[After a brief discussion about the dreadful state of the world at the moment, we switched gears to talk about Star Trek: The Next Generation as historians.]
Erin Bartram: But at least we haven’t had eugenics wars yet?
(what a grim segue)
Chris Bouton: Khan is waiting somewhere
David Mislin: Yeah. It does really seem like we’re sliding toward TNG’s prediction of the 21st century.
Chris: At least the Vulcans will show up soon and we can introduce them to hard liquor and classic rock
David: What year does that happen?
David: Oh. There’s a reasonable chance I might alive for that. If I survive the post-atomic horror.
Erin: But you will have to endure the fashion of that period.
Chris: Loose fitting shawls for all! Lounge wear for all!
David: I mean, I’d rather wear that than the ST: TMP uniforms
Erin: I think that Encounter at Farpoint, which we’ve been alluding to, is actually a great place to start thinking about the ways that TNG engaged with ideas of history (and human progress) from the start.
The framing of the entire series becomes: has humanity gotten better?
And at least at the start, that’s put in historical context, including some historical dress-up.
David: The series really wanted to claim that, and believe it. The problem was that the premise made for some boring television.
Chris: Its historical thesis was that the course of human history was one of exploration
Erin: And that exploration – and interaction with other cultures – would ultimately somehow result in a better world.
Chris: When you start with the premise that we’re in a post-scarcity utopia and no Starfleet officers can ever be in serious conflict, you’ve limited your storytelling options.
David: Don’t get me wrong. I love the show’s vision for humanity and all the optimism that was baked into it. It just limited storytelling possibilities.
Chris: That’s why you have to be exploring because that’s where the tension comes from. So you visit Mafia planet, Nazi planet, Greek and Roman Gods planet. Or from TNG, the planet of African Colonization or Matriarchy planet, or that super-fit planet where they wanted to kill Wesley for running into some plants.
Erin: And in episodes like Attached and…the one where Bebe Neuwirth and Riker have some very dubcon sex, we see the message of “you won’t be able to explore the stars until you’re reconciled to yourselves and each other”
(the post-scarcity thing sort of falls apart all the time, not just with the Ferengi, but with that Krieger waves episode, but clearly the economics of Star Trek are something no one can parse)
David: Yeah. Erin’s point is interesting. That idea comes up a few times, and I wonder if it’s true. I feel like humans are much more likely to undertake serious space exploration much sooner than we’re likely to have world peace. Especially as private industry increasingly gets into the space business.
Erin: And as we learn in First Contact, that was Cochrane’s driving motive too.
Chris: Yeah and TNG made a big deal about how humans had evolved beyond the simple acquisition of wealth, but those baser economic concerns never disappeared as a theme in the series. The season finale of the first season featured a guy who’s a caricature of 80s greed culture and Picard gets really fed up with him.
Erin: The investment banker, the country singer, and…the lady.
David: I think I’m one of the rare people who enjoyed the first season finale
Chris: Yeah, she cried a lot.
I think it’s an okay episode of TV. Not great, but as bad as some of the earlier episodes that season.
Erin: I think they want to make that Greed is Good guy get his point across so much that they miss the part where anyone in that situation would freak out much longer.
(I think Voyager’s The 37s does a bit better with the frozen-people-woken-up reactions. Plus it shows how people in the future can still be stymied by actual guns.)
Chris: At one point in First Contact Picard kills a bunch of Borg with a machine gun
David: On. The. Holodeck.
Erin: Safety protocols off! Anything can happen! Even if it contradicts other things!
Chris: Yes, one of those storytelling devices that got progressively worse.
David: (I realize the safeties have been turned off, but it still mind-boggling to me that Holodeck guns can ever kill people.)
Chris: Why would you want to turn the safeties off? From a design perspective. Yeah, we should totally make it super easy to turn off the safeties so we can really kill each other. You know, just in case.
Erin: It’s interesting, as we talk, to see the various historical registers in which the show operates.
It’s sort of cobbling together its own in-universe history, much of which is laid out in the courtroom scene in the first episode, and in doing so, making a statement about longer-term human history. And even getting into deep history, with that one where we learn about the common origin of the major species in the show.
David: And I’ve always been particularly interested by shows like TNG that started in the 80s and ended in the 90s. Because the two decades were so different politically and culturally in the US. All of these shows that started in the Reagan era and ended in Clinton’s presidency really had the culture shift under them.
Chris: Star Trek argued that human history was the story of progress. It wasn’t always a pretty history. Picard often commented on the backwardness of humans in the past.
Some of those early 1st season episodes were definitely relics of even earlier periods and now they especially stand out for how racist or anti-Semitic they were.
I mean the depiction of the Ferengi? Or the planet where the African warlord kidnaps Yar to be his wife.
David: Yeah. And the first season is almost farcical in the way that it makes fun of 20th century humans. Practically every episode has some throwaway line about the backwards 20th century. After a while it got tiresome.
Chris: And to go back to Erin’s point about the context in which the show itself was created. We can see how that shaped the show as well. I’m thinking specifically about the show’s treatment of its female characters: Troi and Crusher.
Erin: That’s kind of always going to be a Star Trek problem – the conceit is that they’re so advanced, but they’re products of our time, and they are at best presenting a fairly weak liberal view from the time the show was written.
I think the “advancement” that gets me in TNG is the idea that sexism is just not a problem anymore so of course Riker can sleep with his subordinates all the time. The only time Troi is depicted doing that, it’s only when she’s in full-on-vamp mode.
David: But I do think TNG grew more self-aware in later seasons. Or maybe culture at large grew more aware?
Chris: I think it did get better, but it was still a major problem.
David: I think the lack of strong women is one of my major criticisms of TNG.
Chris: Especially since the plotlines for the female characters were generally them falling in love with someone. How many times did Crusher fall in love with a patient?
David: Yeah, though Crusher did get some good episodes: “Remember Me” (also the first episode of TNG I saw) and “Suspicions” come to mind.
Erin: And I think they very much wanted to present a utopian future of sexual liberation, but I think it often didn’t work because the rest of the storytelling revolved around “intelligent creatures including humans have emotions and failings.”
Chris: The show also never clearly defined what Troi’s role was. She was the ship’s counsellor, but she spent most of her time on the bridge.
Erin: Would it have killed them to consult someone in psych practice?
Chris: And Guinan usurped a lot of that counsellor role.
David: I read somewhere that originally the idea of “Counselor” was less practicing psychologist and more like a diplomat and expert on cross-cultural interaction. That would have been so badass.
Erin: Yeah, i think even the title was confusing. Was she providing counsel to the captain or therapy to the ship’s crew.
Chris: If she were supposed to be a counsellor to the captain, using her abilities to advise him in key situations, okay. that would work.
Erin: That would have been even cooler without universal translation abilities.
Chris: I forgot to include Yar in the underwritten female characters category.
Erin: I wish she’d gotten the benefit of the later seasons, because she was probably the epitome of a first season problem: head of a department on the flagship but doesn’t seem to know her job that well (because the writers don’t know the jobs that well)
Chris: She’s the most problematic of all. She comes from a planet that’s distinguished by rape gangs. Gets killed by a sentient oil slick, comes back to life, then gets raped by a Romulan, and dies again.
David: There’s a lot of stuff online about first season Yar. Notably the really uncomfortable way they set her up with a backstory that involved a lot of trauma, including sexual trauma, and then overly sexualized her as a character in the first few episodes.
Erin: Am I making this up or were we supposed to think of her as coming from some sort of “Soviet” world? Did I just assume that because of her name?
Chris: The planet was formerly a Federation planet that had fallen into anarchy, I think.
David: She came from a failed planet that’s featured in “Legacy”. I didn’t read it as particularly Soviet though.
Erin: I was just thinking of those flashbacks she has with the cat in…the one where Worf hallucinates a targ.
Yes, folks, this is real intellectual history chat!
Chris: This is great. I love this. We should talk about TNG every week.
Chris: I made a whole list of favorite and least favorite episodes to prepare!
Erin: Do we want to talk at all about how TNG tries to talk about what happened “in between”
David: Between the 20th century and the 24th?
Erin: I have not seen all of TOS, so I don’t know how it builds upon/contradicts that narrative
David: TOS didn’t really have a narrative of the past. Mostly because first season TOS wasn’t even consistent about the Trek universe itself.
It took the better part of the first season to come up with the concepts of Starfleet and the Federation. They had all sorts of wacky names they tried (my favorite was the United Earth Space Probe Agency)
Chris: It had a Cold War allegory with the Klingons, but also included a lot of silliness.
I submit Kirk versus Gorn as evidence
Erin: Throwing this in here, I note that Picard is forced to admit humans have been “savages”
Chris: In TNG, human history definitely had a trajectory. And I understood it as, humans of the 24th century were pretty confident in their moral superiority over the past.
Q meanwhile was there to point out that history has a long arc and you’re not that far away from your “savage” past.
Erin: Given the nuclear wars and eugenics wars that intervene, it’s remarkable these humans resemble us in any way.
Chris: Picard later concedes this point in “Drumhead,” and concludes that vigilance is the only answer
Erin: One of the big questions that sort of emerges, whether they wanted it to or not, is whether systems and structures can ever fully rein in the worst tendencies of human nature, especially given that they are created by imperfect humans.
David: That’s a good point, Erin. The show never really gets from the Nuclear Wars of the 21st century to the goodness of the 22nd. As a historian, I’d question whether humanity could really turn a corner and rebuild civilization that quickly…if at all.
Erin: TNG seems to want to suggest that it’s possible, but I think they do that by ignoring the implications of lots of things that happen. The writers, I mean, not the characters.
WHERE DOES THE POWER EVEN COME FROM IN FIRST CONTACT
AND WHY DO WE WASTE IT ON JUKEBOXES
Chris: And they have these debates periodically, in episodes like Drumhead, the witch-trial allegory, or Measure of a Man where Starfleet wants to dismantle Data.
Erin: Measure of a Man episode hits you over the head but somehow remains complex and provocative and I often think about how it might be useful in a history classroom
David: I’ve never liked that episode [The Drumhead]. I know it’s on most people’s Top 10 list. But it seems too out of character with the rest of the TNG universe. I get your point, Chris, about vigilance. But it just doesn’t make sense.
Chris: Picard is in full lawyer-Picard mode, which was one of the show’s crutches. Mostly because Patrick Stewart is a really talented actor. And you have to end episodes somehow.
Erin: I think the only way it makes sense is that in the TNG universe, everyone is copacetic and competent except the admiralty, which is totally bonkers
Chris: Right, there’s some serious problems with Starfleet command. When they’re not trying to enslave androids or give bizarre orders, they’re getting taken over by alien parasites.
Erin: They get totally taken over by bugs, and I don’t care how terrible that ep is, I love it
David: I think the show improved as it went on, though. I really liked Admiral Necheyev in the last two seasons. She was similar to other admirals in terms of being a thorn in Picard’s side, but her motives actually made sense.
Chris: Well someone needs to tell the Enterprise they can’t do something, just so Picard can then go do it.
David: Yeah, talk about writing crutches though…not just in TNG but in TOS too
Chris: Well it goes back to the no-conflict rule, which they always fudged.
Erin: [All of this is why I think Voyager’s premise/casting was so promising and I hate that they had not great show-running ideas for a lot of it.]
Chris: [Voyager had such great promise and they squandered it completely]
Erin: [Its great episodes are almost painful because they show how good it could have been.]
David: But, honestly, I feel sort of the same way about the later seasons of TNG.
Chris: One of my least favorite writing crutches was the grouchy scientist on the remote planet/outpost. They’re always doing some crazy and causing trouble or trying to kill Commander Riker.
Erin: Yeah, I think the later seasons are better for having Troi in a uniform and the production values are better, but often the writing is rehashing older stuff. The first seasons were really clunky but there are some interesting story ideas even in the clunky episodes.
David: One of my frustrations about TNG is that it had some amazing glimmers of creativity in seasons 3-4: experiments with story arcs (Worf and the Klingons), introducing recurring characters or interesting one-time guests (Shelby). But then in seasons 5-7 with a few exceptions (the short-lived introduction of Ensign Ro in season 5), they really regressed.
Chris: It’s a show that peaked in the middle. Looking over my list, most of the episodes are from the middle of the series and a few from later seasons
Erin: I was thinking how much it parallels the X files in some ways. In both cases, I am unique in liking a lot of each show’s sixth season, but it’s 3-4-5 that’s the best stuff.
David: I think the sixth season was excellent from the perspective of individual stories, but in terms of the sorts of structural things I think make for good television, I think TNG was most creative in 3-4.
Erin: The one thing I get very tired of in later seasons is the Klingon politics storyline. I just skip a lot of those episodes. But the earlier ones I find very compelling, and I like every character Suzie Plakson has played in TNG and Voyager.
David: Including Redemption? I don’t like the whole Tasha Yar daughter storyline, but I love Redemption as the sort of epic, universe-building storytelling that TNG usually shied away from. (edited)
Chris: I liked Redemption
Erin: I’ll give you Redemption
Chris: It was one of the pushes towards longer story telling arcs.
“Family” was one of my favorites. I was glad the show stayed with the aftermath of Picard’s encounter with the Borg.
Erin: I know it must be difficult to keep continuity on a show, but the moments when they showed they were aware of the past – DO THAT ALL THE TIME!
Chris: They needed to show the trauma that Picard went through. Otherwise the previous episodes lose their impact.
Erin: That is a thing they got better at in later seasons overall, I think. Like that one where the Enterprise and that Romulan ship are frozen in time. The writers remembered Troi had just been on a Romulan ship and make her and the characters remember that
Chris: I liked it when they dirtied up the characters a bit. I rewatched “The Wounded” last weekend and it’s one of my favorites.
It’s one of the few O’Brien-centric episodes and introduces the Cardassians to Star Trek. In it, we get to see O’Brien’s hatred of Cardassians and how war changed him.
Erin: (Birthright is where the Klingon stuff loses me. Sorry, I’ve been trying to figure out which one I was thinking of, but I was looking in the wrong season)
David: Agreed. It’s a great episode. And again, it’s one of the things I loved about season four: starting to do more with the recurring characters so that the Enterprise felt like it was actually a ship with 1000 people
Yeah, Birthright is terrible.
Chris: “It’s not you I hate, Cardassian. I hate what I became because of you.”
That’s character development!
Erin: The Enterprise itself is made to be such a cohesive whole that bringing up these difficult pasts is one way out of that trap.
David: I read somewhere (sorry, I feel like I should be citing this stuff) that the plan for “Lower Decks” was to introduce a bunch of recurring characters and if the show had continued for an eighth season, they would be featured regularly to expand the focus beyond the main cast. SUCH. A. GOOD. IDEA. Why couldn’t they have done that? And sooner?
Erin: Oh that episode kills me.
Chris: Agreed, and David this is one of things that we talked about in the DS9 chat. DS9 did a great job developing a stable of recurring characters. TNG never did that
Erin: I would have loved to see more Nurse Ogawa
David: She was one of the ones!
Erin: I loved that in…maybe the one where Riker thinks he wakes up in the future, she’s still there, and a doctor. Somehow that was more powerful than the regulars being there.
Chris: The character who died in Lower Decks had been introduced in the episode about Wesley’s accident at Star Fleet academy.
Erin: I just wish they’d done more of that, honestly. Those connections do so much more for worldbuilding than exposition and coming up with political/military/economic systems. They remind us that beyond “human” history, or the history of the Federation, these people have personal histories.
Chris: And visiting random planets every week or encountering random god-like creatures that we’ll never meet again
David: And it’s a way of weaving in the larger political and military history
Chris: Or even cultural or social history. Do they really live in a classless society? Do robots and automation take care of trash collection and the like?
David: As Chris said, we learned so much about the totally never mentioned Cardassian War, the Setlik 3 Massacre, etc., just from O’Brien’s response in “The Wounded.” Good recurring characters can do that
Erin: I think on an episode of Mission Log, when they’re talking to Marina Sirtis, she says that virtually every bit of suggestion that Troi and Riker have a past relationship was put in by her and Frakes – they made acting choices with the material given to them which, on paper, ignored their past after that weird first season episode when she’s still calling him Bill.
They made the history for the characters, to a great extent, eventually pushing the writers into accepting it and writing for it in much later seasons.
Because I think writers are often thinking about “a cool sci fi story” and they’re pitching things that way.
Chris: Actors need material to latch onto and we as viewers need characters whom we want to learn more about.
Erin: And Roddenberry had a “vision” of the future.
Chris: Because you can only have so many holodeck malfunctions or god-like aliens before the storytelling gets stale.
Erin: I think many of our favorite episodes, when it comes down to it, hinge on not just the story but our knowledge of these familiar characters and how they fit into that story.
David: Also, Roddenberry really wasn’t interested in characters. His vision of the show was that it would just be about Picard and Riker (hence why everyone else was “Also Starring”). It apparently took a lot of cajoling by the writers to get him to accept an ensemble show.
Erin: This is why fanfic exists, honestly – because people (often men, let’s be honest), come up with a cool show that neglects character development/interaction
David: Do we want to leave some time to talk about favorite episodes? Or at least share a few?
Chris: Yeah, that’s do that now. Want to lead off David?
David: Sure, well my favorites are all episodes that aren’t obvious favorites but ones I really enjoy. First up for me is “Data’s Day,” because it offers some fantastic world-building of the Enterprise itself. The spy subplot aside, it’s a really wonderful day-in-the-life episode that does some great character development while also just illustrating that the Enterprise is a place where people have normal, daily lives.
Chris: I’ll throw in Starship Mine. It’s basically Die Hard on the Enterprise where Picard kills like 6 people. It’s a fun episode because we got to see Picard in action as opposed to lawyer Picard.
We’ve already touched upon a lot of my favorites.
Erin: I love Home Soil, as 1980s as the set design is. I think it’s such a fascinating look at human arrogance and colonialism (about which we should have a whole chat), and we get the phrase “ugly bags of mostly water”
David: Another one for me is “Ship in a Bottle.” It’s a creative twist on the usual holodeck-gone-awry, and it’s one of the episodes that really captures the sense of wonder that I think is at the heart of Star Trek
Chris: That’s one of the few episodes where the holodeck isn’t an annoying plot device.
I forgot to mention Pegasus, where we get some nice background on Riker and how he admits that if he’d been less naive he would have mutinied against his captain and died. But instead he was young and stupid and lived.
David: And Locke from Lost!
Chris: One of the great TNG guest starring appearances, along with the warden from Shawshank Redemption in The Wounded
Erin: An episode that I love but rarely rewatch is “Half a Life”
David: I mentioned it earlier, but I want to put in one more shout-out for “Remember Me.” Of all the cast, I think Gates McFadden was the most under-utilized, and she really carried that episode.
Chris: Half a Life is probably the only Lwxana Troi episode that I don’t absolutely loathe.
Remember Me has some nice character work and a cool sci-fi premise.
Erin: And I think it works well with Beverly – later on, they fall into the trap of “we have a cool story, and it would work well with X character, but X character just had a big episode, so we’ll stick Y in”
I like Dr. Pulaski a lot, so “Unnatural Selection” is one of my favorites.
Chris: Pulaski had some great character moments
David: I have grown to like Pulaski over the years
Erin: I think her character exposes some of the problems with sexism in the fandom. McCoy wouldn’t bother anyone acting that way.
Chris: I disliked her when I watched the show, but she came in with a clear sense of who the character was.
She went right to 10 Forward rather than reporting to Picard. She had a sexual history. She covered for Worf.
David: My take on Pulaski has always been that I think they wrote the wrong character for Diana Muldaur. They were so determined to recreate McCoy (mostly because Gene Roddenberry only could think of three or four characters), when really she should have been playing a super classy, smart, accomplished woman in her 50s.
By the end of the season the character started to move in that direction, but there was too much damage done early on.
Erin: I also think she then exposed the “weakness” of Crusher’s character writing.
Chris: I agree with that completely. Crusher was originally conceived as the ship’s teacher.
David: Ugh, of course she was.
Erin: One more I’ll throw in because it’s about alternate histories of a fictional universe: “Yesterday’s Enterprise”
David: I’m still sad we never got the Pulaski/Worf romance! That would have been AMAZING
Chris: Unpopular opinion, I’m not a big fan of Yesterday’s Enterprise.
Erin: I’ll see your unpopular opinion and raise you: I don’t really like Inner Light.
Chris: Me too!
David: I like them both.
Chris: GET OUT (j/k)
David: My closest thing to an unpopular opinion is that I think The Best of Both Worlds Part II is an awful, awful letdown, but I’m not sure that’s an atypical opinion
Erin: Oh 100% agreed.
Chris: I agree with that, Part 1 is much better.
Erin: Before we close, can I offer one cool historian’s thoughts on TOS and TNG as products of their time?
So Gabrielle Westcott, a colleague of mine and Chris’ wife’s at UConn, studies 20th c foreign policy and also cross-stitches Star Trek things.
And she points to the different cultures around food in TOS and TNG as emblematic of US foreign policy visions of the 1960s and post-cold war periods. In TOS, the utopian vision is that everyone eats the same food, and it’s weirdly homogenized. That’s the ideal world culture.
David: (and very industrial….better living through science!)
Erin: In TNG, especially as the series went on, every culture’s food was preserved, and people ate outside their culture, to some extent.
Multi-culti future = we all have to eat gagh
Chris: This just reminds me of this scene
David: Yeah, that’s a really good observation.
Chris: In the Wounded, O’Brien and Keiko are sharing each other’s food cultures and Keiko is shocked that O’Brien’s mother actually cooked food
Erin: Yes! But thankfully taste is not homogenized, or no one would have eaten Riker’s awful eggs
David: I was just about to mention that scene, Erin!
Chris: Worf liked them!
David: As an example of how the show thought about history in the everyday sense. Pulaski has a great line about how in the 24th century people have gotten away from sharing meals as a way of fostering community.
Erin: That is a wonderful “everything old is new again” complaint, too. Kids these days!
David: It’s such a lovely moment. It’s fleeting, but I think it’s just the sort of thing you’re wishing for more of.
Chris: That’s how I feel about TNG in general. Lots of wonderful moments that I wanted more of.
Erin: And yet, we’re historians, so we read against the grain and into the silences, and talk for hours about this stuff.
I think this chat and your other one show the many different kinds of historical thinking and analysis going on when we create and consume this kind of sci fi.
Chris: We didn’t talk about Data at all, or Wesley, or the movies. Not that we need to.
David: I guess my really unpopular opinion would be that Data is overrated as a character. But it might be the movies that gave me that view rather than the series
Chris: I agree with you. Why was he the second lead of the movies?
Erin: I would go along with that. Though I do find his line at the end of First Contact – “For an android, that is an eternity” – very moving. Maybe because Spiner’s just good.
Chris: I was reading a book about Insurrection by the guy who wrote it and he needed to get approval from Stewart and Spiner before writing the script.
David: He was tolerable in First Contact (which is also the only one of the TNG movies I like)
Chris: It’s the only good TNG movie.
Erin: It’s a good movie period, I think.
Erin: We have achieved unity among ourselves, and may now venture out into the stars.