Chaos on the Bridge?

I recently came across an interesting-looking documentary movie made by William Shatner called Chaos on the Bridge. (It’s only available on YouTube so I can’t embed it.) It is about how Star Trek: The Next Generation got started and all of the trouble that was involved during its first season when it had no idea what it should be. I’ve gotten a little bit of the way into it and it does seem interesting, though not gripping. Has anyone watched it? Is it worth watching the whole thing?

As a side note, I find it curious that I have never learned anything about Gene Roddenberry which made me think better of him. I suppose that that may be related to him starting off, for me, as a great genius visionary who created Star Trek, so the only direction he could go was down. But boy, did he go in that direction. This is a thing to be careful about, of course, because it’s all too easy to be interested in things about a person that are none of one’s business; calumny and detraction are real problems. At the same time, there is a practical value in knowing some things about a creator because they forearm you against dangers in their work. I do not mean, by the way, that drug abuse and sexual licentiousness will be simply championed, but rather that there is a world view which goes with approving of those things, and one must be careful of that world view, especially when its unsavory conclusions are not displayed. When their bad consequences are not obvious are when bad world views are most seductive.

I’ve Never Been Nostalgic for Star Trek: The Next Generation

I recently looked up a few clips of Star Trek: The Next Generation and noticed, to my surprise, that it evoked no feelings of nostalgia whatever. This is curious because I was watching it at the same time as I watched Murder, She Wrote, which certainly evokes nostalgic feelings. (Murder, She Wrote ran from 1984-1996, while ST:TNG ran from 1987-1994.) Moreover, I liked The Next Generation back when I first watched it.

There might be various reasons for this. Science fiction may be less conducive to nostalgia because it is supposed to be set in the future. Since different science fiction stories are set in the same future (ours) and thus contradict each other, there is a certain degree to which it is simply impossible to suspend one’s disbelief, and hence to enter into it in a way conducive to nostalgia. This may be related to how the costumes have changed with current fashions, and possibly a great deal more how the computer technology of the day is largely an extrapolation from current technology and thus becomes horribly dated and in no way plausibly The Future.

Of course, if that were the issue that it should be even less possible to feel nostalgic for Star Trek than for Star Trek: The Next Generation. But, at least for me, it’s not. In some ways I think that the original show has aged better than its successor despite its successor having far more accurate technology. The original was simpler and had something of the utilitarian feel of a navy warship. Much of it was almost cartoonish (in the sense of abstract but representational art). It was almost like a sketch of the future rather than a fully done painting. TNG was, by contrast, more filled out and directly representational. You can see this in how they ate colored cubes, cylinders and such-like (the futuristic food was probably variously food-colored marshmallows, to give you an idea of what it looked like if you haven’t seen it). In TNG they just ate normal food produced by a “replicator”. The result was that you are inclined to take TNG more at face value. The problem with taking TNG at face value, however, is that it was a heavily armed and armored diplomatic science vessel upholstered something like a luxury cruise ship that also had a school and a daycare, whose saucer section could separate from the main part of the ship for combat because it makes no sense to bring the daycare into battle, but they never separated after the first season. (For that reason; looking it up they did separate it during the battle with the Borg and Wolf 359 for tactical purposes, i.e. to have two targets).

Another possibility is that Star Trek: The Next Generation was an episodic show with inconsistent characterization. It’s hard to feel nostalgic for characters who one didn’t feel like one knew because they could (and did) change so much from episode to episode. Murder, She Wrote was episodic, but Jessica was mostly a consistent character—as were any of the other characters that did recur. Plus there were elements that were just consistent, even if the show is (somewhat) incorrectly described as formulaic. (This spoof is highly recognizable despite actually describing very few of the episodes.) The only thing that was really reliable in Star Trek: The Next Generation was the technobabble.

Which gets us to what I think is the real reason I don’t feel nostalgic for the show.

Star Trek: The Next Generation just wasn’t very good. Bureaucrats in Space are not really more interesting than bureaucrats are anywhere else. The writers didn’t really care about quality, as far as I can tell. Legend has it that the technobabble was filled in by consultants after the script was written, with placeholders in the script for the technobabble. The ship itself was nonsensical; no one who could conceive of the greatest warship of the federation being a science daycare could not possible care about quality.

In some ways nothing sums up the approach of the series so much as the episodes Best of Both Worlds parts 1 and 2. They started with a neat idea that they didn’t think through at all, painted themselves into a corner, then used technobabble that made no sense to get themselves out of it. (The Borg were a hive mind, not a computer; they should have had no problems at all with reconciling different impulses since their hive mind was always the summation of many individual minds.)

It’s almost enough to make me want to watch Chaos On the Bridge.

The technobabble could have been forgivable if there was some reason to forgive it, but there never was. I think that this might be part of the reason that the Q episodes were, generally, the best episodes: the Q episodes didn’t have technobabble. It’s not that the technobabble was bad in itself, but it was cheating. Q threw all rules out the window, so the episodes with Q in them were the rare episodes in which the writers didn’t cheat.

That may be the real key, here. Murder, She Wrote, for all of its flaws, was written in earnest. If the writers made mistakes they were honest mistakes where the writers didn’t notice. They occasionally had Jessica trick the murderer into confessing, but Jessica at least figured out who it was she needed to trick on her own, and generally legitimately. She never made up a way to extract fingerprints from thin air, only to forget about it in later episodes. She never just added tachyon particles to the murder weapon and suddenly the murderer was in prison, already convicted.

In short, I don’t think it’s possible to feel nostalgic for something that the writers didn’t take seriously.

Star Trek TNG: Sub Rosa

I forget why, but I was recently reading about the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, Sub Rosa. It was an unusual episode, being described by Memory Alpha as a foray into gothic horror. It was a (sort of) ghost story, centering about an “anaphasic entity” which had been haunting the women of Beverly Crusher’s family. Haunting isn’t quite the right word, as it seemed to live symbiotically with them. Though like all TNG episodes, it had its share of plot holes.

For one thing, it was said to have lived symbiotically with the “Howard Women” for centuries, except that family names are patrilineal, not matrilineal, so they would have been Howard women for a single generation. (You could get around this by skipping a generation, going from grand-mother to grand-daughter, which happened in the case of Beverly Crusher but didn’t at any other time.) I bring this up not to nit-pick, but because it’s a good symbol of how much the TNG writers cared about plot holes: not very much.

A bigger plot hole was that the anaphasic entity was supposed to be sinister, but it seemed to be symbiotic, not parasitic. Beverly came into contact with it because she was burying her grandmother at a very old age, and the Howard women were, if I recall correctly, generally described as hardy. This suggests that the anaphasic entity kept them healthy. It also, according to Beverly’s grandmother’s diary, kept them happy. Why, then, it was supposed to be bad was completely unclear. It did eventually murder someone, though there was no obvious reason that things got to that point.

As I said, it’s not that I particularly care about the plot holes in TNG episodes, at least not any more. When I was watching them as a teenager I would immediately call up a close friend and the two of us would nitpick the night’s episode for the better part of two hours, but I’ve gotten over that. What I do find interesting is what this suggests about resource allocation: most of these plot holes would not have been at all hard to fix. The producers of Star Trek: The Next Generation just didn’t care. And what I found most interesting about the Memory Alpha article were some quotes from the writers at the end. First, from Jeri Taylor, the showrunner at the time:

Rick and Michael were very distrustful of this story. They considered it a romance novel in space and felt the possibility for embarrassment was monumental, but I just knew it would work. It’s a different kind of story for Star Trek to tell. It is a romance but we do have women in our audience and women do traditionally respond to romantic stories.

This from Bannon Braga:

It was the best performance I’ve ever seen. I just thought she did a wonderful job. Picard catches Beverly masturbating for crying out loud! What a tough role to play. When I was writing the words, ‘She writhes around in the bed having invisible sex,’ I just thought, ‘Oh man, we’re asking for trouble. Are they gonna be able to pull this off?’ Thanks to [director] Jonathan Frakes and Gates, it was not hokey. It was very good. Look, I scripted the first orgasm in “The Game“. This was mild by comparison. Sure it was racy. Even Rick Berman had said, ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this.’ I think they trimmed quite a bit out of the writhing sequences.

And finally, this from René Echevarria:

“I can still reduce Brannon to shudders when I go into his office and say, ‘I can travel on the power transfer beam’. But the cast loved it. Every woman on the lot who read it was coming up to Brannon and patting him. Ultimately I think it was worth doing because it was campy fun and the production values were wonderful. The sets look great and everybody threw themselves into it. Gates did a wonderful job. It just got bigger and broader and to the point of grandmother leaping out of the grave. Just having Beverly basically writhing around having an orgasm at 6 o’clock on family TV was great. For that alone it was worth doing. We got away with murder.”

That last line really summed up a sneaking suspicion I have about the writing on The Next Generation. “We got away with murder.” They weren’t trying to tell good stories. They were trying to be clever.

(I should note that I mean good in the sense of, well, good. Not in the sense of “addictive”.)