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Thursday, May 29, 2003

The Klingon in the Mirror: Star Trek as Reflection of the Zeitgeist

This began as a quick list of peeves, and turned into a boring rumination. You're warned. The title is an extremely obscure reference.

Happy Fun Dan missed war so much he tried to get a new one started with his Top Ten Things I Hate About Star Trek.

I love Star Trek. The original series saved my life. No, really. Remind me to tell you sometime.

But, that said, there are certain flaws. Steven Chapman points out one of my least favorite ones:

6. # Every planet the Enterprise crew encounter just happens to have only one culture.

Well, actually, I think it's the result of unchecked globalization, myself.

In the original series, you didn't have to worry about this. Most of the time, the crew was dealing with particular people (or beings), and took their culture as they found it. They usually didn't have to bow down to the entire notion of cultures, kicking themselves in the ass to demonstrate that they treasured each and every alien culture more than the last one.

Now for my feral (not tame enough to be pets) Star Trek peeves:

1) Everyone got lumpy. I don't mean that the original actors began to bulge---that's only natural. I mean their heads. Back in the original series, when there was no budget, Klingons were just muddy-colored humans with big eyebrows. Romulans were, like Vulcans, aquiline greenish humans with pointed ears and Moe Howard hair. In TNG, the Klingons grew great lumps (I think they got lumpier over the years), and even the Romulans (and the Vulcans, I think) began to swell a bit at the temples.

Perhaps they got a special budget for make up, and had to use it up But this doesn't explain the fact that every subsequent species was just humans with cheek quills or nose plates or ear fungus. Why no tails, or horns, or extra limbs? Laziness, that's why.

2) Enemies were outlawed.

This is a large and hungry peeve.

In the beginning, you had the Klingons, and they were nasty bastards. They'd burn a hundred innocent villagers just to get two men the village was allegedly hiding.

You also had the Romulans, and while they were no cream puffs, they didn't have the commitment to viciousness and cruelty that the Klingons had.

Then came Next Gen, and we actually had a Klingon on the Enterprise bridge, and we had to be all worshipful about his precious Klingon culture, which led inevitably to us "understanding" the Klingons. Then the Klingons somehow needed Picard's help to hold their empire together, and after that they changed from fearsome equals to posturing, whining brats always threatening but never able to do anything without the Federation's help (hmmm...). By the end of Deep Space Nine they were operatic (comic and dramatic) figures, spending more time on declaiming how sweet and fitting it is to die for the Empire, and less on slaughtering innocents wholesale.

The Romulans lay low for a while, put in a brief appearance which showed they'd been boning up on cruelty and oppression, and then just sort of faded away.

Oh, and there were the Ferengi, who were vicious little bastards when they first slithered on-screen in TNG, using electric whips on Riker and Co., but by the end of Deep Space Nine they were much more cuddly and comical than the Klingons.

The Cardassians, now, were initially the series' Nazis, what with oppressing and murdering the Bajorans. And they were pretty sinister at first, but they were soon too involved in spying on and imprisoning one another to be very good villains, and then they got taken over by the Dominion.

Then, in Deep Space Nine, came the unnecessarily-apostrophated Jem'Hadar, unstoppable, unflinching warriors. But, oops. Turns out they are merely the poor drug-enslaved pawns of the Dominion, who, actually, are a subject race of the Founders (the shapeshifters).

Ah, but the shapeshifters really are bad guys, right? After all, they hate and fear the "solids". Nope, turns out they're all just sick, and when Odo cures them they stop their war against, er, everybody.

Wait just a damn minute, you say. I've forgotten the biggest baddies of all: the Borg. They are the implacable enemy, right? There is no understanding, no negotiation, no compromise with them, true? Er, no. In TNG we first find that, after all, the Borg are only Hugh-man (or whatever), and with sufficient cuddling and hand-holding, they can return to what they were. This, of course, is what Janeway is doing throughout most of Voyager with 7 of 9.

My point here is that Star Trek has become uncomfortable with the idea of enemies. We are no longer permitted enemies, except for the purposes of demonstrating that they are only our enemies due to a sickness in their society, or in ours. When we make the effort to Understand them, we see that there's really not so much difference between us after all. Hurray!

Um, however, a universe without enemies of some kind turns out to be dull. So every few years we have to show that our enemies are paper tigers, or linen lions, or whatever, and they are replaced by new enemies---races whose names are only legends, fearful whispers in seedy dives. Then, after we've fought them a time or two, and there's been a lot of talk about this most terrible threat to the existence of the Federation ever, they too become pussycats, and a new bunch takes their place. No doubt if Voyager had continued a few more years, Species 8472 would have revealed themselves to be fluffy bunnies who were only afraid of the big, bad Borg.

3. Star Trek as Zeitgeist

I guess, technically, this isn't a peeve, but a !peeve. (That will make sense to none of you; just roll with it.)

Sometimes I'll be writing or thinking about some topic, and then I'll find that Lileks has been thinking along the same lines. This happens fairly often, and it scares me. It happened again on May 16th. Lileks says,

[Anthony] Burgess saw the two poles of political philosophy at work in the West, and beyond. Augustinian philosophy, which saw man as flawed and sinful and basically hosed when it came to perfectibility in this mortal plain, was the conservative view. Pelagius was liberalism: our nature is not only perfectible, we can perfect ourselves here and now. Burgess saw governments as shifting back and forth between the two - the excesses of one would push people to embrace the other, and vice versa, and so on.

I would say that the two poles are not as far apart as they seem. When I think of what Lileks is describing as Augustinianism---"man as flawed and sinful"---I first think of rigid Christianity (or, if you'd rather, the Taliban): dedicated to punishing "sinful" behavior, or anything that might lead to sinful behavior, or anything that might make someone, somewhere, think a naughty thought. Mankind is weak and foolish, and the pious must take extreme measures to see that society is kept pure.

But this would equally well describe the direction the pious Left is taking. Having eradicated great societal sins (e.g. segregation)---for which I say, Hallelujah!---they are now trying to ensure that everything that even looks like sin (in the dark, if you squint) is ruthlessly irradicated. A good example of this are the Lexicops, moving to make sure you don't use the word "niggardly", or Making A Statement by spelling "women", "womyn" (or, $DEITY help us, "wombyn").

Or, as we see, opposing American policies for no other reason than they American policies, even if that opposition violates every principle the Left (supposedly) holds dear.

Instead, I would say the two poles are those who believe that whatever perfection man can reach, he must do himself; and those who believe that man is corrupt, but that his society can be made perfect by outside force. That outside force might take the form of religious deities with numerous rules for mankind, or the form of laws made by the Right-Thinking elements of society, who have only the best interests of society as a whole in mind.

I doubt that history swings between these two poles; perhaps instead it's a constant struggle of the do-it-yourselfers against the rulegivers. Or, if you prefer, the individualists against the authoritarians.

So, how does this relate to Star Trek? Well, the direction that the Left has been taking recently mirrors the evolution of Star Trek. The original series was a (relatively) sunny, optimistic series in which our heroes fought barbarism, not only in the dark corners of the galaxy, but in themselves. Is a machine controlling the thoughts of humans; is a society forcing certain of its members to work in an environment which makes them stupid and violent; Klingons preparing to attack a peaceful and primitive society? Well, the Enterprise will put a stop to that!

They had few rules to constrain them, and they often ignored those they did have. After all, it's a big universe, and the established rules don't always fit new situations.

In The Next Generation, this version had triumphed over the bad guys (at least locally). Picard's crew didn't need all that vulgar Kirkian muscle; they knew that all lifeforms and all cultures are to be respected and cherished, so that if we just talk things out we can come to some sort of accommodation. This was the Age of Peace Through Gabbing. The Federation was thoughtful, peaceful, smug, and dull.

But in Deep Space Nine, it began to turn upon itself. DS9 had wheels within wheels, plots within plots. Starfleet was not the hopeful group of explorers who sent Kirk out, nor was it the dull statesmen who dispatched Picard (even though it was supposedly contemporaneous with him), but a bloated, corrupted organization, its leaders more interested in consolidating their own power than in exploration (or whatever it was that Starfleet was supposed to do). This was the X Files Era.

Then came Voyager. I was among the few who liked Voyager (I hated DS9). It reminded me more of the original series, in that it was not above looking a bit stupid in order to arouse a sense of wonder (this is the most important thing in science fiction, in my opinion---more so than characterization or plot or explosions). Unfortunately it was a bit directionless, and to make up for this, it embraced dogma.

I don't think Voyager got through an episode without using the word "protocols" (always plural). If it wasn't computer "protocols", it was Starfleet protocols. "Starfleet protocols clearly state that we sit here and do nothing, Captain." Thanks to Kirk and his merry band, the Alpha Quadrant was a safe and peaceful place, and Starfleet had developed "protocols" which assumed the entire infrastructure of Starfleet close behind every decision a captain made. Then Voyager was thrown into the Delta Quadrant, and couldn't count on the support that would make those rules work. (Janeway supposedly knew she had to throw away the rulebook, but as time went on she only seem to cling to it more tightly.)

Perhaps Voyager is Star Trek's Department of September 10th: people used to peace and order, clinging desperately to rules that no longer apply lest they face the fact that they live in a fundamentally dangerous world. But Voyager started in 1995, ending in May 2001. If Voyager reflected the coming catastrophe, why, that would mean...Brannon and Braga knew!

Or perhaps my analogy is breaking down. Perhaps we need a bit of temporal distance between us and the era, to see what exactly was the defining quality. But I did want to point out the difference in outlook between the cheerful swagger of the original series, and the sweaty paranoia of Deep Space Nine.

To be continued...