Linux, musical road-dogging, and daily life by Paul W. Frields
Why Star Trek never boldly went anywhere.

Why Star Trek never boldly went anywhere.

Dave, I hadn’t checked on your blog in a while and this post caught my eye. I’m glad your PT is progressing and that you are out of Das Boot. (Clever eyes will find more than one stupid joke in the last sentence.)

I have to disagree with you, though, about Card’s commentary on Star Trek, mainly because I’m just a cantankerous coot at heart. IMHO, Trek’s success is largely due to its firm adherence to the old saw that one should never overestimate the American public’s taste. The day I realized Star Trek really did suck was a tough day for me. While I didn’t let that realization invalidate my youthful love for the original series, which I watched constantly as a kid, I did allow it to inform my taste as an adult for mature television drama, and for science fiction in general.

(Regular readers who hate Star Trek should probably surf elsewhere at this point.) There was a particular episode of The Next Generation in which the android Data ended up going haywire for some reason—I seem to remember this happening with some regularity, but that could just be me projecting back. I do recall he stuck a big knife in the security officer, who was played by some good looking blonde whose name I can’t remember, in the elevator. It was pretty traumatic, but they got things sorted out and eventually fixed Data. But the next week, the security officer and Data were hanging out together as if NOTHING HAD HAPPENED. I don’t care how open-minded you are, if someone sticks a knife in your lung, you’re going to give that person some space for the rest of your natural life.

It’s precisely this horrible script supervision that was symptomatic of all of Trek’s other problems. Why did this situation exist? Because almost every single plot line in Trek had to be resolved in 44 minutes of screen time. Sure, occasionally you’d get the odd two-episode epic, or a season cliffhanger, or an episode where an old character would show up again—which gives the veneer of continuity but not the actual animal itself—which the show’s fans incomprehensibly referred to as “mythology” shows. But then it would be back to the same old “bubble” plots whose outcomes never affected any other story. Even the “mythology” shows generally left everything and everyone in the show the way they’d found them at the opening sequence, with all loose ends tied up in a nice, neat bow… precisely the way that never happens in real life, even if that real life happens to be on a spaceship in the 24th century.

Mythological stories may allow you to tell a good moral story in 44 minutes, but in mythology you don’t have the same story three or four times over out of 20. All those stories have been told better by Aeschylus, Euripides, and the like many times over, and before the advent of Arrid Exxtra Dry commercials to break up the pacing. Most of the dramatic stories worth telling today involve more nuance and subtlety, which means you need both a longer arc period, and characters that are amenable to development, not stasis.

There were a few Star Trek stories that broke the mold. I can remember specifically an episode of Deep Space Nine in which Captain Sisko (not the “Thong Song” guy) was trapped in some sort of spacetime ripple effect. The warp would cause him to pop in and out of his young son’s life at odd intervals. He would only be able to see, hear, and touch his son for short periods between these intervals, so his son experienced brief and wrenching reunions with his father, who never aged, while the son himself aged normally. The Captain saw this as seeing snapshots of his son’s life as it went on without him, the father, in it. It was one of the most touching TV dramas I saw that particular year. Now that’s good fiction. Unfortunately, those epidodes were few, far between, and exceptional rather than de rigueur.

The SF show Babylon 5 solved part of this problem—the continuity issue—by presenting a single story arc that lasted five years. It failed, however, to solve the more central problem of Who cares? With panting melodramatics and an overabundance of cliches not seen since—well, since Star Trek—it had real human drama, but the dialogue generally failed to deliver.

There is good science fiction being made today. The reinvention of Battlestar Galactica is thoroughly engrossing drama, and frankly, it’s made me forget that entire ridiculous disco-era abortion of a TV series (“Dirk who?”), which should be remembered only for its excellent theme music. If you look at cable, there’s the very cool Carnivale on HBO, which is kind of like Clive Barker meets Of Mice and Men. There have been meager but notable helpings in between, from the beautiful “Paladin of the Lost Hour” episode of the new Twilight Zone in the 1980s, to some (but not all) of The X-Files, to Twin Peaks. (I count that as science fiction because it was just too weird to be a mystery series.)

Am I glad Trek’s dead? You’re damned right. Make way for a drama that will actually go boldly somewhere—and not split the infinitive while at it.

And, as a footnote, Dave, you know I respect you and like you personally; we spent a good deal of time together in a previous place of employement. But your knee-jerk attacks on Card’s politics are unwarranted and hypocritical given your blogging of a few months ago. What happened to elevating the debate and countering illogic with logic? You even provide a link to one of his stories and call it “full of poorly formed ideas,” but don’t take the time to argue your point. Don’t just cast stones, show everyone else where they should aim. All right, ‘nuff said, and continued good luck on your writing.