Thursday, July 3, 2014

Star Trek: The Not Naughty Generation

This past May marked the twentieth anniversary of the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. On May 23, 1994, "All Good Things . . . ", a special two-parter penned by series writers Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore brought the television adventures of Picard, Riker, Troi, Data, Geordi, Worf and Crusher (with honorable nods to Wesley, Guinan, O'Brien and Ro) to a close after seven seasons (more than double that of the original Star Trek), 278 episodes, one Peabody Award*, 18 Emmy Awards and two Hugo Awards,

I still watch the show occasionally in its endless reruns on the daftly-branded SyFy Channel and BBC America (where its presence on the schedule is presumably justified by Sir Patrick Stewart if nothing else). Overall, it holds up pretty well. The special effects still largely deliver the goods after all these years, and even achieve feature film-quality in the later seasons, which is especially impressive given they were mostly done with a pre-CGI combination of models, matte paintings and video trickery. My favorite episodes still showcase great ideas and terrific execution, and I definitely still hold that my all-time favorite, "The Inner Light," is one of the best single pieces of science fiction ever created for series television.

But there is one little nagging detail that really sticks out to me today, a detail that runs throughout the entire run of the show. It's the attitude the main characters have towards technology.  The way they use it. Actually, to put it more accurately, the way they absolutely do not abuse their technology.

The crew of the starship Enterprise D by and large use the highly advanced gadgets at their disposal expertly and exactly as they were intended, which communicates to the audience that they are a highly trained group of professionals (what some call "competence porn"), but also is a depiction that bears little resemblance to humanity as we know it. Unless you are one of those rare individuals who has somehow and inexplicably managed to escape dealing with our increasingly wired and technologically immersive society at large, you know that the conveniences and efficiency provided by cell phones, digital cameras, the vast and ever-growing sea of information known as the internet and the like are superseded on an order of magnitude by self-inflicted distractions and elaborate perversions no longer bound by analog limitations.

I'm not necessarily suggesting that outright criminal acts like cyberbullying or identity theft between crewmembers should have been taking place on a regular basis in the Star Trek universe. I'm talking about the banal everyday way we take tools originally intended for practical communication or information gathering and engage in silly or wasteful activities. No one on the Enterprise ever uses their communicators to just shoot the breeze, stave off boredom by sharing office gossip ("FYI, just caught Riker and Troi giving each other vaguely meaningful glances again. What's up with that?") or arrange for a date in Ten Forward. Even if Starfleet personnel are supposed to be a disciplined quasi-military force, if I was enlisted among their ranks I know I'd be snapping selfies of myself on planet Omicron Alpha with its two moons in the background or whatever for my Facebook page or to share with the folks back home (Presumably in the moments before this week's time-space anomaly or energy being showed up to cause havoc). There's also an odd absence of anyone enjoying the last four hundred or so years of movies or TV shows. Everyone seems to actually read books on printed matter and listen only to classical European and occasionally jazz music - no rock. And despite the ubiquitous presence of computer terminals everywhere no one ever plays video games. And given the interplanetary, multi-species nature of the United Federation of Planets, God only knows what varieties of pornography would be available for download to lonely young ensigns on five-year missions away from home (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations indeed!). And don't even get me started on the potential abuses of the holodeck, which can produce lifelike simulacrums of environments and even people (!) you can touch, feel and presumably delete guilt-free, yet there are apparently no Federation support groups dealing with a glut of addicts like the plugged-in but socially isolated hikikomori of Japan.

The holodeck offers a good illustration of how The Next Generation viewed its characters' everyday lives in its high-tech world. In the season 3 tale "Hollow Pursuits" we are introduced to Reg Barclay, a dweeby engineer who secretly retreats into a fantasy world he has created in the holodeck where the Enterprise command crew are bumbling Three Stooges-style renditions of the Musketeers (including a helium-voiced and height-reduced Riker) and Troi is a sexy love goddess (Though I might add that keeping with Star Trek's family-friendly, middlebrow approach, Barclay doesn't seem to actually do anything with or to his Troi doppelganger. Apparently just having her talk to him in a soothing voice while dressed like an actress in a Greek tragedy is enough to get his rocks off). I bring up this episode because apparently in seven years of travel and among 1,014 crew members, he is the only one I can think of who engages in an innocuous misuse of onboard equipment for selfish fun. Certainly his addiction to his holodeck fantasy comes across as unhealthy, and the moment he abandons it is a positive message in the story, but based on the reactions of the main characters you get the impression that Barclay's behavior is an unexpected aberration, something that inspires a Downtown Abbey-like, "We don't do that sort of thing," sense of impropriety being committed.

I know, I know, all of the above is just fanboy over-think. And besides, the overly well-adjusted nature of our protagonists was what Star Trek was all about.  Show creator Gene Roddenberry wanted a show set in a world where the better angels of our nature had won to create a peaceful and tolerant human civilization, shared with dozens of friendly extraterrestrial races and supported and nurtured by the benevolent application of enlightened science and technology. Plus the show ended prior to the explosion of our increasingly jacked-in society with folks running about armed with their laptop, hands-free phone, Google Glass, iPod and tablet, so there's no way The Next Generation could be expected to comment upon it. However, that doesn't stop me from being amused by the fact that Wesley Crusher is one of the least mischievous boy geniuses in science fiction or fact, whose scientific talents only wreaked havoc during earnest accidents (Imagine an alternate universe where Wesley possessed the snarky real-life personality of the actor playing him, bona fide nerd and geek culture advocate Will Wheaton). Or Data being playfully tricked into swearing or repeating dirty jokes by his crew mates (a thought inspired by a childhood friend who claimed he inserted a cassette tape with 'Shout At the Devil' into a Teddy Ruxpin doll). Or a scenario in which an Away Team comes under attack by hostile alien forces they failed to notice while taking pictures of each other, and can't reach the Enterprise because someone is using up all the bandwidth downloading music to his tricorder or slowed down its functions by enabling all its apps and special features.

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