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Saturday, February 12, 2005

Star Trek and the Enemies of the Good

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And Enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

--- Wm. Shakespeare, on the decline of the Star Trek franchise
(Hamlet, Act III, Scene I)

Stephen Green considers Adam Yoshida's plan for a new Star Trek series (which he dubs "Star Trek: Smallville): showing the original series characters as Starfleet Academy cadets. Yoshida says this idea has been around at least since before Star Trek VI, but it's been around a lot longer than that: early '80s rumors of a new Star Trek series revolved around this idea. I remember it well, because at the time I thought it stunk. I didn't want to see the crew played by different actors, and I didn't want to see them in their own pasts; I wanted to see the future's future, for heaven's sake!

Anyway, Yoshida has a few other ideas for possible new series, and Stephen's commenters add facetious suggestions (dorkafork offers "Sex and the City on the Edge of Forever" and Mike M considers "Klingon Fear Factor" -- now, if there were going to be a Star Trek series in production, you might well get another whole series out of people competing to be on it). They also offer reasons why Enterprise has sunk so low as to be actually cancelled, leaving no Star Trek series in production -- the first time that's happened in nearly twenty years.

I wrote here and here about my suggestion that Star Trek reflected the liberal zeitgeist (adapting the idea from Lileks -- always steal from the best).

Specifically, in Star Trek we are not allowed to have enemies, and in the first of those two posts, I went on at length at how the Federation's enemies had either been de-fanged in some fashion or have quietly faded into the woodwork.

Those posts were written before we knew how the whole Xindi-9/11 scenario would play out, and the same thing happened: Earth was the victim of an unprovoked attack, and we spend a whole year chasing the perpetrators across Hell and Creation, and finally we catch them in the act of building their genocidal planet buster and -- whoops, all a mistake. The three cuddly Xindi species were misled by the reptilian Xindi (with some help from the insectoids), who were in turn being manipulated by some shadowy creatures from beyond the eighth dimension.

In the gripping finale of last season, Captain Archer almost single-handedly wrests control of the weapon from its masters, detonating it and --


Yes. We immediately go from the mind-boggling explosion to a (as I recall, dumb) three-episode time-travel tangent involving: Nazis. And Xindis. Nazis and Xindis. Together. On Earth. In the 1940s.

My interpretation is that the liberal zeitgeist always returns to that one precious moment when the use of force was right and just, when the cast o' thought only rosied up resolution's cheeks, and conscience made heroes of us all (if only in misty retrospect).

The reptilian Xindi killed seven million people in an unprovoked attack, and would have wiped out all humanity, but let's not be hasty. After all, they worship the time-travelers, so in their culture -- which is just as valid as ours, remember! -- when the time-traveling pests told them that the humans would one day destroy them, they did not question it.

See, there? Now how can we condemn them? Tout comprendre est tout pardonner, after all.

But then they went and allied themselves with the Nazis, and that's going too far!

Contrast this to Star Trek's treatment of humanity's failings.

From time to time in the Star Trek universe, various superbeings have popped up to chide the humans for their brutish ways. The angelic Metrones made Kirk fight the Gorn in "Arena", the elusive Melkotians made the Enterprise crew fight phantasms from Kirk's imagination in the awful "Spectre of the Gun", and the godlike Sargon et al start fighting the crew themselves in "Return to Tomorrow". (I detect a pattern: if you're a pure and holy superbeing, eschewing violence, you like to watch a good scrap now and again, especially if you don't have to do the scrapping).

Of course, the archetypal superior beings are the Q. Every now and again throughout Next Generation, Q would spring up and torment Picard for a while, taunting him that humans were just so godawful -- so savage, so barbaric, so inferior -- that maybe the universe wouldn't be better off if they were just erased from existence. I got to wondering why the Q never bothered the Klingons with this nonsense. I mean, here the Klingons traipse through rivers of blood, swinging their batleths as they sing of the sweetness of battle, and it's humanity that's dangerous and savage. Why?

Well, we got a glimpse of the answer a couple weeks ago, when the Organians invaded the Enterprise. The Organians were first introduced (along with the Klingons) in the original series's "Errand of Mercy", where -- by the end of the episode -- they seemed unimpressed with the difference between the reluctantly violent humans and the gleefully bloodthirsty Klingons. On Enterprise, two Organians occupied the bodies of crew members in order to study how the crew handled an exotic virus. The Organians had been letting other races blunder onto the contaminated planet, observing their various reactions, for ten thousand years. The idea seems to have been that only races who are intelligent enough to defeat the virus are worthy of contact by the Organians.

The Enterprise crew doesn't quite accomplish this, but the junior Organian starts to argue that maybe intelligence isn't everything, that compassion counts for something (although they're supposedly looking for intelligence, throughout the episode the senior has been expressing disgust at the way the Klingons, among others, callously killed their infected crewmates to keep the disease from spreading). At one point they're arguing, in their borrowed bodies, and the junior asks the senior why he's harder on the humans than on the far more violent Klingons.

The senior starts to reply something along the lines of, "The Klingons don't pretend to be anything but bararians, but they humans say they're..." At that point they're interrupted, but the cat is already out of the bag: one swallow may not make a summer, but one smell does make a sewer. Humans espouse noble ideals, but don't always live up to them, so their aspirations to be better than they are condemn them to be worse than they are.

It's the creaking old virgin/whore dichotomy, applied on a civilization-wide scale. But only for human civilizations: alien civilizations get a free pass.

I trust I don't have to point out any contemporary parallels.