I’d somehow missed out on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d seen the crossover movie Star Trek: Generations (David Carson, 1994) and even taught Star Trek: First Contact (Jonathan Frakes, 1996) and I’d seen odd episodes, but not the in-depth, episode to episode viewing of a TV-run. Was it on SKY? I didn’t and still don’t have that, but more to the point, aside from a brief period in 1991, I didn’t have regular access to TV between 1988 and 1992. I suppose I knew enough people with boxsets or off-air recordings, but I didn’t care enough.
I came to it partly with a curiosity about the 44 minute story arc. Most American drama has this pattern and for crime it seems to work ok – soapish preamble, crime committed, work the streets, red herring, nab the suspect, interrogation and wry afterword. Firefly also seemed to pull it off, as did Buffy and Angel before it. Doctor Who, on the other hand, doesn’t, although perhaps I’m brainwashed by the sitcom-in-clusters-of-four format of the original run. The alien society is barely established – although the inclination is to be Earth-bound and it cranks the jeopardy up to eleven very fast. Then the Doctor rewrites someone’s DNA or reverses the polarity of the neutron flow and everything is hunky dory timey wimey.
Someone, I forget who, suggested that Firefly (and by extension ST: TNG) works because of a bigger cast. We end up with three parallel narratives that dovetail together. Doctor Who probably bifurcates into the Doctor’s narrative and his companion’s, the companion getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. We get insufficient parallax on the nova. I did recently wonder whether the Doctor, as virtual superhero is so resourceful and fixed that he doesn’t offer the scope for a character arc, the writers instead focusing on the companion’s experiences, taking audience identification too far. We end up with The Amy Pond Adventures or Clara Who? But then the character arcs of virtually all continuing dramas are keyed much more to restoration than the transformation of the feature film.
To be honest, I don’t recall if the original Star Trek was closer in satisfaction to Firefly than nu-Who. It’s decades since I saw more than the odd episode and my tastes are perhaps more sniping. I’d seen and actually quite enjoyed bits of Enterprise, where the missions were a bit rougher around the edges. But the OS crew were my crew and so here we have their replacements. Picard is the new Kirk, clearly an authority figure, less likely to go on dangerous missions, and keeping it more in his trousers than Kirk ever did. The romantic lead duties are passed onto his Number One (stop sniggering) Riker, waved of hair and hairy of chest, and Picard’s BFF rather too quickly. Spock had been the deputy, and science officer, so here we have an android, Data, who is learning to be human (“Call me Pinocchio”) and thus doesn’t have appropriate emotions in his logic. My favourite character of the old series was Bones, but here we have Dr Beverly Crusher, seeming to be an old flame of Picard’s and widow of an officer killed on his watch. Crusher has her son with her, Wesley, presumably an identification figure for the child audience. Deanna Troi is a counsellor, who gets to state the bleeding obvious. Then there’s Geordie, whose accent is as convincing as Scottie’s and who wears a hair band over his eyes. Then there’s Worf, a grumpy Klingon, and Tasha Yar, who seems to be some kind of bouncer for the Enterprise.
So, having made it to the end of the first series, what do I think? The original series was famed for its diversity – it had a woman of colour on the crew as a receptionist. Baby steps. Twenty years later and in the regular cast we have three women – a doctor, a counsellor and Tasha Yar. Being a doctor is arguably above being a nurse (the other female rôle in TOS, aside from love interest), but it is a caring, nurturing profession in theory and she is also a mother. Troi as empath is meant to be all touchy feely and is able to say that she thinks the strangers they meet are hiding things because she doesn’t realise she’s in a drama that depends on such things. Yar, meanwhile, also gets to be suspicious of strangers because that’s her job as bouncer. Although sometimes she gets to operate the transporters. She’s clearly under used and one can only imagine how frustrated the actor was.
We have two actors of colour on the bridge – most obviously Geordie (and there’s an episode when we see a grown up Wesley and he’s pretty impressed by what he sees – could he also tick the diversity box that broadens ST’s notorious heteronormativity?). Then there’s Worf – and whilst there’s no reason that actors of colour shouldn’t play aliens, there’s an allegorical minefield in which seeing aliens as people of colour feeds into seeing people of colour as aliens (see also under: racism and monkeys). As a Klingon he’s presumably stereotyped as a military man (although you should try his delicious angel cakes) but surely Yar is the military officer? Or are there two military officers on this much-vaunted we-come-in-peace (for certain cohorts of mankind) mission?
Not all the regular cast are in each episode, and I get the feeling that the writers didn’t quite know what to do with half of the crew. Of course, you could argue that at any one time a third of the crew ought to be tucked up in bed and so this is to be expected, but we don’t see that kind of daily life. I think the dramatis personae were assembled with issues in mind, but the writers haven’t quite got there. Ah, young Wesley has discovered something but he’s a kid so let’s not believe him. Again.
Let’s take “Angel One” (25 January 1988) as the archetypal episode. The Enterprise arrives at an alien matriarchy in search of survivors from a crashed ship, Odin, and interacts with the local women, although it turns out that all they really needed was a real man such as Riker – because, presumably, a matriarchy is not true equality.
Except it turns out that this was an allegory for the situation in South Africa in the Apartheid era. Excuse me. So are the women Whites and the men Blacks and Coloureds? Or vice versa? How does that work then? Meanwhile, note that with the away team constituted the way it is in this episode, an African American gets to sit in the captain’s chair. Progress, only he comes down with the manflu that is the b-plot of the episode. I’m not at all clear what the episode has to say about Apartheid. “Why can’t we all just get along?”? Star Fleet has this non-intervention policy (which is obviously as consistent as that of Gallifrey in Pertwee-era Who) that is ironic in Reagan’s America and enables the crew to debate Moral Rightness with a not always unbearable smugness.
The final two episodes threaten to rip Star Fleet apart and introduce new aliens, the Romulans. Clearly this is the point when they think they’ve got their mojo. Having carefully established that when space missions last years, crew want their families with them, in “Conspiracy” (9 May 1988) the Enterprise pops back to Earth to investigate a conspiracy. The scheme seems to include worm eating. The Enterprise and Picard turn out to be top dogs in Star Fleet. The following week, in “The Neutral Zone” (16 May 1988), they pick up an abandoned spaceship and defrost from inside it three people from old Earth of a couple of centuries ago. The job of the episode is to demonstrate how far human civilisation has come: a woman is concerned with her children and her children’s descendants, one of whom has her husband’s name (because these things never alter); a man who wants to check his stock market portfolio but not his privilege (and Picard talks about how civilisation is beyond things like money now like he’s some kind of commie) and a man who wants to hit the bars and pick up some ladies (although Riker would be a better wingman than Data, frankly). These are the values the 24th century have left behind. Supposedly. They’ve also left behind incurable diseases and Wesley’s manflu from the
plot device holodeck shows how little immunity the crew have to such things.
The Enterprise heads off into the unknown, or Season Two.