Monday, July 17, 2006

"Just My Job, Five Days A Week": Diffusing Star Trek's Allegorical Shorthand For The 24th Century

(Wow, now I have to live up to that title....)

First off, Rick Berman is the Roy Thomas of Star Trek.

As plok so thoroughly discusses, Roy the Boy was the first writer to take Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's immortal Fantastic Four (along with a few other Marvel titles) and "consolidate" it, by refining, rationalizing, harmonizing, etc., the stories into a coherent whole upon which he and future writers could build. Plok observes that Roy had to figure out how to do FF right, because with both Stan and Jack gone it became possible to do FF wrong.

Somewhat similarly, Rick Berman worked with Original Trek creator Gene Roddenberry on "Star Trek: The Next Generation"’s all-new cast. As Roddenberry's influence over TNG waned, Berman's grew; and Berman eventually guided TNG's movies and successor series.

Berman took Star Trek "from idiosyncratic vision to corporate property," to borrow plok’s words, which to me makes him a more pivotal figure than later Original Trek producers Fred Freiberger and John Meredyth Lucas. TNG under Berman codified and (at the risk of misusing the term) objectified Star Trek, making systems and rules out of dramatic conceits.

Well, what about the "Phase II" producers, or Harve Bennett, smart guy? Yes, I know ... but "Phase II" never got off the ground, otherwise we might be discussing Jon Povill and/or Harold Livingston. As for Bennett, his Star Trek movies (and The Motion Picture too, although he had no part in it) were opportunities to capitalize upon the original cast's continued appeal. TMP was very much in the mold of the TV show's Guest-Star-of-the-Week format, so much so that it might well be considered the 80th episode; and Bennett’s movies (as he's said) are their own animal, looking at the characters themselves. If they don't have much to do with Gorns or guys with half-black faces, it's by design. The Bennett movies are Trek deconstructed, not Trek rehabilitated; and rehabilitation works better over the long run than deconstruction does.

There is a providential symmetry to all of these developments, because a lot of Star Trek is (or has become) about the framework. Trek trivia not only makes some story point about how far humanity has come, it adds another item to How Things Work In The Future. Star Trek’s producers wanted everything to be believable not just for believability’s sake, but also because an idyllic future was part of the point of the series. An excerpt from the original Star Trek proposal (reprinted in Stephen Whitfield’s The Making Of Star Trek) states that the show would have all the advantages of an anthology series, and none of the limitations. That means having a consistent background. Perhaps the closest comparison we have today is "Law & Order," which by the way didn’t have to first invent the American judicial system and thereafter maintain its believability.

From this perspective, the more fleshed-out the future was, the easier it would be to craft new characters to take over for the old ones. (Again, think "L&O’s" revolving-door casting, which starts from the premise that you need two Detectives and two Lawyers, details to follow.) As we’ve seen, Star Trek had already replaced virtually its entire cast in the housecleaning between pilot episodes. However, when the crew turned out to be popular, gradually the show learned to focus on them more.

This focus developed into the allegorical personifications of Kirk the Mediator (or the Decider, as I originally adapted the Bushism), Spock the Brains, and McCoy the Heart. By allowing the three leads to comment on the story of the week, even in somewhat predictable fashion, the show developed their characters while staying true to its anthological aspirations.

Now, this might have been character development only in the sense of maintaining or reinforcing existing tendencies, but that kind of thing can accrete over time into something that can at least be deconstructed later. In his seminal criticism The World of Star Trek, David Gerrold called the negative aspects of this "hardening of the arteries." Gerrold argued that Star Trek’s main dramatic focus shouldn’t be Kirk In Danger, but Kirk Makes A Decision. In this light, the movies are about the choices the aging crew makes, with the aggregate effect thereof being everyone back aboard a new Enterprise.

Along the way, whether coincidentally or by design, the movies kill and revive Original Trek’s two constants, Spock and the Enterprise. The series always had contingency plans for the loss of Spock, namely Xon and Saavik; and but for Leonard Nimoy’s continued enthusiasm, would have used them. Spock’s death ended Original Trek’s continuity of character, or at least put it in serious question.

Likewise, the destruction of the Enterprise ended (or at least, etc.) Original Trek’s continuity of setting. From Star Trek IV forward, the setting would be "an" Enterprise, not "the" Enterprise, and I think that makes an important tradeoff. If all you need is the name, the ship itself becomes less important. Although Kirk in Star Trek IV declares (with some irony) that "a ship is a ship," taken together, the "replacement Spocks" and the replacement Enterprise suggest that particular individuals indeed don’t matter as long as core storytelling functions are covered.

While this all suggests that Spock (the original Friendly Alien Outsider) and the Enterprise (as the vehicle for exploring space) are core storytelling elements critical to any series incarnation, it also suggests that all one needs are those functions, because (as "Deep Space Nine" and "Voyager" make clear) even the ship’s name is unnecessary.

Back to "Phase II." It not only took into account the lack of Spock, it also had a contingency plan for William Shatner bailing out. As First Officer, Cmdr. Will Decker would take part of Spock’s duties, and was also imagined as being the Young, Swashbuckling Kirk Figure. (Kirk was apparently going to be older, wiser, and perhaps more distinguished. These are not traits one might associate with Shatner in the '70s, but let's cruise on.)

The bulk of Spock’s Friendly Alien Outsider role would be played in "Phase II" by Lieutenant Xon, another Vulcan science officer. Additionally, Decker’s old girlfriend Ilia would have been a kind of Bizarro-Spock (or Spock for the Sexual Revolution), an empath for whom sexuality was the new logic. In a weird ‘70s way, then, Decker/Xon/Ilia could have been mapped to the old Decider/Brains/Heart model, with Ilia’s hyper-femininity taking the place of Bones’ humanism in the "Heart" category.

Much of this translated to TNG. Distinguished Kirk became Picard, Decker/Young Kirk became Riker, Xon became Data (although Data also owed a bit to Roddenberry's "Questor Tapes" android), and Ilia became Troi. However, somewhere along the way Ilia’s overt sexuality was toned way down into Troi’s first-season frumpiness. If Ilia were truly going to represent the Heart (or perhaps the Id), there was little hint of that in the way Troi was utilized.

The rest of the TNGers seem to have come from outside the "Phase II" playbook. Tasha Yar was inspired by Aliens’ Lt. Vasquez, and was originally called "Macha Hernandez," apparently because "Manlia McStudly" wasn’t ethnic enough. Wesley represented Roddenberry’s vision of a family-friendly Enterprise-D, as opposed to the "militaristic" starship of Bennett's films. Geordi was a tribute to a paraplegic Trek fan, George LaForge. Worf was the Chekov of the new crew, and the last added, intended to show the progress in intergalactic superpower relations.

That leaves Dr. Crusher, chief medical officer. Although "Phase II" would have featured a female doctor in the person of Christine Chapel, she would still have been second to McCoy. Apart from specialities in psychotherapy and holistic medicine, and even as a potential McCoy contingency plan, Chapel wouldn't have brought much more to the dramatic table than she did in the Original Series. Indeed, her most notable subplots there centered around a mad scientist fiance in "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" and her unrequited lurve for Spock in "The Naked Time" and other episodes. The latter was hardly even superficially similar to the relatively complex Crusher/Picard relationship. However, Beverly's role in the ensemble cast was defined mostly by males -- Picard and Wesley, who were connected to her through her late husband.

I find this curious because it suggests that McCoy was a truly irreplaceable character. TNG admits as much through two examples: having the doctor himself give the Enterprise-D a proper sendoff in "Encounter at Farpoint," and making Dr. Pulaski a (wait for it) Bones clone in the second season. Still, in something of an homage to Kirk, McCoy, and Spock, TNG's Captain, Doctor, and Brains were featured on the cover of The Continuing Mission, its tenth-anniversary coffee-table book.

Not having McCoy-like skepticism meant that TNG would have to play the Captain off the Friendly Alien Outsiders, or off the other "regular humans" in the cast. I suppose one could see this as a further diffusion or fragmentation of McCoy among said regular humans, but in the longer view it looks more like McCoy just had a more distinct personality than a lot of other Trek crewmembers.

And therein lies the end of Kirk/Spock/Bones particularly, and maybe the Decider/Brains/Heart triangle generally, in favor of the Captain and (more often than not) the FAO.

For the most part I think this holds up. Picard played off Data, Worf, and (when she was around) Guinan; Sisko likewise got paired with Dax, Odo, Quark, and Worf; and Janeway started out already chummy with Tuvok and ended up BFF with Seven of Nine.

However, the Captain/First Officer relationship also gets a lot of attention. In every Modern Trek case I think it has to do with built-in conflict. Sisko/Kira and Janeway/Chakotay are obvious in this respect. Likewise, Picard/Riker initially seemed poised for a turf war, but the two ended up getting along.

Again, I’m probably forgetting more than a few, but you see my point. Most of the big relationships involve the Captain-figures. This makes sense, because the Captain needs information from just about everybody, and the episodes don’t usually leave room for a lot of other relationships. The TNG movies even tended to split the crew between a Picard team and a Riker team, with the focus being on Picard and Data. (The exception was the scattershot Generations, which still paired Captains Picard and Kirk.)

Other recurring relationships tend to be familial (the Siskos, the Crushers), romantic (too many to list), or just "buddies" (Data/La Forge, Bashir/O’Brien, Paris/Kim). This, I believe, is the source of the workaday attitude fostered by TNG. These relationships are valuable in an ordinary dramatic way, but they're not charged with the same dramatic responsibility as Kirk/Spock/Bones or (for example) Sisko/Kira. They do lend themselves to the ubiquitous pedeconference, and they make the characters more accessible.

However, that workaday attitude tends to demystify the original Star Trek atmosphere of boldly going, etc. By and large I still believe all five Trek shows expressed the "Risk is our business!" attitude described in the previous post, but if nothing else, the sheer volume of Modern Trek allowed more opportunities to highlight the mundanities of Starfleet life. (Who knows, at this point, whether "Enterprise" would have fallen into this pattern? I tend to think it would not have, mainly because it wasn't anywhere close to developing the large supporting casts the other shows did. Also, "Enterprise" pretty plainly aimed to recreate Kirk/Spock/Bones with Archer/T'Pol/Trip.)

Thus, the lyrical choice for this post's title. "All the science I don't understand," indeed! Ah, if only I were in charge of Paramount's promos for its Trek syndication packages....

One of the best examples of the NextGen-era diffusion comes in the big finale of "The Best Of Both Worlds, Part 2." Riker's on the Bridge, ready to ram the Enterprise into the Borg Cube in a last, desperate attempt to save Earth. Meanwhile, Picard/Locutus is in Sickbay, with Data, Dr. Crusher, Troi, and O'Brien trying to hack the Borg communications grid through him. Data handles the actual communication, with Troi around to sense whether the real Picard can take control.

Watching the episode today made me wonder how the Original Series would have played the situation. Would Spock's place have been as Captain, on the bridge, or mind-melding with Lo(Kirk)us in Sickbay? If the latter, I guess Scotty would have been in the center seat -- but wouldn't he have wanted to be in Sickbay too, monitoring the Borg comm grid? That would leave Sulu with the conn, and wouldn't that have been a sight -- the Enterprise's finest helmsman, juking and swerving the great starship, narrowly evading Borg fire.... Well, anyway, it probably would have been Scotty at the conn, Sulu at the helm, and Chekov monitoring Borg chatter.

Still, what a corker it would have been! Because Lokirkus knows full well that Spock will try logic first, he has every advantage -- until Spock gets a visit from McCoy, who tells him he has to let go of Kirk. (It's almost a reprise of "The Tholian Web," except Spock and Bones wouldn't necessarily be fighting, and there would be no taped farewell from Kirk giving both men the critical advice.) Of course, Guinan does this for Riker in "BOBW2," which I think is as close to a Kirk/Bones moment as TNG may ever have come. However, imagine the emotions accompanying that Spock/Lokirkus mind-meld! "BOBW2" does have the hint of a comparable scene between Locutus and Beverly, but it never materializes; and likewise there's not much subtext to Troi's witnessing of Picard's final emergence. Again, the most powerful part of the sequence, in this respect, is when Picard grips Data's arm; and not just because it reminds me of Spock and Kirk's handclasp after the V'Ger mind-meld.

To sum up, then, across the five series, the pattern to me has always been the Captain and the FAO. The difference with the Original Series was the elevation of McCoy to an equal partner in the relationship. With his distinct personality unavailable for subsequent series, his similarly unique contribution was abandoned (or at least diminished) in favor of the viewpoints of the non-FAO crew, making their roles more mundane in the process.

Does that sound right? Because he couldn't replace Dr. McCoy, Rick Berman ended up reviving the original Star Trek dramatic dynamic. Well, that might not exactly have been his intent, but that seems to have been the effect. Every new series must necessarily be at least a little different from the old, for obvious reasons; but at the same time, the spinoffs must be familiar enough to keep from alienating the lifers. I don't mean to characterize the process as one from Column A, two from Column C, etc., because I have enjoyed all of the series, and the characters are naturally big parts of that. However, I do think that "dilution" might be the best way to describe the transformation of Star Trek's dramatic structure. Roy Thomas didn't dilute Fantastic Four, certainly, so the comparison might not hold up absolutely; but both works came out of their "consolidations" ready to be perpetuated for decades to come.


Anonymous said...

Well worth the wait, Tom -- and you drill down informatively into what always disappointed me about the latter-day Star Treks, which is that in their zeal to produce a Roddenberrian utopia in the spreading concept of the Federation's systems, they overlook the conflict between technological progress and human values that Roddenberry himself never failed to put at the heart of each episode. Each of Kirk's pivotal decisions proves a compromise between the values of man's technological systems, and the values of man himself, because it has to: each episode reaffirms the value of synthesizing Heart and Brain. But the later STs don't really do this, so much as they just hint at or invoke this tension because it's kind of expected: the diffused qualities of McCoy (I'm pleased to hear you say the character is irreplaceable, because I guess I always wanted him to be) are simply manouevred, deployed around whatever issue is in a given episode's forefront, DeForest Kelley's lines split up and placed into the mouths of various characters, and so the dramatic tension they would have created in the original is diffused, too, more accurately defused, and permanently. But, I agree with you I think, as much as I might wish it otherwise this diffusion is probably necessary to the consolidation process...the new structure of Xon/Decker/Ilia, or Data/Picard/Troi, leaves nothing for a McCoy stand-in like Pulaski or Crusher to do -- Pulaski seems unreasonably harsh, Crusher seems void of dramatic effectiveness in her own right, and so one stands for something no longer needed, the other for nothing at all (although it might have been better if Crusher had been second to Pulaski!). In DS9 it gets even more diffuse, as Dax or Quark or even Odo might play the part of the Heart when necessary, too: although it clearly wasn't set up to be that way, that's what it became, and I think mostly because the new, post-TOS structure you identify requires that the pure triune structure of Spock/Kirk/McCoy be abandoned. And that the friction between CO and Exec almost takes over from this, but doesn't, has always bugged me a bit, but maybe it fizzles simply because Kirk himself isn't the CO; Riker has nothing to learn about how to do the synthesis of Heart and Brain from studying Picard, after all, as even (just as a weird example) Saavik does learn this from Spock in WOK...interestingly, it's Saavik who plays "Brain" to Kirk there...and Janeway/Chakotay and Sisko/Kira don't ever really fight, they just sign passively at the possibility that they may disagree, and then they find a way not to. And then they start doing other things instead: Riker becomes poker expert/jazz trombonist/linguist/ladies' man/jerk, Chakotay does vision quests, Kira develops tension with her past and her beliefs...these characters aren't locked in the S/K/McC structure anymore, so they're pretty much doomed to being second-bananas that the CO just interacts with, but then that means they have to start getting a lot more interesting in their own right just to justify being there, and fairly often that works out okay. Pretty soon you can even add tons of characters, just so the second bananas can bounce off them. The whole thing goes soap opera or sitcom, most notably (and pleasingly) in DS9.

Oh no, am I just repeating what you've already said?

I think you've got it. Because you couldn't just make another ST with S/K/McC stand-ins plain and simple, what would be the point? It's been done. So at first there's the Distinguished Kirk playing off Decker playing off Xon and Ilia, but then once Distinguished Kirk becomes Picard, that system of tensions has to change, because Picard doesn't have anything to pass on to the next generation, as Kirk would have.

Gee, I actually have more to comment, here, but it's coffe time. Hopefully I pull my thoughts into some kind of order before I return. A pleasure, Tom: I think this structural look at Star Trek holds up really well.

Tom Bondurant said...

I want to say that by the time TNG rolled around, Roddenberry had become fond of the idea that technology would free humanity to be utopian. This was expressed in the phrase "Technology Unchained," which apparently meant the new Enterprise was more magical (within reason) than its predecessors had been. Thus, you have the Holodeck, where Picard can be a gumshoe, but a couple of seasons later we see that Barclay is using it for ... well, for pornography, not to put too fine a point on it. It brings to mind the early drafts of "City on the Edge of Forever," where instead of McCoy going back in time, it's a no-name Enterprise crewman who's a drug addict. That got nixed because Roddenberry didn't want drug addicts on his nigh-perfect crew, and arguably "City" is stronger for McCoy's humanistic perspective being in the mix. (I wonder -- did they ever tell him how he changed history; and if so, what was his reaction? How does "first do no harm" factor in?)

Anyway, thanks for commenting, and don't let me stop you if you're not finished. These "upgraded" Treks we're getting now are really kind of fun to watch, moreso for the chance to revisit the old show than for the new effects (although the new effects are neat too). I've got an appreciation for "The Naked Time" percolating, but I'll have to get some screencaps ready before it goes live....

[Word verification: BETMX, obviously referring to that outdated video format]