To boldly go where no one has gone before

I keep a directory where I store my ideas for this blog until I find the time to write them down properly. There, I put those things with which I spend my spare time, and when I’m done with one of those things (or when something significant is associated with them… or when it just feels right), I pull them from the stack and write down what I have to say. From the very beginning, one of the items was Star Trek. I have come to realize that there won’t be a time when I’m finished with Star Trek. So now is as good a time as any. Most certainly, in future posts I will say more about this. I have even thought about opening up a new sub-directory for my Star Trek topics (and I decided against that).

When I was a child, my mother introcuced me to the world of Star Trek. She herself had been a big fan of the classical series (which is abbreviated by TOS – The Original Series – by the knowledgeable people aka the nerds) since she was young, and together we watched many of the episodes about Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. In those days, there were already re-runs of the subsequent series The Next Generation (abbreviated: TNG), and I liked those even more. Then came Voyager, which I watched regularly from its beginning to its end on TV. It took me a lot longer to appreciate Deep Space Nine, where I jumped in only in its last season, and I had to wait painfully long for the re-runs to start and tell me the whole story. And, like almost anyone, I was deeply disappointed from watching Enterprise.

Last summer, I restarted watching the classical episodes, and I was mesmerized about how well many of those stories were told. The special effects are ridiculous or even non-existent, but who cares? The chemistry between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is great, there are well-crafted stories and interesting characters. I sometimes felt that stories like those are not made anymore in today’s television. Many of these episodes were new to me, others I could get to know on a whole new level. Besides, the non-dubbed voices of my classical heroes were a special thing to experience – especially since my DVDs allowed me to compare them with the German translation (which is, frankly, horrible). It is nearly spectacular to hear, what pains the translators took to avoid words like “alien” or “race” in the German version. In most of these instances the meaning of the lines is completely twisted and makes no sense whatsoever.

I shall not make a list of the best episodes or even mention the highlight ones. Lists like this can be found enywhere on the internet and will not make too much sense here. Maybe, I will return in future posts and pick some of my favourite episodes, but this is not the time. The more crucial thing is the kind of universe that is on display in Star Trek, in comparison to the universe in which these episodes were produced. Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, made up a world in which there is hope for mankind: no war, no racism, no avarice. Mankind as a whole intends to better itself. A vision like this in the 1960’s, when the Cold War was at its most crucial phase, was very special. Sadly, there are several episodes in which Roddenberry didn’t perceive the beam that was in his own eye: the portrayal of women is sometimes embarrassing, to say the least.

On the bright side, Star Trek has very different aspects to it: action, suspense, political thriller, psychological issues, exploration and science, some fun episodes… you won’t know what kind of show is waiting for you when you start watching a new episode.

When I was done with the 79 episodes of TOS, I rested for a couple of weeks. Then I ran for the 178 episodes of TNG, and this is where I am now. In the middle of its penultimate season, purely and plainly amazed.

I have remembered every episode of TNG when I saw the teaser. But, oh boy, I didn’t remember how good they were. The first two seasons were sluggish and sometimes horrible. But then, the writers had found out what kind of stories they could tell and the ensemble had found its rhythm. And the show produced some of the finest hours of television. Again, I shall not enumerate my favourite episodes – I am still lacking one and a half seasons, and finding a ranking is too tough here. But one episode after the next turns out to be very well-made television in every aspect. This totally makes my day.

The pivotal quote about Star Trek, and the fans’ credo, is this one:

Space – the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before.

That’s what the episodes are about, some way or another: these people are explorers. Sometimes they have to fight or to deal with politics, but in their hearts, they seek to improve and better themselves. And this is mirrored by the crew of TNG. Other than TOS, there was a bigger ensemble, and each of them got a chance to be the center of some episode. TOS was a show about Kirk and Spock, sometimes about McCoy. There were other people on the ship, but no episode ever focused on Scotty or Uhura. TNG is different. And that is its strength.

Of course, Patrick Stewart as the Captain is the most talented and most experienced actor of the cast. But he is never a scene-stealer. He has episodes as a diplomat, as a strong leader, as a tough defender of humanity against its enemies, as a father figure to his crew, and as an emotional, subtle, caring, sometimes insecure, man. The entire spectrum can be found in this man, and it depresses me that this list must be incomplete. For instance, I haven’t mentioned his humanity in sparing the life of one of his deadliest enemies; I haven’t mentioned him being the victim of torture; I haven’t mentioned him being revengeful; I haven’t mentioned him being in love; I haven’t mentioned so much. This is a deep, complicated character that we get to know over the years, and he is brilliantly played by the amazing Patrick Stewart.

The most interesting character is Data, an android wishing to become human. For science-fiction reasons, he is the secret weapon of the writers for avoiding trouble with the plot. If in doubt, Data can resolve the problem because he’s an andoroid. Just because. Science. But this is not doing justice: Data doesn’t have feelings, but he develops bonds to his comrades. His ethics stand higher than any order he can be given. And he does develop grandly over the course of the years, always trying to overcome the boundaries of his programming. In one episode, he meets Spock and they discuss their respective goals in life: Spock trying to overcome his human part and to suppress emotions to become more and more Vulcan – as opposed to Data who has always reached for what Spock wanted to get rid of. Data has always been one of my favourite characters when I was a child.

The character that I really have grown to like during my present re-watch is Worf, a Klingon raised by humans. He grew up a stranger among humans, holding himself to traditions that no-one in his surroundings even knows about. When you compare him to other Klingons, he is more by-the-book than the others of his kind. And he has to live in disgrace for treason, wrongly attributed to his father (the real traitor is too powerful to be accused). There, again, is a very deep character with a lot of development over the years. I didn’t like the Klingon stories when I was younger (too dark, maybe), but by now, I find them amazing. In particular, the Klingons are by no means one-dimensional warriors, as they are shown in later series such as Voyager. They are a society as complex as the human society. TNG still has this trait and sells it. And so does Michael Dorn, Worf’s actor, playing a character between two worlds, trying to be Klingon and yet having strong bonds to his human foster parents and his son (though he eventually becomes alienated to him, which gives even more depth to these two characters).

With the Klingon stories, Star Trek started to explore the concept of building large story arcs. In TOS, every episode was self-contained. If you missed some episode, you wouldn’t notice it later. There’s a planet of the week or an alien of the week, and it’s never mentioned again. In TNG, this is still true for most episodes. But there are some large arcs that tell longer and more complicated stories. This is more troublesome for the viewers, since knowledge about the previous actions is necessary and will not be properly repeated. But the story-telling improves a lot. This is where the journey began to today’s TV shows, which tell one single, very long story in the course of several seasons, such as 24, How I met your mother, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones – just to name a few. Star Trek was one of the first shows to experiment with what you can ask of the viewers; just very slowly, of course, since it was long before the era of DVD-sets and streams from the internet. Today, you can watch the entire season back to back, instead of waiting for the next time-slot on the TV.

In many of their best episodes, Star Trek series take an ethical or moralic issue and make you think about it. Some characters will argue pro, others will argue con – and there is no right answer. The characters will act some way in the end, but it will not always be clear whether or not this was a good choice. The science-fiction set is often only a stage or a means to disguise the actual present-time conflict. Roddenberry started this concept in the 1960’s with several episodes about racism and human rights and how to deal with that. TNG took this a lot farther, and sometimes made humanity look a lot darker than Roddenberry had intended. The endpoint of this (amongst many other examples) is Deep Space Nine‘s issue about the big scale conflict that leads to war with tho Dominion – what means can be justified in order to save your own ideals? Does the end justify the means? This is a highly up-to-date question even today, having been discussed by Star Trek decades ago already. And there is no fixed answer to this. Many of the Star Trek episodes can be seen as parables to present-time topics, and in this, they are as up to date as ever.

After their run on the TV, both TOS and TNG went on to produce several big screen movies. Somewhere I heard the very true classification “When they were bad, they were bad. But when they were good – they were masterpieces” (this quote is from a guy nicknamed “Confused Matthew” – his work on the internet is another topic in my stack for future posts). Again, no ranking here. But the good movies did what the TV episodes did in their best moments. In the recent years, after Enterprise had brought down the entire franchise, there were two movies that tried to re-boot the concept of Star Trek. I’m not amazed about those, I already find their premise about an alternate reality rather weak in the first place – and then, they don’t even employ the potential strength of this premise but try and tell the same stories we’ve seen before. Anyway – these new movies only take the names that we once knew and apply either totally different characters to those names or no character at all. The first half hour of the most recent movie “Into Darkness” was a brief, shining moment of building up a fresh, interesting story with all sorts of fine moralic and psychological conflict – only to abandon it immediately for big explosions and stupid action. Too bad. I actually liked the actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Zachary Quinto.

I’ll now take a look at the next episode of TNG. And I will have think about some aspects of Star Trek to discuss in more detail.