few people ever have: he made instilled an entire generation of kids with his personal sense of morals and only the best and most time-proven values, and, the world is a better place as a direct result. Kirk’s swashbuckling and womanizing was a trojan horse sneaking indelible suggestions into our young minds: to judge on the basis of appearances carries significant consequences; being human is a messy endeavor but giving up your humanity is worse; realize that hiding inside the biggest bullies may be the most scared children; the list goes on and on. Roddenberry taught many of us both the virtues and the failings of both unchecked rugged individualism and unthinking social cohesion.

And then, also, in the 80s, he made a sci-fi chick flick that ran for 7 seasons. Ooh, let’s let teen Wesley Crusher solve the case again! Let’s watch characters discuss their feelings with the ship’s therapist! Poor Worf, he’s conflicted over his father!

Kirk was a hero of mythic proportions. Spock, Bones, and the rest were a pantheon. They had extraordinary strengths and intractable flaws, like Greek gods.

Meanwhile, in TNG, the ship’s psychologist sits next to the captain in the bridge, I guess just in case anybody has a feeling that needs to be immediately dealt with. Riker makes a pretty good poker face, and that’s about as close to an honest-to-god dramatic tension as that show came in 7 entire seasons. Oh, the alien race speaks only in visual metaphors! What a clever stand-in for actually being intellectually stimulating! A major villain on Star Trek is: “Vaal teaches the peaceful villagers to smash the the crew’s skulls, in a parable exploring a society’s right to self-determination and the trade-off between security and progress.” A major villain on TNG is, “A bent over old retired admiral is threatening to undermine decorum in an inch-deep parody of an easily-denounced US politician from decades ago, until another admiral tells her to stop.” Where Star Trek had “Saurian Brandy” and “I don’t know, but it’s green!”, the new series has the excitement and danger-filled potential of “Tea. Earl Gray. Hot.” Cozy and sentimental is great in life, but it’s not what I’m looking for in my entertainment.

Not unlike Rod Serling a few years earlier (and for whose cleverly subversive, affecting work I have a similar reverence and respect) Star Trek had Gene Roddenberry’s social beliefs realized by a constellation of gifted writers like Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, D. C. Fontana, John D. F. Black, not just as simple morality tales or sentimental restaging of safe and comfortable ideas, but often as effective, thrilling and convention-defying narratives. That’s why, for all its tendency to go hammily over the top, Star Trek had real dramaturgy, and spine-tingling dialogue like Apollo going “Zeus, Hermes, Hera, Aphrodite! You were right! Athena, you were right. The time has passed. There is no room for gods. Forgive me, my old friends. Take me. TAKE ME!”, not to mention the first interracial kiss to ever be broadcast on television.

Meanwhile in the new series you have…. I don’t know. TNG barely even had Gene Roddenberry. I’ve watched the entire series from start to finish and there’s not a single bit of dialogue that sticks in my mind, just Picard prattling on about this or that at the end of an episode, like some old guy who got left in a library too long. I think I remember him playing the recorder once, which is cool, as I myself play the recorder, and it’s unusual for an adult to do. But someone playing recorder on TV is not exactly escapism to me, nor is it terribly revelatory. (Note: Sarah Jeffery on YouTube doesn’t count in the same way.)

I grok Spock. Spock is not herbert. He reaches. But Spock’s clear “next generation” counterpart, the derivative C3P0, er, Data, is totally herbert. Good for a winking chuckle when he tries to write poetry… and that’s it.

So: where once we had a deeply conflicted (and artistically talented) character based visually on the Devil and intended as a device to explore how we cope with our own sense of alienation, trying to reconcile his true nature as a fundamental outsider with the rigid attitudes and beliefs of the society that raised him—thematically akin to Kosinski’s “painted bird” from his devastating novel of the same name, but in this case, tortured and ostracized not by a cruel and war-torn society but by the warring sides his own soul—we now, in the new iteration, have a soulless and passionless machine trying to emulate humanity. That’s a pretty good general analogy for the original series vs TNG as a whole.

Where once we saw the impish side of human nature represented by Scotty falling down drunk from a liquor he could only identify as “green”, we now have nothing more Dionysian than the blank poker-face stare of Riker. That fixed, emotionless gaze is as unrestrained and wild as TNG gets.

Where Bones, irascible, once snapped that he was “just an old country doctor”, the ship’s psychologist now sits right on the bridge, next to the captain, making sure everybody feels empathized with. And in case you feel lonely when you’re off duty, kindly Whoopi Goldberg, playing human Prozac, mans the bar and makes sure there’s never any themes of real human conflict or weakness to explore. Charlie X wouldn’t have been melting any 3-D chess pieces on this Enterprise. In the 24th century, the future is humiliation-free. A series that had once used sci-fi as a pretext to explore familiar themes of our humanity, peppered liberally with swashbuckling adventure to boot, was now nothing but a vehicle for gauzy sentimentality.

Capt. Janeway is ok, but I liked her better in “On Golden Pond” with Henry Fonda.

(***Yes, I know damn well that Gamma Hydra IV is the planet from “The Deadly Years”, I was being funny. What do you take me for? Of course I know that. You don’t run a starship with your arms, you run it with your head. And my brain’s as sharp as it ever was!)