Thursday, 2 June 2011

Half-elf, half-orc and the USS Enterprise

It struck me today, more forcefully than ever, just how radical by our standards Star Trek was when first shown. A mixed-race crew with representatives of former and current opponents in hot and cold armed conflict. They may have had a white North American male ordering them about, but by contrast the alien half-elf was arch conservativism.

The Next Generation always seemed to me a step forwards, but I suspect now it could have been a step back. An elder captain meant a more subtle paternalism, and as a Frenchman played by a Brit a reference to early influences on modern North American culture. For all the extra women on show - one to three in the main cast - and a man with a disability - overcome in part - there was less reflection of our diversity.

That diversity seemed to have been moved into other forms of life - an android and a Klingon - and with regard to opponents, the assumption seemed to have been made that mass conflict would eventually be overcome too. The Prime Directive reinforced this, suggesting each group had to make its own way up. But, as the android suggested with his growth arc, up appeared to mean human, or at least the ideals of the Federation.

It became fashionable to bash the good guys over the course of TNG, certainly in DS9, perhaps even to denigrate the idea of good. But there was a bright light in a character we might easily first equate with a half-orc - a trope I'd say is still fresh - Worf. The development of the Klingons through him made so much possible, not least DS9. 

His being there highlighted the value of an alternative perspective on things, the wonders of a reference to multiple sources, the deep fulfilment in a constant struggle to know the best approach. This struggle is likely a very general thing, something fundamental to a universe in which it appears just one of potentially many possibilities is experienced. If the Federation was this, Worf's essence as a character, it might have been a worthwhile venture, and on that level, through Worf, TNG may have kept that early radicalism alive.

Of course, that radicalism was largely conservative, belief in a wholesome past used to shape a better future. It seems to reject the Enlightenment while actually being at root the same process, an opening up of the mind to a lost, forgotten or revealed body of knowledge, the demonstration of its value and its use to synthesise new solutions.

But then from 1987 to 1994, the consensus outside Trek was for consensus itself, and a globalisation was moving visibly and fast. In this sense TNG may have been advocating the other view still, albeit this time a comfortable, cosy, closed tradition, as far as the franchise would tolerate. After all, an update of a successful series isn't especially bold.

As for the ideas of the original series, I won't argue the times weren't already moving ahead of Star Trek in the '60s, that the series was just matching a trend. But what does that say about us now? Who heads our fantasies today? A state-sponsored torturer in 24, an exclusive prostitute in Secret Diary of a Call Girl and a serial killer in Dexter.


DocStout said...

Star Trek was fairly progressive for its time, but was it more or less so than Doctor Who? There's an interesting debate.

Trey said...

I'm not sure how progressive Dr. Who was, really, but I'm sure Star Trek was.

Of course, it was progressive in the way of a 60s show written by a guy of the WWII generation with at least a hint of an interest in dominance/submission fetishism (looking over his entire ouevre).

TNG, I'd agree, didn't really advance that too much other than having a greater emphasis on talking things out, resolving feelings, and nonviolent solutions.

Sean Robson said...

Roddenberry's original concept for Star Trek was even more radical; the first officer was supposed to have been a coldly logical woman, and Spock was intended to have red skin and a mercurial temper. Paramount nixed this; apparently they felt that audiences would never accept a woman in a command role, and Spock was just too darned satanic. Consequently, the two characters were merged into one.

Nonetheless, Star Trek did feature the very first prominant role for a black woman in a television series, which was pretty revolutionary for its day.

Porky said...

@ DocStout - Interesting idea. That would need some pondering. My mind goes back to those first ever scenes in the early '60s and the mixed signals beng sent.

@ Trey - Another great thought - you're getting under the skin of things today! Maybe not the first association many of us would make with Trek, but a very reasonable suggestion in the grand scheme. I'm wondering now, and I'll keep it in mind and my eyes peeled.

@ Sean Robson - That would have put more than a new complexion on things. I think we can easily forget when receiving just how fluid the creation process is in relation to the relatively rigid end result. Would it be unreasonable to consider how the world might have looked in that case, with those comparatively small changes? Trek was and is very influential, as we well know.

The Angry Lurker said...

The United Nations on the bridge but would it work today maybe in a call centre?... but I do not see his future happening ever, your last line shows what we like and want now, we're more like Klingons now.

Porky said...

There's time. I'd say we have more control of our future than we realise, but do agree it likely won't be in the form we see it in the shows. To give just one example, the spandex wouldn't look as good on me as it does on them.