Sunday, December 19, 2010

Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation II

Hrm, I don't seem to have been posting much lately. Why could that be?

Oh yeah, I've been watching more Star Trek:
  • The Last Outpost: This episode is one of the more comic episodes. One of the themes that re-surfaces here, which was actually present in Code of Honor is about the role of women in society. In Code of Honor, the alien race is constantly shocked that Lieutenant Yar is given a position of authority and power. The Last Outpost one-ups that sentiment by providing the Ferengi, who are constantly professing a deep moral abhorrence to the idea that women are permitted to wear clothes.

    Another theme comes up: the relationship between the extremely powerful (almost godlike) and the definition of human. A dead planet (the Last Outpost) is being protected by an outdated computer defense program that wipes out barbarian races on sight. But mankind passes on the chance to destroy the Ferengi, instead teaming up with them to find their way out of trouble, and that attracts the attention of the god-like caretaker, who realizes they have potential. Oh, and the god-like caretake apparently really likes Sun-Tsu.

    This care-taking omniscience testing man-kind is the underlying thesis of the show -- which, by the way, is not that far with the core plot of Babylon 5. What is mankind, and what will it do when its science reaches the point that they are like gods? That's why the show opens with Q -- the central organizer of this theme. Unlike Babylon 5, though, it's a theme, not a plot.

    So, ticking off two boxes: mankind as the developing messiah, and a repeated attention to the future as having really good equality between men and women.

  • Where No Man Has Gone Before: A liar and a braggart who is commonly believed to be the greatest living warp physicist tries a calibration test of the engines, and they wind up basically way, way, way too far away from anywhere they recognize. (Voyager fans are pretty familiar with this -- this is the premise of their series).

    The braggart is actually being fed data by a mysterious creature named The Traveller, who is basically a tourist who's looking around at our reality. In other words, another nearly-omnipotent being a little bit blind to their impact on lesser creatures. The rights of the powerful over the less powerful is another aspect of this general premise.

    It comes up frequently in the form of the "Prime Directive," a rule that (somewhat ambiguously) forbids Star Fleet from messing with "less advanced" (more "primitive") species. But they're always being messed around with by more advanced creatures.

    The Traveller, unlike Q, realizes his mistake, and expends his energy to get them home. In the process, though, he isolates Wesley Crusher (a trope namer) as being a messiah figure -- the first one among the crew who will eventually transcend this reality with his genius.

    What makes not-our-reality different from this one? It's a place where thought becomes reality -- the end point of science and of power. It's the power that Q offers Riker. The power is pure thought.

  • Lonely Among Us: The flip-side of the "powerful advanced life-form" is the "powerless, desperate energy/crystalline being." In this one, it's an energy being that gets caught in the USS Enterprise when it passes through a nebula. It really just wants to go home, so it takes over various people on the crew to try and get them to drive the ship home.

    The point at which "something" becomes "something alive" is pretty crucial to understanding what makes us ourselves. For Star Trek, that line appears to be defined around "intentionality." It comes up over and over again: the moment where they realize that the energy is trying to get home. It is clearly alive.

    One of the things that I appreciate about The Next Generation is the capacity of this crew's ability to forgive. In The Original Series, there was a habit of it being an "us-versus-them" battle. A group of creatures in one TOS episode try to take over the crew because their race has nearly died out and they need host bodies to survive in. TNG would probably tackle this by trying to find a way -- maybe in the holodeck -- that they could survive without needing the crew's bodies. In TOS Captain Kirk swings out an old "well we're not going to suffer for their mistakes" and at the end, everyone stands there with frowny faces unhappy about the end of a race.

    In this episode, once they realize the helplessness of the energy creature, it's clear that they will have to go back to the nebula and reunite it. This choice is easy this time, but when the same choice comes up later, they react differently.