When Star Trek: The Next Generation was first broadcast, in the late 1980s, I was working in Asia and Europe; countries where I couldn’t understand television anyway and therefore didn’t own a TV. By the time I’d moved to the USA and eventually got a TV of my own in the mid-90s, TNG was in reruns and I finally caught an episode or two, but I only watched it in earnest in this past year. It’s hard not to make comparisons between the original Star Trek and TNG, and the obvious differences between the two leading men. Captain Jean-Luc Picard is certainly not the Horn-dog hot-head that Captain James T. Kirk was. Picard’s style is more the thoughtful philosopher king than the wenching warrior king of Kirk’s day. Whereas Kirk would strip down to his red tights at a moment’s notice and flex his beefcake body tone to get hearts aflutter, if Picard works any magic on the ladies at all, it is with his thoughtful manner and deep Shakespearean toned voice.
Starfleet has become very PC since Kirk’s strutting rooster days in the 23rd century.. was it perhaps rocked by a sex scandal? Or was the Federation of Planets embroiled in the PC WARS of the early 24th century? While it’s fun to retcon the story itself, this change reflected a real-world attitude shift. By the late 1980s, tawdry sex scandals had become commonplace- there was Jimmy Swaggart’s shenanigans and Gary Hart’s, and the capper; Nelson Rockefeller dying on TOP of his assistant. Suddenly, the idea of a smug lover-boy leader was getting older than Ted Kennedy. Apparently, Roddenberry initially wanted an updated Kirk-type macho man to be the new Captain, but was persuaded to go in a different path for TNG, and just as well, because a few seasons after TNG was launched, Tail-Hook and the tawdry Clinton years meant that a Horn Dog in command was no longer appealing, and a charming rogue now seemed a shallow pig. Casting someone who projected integrity above all things was the right choice.
The go-go boots, mini skirts and beehive hairdos of classic 1960s Star Trek have been replaced in TNG by unisex jumpsuits and a starship interior that is cool and slick, yet somehow reminds me of the Burbank Marriott. Some of the old Starfleet rules seem to have changed too. I thought a starship captain wore a gold tunic, but Picard wears red. Perhaps you wear the colour of your background speciality; blue for sciences, gold for helm/navigation and red for operations? Whereas Kirk was promoted to Captain from being a helmsman, was Picard was once a security red-shirt? As we all know, the life expectancy of any red-shirt is very brief, so Picard was clearly a badass to have survived many an away-team long enough to go bald. Perhaps he was simply given his own starship captaincy as the first ever red-shirt to live past the age of 55.
The character that typifies TNG is Counsellor Troi. While Kirk was the quintessential Space Captain as imagined by cold war 1960s writers, Counsellor Troi is the definitive feel-good alien tea-leaf psychic cum human resources lady as imagined by writers in the PC 1980s. Troi is a “Betazoid empath”; a being with the psychic ability to intuit something clearly obvious from the action you’ve already seen; “I sense great anger in the leader of the alien vessel that just opened fire, Captain.” (Psychic characters sound interesting but suck the fun out of stories if they really have power, and inevitably, Obi-Wan/Gandalf are killed off, so that Luke/Frodo have stuff to actually do. OR, as with Troi, their powers must be limited.) Half-baked though her powers may be, apparently they’re very important in the 24th century, as Troi gets her own chair on the bridge right next to the Captain. Or perhaps Starfleet has placed her there to keep an eye on Picard and other authority figures, like a Zampolit political officer in the Soviet Army? From her post on the bridge, Troi ensures that the officers behave themselves and the holo-deck is always used appropriately; for 3D reenactments of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes, and not holo-porn.
Each Star Trek spinoff series has a character that is not human, but who the show writers use as a foil to explore human-ness. In classic 1960s Star Trek this role was filled by Spock, and In TNG it is Data, an android with a Pinocchio complex who is fascinated by humans. He is an amazing piece of tech; a synthetic human designed with an astonishing attention to detail in some areas and not in others. While Data’s designers took great care to give him lifelike human eye-bags, they thought that giving him the pasty pallor of a corpse was near-enough good-enough. Each of the various Star Trek shows also has a crew member who represents the ’enemy’ of the show prior. Borg-babe 7-of-9 is a crew member of Star Trek: Voyager even though the Borg were Starfleet’s enemies in TNG. Lieutenant Worf is a crew member in TNG even though Klingons were Jim Kirk’s deadly enemies previously. Pavel Chekov was a crew member on the original Enterprise, even though the audience at home in the mid 1960s feared the Russians more than anything else. This idea, that our enemies of yesterday will become our friends tomorrow, may be a likeable notion, though I don’t really know if it is true. Will there ever be an Al Qaeda or ISIS officer on the bridge of future Star Trek Spinoffs? We shall have to wait and see..
Back in the 23rd century, Captain Kirk travelled that part of the galaxy with toga-wearing aliens and intelligent gas clouds from end to end, and in the 24th century Captain Picard explores that further quadrant of space where everyone has a lumpy forehead. It turns out that wherever Starfleet goes, everyone speaks English already. In the 23rd century, Pavel Chekov had a Russian accent (of sorts) but by the 24th century, Jean-Luc Picard has no French accent at all. Supposedly, it’s because the French language has died out by then. This is where the optimism of Star Trek becomes something else; the smug idea that in time, everyone will inevitably become just like us. It turns out that we can assimilate just as implacably and efficiently as the Borg.
Originally published on my FALLOUT blog in January, 2015.