Thoughts on Popular Mechanics's "ST:TNG Was the Future We Deserve"

Discussion in 'General Trek Discussion' started by Sci, Feb 19, 2015.

  1. Sci

    Sci Admiral Admiral

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    Popular Mechanics has published an article entitled "Star Trek: The Next Generation Was the Future We Deserve" by Stephen Marche here. Marche's essential thesis was that TNG was the last American television program to reflect an unabashedly optimistic take on the future.

    I don't entirely agree with him.

    I wrote down my reaction on Facebook; below are my thoughts. I've put this in the Gen Trek forum because my reaction encompasses all of modern Trek.

    * * *

    I do not agree with Marche's premise. Rather, I think ST:TNG was the last major U.S. television program to be optimistic about the future without first deconstructing its own tropes and hopefulness first. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, and Star Trek: Enterprise all remained optimistic about the future--the difference for ST: DS9 was that it deconstructed these tropes before putting it all back together again. ST:ENT followed in ST: DS9's footsteps (though less adroitly). ST:VOY's optimism was simply less artistically satisfying because it was being produced in an era when television should have been more sophisticated, but its writing remained trapped in the '80s.

    I think it's important to bear in mind the larger political contexts in which these television programs were being produced. ST:TNG is very much a reaction to Reagnism, much as ST:TOS was a reaction to Camelot and 60s Kennedy/LBJ liberalism. This influenced ST:TNG both in terms of opposing certain common Reaganite values--Star Trek's anti-capitalist subtext is never more over than in the episodes produced during the closing years of the Reagan administration (e.g., their depiction of the Ferengi, episodes like "The Neutral Zone")--and in terms of reflecting a certain Reagan-like optimism. Early ST:TNG could easily be retitled Star Trek: It's Morning in the Federation.

    Whereas ST: DS9 and ST:VOY were very much children of the Clinton era, in both the best and worst senses of that term. In ST: DS9, we have a narrative that is in some ways more sophisticated and self-conscious about its own nature. It is a narrative that recognizes that it is telling a story about a society that is starting out as an indomitable superpower who has won a harrowing cold war--in this way, ST: DS9's depiction of the Federation's position in its early seasons reflects post-Cold War America and the ascendance of the U.S. to the position of unipolar superpower. But ST: DS9's interest is in interrogating that culture and its values, subjecting its representatives to situations with morally ambiguous resolutions. If ST: DS9 can be said to have a unifying theme, it's about how whether powerful liberal democracies can hold on to their values in the face of existential threats.

    Ultimately, ST: DS9 does assert the value and efficacy of liberal democratic values--but it does put them through the wringer first. ST: DS9 ended production in 1999, around the time of Clinton's petite war in Kosovo; but its themes would prove prophetic for the long-term crisis of political legitimacy facing the United States post-9/11.

    ST:VOY, on the other hand, reflects Clinton-era programming at its... well, not its worst. Its most mediocre. It has early potential, particularly as an overtly feminist manifestation of Star Trek's egalitarian spirit (a good thing, given Trek's far too common fall into heteropatriarchy and female objectification). But by the middle of the series, it's become clear that the writers are trying to emulate the tropes of mid-90s action/adventure television through an ST:TNG lens, but they are in doing so losing the quirkiness that made shows like Xena: Warrior Princess popular, and are not reflecting the increased sophistication of characterization that was becoming more common by the late 90s. One need only compare, say, the 1998-1999 seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: Voyager (Buffy Season Three vs. Voyager Season Five) to see how ST:VOY was lagging behind in sophistication in its attempts to, essentially, be a 90s action version of ST:TNG. As a result, its bursts of overt optimism--when it's not being distracted by its spectacle--are far less emotionally satisfying than ST:TNG's such bits had been years earlier.

    ST:ENT, the prequel series however, is very definitely a child of the early Bush 43 years. Its first season represented an overt attempt to "get back to TNG" in terms of making optimism about the future a primary theme again, and in terms of structuring it as a traditional "ship-goes-exploring" show. That worked in the immediately aftermath of 9/11 (when audiences were essentially looking for narratives that overtly reinforced social values), but had run creatively dry by Season Two.

    Season Three represented an attempt by the writers to bring Star Trek into the post-9/11 era by grappling with how a United Earth that has embraced left-wing liberal democratic values would react to a 9/11-style attack on a planetary scale; they experiment with overt serialization (which had become more common by this point, which was the start of the Modern Golden Era of Television) and with 24-style "grim and gritty" storylines and moral ambiguity. But the closing arc essentially reinforces the old Kennedy-esque Star Trek idea of learning to make peace with your enemy rather than demonize him. Season Four experiments with smaller "mini-arcs" and mostly spends its time setting up the Star Trek universe from the original series, though it does return to Trek's tradition of science fiction analogies for real-world politics in its depiction of a militaristic Vulcan government lying to justify invading Andoria as being akin to Bush lying about WMDs to invade Iraq. Alas, ST:ENT was cancelled both before its reactions to the Bush era could cohere into a single narrative--and before Hurricane Katrina and the continued costs of the Iraq War led to the public turning against the Bush agenda.

    The current onscreen incarnation of Trek, J.J. Abrams's films (Star Trek [2009] and Star Trek Into Darkness [2013]), meanwhile, I think reflect two distinct reactions to the Obama era. The 2009 film reflects a weary public looking to feel optimistic and hopeful about the future again--hence its unabashed feeling of space adventure, of salvation through cool technology, of a return to familiar characters in new incarnations. If Obama is the latter-day Kennedy, we the audience can go for Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as the latter-day Kirk and Spock. Yet even the 2009 film cannot quite escape the post-9/11 diminishment of American feelings of security and prominence. Audience-favorite alien world Vulcan is destroyed, and Earth itself is always depicted is grey and dreary tones that clash with the bright color scheme of scenes set aboard the Enterprise.

    Star Trek Into Darkness, on the other hand, represents the shift in public reaction to the Obama era. Where once Obama was seen as bringing about a latter-day Camelot, public dissatisfaction with Obama and the rise of concerns over government power and abuses begun under Bush and continuing under Obama come to the forefront in Into Darkness. Just as distrust in American institutions continues in spite of Obama's early redemptive promise, the audience in Into Darkness discovers that jingoism and state violence without democratic accountability are driving Starfleet Command, in the person of Into Darkness's primary villain, the head of Starfleet who wants to provoke a war with the Klingons and kill anyone he deems a "terrorist." If Star Trek (2009) reflects the optimism that a Kennedy-esque figure can restore us to greatness, Into Darkness reflects the reassertion of disillusionment with institutions.

    And yet! Even Into Darkness, Trek's most overtly cynical take on political institutions, ends with an assertion of the value of hope and optimism. For all that our leaders cannot be trusted to act without accountability, Into Darkness makes it clear that Admiral Marcus's plans were defeated and that liberal democratic values will carry the day. Like ST: DS9, it deconstructs optimism and then puts it back together.

    In my view, Marche is essentially overlooking that no television program is produced in a vacuum. Is Battlestar Galactica (2005-2009) heir to Trek's throne? Perhaps only insofar as it was the definitive space opera of the Aughts. Was it technophobic? Somewhat--but it was more, I would argue, misanthropic. It is ultimately a life-affirming work, but one that essentially seems to argue, "We aren't nearly as good as we ought to be yet. But if we keep holding on, we'll get there." It's a bittersweet theme, though not utterly without hope. It is, true, markedly different from Star Trek: The Next Generation and its status as a primary text in the world of post-Reagan science fiction. Yet if The Next Generation was more hopeful than space opera produced since, it is both because the world looked brighter for America as the Wall fell and in the immediate aftermath, and because Next Gen did not have itself as a primary text and trope-maker to be deconstructed and reacted to.
     
  2. USS Triumphant

    USS Triumphant Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Your political analysis is intriguing, but my primary focus is on the tech. To put it plainly, the medical tech is probably not as far ahead of ours as it should be to be three centuries + from now. And the computer tech is actually backward - a relatively low-end processor from last year outclasses the number of calculations Data was supposed to be able to do in a second. My laptop has more processing cores than the Ent-D.

    Some of the things they were supposed to be able to do with that "advanced" tech - like building Data - would be nice in the future, but the actual tech vision is akin to Bonnie on Knight Rider talking about how KITT ran on *5 whole MEGABYTES*. I'd be disappointed. (Or, actually, impressed as hell with the compression tech and obvious efficiency of code. But still disappointed with the overall picture of tech advancement.)
     
  3. Tosk

    Tosk Vice Admiral Admiral

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    I don't know poop 'bout computers, but is that true? An old processor does more than sixty trillion operations per second?
     
  4. USS Triumphant

    USS Triumphant Vice Admiral Admiral

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    I was off by an order of magnitude, but a Core i7 from two years ago could do 69 billion, and China's new supercomputer can do in excess of 100 quadrillion. So give it 5-10 years. Certainly not 300!
     
  5. HIjol

    HIjol Admiral and Consummate Peacemaker Admiral

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    Your laptop has more core processing than the Enterprise D????...then what the hell are we waiting for???...Mr. Triumphant, set a course for Risa, Warp 9!!!

    As to the OP, aside from having a wonderful voabulary and command of the language, as I followed your discourse, I found myself agreeing mostly with your analysis of the politico-social landscape at the time of the different iterations of Star Trek. I also found myself wondering if, like the "All Good Things" chicken and the egg paradox, relating to the anti-time anomaly, was the sum and substance of each iteration a driving force for the "way things were then" or did the 'way" drive the writing and reality of what would air and air well. Interesting, and not just a little bit fascinating, at least to me!
     
  6. Lance

    Lance Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    Every TV show is a product of the time in which is was borne.

    Star Trek (with "no bloody subtitle", as Scotty might say :D) was a product of what we might call the 'Vietnam War Era', the epoch of the Hippie movement, with a kind of optimism that whatever future awaits us, it must be better than the one we live in. TOS itself juxtaposed its optimism against Vietnam, a conflict that America was at the time tiring of, whereas the movies more overtly played to Cold War tensions with the USSR.

    The Next!Trek era of programmes all contained a different perspective. TNG itself was born twenty years hence of TOS, and the creators were able to look back on the sixties with some sense of irony about what didn't happen as much as what did. The Hippies of Woodstock had evolved to become the Yuppies of Wall Street. So, in a sense, while it retained the optimism that was the franchise's benchmark, it did so with a tinge of irony; and, perhaps, with a greater understanding of where humanity still has many more lessons yet to learn before they achieve true understanding.

    DS9 and VOY, products of the 1990s, are each of them deconstructions of TNG's brand of late 1980s optimism. Each show in its own way 'takes apart' the TNG-era, before reconsructing it again at the end. This is more acute in DS9, but it's not entirely missing from VOY either (cf. "Equinox").

    ENT is a different beast again to all of the above. Its setting gives it a fictional context somewhat 'seperate' to any other Star Trek, but it too is very much a product of its time, a post-9/11 world, where America found it's alliances stretched (remember when America and France were at loggerheads? It wasn't that long ago ;)), reflected on-screen with the sense of distrust that exists between Earth and Vulcan. Certain characters harbor an optimism of what the 'new frontier' might bring, but none of them are under any illusions that they're living in that world yet.
     
  7. Sad Kelpian Child

    Sad Kelpian Child Admiral Admiral

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    I don't know how real this is, but I caught part of a news story today about a device that looked awfully similar to a visor.

    Star Trek TNG is not the future we 'Deserve'. Just the one we want. And we're not going to get if we don't fight for it.

    In terms of being the last optimistic view of the future? Hello, this season of Parks and Recreation takes place in the future and it's extremely optimistic. ;) Most television is unabashedly optimistic, the only television that isn't is shows aimed at males aged 18-39. The far future of Babylon 5 was incredibly optimistic, and so was our brief view of the distant future in Stargate.
     
  8. Forbin

    Forbin Admiral Admiral

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    Sadly, any optimism and ambition toward the future that may have been presented in Trek's various incarnations has been overpowered by public apathy and ennui.

    Space exploration? Wait, I have to check Facebook first - oh look, a puppy!
     
  9. Lance

    Lance Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    :D Very true, Forbin. :techman: Another factor I neglected to mention in my above post was that TOS was alive at a time when space travel really was seen as a modern marvel and 'the new frontier'... there was a lot of optimism about that... but here we are, 50 years later, and you'd be hard pressed to find anybody on the street who would give it a second thought. Space travel in the 1960s felt tangible and real to the average person, even though it was still seen as many years away, people believed in it... by contrast, space travel in the 2010s isn't something that seems to matter much to anybody, anymore, outside of those for whom it is a specialist interest or a part of their job. Don't get me wrong, there are many people who are fascinated by space... but they don't hold the same sense of optimism about being able to be up there, exploring it.
     
  10. Hartzilla2007

    Hartzilla2007 Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Its also the one from TOS, before Roddenberry went nuts and had TNG going on about humanity being boring perfect saints who always get along.

    And TNG's perfect future also has some creepy undertones when you think about it.

    Humanity seems pretty homogeneous which implies thousands of years of rich deep different culture were snuffed in the name of utopia. Any dissension from the group was looked down on. Humanity comes off as condescending jerks to anyone who doesn't match their views and morals. And the whole thing feels like one of those dystopias Kirk usually exposes as evil. Not to mention their complacent as hell.
     
  11. Nightdiamond

    Nightdiamond Commodore Commodore

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    ^ TNg does tend to suffer upon reviewing it. You're going to notice the conformity, the sense of repression in subtle ways.

    It would have been more interesting if they included other types music than just classical or jazz that the characters listened to.


    Without those type of things TNG society seemed off.
     
  12. USS Triumphant

    USS Triumphant Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Triumphant IS the ship. The pic is of Richard Bateson, the ship's avatar and second officer. Which means he's kind of also the ship. But he prefers to be referred to by his "person" name.

    But no, what I said was that my laptop has more processor cores. (I'm not sure about actual processing power, since they were more careful with that than they were with Data's statement and used the nonsense term "kiloquads".) The Ent-D had three, and one was auxiliary, and one was a spare. My laptop has four, all up. My point was that our understanding of how to use our tech is far more advanced. With our current understanding, Commander Data would have been backed up regularly, as would the ship's data, and the ship's OS and programs would be running in virtualized systems that could be reset to standard operation QUICKLY. Privileges would be limited by device and by user, and the damned ship would be smart enough to know that an intruder has no privileges and crewpeople can't access each others' privileges even if they are using their passwords or speaking with their voice or whatever. Along the same lines, no one would be able to just saunter off with shuttles, workbees, etc. Ship's standard controls (not the emergency aux controls, of course) would NOT be connected directly to anything that would allow crewpeople to get fried, burned, or flung back away from them. And systems, especially non-critical ones like the holdecks, would have a freakin' POWER CABLE. (That one should have been common sense even when TNG was made - and the crew should have been able to remember that the shuttles have self-contained transporters/weapons/shields/computers all the times *that* would have saved the day, too.)

    That's why I find the tech for TNG and beyond pretty disappointing. A little imagination with how the computers were designed and used would have been nice. (I'll give Voyager credit for being imaginative enough to have the "neural gelpacks" - and then take those points away again for never using that for anything more clever than "ship has a cold".) TOS had androids, biobeds, tricorders, communicators, etc. By the end of Voyager, all of that was either real NOW or pretty darned close. The TNG era seemed stagnant and unwilling to take the risk of looking dumb later by speculating on tech that might never come true. Boo.
    There definitely IS some of what you're talking about, but I've always chalked a good bit of it up to so much getting destroyed/lost during Earth's late 20th/early 21st century conflicts and wars that the stuff that IS left is almost universally cherished by humanity as a whole. And unfortunately, that included a lot of jazz and classical, and not a lot of Def Leppard and Eminem. ;)

    (Sidenote: In OUR universe, this would be BS, because of the work of people like Joel Whitburn to insure that the Top 40 era is preserved no matter what. I honestly think that anything that left us at the tech level shown in First Contact and that would allow us to build starships that quickly would leave us with redundant copies of stuff off of the Internet ALL over the place. But, the history of Trek isn't our history. I'm not even sure they ever invented the Internet. So, whatever. :D )
     
  13. T'Girl

    T'Girl Vice Admiral Admiral

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    It was interesting in Insurrection that when Picard was really starting to feel youthful, he requested the computer play some Cuban dance music.

    Bateson is Rommie?


    :)
     
  14. USS Triumphant

    USS Triumphant Vice Admiral Admiral

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    More or less, yes. Believe it or not, I conceived of the concept for him before I ever saw Andromeda, though - including the idea that each ship would have its own distinctive avatar. And "Richard Bateson" is an amalgamated personality like The Doctor from Voyager (but based largely on Morgan Bateson) - but that, I *had* seen.
     
  15. fonzob1

    fonzob1 Captain Captain

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    For some reason this made me think of the Star Trek Voyager episode where the holographic doctor created his own family program, and his son was listening to "Klingon music." It was apparently a really deviant thing to do. That show was so hilarious, it deserved a laugh track.
     
  16. Nightdiamond

    Nightdiamond Commodore Commodore

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    Now, if only they mentioned that--it would have been interesting. But, the vibe some fans get is that all of it was deliberately left out.

    It's as if in order to show how advanced humans were, they had to be shown participating mainly in the 'higher arts', or intellectual pursuits, but anything else contemporary was too crude.

    It's not just music, but food, language, how the characters expressed themselves.

    Tea is always served everywhere, banana splits or sundaes, soup, caviar, etc.

    DS9 had Racktajino,(a Klinon coffee,) hoagie sandwiches, root beer, pancakes, something called Jumja Sticks, blood wine, some crap called fish juice, slug cola, jumbalaya.

    Doesn't all of that sound cool--and delicious??


    That scene in Voyager was kind of funny. It would be funny if someone on Youtube added a laugh track to it.

    And I noticed something about it--it stands out. I don't even know the title or even the premise :lol: of the episode, but I always remember that scene.

    I think it's because it actually showed someone in the Trek universe listening to something different.

    TNG had had a lot of examples and references to classical music, but contemporary music, you know, rap, rock, R&B, pop, slow pop, grunge, reggae, etc, was never mentioned, as if it didn't exist.
     
  17. Sad Kelpian Child

    Sad Kelpian Child Admiral Admiral

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    I don't think that humanity in TNG lacks diversity, so much as we don't see a very broad slice of it.

    I think DS9 is a good criticism of TNG's optimism. It presents the view that for a truly peaceful society to survive it can not be naive and must be able to respond to threats.

    And it's true that people aren't focusing much on space right now, but public opinion is gradually moving toward the progressive. That's why there are so many hateful groups around making threats and violence, they're frightenedly aware that they are on the losing side of history, and now they're desperately and violently lashing out about it.