Friday, January 4, 2019

In Defense of "Star Trek: The Next Generation"

It's unplanned-post time.
  
Last night I watched this movie:
  
  
  
  
which, if you were unaware, is an hour-long documentary directed by William Shatner in which he interviews various people associated with the first three seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  The aim of the film: to tell the tale of the titular chaos that greeted the launch of the second iteration of Star Trek on television.  (Third, if you count the animated series.)
  
It's a very entertaining documentary.  Shatner is a gifted interviewer; he gets a lot of great stuff from his interviewees, some of which is so good and so open that I'm a little shocked CBS (and/or Paramount) permitted the documentary to be released.  The cast members mentioned on the cover are only a scant part of the story; the real gems come from interviewees like John Pike (who was the then-head of Paramount's television division), Maurice Hurley, Tracy Tormé, Susan Sackett, D.C. Fontana, David Gerrold, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and so forth.
  
It'd be well worth my time to go through it scene by scene and give you my thoughts, but that's a thing time isn't going to permit.
  
However, I did find my brain a-blazing to some degree once it was done, and I want to put some of those thoughts down.
  

As is often the case in big-picture looks at any aspect of Star Trek these days, Chaos on the Bridge is deeply conflicted on the subject of Gene Roddenberry.  The consensus seems to be that he was a complicated man whose latter-years life was even more complicated than it had been earlier.  Overall, I think the documentary comes down on the side of feeling that what he did -- though perhaps imperfect in many ways -- was very worthwhile, and that his aims were solid.  We'll say that I agree (mostly) and move on from there.
  
The aspect that I take exception with is the oft-repeated take that The Next Generation was and is a dismal thing during its first couple of seasons, until wiser minds and cooler heads rode into town to save the whole endeavor from its paltry beginnings.  By now, this is the accepted viewpoint on those first two seasons.  I suspect nothing is ever going to change that, and to some degree Chaos on the Bridge seems to be an attempt to explain why those first two seasons sucked.
  
My thing is: I don't agree that they sucked.  I certainly don't think they sucked at the time, and personally I don't feel they suck now.  I'm well aware that I'm swimming against the tide of Trekkiedom in saying so, but hey, the day I believe something just because "most" Trekkies believe it is the day I believe we should be called Trekkers.  And fuck that.
  
What I can say about those first two seasons is that I was there when they happened.  And that's the story I want to tell right now.
  
I was a fan of Star Trek as long back as I can remember.  Not sure how it happened; might have been via the show, might have been via comic books, might have been via book-and-record sets, might have been simply via seeing James Blish's episode-adaptations book Star Trek 2 on my father's shelf.  Any of that is plausible.  What's important is that one of those things hooked me into also loving all the other things, and that love -- though it flagged at certain points later in life -- was with me from that point forward.
  
Cut to 1986.  I found out, via my father (who told me this after we went to see The Voyage Home), that there was going to be a new Star Trek television series.  And that it would NOT have Kirk, Spock, McCoy, etc. in it.  Huh?!?  Well, that's not Star Trek, then, is it?  That was my reaction.
  
And yet, by the time The Next Generation aired, I was 100% interested in it.  I don't remember any excitement leading up to it, although there must have been.  Did I see commercials for it?  Read articles about it in the newspaper?  In magazines like Starlog?  At least some of those, yes, I'm sure.  But I can't remember for sure.  All I know for sure is that when "Encounter at Farpoint" aired  -- it was on Saturdays in my neck of the woods, so this would, I think, have been October 3, 1987 -- I was sitting in front of the television in my bedroom, riveted.  
  
What caused the change in my predisposition between that announcement from my father and the series debut?  Seeing commercials, I'd imagine.  Whatever the case, by the time the episode aired, I'd pre-accepted this new show.  And by the end of the episode...
  
...well...
  
Well, by the end of the episode I was even more invested than I had been going in.  I flat-out fucking loved "Encounter at Farpoint."  I loved everything about it.  I loved the new ship, I loved its crew, I loved old McCoy, I loved Q, I loved the mystery of Farpoint station, I loved the resolution of that mystery, I loved the opening credits and Picard's voiceover and the theme music.  I loved everything about it.
  
And I still do.  Sure, there are stray moments that don't work.  And maybe there are enough of them that other people are incapable of enjoying it as a whole.  Maybe you had to be a thirteen-year-old kid, parked in front of a tiny television on a Saturday night in October.  Maybe, on top of that, you had to possess the unrealized feeling that you were getting in on the ground floor of a new Star Trek; this time, you got to be there when it happened.  Maybe, on top of that, you had to be a goober.
  
Man, I don't know.  I do know that I was hooked, and that I stayed hooked for the next seven seasons.  I never missed an episode.  
  
I say that; I'm not actually positive that's true.  I never missed an episode on purpose or willingly; but I think there might have been a small handful of occasions when I had to be at a University of Alabama football game instead of at home, parked in front of the television.  Actually, there would have been a lot of those occasions; but I always taped the episodes -- I was there for when that magical ability became possible! (you kids just do NOT understand, nor do you want to...trust me on that) -- and watched them as soon as I got home.  What I'm half-remembering is a handful of occasions on which a power failure caused the episodes not to tape.  I'm not positive that actually happened; I remember it happening with other shows, so I assume it might have with TNG.  
  
But maybe not!  The stress of such a cataclysmic disaster would like stick with me.  I could tell you, for example, about a UA baseball game that combined with a power outage to get me to miss the third night of The Stand.  So in actuality, I may not ever have altogether missed an episode of the Next Generation.
  
Whatever.  Doesn't matter.  The point is, I was on that train from the second it began airing in my market, and I remained onboard it until the credits rolled on "All Good Things..." years later.  And what I can tell you without hesitation is that I never had even the slightest inkling that the first two seasons were bad.  I can't recall many times during the first-run viewings when I disliked an episode, and of the ones I do remember thinking that about, none -- except "Shades of Gray," which simply confused me (I don't think I'd ever seen a clip show before) -- came from those first two seasons.
  
With each passing week, I just loved it more.  I hear people talk sometimes about how they didn't like Picard until the third season.  Man, is you crazy?  Picard was awesome from the beginning.  So was Riker, and Data, and Worf.  Troi was keenly interesting to me as a young man, and not just because of her outfits; I thought then, and think now, that she's an interesting character.  (Older me recognizes that she was rarely used well, though; that much I will admit.)  The holodeck blew my mind.  I thought Wesley was kind of cool.  Geordi's vision fascinated me.  I was shocked when Tasha was killed.  I was thrilled when Q came back (unbelievable!).  Dr. Crusher...
  
Dr. Crusher kind of never did all that much for me.  You know who did, though?  Dr. Pulaski.  Loved her then; loved her now.  She's my second-favorite doctor, behind only McCoy.  Yep.  Truth.  (A truth which may, admittedly, only last until I start watching Voyager again.)
  
Every week during those first two seasons, it seemed like something awesome was happening.  The first week, they were saving giant space jellyfish; the next week, everyone was drunk and the robot was kissing a girl; then there were Ferengi, and Riker fell in love with a holodeck woman who didn't even exist, and Worf was trying not to be a bad-guy Klingon, and a weird alien guy was zapping the ship to basically the end of the universe, and Wesley was going to be put to death for falling into some flowers, and Troi's mother was a pain in the neck, and Picard was pretending to be a private eye, and Data's brother was a bad guy, and there were horrifyingly gross worm-creatures taking over Starfleet, and eventually a fake version of Moriarty turned into a real (?) version of him, and they had a trial to decide whether Data was real or not, and Whoopi Goldberg showed up, and the Borg showed up, and ... and ... and all sorts of things happened!
  
I look through a list of those first two seasons, and there just aren't many episodes I don't like.  In fact...
  
Can I be honest?
  
Those are probably my two favorite seasons of any Star Trek other than the original.  I'm not saying they're the best, objectively; I'm just saying they're my favorite.  When I think "Next Generation" it is these episodes I think; THAT, to me, is the show.  This is not to imply that I don't love the rest.  but I do think I have more personal affection for these seasons.
  
And to some extent, I think this has got to be because that's when Gene Roddenberry's influence on the series was at its peak.  Similarly, as time has gone by I've totally accepted the fact that it is The Motion Picture among the movies that most captures my imagination; and I suspect it is no coincidence that that movie is by the one most reflective of Roddenberry's aims.

It's probably for this reason that I can't get onboard with some of what gets said during Chaos on the Bridge.  For example, there's a recurring theme that is likely to be familiar to anyone who has paid any attention to behind-the-scenes stuff about TNG: the old saw about how Roddenberry's admonition that the crew should get along and have no disagreements was restrictive and led to writers not being able to tell good stories.  You hear this from Ronald D. Moore, for example; and, very interestingly, you hear from his ostensible partner, Brannon Braga, that maybe that meant the writers simply needed to get more creative.
  
I'm on Braga's side.  So you can't figure out a way to work within Gene Roddenberry's guidelines, eh?  Well, pal, maybe you shouldn't be working on Gene Roddenberry's show.  Is that a crazy notion?  Take a job making pizza and tell the store owner you'd rather make subs; see how long you last there.  You being a writer doesn't free you of your obligations to do the fucking job you were hired to do, and to do it in the manner in which you were fucking hired to do it.  Get over yourself.  If your only way to be able to write Star Trek is to reinvent what Star Trek is, you shouldn't be writing Star Trek.
  
Elsewhere in the documentary, it is clear that Roddenberry's approach to intra-studio and intra-production politics did him no favors, reputation-wise.  It made enemies who are still trashing him over it to this day, and it may well be that he earned that.  Trek veterans D.C. Fontana and David Gerrold were essentially placed in positions of servitude to Maurice Hurley, a prickly television pro with literally no science fiction experience.  Why was such a thing done?  Apparently, it was mostly due to the destructive tinkering of Roddenberry's lawyer, Leonard Maizlish, who is painted to be the true villain of the documentary.
  
In the end, the picture I get is of Roddenberry being in declining mental (and, eventually, physical) health leading up to the beginning of production on The Next Generation.  I get the sense he sort of summoned all of his inner reserves in putting the concept together, and blasted forth a big and more or less final burst of creativity in doing so.  This, in retrospect, was his last hurrah: a vision of the future modified from the one he'd been exploring for decades by that point.  A vision of a future in which humanity had its act together, and didn't engage in petty squabbling, and focused on the big picture for the betterment of all.  Pie-in-the-sky thinking?  Well, yeah, sure.  But if you can't even imagine such a thing, then isn't that a shame?
  
Roddenberry could imagine it, and via The Next Generation, he gave untold millions of people the ability to imagine it, too, if only for an hour at a time.
  
And as his inability to oversee the project waned, the outside influences of those who -- consciously or otherwise -- proved unable to follow in Roddenberry's philosophical footsteps became more pronounced.  With them, ideas of what Trek was and should be began to change.  There were a few who kept the flames lit as best they could -- Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Brannon Braga, etc. -- but in the end, the concept began to buckle a bit.
  
Maybe that's as it was always bound to be.  But if so, for me it only makes those first two seasons shine brighter, flawed though they may sometimes be as productions.  This was the real deal, man.  And when I see -- or even think about -- those early TNG episodes, it takes me right back to being that kid on Saturdays.
  
Conventional wisdom be damned.  That's MY Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it always will be.  Me and Geordi on the bridge with our collarless uniforms, trying to evade the Ferengi while Dr. Pulaski gives Data shit and a beardless Riker goes on all the away missions so Picard doesn't have to.  Everyone gets along, more or less, because they're professionals and that's what professionals do, and anyways, it's in their nature.  They want to know what's out there; and they're not going to let a need for character drama get in the way of finding out what it is.
  
Make it so.

8 comments:

  1. (1) I definitely want to see this. I'll probably pop back with more to say once I'm able to. But, on this topic, I'm never without an opinion or several.

    (2) I, too, was one of those ground-floor Saturday night TNG viewers. For most of the first couple seasons, actually - I forget when I stopped watching, but I got even more heavily into TOS and became one of those TOS purists for a few years. My brother, upon hearing one of my "Only Kirk!" tirades, telling me to watch the Sunday night rerun of "Yesterday's Enterprise." Which I did (and which I loved and for years was the only TNG episode I said was any good. Hard to believe now! Ahh, teenage-dom.) I won't go through memory by memory, but what got me into the show was catching "All Good Things" in 1994. I was blown away by that one, and it was only then that I began being positive on it and watching it in reruns, never too seriously, though. Then, years after THAT, my then-girlfriend had the seasons on DVD and I finally watched it all start to finish, rediscovering those early episodes I watched as-they-happened and all the wonderful ones I'd not yet seen, including almost all of the ones that are my favorite now.

    Unfortunately it was this watchthrough that made me become one of those conventional-Trekkie-wisdom people who said the first few seasons sucked. And as I began reading the behind-the-scenes stuff of TNG - and the name of Maizlish coming up again and again, as well as Gene's physical and mental deterioration, etc. - I thought ah, ok, my impression makes sense. And yet: I grew to really enjoy the difference between the production aesthetic of the early years against what became the streamlined, Factory-Berman (with all the good and bad of that, and the considerable-good outweighs the bad for the most part, except for the Nemesis rot that unfortunately ends it all) style.

    (3) "I'm on Braga's side. So you can't figure out a way to work within Gene Roddenberry's guidelines, eh? Well, pal, maybe you shouldn't be working on Gene Roddenberry's show. Is that a crazy notion?" Nope. Not by a long shot. I'm sympathetic to the challenges of the set-up, as well as what sounds like a fairly toxic working environment thanks to Maizlish and some of Gene's, shall we say, indulgences. But all writing rooms sound challenging; it's not an easy field and there are always difficult (and obstructive) people. That's Hollywood. I dunno - I look forward to hearing more when I get to the documentary.

    (4) "And when I see -- or even think about -- those early TNG episodes, it takes me right back to being that kid on Saturdays." Man, me too. A hundred times over. Somewhere around 2000 or so, I was between apartments and living in a converted sewing room (!) at my parents house. I had this pathetic 10-inch little TV set - color, at least, but a real artifact from another era. I got home one day and it was 5 o'clock pm and TNG was on and I experienced literally one of the first nostalgia-blasts from such things in my life. It's a phenomenon I've come to know much more intimately over the past 10 years, but this was the first. Or among the first. It sticks out in mind, though, as the first time I consciously started thinking "hey, I like seeing these TNG reruns on Saturdays, because that's when I used to watch this show as a kid." And then the whoosh of associative memories and feelings and the surreal passage of time and all the rest.

    So, I hear you, man - right on down to this very night, I always look for a little Trek to watch on Saturdays, even if it's just for 5 seconds. I just like observing the ritual.

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    1. I'd kind of forgotten the TNG-Saturdays thing until I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep after watching "Chaos on the Bridge." And I had this sort of flash of memory of being in those days; it was pretty cool. Among the strongest of those memories: being at my grandparents' house (we'd visit them on weekends relatively frequently) and watching it there. I can remember plain as day sitting there and seeing "The Last Outpost" for the first time, and my grandmother thinking the Ferengi were kind of a hoot. (Even though they weren't supposed to be.) And I can similarly remember "Devil's Due" seasons later; I'm sure there were others, as well, but those are the only two coming to mind.

      (1) You and me both!

      (2) "And yet: I grew to really enjoy the difference between the production aesthetic of the early years against what became the streamlined, Factory-Berman (with all the good and bad of that, and the considerable-good outweighs the bad for the most part, except for the Nemesis rot that unfortunately ends it all) style." -- Yep, for sure. It's possible to feel that that era is a bit stagnant; and if so, that's a problem that extends clear through to the end of "Enterprise," I think. But rewatching "Voyager" has freshly impressed upon me just how much energy there is in the style, as well. It's just a particular *kind* of energy.

      So in short, I kind of agree with everyone in some ways. The early seasons DO kind of suck (except that they don't), and the later seasons are a vast improvement (except that they're a bit staid); and the opposite of both arguments is also a little true.

      My personal feelings, though, are tilting increasingly pro-early-TNG the older I get, which is maybe a little unexpected.

      (3) I thought Braga came off pretty well. As time goes by, I'm -- at least regards Trek -- turning into more of a fan of his and less of a fan of Moore's. Very interesting.

      (4) Stuff like that is wild, isn't it? If you could put nostalgia-blasts into pill form, the whole world'd be hopped up on 'em in no time flat.

      Your tale of watching a bit of Trek on Saturdays may have just motivated me to do the same. That's the kind of idea I can get behind.

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  2. A couple of other things, both of which I might have put into the body of the post if I'd had a bit more time to work out my thoughts:

    Thing the first -- writing this post brought to mind a thought I've been having increasingly lately, which is that holy SHIT am I glad the internet (and specifically social media) didn't exist when I was a kid. I think about twelve-year-old me, who found the right amount of enthusiasm for the debut of TNG and ate up every instant of it and then proceeded to do so across those apparently-much-maligned first two seasons. And I think, if social media had existed then, there's no way I'd have loved TNG. I'd have seen all the vitriol being spewed by people, and I'd have gone no farther.

    This leads me to another type of thought. I haven't exactly burned up the internet in expressing my dislike for "Discovery," but I've not been silent about it, either. What if there's some twelve-year-old kid someplace who might have felt about "Discovery" the way I felt about TNG at the same age, only to be discouraged by jackholes like me hopping online and bellowing about how it's not really Star Trek, blah blah blah.

    It might not be me specifically who made them hate it were they otherwise wouldn't have, but who can say for sure? That idea breaks my heart a little.

    Thing the second -- considering this notion of what is and isn't "Star Trek" or "Roddenberrian" or whatever gives me a bit of a feeling like I suddenly know what it's like to be around at the dawn of impending sectarian violence. Will Trekkies end up splitting off into separate "churches" of fandom (with guys like us representing a form of fundamentalism)? It sounds like a ludicrous notion, but I don't think it actually is. I'm fairly certain it's already begun to happen to Star Wars.

    What awful, interesting times we live in.

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    1. The world has moved on (ahem) since then. In those days a band could put out 2 or 3 crap albums and build a following then their 4th album could be a huge hit. Ditto for a show with seasons. These days that seems virtually impossible. It's sad.

      I like your idea of fandom-fundamentalist warfare. I think that's sort of like the FUTURAMA episode starring the original cast.

      I like to tell people I'm of the "thanks for your service now please surrender your portion of the oxygen in the room" part of Trek fandom. They like to get my money, but they don't want me in the room bothering anyone. I get it.

      I think it's inevitable that there IS someone out there who is as you say: a 13 year old huge fan of DISCOVERY. But, I think 13 year olds are conditioned to tell us to eff off, or our disdain for something will only increase their esteem for it. The world has always been thus. Hell, Tuvok just said something very similar behind me.

      Of course, in this hypothetical scenario, the show in question originally was the brainchild/ hard-fought property of the main guy in the franchise/ its creator. Not the same case with DISCOVERY.

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    2. Excellent points all, especially that last.

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  3. I finished watching this last night. Very enjoyable. Takeaways:

    (1) Another feather in the written-and-directed-by portfolio for Mr. Shatner.

    (2) Interesting how apologetically abrasive Mr. Hurley came across! Shatner mentions that they're friends, so maybe he was able to bring something out from him that otherwise would not have.

    (3) It's too bad Bob Justman couldn't be a part of this. I'd love to have heard his take on things. I've read most of them, but just to see him in there.

    (4) Likewise, it'd have been nice to get more of the cast's recollections. Can't have everything/ availability might have been an issue, but still.

    (5) Those old trailers for the TNG cast and accommodations sound awful.

    (6) I'm glad they had Susan Sackett in there. Her book on her whole side of TNG/ Roddenberry is perhaps not to everyone's taste, and I can even see it being "problematic" in our ongoing Age of Re-Enlightment-or-Else, but I think about it a lot more than many other Trek tie-ins I've read.

    (7) Good stuff!

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    1. (2.5 That should read UN-apologetically. And while I'm here, I forgot to affix a -cap to "portfolio" in point the first. Carry on, good people of the world.)

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    2. (1) I've seen too few of these. I plan to remedy that. What I've seen probably deserves more attention.

      (2) Hurley comes off as a guy who I don't entirely trust. But I don't distrust him, either, if that makes sense. I feel like he had perceptions of what the job would/should be that didn't match others' perceptions of same, and then there was a LOT of miscommunication. My guess would be that that sort of thing is all too common in Hollywood.

      (3) One of the true titans of Trek, no question.

      (4) Some of them did seem conspicuously absent, didn't they? On the other hand, you see (or even hear about) Muldaur so rarely, it was surprising to see her here even for the brief moment she gets. Sounds like she was treated poorly. That's a real shame.

      (5) I was surprised by how low-rent the beginning of the show sounded. Almost as if nobody really wanted to do the show, but where doing it as a sort of let's-get-this-over-with obligation. Which in my mind makes that first season all the more impressive. It was a low-priority series that in some respects seems almost to have been intended to fail; and yet, it succeeded wildly.

      (6) I really need to read that book. I'd have to buy it first, though. I really need to buy a copy of that book.

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