Monday, December 27, 2004

Mostly off topic, but things are slow around here, so...
from the mind of  Duke.

Two years ago, cowgirlup sent me an email lamenting the sorry state of Star Trek Enterprise. Never one to stay out of a conversation regarding science fiction, I wrote the following:

Yes, Enterprise has begun to suck, and political correctness is indeed at the heart of it. The whole point of the show is supposed to be that this is the beginning, when the universe is an untamed and dangerous place. Unfortunately, the writers seem to have forgotten that frontiers are not places where you spend a lot of time sitting around talking about your feelings; you're too busy trying to stay alive.

Some people deride Next Generation as also being too PC, but the difference is that NG had earned it, or rather, the previous series had. Captain Kirk and his contemporaries turned the Klingons into a bunch of pansies, sealed the Romulans up North Korea style inside the neutral zone, and generally tamed the galaxy. When Picard has time to sit around and ruminate about Shakespeare and the like, we can at least acknowledge that his forefathers have earned with their blood the right for him to do so.

The reason this worked was the obvious parallel with contemporary society. My grandfather and his generation went island-hopping in the Pacific to make the world safe enough for my generation to be able watch the television show Survivor take place on those same islands. Even as we whine about the PC aspects of NG, we can't help but identify with them.

So back to Enterprise. The central problem is that this show takes the same liberties with political correctness as NG, without having a nice safe galaxy fairly earned by an earlier (and tougher) generation of explorers in which to do so. We resent the fact that Archer and crew think they have the luxury of acting so damned sophisticated in such a rough neighborhood. The old saying goes that Kirk and Picard wouldn't last a minute in each other's times. Kirk would be court martialed for sexual harassment in about five minutes, and Picard would swiftly have his ass kicked by some very un-PC aliens. Exactly what universe would Archer fit well in? It certainly isn't the one in which he has been placed.

Douglas Adams wrote in one of the Hitchhiker books that all civilizations go through three stages:

Stage 1 - Survival: "What can we eat?"
Stage 2 - Discovery: "Why do we eat?"
Stage 3 - Sophistication: "Where shall we go for brunch?"

It's a good joke, but also surprisingly accurate. The NG universe has clearly evolved to stage three, and in one episode Picard actually does whine to Crusher about the selection at breakfast. Suck it up Jean Luc. If an attractive redhead wants to regularly have breakfast with you, the least you can do is let her choose the menu.

Kirk clearly lives in stage two. Humans have made themselves known and respected, and are busily expanding the twin spheres of influence and knowledge as all aspiring great powers must do. They also have to compete with the Reds, I mean Klingons, who are after the same thing. The food isn't that great just yet, but it is at least plentiful, barring the odd Tribble infestation.

So by all rights, Enterprise should clearly be the stage one entry. Humanity is at the point where it is desperately trying to carve out a place for itself among all the other ambitious species, lest it become merely a footnote in a future printing of the Encyclopedia Galactica. Instead, what we get is Archer (and his dog, his goddamned dog!) eating gourmet meals served to him by a steward in his private mess and having deep conversations with whoever he grants the favor of joining him.

Whoops, suddenly we've jumped ahead to stage three without having gone through stages one or two. Shouldn't that steward instead be down in the engine room doing the 22nd century equivalent of shoveling coal into the engine while the captain dines on C-rations with the other officers? At this point in the game there simply does not exist the luxury of wasting resources like this. When faced with the decision of a waiter or another warrior, which do you think the Klingons would choose? Is it any wonder that we feel so cheated when Archer presumes himself to be a frontier leader?

Addressing pressing social issues in a show like this isn't a bad thing, indeed, some would say it is the strength of Star Trek. The best example is from the original series, where two aliens fight to the death, because one has the left side of his face white and the right side black, while the other has the colors reversed. It seems to the crew of the Enterprise a silly thing to fight over, and the parallels to race relations in the 60s are clear if you think about it. But the show doesn't beat us over the head with the message. Rather, it puts it out there and leaves it to us to figure out. I bet a lot of people have seen that episode numerous times and never realized what it was really about. But that's the point. The effect would be ruined if the message were instead blatantly shoved in our faces.

Unfortunately, this is exactly what Enterprise has done again and again (Voyager is about as equally guilty). They can't just cleverly imply something, they have to spell out in big capital letters over and over again. We feel we are being condescended to, and rightly so.

Before I go to bed, I suppose I need to address what Enterprise has done to the Vulcans. All the previous shows have shown them to be an entirely admirable race. A little smug perhaps, but at least it was well earned. Kirk and Janeway had the right idea, and you'd want a Vulcan on your bridge too. But Enterprise has made the conscious decision to entirely demolish this construct, and make the species into a bunch of lying, condescending, contemptuous assholes. With big breasts. While there has always been plenty of evidence that Vulcans do in fact have a darker side to them, the way Enterprise has gone about showing this is so heavy handed as to be unbelievable. The simple explanation is that the writers of the original series liked the Vulcans. The writers of Enterprise do not. The earlier series has taught us to like the Vulcans, and when the writers now turn on them with this sort of malice, we don't accept it.

I think a lot of Star Trek fans, even those who aren't consciously aware of it, have become turned off to the show for just these reasons. It doesn't matter if the sets and CGI are great, the actors are capable, or even if the writing is good, so long as the crew is fundamentally incompatible with the universe they are supposed to inhabit. It doesn't matter if the message is good when the delivery makes us feel like children being lectured to. It doesn't matter how thoughtfully a sacred cow like the Vulcan race is slaughtered when the audience doesn't want to see it happen in the first place.

This is where the show stands now. Whether or not it can be redeemed, I don't know. Deep Space Nine started off weak, and eventually won me over in a big way. Voyager started off decently, and got worse with almost every passing show. I wouldn't have even kept watching if Seven hadn't shown up when she did.

Wow, I can't believe I wrote this much on a show I don't even like. Guess I hate it more than I thought. Good to know, I suppose.

I think this was more or less on target. Unfortunately, the show never improved, and I long ago stopped watching. Sadly, this left me without a science fiction to watch on television. Stargate never did it for me, and Firefly was gone almost before it started.

Then something wonderful happened. A miniseries revival of Battlestar Galactica was made by the SciFi channel. My expectations had not been high. The original show, for all the rose-colored nostalgia people remember it with, wasn't very good. And how could the same industry that had created the dreadful Enterprise be expected to do better?

But against all expectations, it was good. No, it was great. To summarize for those of you who have not had the pleasure:

Long ago humans fought an indecisive war against the Cylons. In the decades that followed the cease-fire, the danger became remote, and the once feared enemy became more an abstract and half-remembered curiosity than serious threat.

When the Cylons suddenly resumed hostilities, their surprise was complete and devastating. Humanity was not merely defeated, it was nearly exterminated. The crew of the Galactica and a few other ships are all who have survived the holocaust. They are now forced to run from overwhelming Cylon forces, perhaps one day to find the mythical lost colony of Earth.

I have high hopes that Battlestar Galactica will be the anti-Enterprise. Why? The way the series has started will simply demand it. While the Galactica will no doubt face many of the same plot devices we have seen in Enterprise, the nature of their situation will force them to deal with these events in a manner that will hopefully be a little less stomach-churning. Here are what I consider to be the fundamental initial conditions:

Enterprise is stuck with that tired "explore strange new worlds..." nonsense, while the crew of the Galactica is intensely aware that they are running for their lives from an enemy who wishes only to eradicate them. Their mission, above all else, is survival.

Where the eponymous ship in Enterprise is primarily a vessel of exploration, crewed by cartographers, scientists and diplomats, there is no escaping the fact that Galactica is a battleship with a military crew. They are going to see the solutions to their problems in terms of how much firepower they can bring to bear. Given that they are involved in a war, this is not a bad thing, as some would have us believe.

Finally, for the crew of the Galactica, the stakes are simply much, much higher than they ever will be for those aboard the Enterprise. Unwise but politically correct behavior isn't merely going to kill the crew of a single ship; it will doom humanity to extinction. When trouble appears, there will not exist the luxury of stopping to chat and maybe make friends. The more sensible course of action will be to shoot first, then run like hell. If you end up hurting someone's feelings in the process, well too fucking bad.

This isn't to say that Battlestar Galactica will be invulnerable to the usual butchery of Hollywood writers. They've proven themselves far too effective at that for us ever to discount the possibility. But for now, I remain hopeful.

Okay, this is supposed to be a political blog, so I suppose I ought to try to make this little rant at least tangentially relevant to that topic. But you've already seen where I'm going with this, haven't you?

We can choose which of two television shows to watch. Two ships, two captains, two crews. Both share hostile universes with implacable, genocidal enemies.

And we can choose which of two political parties to support. Two platforms, two sets of leaders, two groups of supporters. Both share the same planet with an implacable, genocidal enemy.

Enterprise is written for those who have chosen one way of dealing with such a threat. Will Battlestar Galactica finally be the show for those of us who have chosen the other?

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Pat Tillman. May your name live in the hearts of Americans forever.

11:35 PM  
Blogger JASmius said...

Your take on Enterprise held through the first two seasons, although even then, the angle was that humans were too "primitive" and "impulsive" and "warlike" (i.e. "red state") to be ready to take their place in the local galactic community. Of course, that take came largely from the Vulcans (who were rehabilited in the three most recent episodes and shown to have been the victims of long-term Romulan subversion - but I digress).

Did you watch last season, however? Archer's one-ship campaign against the Xindi wasn't exactly a "peace process." That he won over some "moderates" at the end (the Primates, Arboreals, and Cetaceans) was more a product of his campaign being "one-ship" rather than an entire fleet, which the Xindi Reptillians and Insectoids expected all along.

This season the day-to-day running of the show is in the hands of Manny Coto, who is distinguishable from Rick Berman and Brannon Braga primarily in that Coto is actually a Star Trek fan, which B&B have never been. As such he is writing this season as the entire series should have been from day one - a prequal, showing how the Federation came to be.

Nobody knows if Enterprise will last beyond this fourth season (it's already been moved once, which is typically a "shark-jumping" sign), but at least it's nominally in the hands of someone who is not *reflexively* PC.

(My episodic reviews since, well, day one, can be found at http://home.comcast.net/~jimsondergeld/Reviews.htm)

4:38 PM  
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