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Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek The Next Generation’

The Pegasus, an instalment of Star Trek: The Next Generation first shown in January 1994, is one of those episodes of a TV show which didn’t receive much in the way of particular attention on its first appearance, but found itself on the outskirts of severe fannish opprobrium over a decade later. This is because it’s also one of those episodes which has another episode going on inside it, in this case the supremely unpopular series finale of Enterprise, These Are The Voyages. (How does this work? Well, in the course of The Pegasus, Riker finds himself wracked by a crisis of conscience and – not being able to talk to anyone about it – decides to resolve this problem by talking to holodeck simulations of the crew of the NX Enterprise. It is an odd, slightly contrived conceit and – one might argue – a fairly transparent attempt to boost the ratings for the Final Episode of Star Trek by arranging guest appearances by stars of the much more popular Next Gen.)

I don’t think These Are The Voyages quite deserves all the hatred directed at it by both Trekkies and many of its own cast and crew, but it’s certainly unfair for The Pegasus to get tarred with this particular brush, as it is a solid episode (written by Ronald D Moore) which touches on a few interesting points and manages to do things which Next Gen usually struggles at.

A case in point is the opening scene, which manages to be charming and understatedly funny, all without compromising the regular cast. Preparations are underway for the Enterprise’s annual ‘Captain Picard Day’ (the ship’s children have all been making pictures and models of Jean-Luc) when a priority signal comes in sending them off on a new mission to be carried out under the auspices of Starfleet Intelligence. Quite apart from setting up the plot, the scene neatly carries out a couple of other functions, emphasising the close and warm relationship between Picard and Riker before it comes under severe strain later in the story, and also giving Troi some actual lines in an episode where Marina Sirtis otherwise appears to have been on holiday.

Well, Admiral Pressman of Starfleet Intelligence beams aboard (a strong performance by guest star Terry O’Quinn, possibly best known for playing Locke in Lost) and announces that they are off to locate and ideally salvage the Pegasus, a ship believed lost in slightly obscure circumstances twelve years earlier. Pressman was commanding the ship at the time, with a youthful Riker as his helmsman: Riker is quite shocked by this, although it isn’t immediately apparent why (sensors detect an Incoming Plot Point, Captain).

The search takes them to an asteroid-filled system near the Neutral Zone, and they discover a search is already underway by a Romulan ship. Another rather nice scene ensues, in which Picard and the Romulan Commander engage in the best traditions of diplomacy by being very courteous and pleasant to each other, even though they both know the other is lying through their teeth about why they’re there.

A search gets underway, with everyone aware that they are in a race with the Romulans to find the Pegasus. As this proceeds, it becomes apparent that we are in for a Riker-centric episode, as Jonathan Frakes is in nearly every scene, and even when he’s not there the other characters (essentially Picard and Pressman) are talking about him. Pressman believes Riker’s great virtue was his unquestioning loyalty to the chain of command, while Picard thinks his best quality is his ability to prioritise doing the right thing over more personal concerns. The episode basically comes down to a conflict between these two principles.

The Pegasus turns up, inside one of the asteroids of the system, although the Enterprise can’t mount a salvage attempt for a few hours without tipping off the Romulans to this. This delay gives everyone time for another cracking scene, this one between Riker and Picard. The captain has been doing some digging and turned up a classified report concerning an attempted mutiny on the Pegasus immediately before it was believed destroyed, something Riker (who assisted Pressman in resisting the mutineers) has never spoken of before. Given everything that’s going on, Picard is smelling a rodent of unusual size, and is not best pleased when Riker is forced to admit he’s under orders from Starfleet Command not to discuss the matter, even with his own commanding officer. Picard breaks out the righteous anger, at one point even intimating he may sack Riker as first officer. Patrick Stewart gets to do moral outrage and show Picard’s sense of personal betrayal in this scene, and it must be said that Frakes also gives a fine performance, in the sense that he’s not blasted off the screen by Stewart.

(It’s not really clear at what point Riker pops down to the holodeck for his These Are The Voyages guest spot, as he does seem quite busy throughout this episode. But I digress.)

On with the adventure-intrigue plot: the Enterprise is taken inside the asteroid itself, against Picard’s explicit objections, and they discover the remains of the Pegasus, which has weirdly ended up merged with the solid rock of its surroundings (the Pegasus is a rather venerable Oberth-class starship, one of those models where you wonder how they get from the saucer section to the secondary hull, unless there are actual lift shafts running through the nacelle supports). Riker and Pressman go aboard and the mysterious doohickey Pressman has been so keen to recover is located – forcing Riker to finally make a decision – obey orders or do the right thing?

Many of these Next Gen episodes do feel rather formulaic, not that this is necessarily a bad thing, and while watching this one I concluded that Moore had decided to an episode about Riker’s moral dilemma first and come up with the lost ship plot-line later. But apparently not: it seems Moore encountered one or other version of Raise the Titanic! and decided to Trek it up a bit. Apparently Moore was also sick of being asked why the Federation didn’t use cloaking devices, when the Klingons and Romulans are so keen on them, and wrote an explanation into the episode in the form of it being one of the provisions of a treaty between the UFP and the Romulans.

Prior to this the closest thing to an explanation was Gene Roddenberry’s declaration that sneaking about in a cloaked ship was against the principles of the Federation and Starfleet. Moore’s explanation is a little more credible, though once again one doubts the Great Bird would have been particularly enamoured of this episode’s presentation of black operations and illegal experiments carried out secretly by Starfleet Intelligence – the episode kind of foreshadows the more morally grey and pragmatic depiction of Starfleet which would become increasingly common as DS9 progressed. As it is, with the various conflicts and arguments between the three main characters, the episode is (at the very least) pushing up against the limits of the Roddenberry box.

Given that the episode is concerned with illegal attempts to develop a Federation cloaking device, one does have to wonder why Starfleet Intelligence were apparently field-testing the thing just around the corner from the Romulan Neutral Zone, the location where the Romulans would be most likely to notice if there were any problems. Oh well – the imperatives of plot, I suppose. The same is true of the fact that this is apparently a ‘phasing cloak’, which makes the ship on which it is operating not just invisible but intangible, able to pass through solid objects. One wonders just what additional advantage this would present in the normal course of ship operations on top of the standard invisibility, although I expect I am showing a dreadful lack of imagination.

Another issue that would only occur to the troubled: at the end of the episode, Riker is placed under arrest and slung in the brig, presumably for his role in the initial Pegasus experiments twelve years earlier and the fact he never spoke up about their existence. Vulcan lawyers would no doubt argue that, logically, the Other Riker whose existence was revealed in the episode Second Chances should also be arrested, as he is equally at fault (he was there at the time, too). And if, as it is implied here, Riker’s exemplary service on the Enterprise is one of the reasons why he’s not more severely punished (in Moore’s first draft he got a month in the brig and his chances of further promotion were effectively ended), one wonders what would happen to Other Riker, who doesn’t have these mitigating circumstances in his favour? It’s easy to imagine Other Riker having a very hard time as a result of Enterprise Riker’s actions here, which (it is tempting to think) may explain why he eventually goes rogue.

Let us emerge from the rabbit hole. I would say this was a solid episode, good but not quite great, and a very fair representative of this series when it is functioning well: it has an engaging plot, strong characterisation, and makes a point of giving Picard the opportunity to exercise his moral authority (good TV though this is, one wonders if one of the reasons Picard is still out there commanding a ship rather than working in the Admiralty is because the other admirals don’t want him around, causing trouble by taking a principled stance on everything: he can almost come across as a bit of a prig sometimes). It’s certainly one of the better Riker-centric episodes, too; well worth revisiting.

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As regular readers may recall, not too long ago I shared my thoughts on David A Goodman’s The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard, which is hardly a great book, but still hardly deserves some of the venom heaped on it by dedicated Trekkies. What caught my eye was the fact that Goodman wasn’t actually being dissed for writing a bad book, but for ignoring what was apparently a much better one: namely, Christopher L Bennett’s The Buried Age. Now, I don’t much go in for tie-in fiction these days, but I was somewhat intrigued, so I decided to check out Bennett’s novel and see if it was as good as everyone seemed to think.

The Buried Age differs from the Goodman book in that it only seeks to cover one interlude in the life of Jean-Luc Picard, albeit a significant one: namely, the almost decade-long gap between the loss of the Stargazer to a Ferengi ambush and his assuming command of the Enterprise in the early 2360s. Bennett discharges his responsibilities with great punctiliousness – the book opens with Picard on one bridge, minutes before the attack, and concludes on another, just as the TNG pilot is getting underway. The question is whether the author does so in a way which is both satisfying and entertaining.

Anyone criticising Goodman for disregarding other tie-ins in his ‘autobiographies’ has a point, but then again he is equally wont to disregard generally-accepted parts of the canon if he doesn’t like them (the animated show and at least one of the movies, for instance). It’s certainly true that there is no way to reconcile the two books, for all that they cover the same events and the same period – the Stargazer has different bridge crew, just for starters, and The Buried Age depicts Picard taking a lengthy sabbatical from Starfleet, whereas Goodman just has him piloting a desk for many years.

It’s actually rather peculiar to compare the two books. Obviously both authors have done their research when it comes to the TV show, and are aware of certain established points of history which they have to abide by – Picard first saw Tasha Yar negotiating her way through a minefield, for instance, and met Geordi LaForge when he was on a piloting assignment – and as a result there are weird moments of them echoing each other, momentarily coming into synch.

But for the most part The Buried Age follows a wildly different path. It opens with an extended prologue, not having much to do with the rest of the story, depicting the Ferengi ambush, the loss of the Stargazer, and the subsequent court martial of Picard.

Following this, our man leaves Starfleet and becomes a mature student of archaeology at the University of Alpha Centauri, where he seems well on course to get his doctorate and become an academic. Guinan, of course, has reasons of her own for wanting to get Picard back in a captain’s chair, and beguiles him with tales of artifacts left behind by lost alien civilisations from two hundred and fifty million years ago, in the hope this will stir his spirit of adventure.

It does, but there are inevitably unintended consequences, chief amongst them the resurrection of the Manraloth, a frighteningly advanced and subtle alien civilisation from the ancient past of the galaxy, and an existential threat to the Federation as Picard knows it. Feeling responsible for the appearance of this new menace, Picard dedicates himself to ending it – but what will the cost to him be?

I don’t read much tie-in fiction, as I say, partly because I can’t help thinking of it as second-order stuff, and there’s still a lot of original fiction I’d like to get through in the comparatively few decades left to me. Also, so much of it is undemanding stuff – I used to write fan fiction myself, and I quickly learned that all you needed to do to be acclaimed as a ‘master storyteller’ was to have a reasonably competent prose style and insert the requisite number of continuity references for other fans to spot and feel smug about understanding.

Well, Bennett seems to have got this part of the job down pat, for The Buried Age is shotgunned with references to various bits of Trek, ranging from fairly obscure Enterprise episodes to song lyrics from the original series. There are doubtless many I didn’t even notice, what with me not being a Trekkie and all. However, they don’t get in the way, and many of them are there because they serve the plot.

One level, the book serves as an answer to one of those questions about the Trek world it never occurs to most people to ask – just why are there so many dysfunctional godlings knocking about the place? It also attempts to reconcile the different versions of Picard from the TV show, and explain just why he’s initially so aloof and withdrawn as TNG is getting underway (no spoilers, but let’s just say he’s been through a rough time) – also why, for such a keen archaeologist, it’s a couple of years before he even mentions this on the show.

Suffice to say that, yes, Bennett does a much more satisfying job of this than Goodman, and writes the Star Trek universe much more deftly too – I knew I was going to have a good time reading this novel when Bennett’s extrapolation of Ferengi culture included the fact that the commanders of their ships have to bribe the rest of the crew to do their jobs properly. He writes an excellent, authentic Picard, a superb Data, and pretty good versions of Troi, Yar, and Worf, too. How he deals with Janeway probably depends on how much you like Voyager: here, she’s a smirking cleverclogs.

However, The Buried Age goes beyond this and into the realm of what I would describe as genuinely classic literary science fiction – not just because the book attempts a higher standard of scientific rigour than most Trek, although it does (there’s a lot of stuff about quantum physics, and the intersect with how this influences and is influenced by transporter function), but also because it has clearly been influenced by the likes of Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic myths and Iain Banks’ Culture stories – in some ways, the book is about the difference between the Federation (a society still recognisably based on our own) and a genuinely transhuman milieu not entirely unlike the Culture itself.

There are well-drawn characters here, thought-provoking ideas, and well-written action sequences. Picard is, perhaps, written as a little too gullible in places, but then the point of the story is that he’s dealing with intelligences vastly older and more experienced at manipulation than he is, so perhaps this is forgiveable. On the whole, however, this is an enormously satisfying book, both as a Star Trek novel and a piece of science fiction. At the very top end of the tie-in genre; highly recommended.

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The idea that Starfleet might make a first strike was a terrible precedent and undermined the philosophy of peace that the Federation had lived under for centuries. – Captain Jean-Luc Picard (who would presumably be as surprised by the new show as everyone else)

Hmm, well, quite. When David A Goodman and Titan Books published The Autobiography of James T Kirk a couple of years ago, the entity that is Star Trek had been coasting along amiably enough for many years, keeping a nice low profile most of the time, with only the occasion trial of an Abrams-directed movie. No-one would have suspected that the power converters would come off the warp core quite as spectacularly as has been the case over the last eighteen months or so, with the most recent movie underperforming at the box office and the release of Discovery being scorned, mocked and reviled by various elements of the fan base (personally, I’m a mocker, and I’m not even that big a Trekkie).

Such is the world that The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard finds itself sent forth into, once again by Goodman (presumably with just a little help from the man himself, I’m not an expert on how these things are done). Once again, the aim of the book is to tell us Picard’s side of the story and basically join together all the dots that the various TV episodes and movies laid out over the years.

Before we go any further, let us take a moment to consider who is most likely to be reading the autobiography of a fictional character from Star Trek. If you are completely unfamiliar with Trek, especially the late 80s and early 90s version of it, then you are unlikely to give this book much time (also, what the hell are you doing reading this blog? Is there no paint drying or grass growing near where you are?). The pleasure of this kind of thing, surely, is not necessarily that of learning anything new, but of feeling rewarded for all those hours and days spent watching TNG episodes again and again: specifically, that moment of slightly smug recognition when the book covers an event only mentioned as a tiny aside on the actual show.

Goodman potentially has a bigger job on his hands than he did when dealing with Kirk’s memoirs, for a couple of reasons. First of all, Kirk was still a young man when his TV career got underway, and the general details of the second half of his life were established fairly clearly by the TV show and the movies. With Picard it’s different: the show makes it quite clear that Picard had a long and distinguished career prior to the start of TNG – one way and another, he spent more time on the Stargazer than he did on any version of the Enterprise – and naturally the book has to reflect this. Also, the history of the Alpha Quadrant during Kirk’s younger life is generally quite vague (or was, if you still think Discovery actually happens in the original timeline, in which case the Kirk book instantly becomes apocryphal), but for this one Goodman has to make some sense of the occasionally confused references to relations between the Federation, the Klingon, and the other main powers in the mid-24th century, not to mention the peculiar fact that the Federation has supposedly been at war with the Cardassians for years prior to TNG‘s fourth season, yet this was never mentioned in any of the previous episodes.

To be fair to him, Goodman does a pretty decent job of trying to get it all straight, although a couple of very obscure continuity points still manage to trip him up (he implies that it’s a youthful Picard who makes first contact with the Cardassians, which seems unlikely given that the episode Destiny reveals that a Cardassian exile was apparently on Vulcan prior to 2250) – and hey, this kind of thing is surely forgiveable, it’s not like he retcons a new magic warp drive that runs on mushrooms, or something. And it’s not as if the series itself is exactly consistent about everything – for the record, Goodman seems to go with the TV series’ suggestion that Picard went bald while captain of the Stargazer, rather than as a very young man (as implied by Nemesis).

Certainly every major reference to Picard’s past that I can think of is picked up on rather deftly, the only time it becomes laborious is when the fact of his presence at Spock’s wedding has to be explained. Given that we know nothing else about this event, Goodman is obliged to turn it into low comedy, with Picard never quite managing to find out who Spock is getting hitched to, not even her name, despite being in the front row of the ceremony.

To be honest, the book has bigger problems than this. There is, for one thing, the fact that there are at least three different versions of Picard that have to be reconciled in order for this book to really work – there’s the young, ambitious, rakish officer who we hear a lot about, the dry and stiff-necked functionary of the early years of the TV show, and finally the warm, subtle, witty man of enormous moral authority whom Picard eventually developed into.

The thing is that none of these guys really show up in the book, or at least not consistently. Goodman just isn’t a good enough writer to make you believe you’re actually reading something from Picard’s own hand (you’d expect Jean-Luc to have a more elegant prose style, for one thing). It’s all a bit pedestrian, not helped by the same simplistic and slightly gloomy cod-psychology that was a feature of the Kirk book – Picard’s life is dominated firstly by the fact of his poor relationship with his father, and secondly by the fact that he is quietly and deeply in lurve with Dr Crusher throughout his screen career. Goodman is palpably much more enamoured of this second notion than Picard ever seemed to be of Crusher on screen, to be honest, but there you go (the book seems to suggest that the possible future of All Good Things is largely how things will turn out).

This is one of the reasons why this book has picked up some fairly toxic feedback on everyone’s favourite on-line site named after a big river – this, and the fact it apparently disregards an actually pretty good novel someone wrote about the decade or so between Picard losing the Stargazer and being given command of the Enterprise. To be honest, none of the things that Goodman suggests happen to Picard and the rest of the gang after the end of Nemesis strike me as remotely convincing (including his role in the back-story of the first Abrams movie, but that’s another set of gripes).

I would have to say the bad reviews are onto something, for the reasons mentioned above, although it would be unfair to say the book has no merit at all. It’s technically competent and very readable, and Goodman pulls off one big moment that the TV show never managed, by making the captains of many of the ships that Picard/Locutus destroys at the battle of Wolf 359 old friends and colleagues previously established and fleshed out in the earlier sections of the book. This gives the battle emotional stakes and sense of personal horror that just wasn’t there in an event which was talked about much more than seen, in TNG at least (I suspect we will not be seeing future volumes on the other Trek captains, and will have to settle for brief appearances by Sisko and Janeway in this one – Picard describes Sisko as ‘ferocious’, which is just, well, odd).

I suppose the book will also be helped by the sincere affection many people have for Jean-Luc Picard as a fictional character – the most nuanced and interesting of the Trek captains, in many ways. The same goes for his crew – reading this book, I was suddenly aware of how well-rounded and textured his senior staff are as characters, much more so than the supporting members of the original crew. I mean, Scotty’s a beloved character, but even Riker or Troi seem closer to three dimensions than he does. If nothing else, The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard will remind a lot of people of just how fond they are of TNG.

As I say, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing any further books in this series (the consensus seems to be that DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise-related books are less commercially viable), and I would have to say that on balance it’s less successful than the one about Kirk. But then it has a harder job to do, covering more ground and dealing with a much more complex central character. Even so, Trekkies should find something to engage them here, one way or another.

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Received wisdom, even amongst some of the people who actually worked on the show, is that a voyage into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is likely to be painful and unrewarding: almost a textbook case of time not well spent. ‘Almost unwatchable’ is one of the kinder comments concerning the first season or so, and the consensus seems to be that if the show had been running on a network, rather than in first-run syndication, it would not have been given the time to find its feet in the very impressive way that it ultimately did.

But, hey, I like to live dangerously – and there is something about these early shows, a slightly goofy sense of adventure reminiscent of the original series that gets lost as the programme becomes more stately and cerebral. And while you are really on a hiding to nothing trying to argue that any of these shows are truly outstanding TV, you do come across the odd episode which is interesting enough to be cut some slack.

So, then: Symbiosis, from the back end of season 1, story by Robert Lewin, script by (as was usual at this point) a whole mob of people. Still quite early days on the Enterprise-D – Geordi is still flying the ship, they’re not quite sure what to do with Worf, Riker’s chin is still exposed to the elements, and Tasha’s life expectancy can be measured in days (this was actually the last episode to be filmed featuring her as a regular character, which is why Denise Crosby waves goodbye to the camera at the end of Tasha’s final scene). The Enterprise is doing something important and astronomical when it picks up a distress call from a small freighter in danger of crashing into one of the two inhabited planets of the local system. The peculiar uselessness of the freighter’s crew means the vessel is lost, but four survivors and the cargo (a mysterious barrel) are saved.

A reunion of the supporting cast of Star Trek II appears to have been in progress on the stricken ship, as materialising on the pad are Judson Scott, as one of a pair of smug aliens in shiny clothes, and Merritt Butrick, as one of a pair of sweaty aliens in shabby clothes. What’s going on is this: the smug aliens come from the planet Brekkia (much more Brekky than most planets), where their whole society is dedicated to producing the drug felicium (which is what’s in the barrel). The sweaty aliens come from the planet Ornara, where everyone carries a terrible incurable disease and needs regular doses of felicium in order to function at all. In return for medical supplies, the Ornarans supply the Brekkians with all their material requirements – an arrangement which allows one side to live, and the other to live well, to paraphrase an unexpectedly elegant line of dialogue. The question is now one of who the felicium belongs to, given that the payment was destroyed along with the freighter – one side says it is desperately needed, but the other refuses to just give it away.

However, the olfactory rodent detection sensor on Dr Crusher’s tricorder starts to register, mainly because she can’t find any trace of disease in the Ornaran visitors, despite their clear physical discomfort and claims that they are infected. The penny (or the Federation equivalent) drops when the Ornarans are allowed a dose of the medicine as a goodwill gesture, and instantly subside into a doped-up stupor. There is no plague – not any more, anyway. The Ornaran dependency on felicium – and thus the entire basis of both societies and their relationship – is simply because it is a massively addictive narcotic. Picard and the others have stumbled into a case of drug-dealing on an interplanetary scale…

(Before we get onto the rest of it, many people stick the boot into this episode for a number of different reasons, but no-one seems to have noticed the strangeness of the set-up which the plot demands – the Ornarans are heading home with their load of felicium, which is fair enough. But why are they bringing two Brekkians back with them, along with – apparently – whatever they paid for the drugs with? The fact that the payment is destroyed with the freighter is a plot point.)

As I say, the thing about many of these early TNG episodes is that it’s relatively easy to imagine them, or a close version of them, appearing in a fourth or fifth season of the original series. This one is no exception – although the lumberingly heavy-handed allegory (hell, it’s not even an allegory, it’s an episode which is explicitly about narcotic addiction and drug dealing) and a few incidental plot details (both the Brekkians and  Ornarans can generate shocks like an electric eel) inevitably mean the 60s episode you’re reminded of most is Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, not exactly 60s Trek‘s finest hour or so. People say the Federation is a post-scarcity economy; well, not as far as subtlety is concerned, much of the time.

(Possibly the most egregious element of the episode is a scene in which Wesley wonders aloud how anyone could let themselves get addicted to drugs, and receives a kind but stern lecture from Tasha on the subject, rather in the style of a Very Special Episode of a kids’ cartoon. This was apparently crowbarred in by writer and executive producer Maurice Hurley – the other writers didn’t want it there, the director didn’t want it, the actors were begging not to have to perform it. It is a bit like a lead weight that drags the rest of the episode down. If I were the kind of person who gave star ratings, I would knock a star off just for this one scene.)

On the other hand, Symbiosis is also very much influenced by how the Roddenberry vision had developed over the years since the 1960s. The drug-dealing situation is the backdrop to the episode, but the central conflict is all about the lofty moral principles of the Federation, specifically (of course) the Prime Directive not to interfere in the internal workings of other societies. What’s going on is clearly a case of parasitic exploitation – the Brekkians are fully aware of what they’re doing – and you would imagine that were Kirk in the captain’s seat they would have found a way for him to resolve the situation with a fist-fight and quite probably a ripped shirt.

But, of course, it’s not Kirk in command but Picard, and first-season Picard at that. The writers simply haven’t figured out how to make best use of Patrick Stewart at this point, and Picard is not the thoughtful and subtle figure of immense moral authority he would eventually become, but more a starchy apparatchik whose remarkable qualities we’re told about more often than shown. You wait and wait for the moment where Picard will unleash a scathing condemnation on the Brekkians, making it quite clear how morally bankrupt and reprehensible their civilisation is, but it never comes. If Kirk’s motto could have been ‘Risk is our business’, then Picard’s – this week, at least – is ‘my hands are tied’. He can’t tell the Ornarans they’re being duped (and doped). He can’t stop the Brekkians from selling them the drug. He can’t allow Dr Crusher’s plan to give the planet of the junkies a synthetic drug to help wean them off the felicium. It really sucks to be Picard on a week like this one.

Some people watching this episode come away with the impression that its central theme is simply ‘drugs are bad and drug dealers are horrible’. The episode certainly does express this sentiment – grindingly – but it’s also got a strange message about how doing the right thing can often leave a bad taste in your mouth. Picard comes up with a kind-of solution to the situation – he withdraws an offer to help maintain the Ornaran space fleet, meaning their ships will soon break down, ending the drug trade, and guaranteeing agonising Cold Turkey for the entire population of Ornara – but the implication is that, even if he hadn’t done this, the Federation would have won some kind of moral victory simply by resisting the urge to intervene. Is it really the case that preserving the Federation’s lofty principles is worth condemning an entire planet’s population to excruciating withdrawal symptoms, and the possible collapse of their society? Picard seems quite sure that it is, even though he admits that they may never learn the consequences of their actions (another ship may not be in this sector for decades).

Star Trek, in all its incarnations, is generally a show with a degree of moral sophistication to it, but this is one of those occasions which makes you wonder quite where Gene Roddenberry’s head was at. The Prime Directive is a dandy plot device for ramping up the conflict quotient in a story and complicating the lives of people with, after all, vast resources backing them up. But does it really stand up as an absolute moral imperative? This is the kind of episode which gives you pause, as far as that goes. Unfortunately the sheer crushing obviousness of the drug addiction plot largely eclipses the moral aspect of this particular story. You could never call Symbiosis a great episode, but digging into it at least provides food for thought.

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Hmmm: I seem to have run out of Star Trek films to write about. If only there was more Trek of some kind, not necessarily movies, that I could occasionally cast an eye over… wait a minute!

Ah, God bless Netflix. They may not have all the movies (at least they didn’t, last time I checked), but they do have all the TV episodes, which will extend to include Discovery, when it eventually arrives in our quadrant of the galaxy. To be perfectly honest this is (if you’ll pardon the expression) the best of all worlds, from my point of view, as while there are individual episodes of all the Berman-era series that I like very much, the prospect of expending money and space on buying all of them on DVD makes me quail a bit – in the latter couple of shows, certainly, there’s just a bit too much filler I can’t honestly imagine myself watching again more than once, at most.

Still, Next Gen and Deep Space Nine, when they were in their groove, offered up consistently good and interesting stories on pretty much a weekly basis. Picking an episode more-or-less at random, I ended up watching I, Borg, written by Rene Echevarria, one I hadn’t seen since its first BBC transmission back in 1995 (if memory serves, and it usually does). This is from the back end of Next Gen‘s fifth season, when the show was routinely smashing it with great confidence, and while you can perhaps take issue with some elements of the conception of the episode, its execution is strong.

The Enterprise is (for once) doing some exploring in an uncharted system when the ship picks up a signal from a crashed ship on an icy moon. Following the unwritten code of the spaceways, Captain Picard sends down an away team to minister to any survivors who may have come through the crash, but things take a somewhat unexpected turn when the wreck has an ominously cube-shaped aesthetic, and the sole survivor is, indeed, a young Borg drone (Jonathan Del Arco)…

Almost at once, things don’t follow the usual pattern: a sign of the dread the Borg inspire in even our well-adjusted Starfleet heroes. Picard’s initial instinct is to leave the drone to die, on the grounds that it would be insanely dangerous to bring it onto the ship, and pointless to give succour to an implacably deadly enemy of civilisation as they know it. Dr Crusher takes a different view and refuses to leave without at least stabilising the injured Borg. Picard eventually relents and allows the Borg onto the ship, under tight security – but, it is implied, this is because he is already brewing up a plan to use it as a weapon against the Borg Collective as a whole. Infecting the drone with (effectively) malware and then allowing it to rejoin the Collective should result in the disintegration of the Borg hive-mind, and remove the Federation’s single greatest enemy.

It’s interesting that Picard seems to have ginned up this somewhat uncharacteristic plan off his own bat – it’s never explicitly stated that Starfleet Command or anyone at the Federation has signed off on it. Just how much initiative is Picard granted? He is, after all, contemplating instigating genocide. But is it genocide? The Borg are neither a discrete species nor a genuine culture as it is routinely understood. Does this, or their inherent hostility to non-Borg, justify what Picard is planning?

Well, needless to say, some of the crew have doubts, too, especially Crusher and Geordi, who are tasked with studying the drone and preparing the Borg-toppling computer virus. Of necessity kept isolated from the Collective, the drone begins to show signs of emotional distress and other behaviour not usually associated with the Borg, even adopting a personal name, Hugh. In short, the drone is rapidly becoming an individual being. Can Picard’s plan still be justified?

If you’re going to have a serious problem with I, Borg, then it’s probably because this is the episode which starts to dispel the deadly mystique of the Borg as a genuinely terrifying and unstoppable force. This is only the third Borg episode, and prior to this they are notable for the sheer terror they inspire in the regular characters and everyone else in the Federation, and their capacity to wreak utter havoc with less advanced species. This is the episode which begins to humanise them a bit (for want of a better word), indicating that they are not all irretrievably bad or hostile, and opening the door for the eventual appearance of a regular Borg character a few years later. I doubt it would have been possible to maintain the Borg as the implacable menace of their initial appearances over a large number of episodes, but still: perhaps better hardly to use them at all than to water them down as happens from this point on.

By this point in time, Next Gen was usually very much a character-based show – while watching an episode, you can normally say ‘This is a Riker story’ or ‘This is a Worf story’ – and one slightly odd thing about I, Borg is that it’s not immediately clear who the focus is on. In fact, it seems to have something of a split focus, which is quite rare. Much of the story concerns Geordi’s burgeoning friendship with Hugh – well, it kind of makes sense, as Geordi’s best friend is also a synthetic life form, and he’s a bit cybernetic himself – and this proceeds in the kind of way you would expect, though it’s well-played by both performers.

What’s more interesting, and probably the best element of the episode, is the reaction of not only Picard but also Guinan to the presence of the Borg (Guinan, it’s implied, only hears about the drone’s arrival second or third hand, which leads one to wonder how much the ship’s civilian contingent are aware of the peril Picard routinely takes them into). Usually, Picard is a man of impeccable moral judgement; he always says and does the right thing. Usually, Guinan is carefully non-judgemental, and only offers good advice to the rest of the crew. And yet in this episode, the memory of their experiences with the Borg lead them to behave very differently. Guinan initially criticises the captain for not leaving the Borg to die, and is hostile to Geordi’s suggestion it is changing. Picard’s attitude is very similar, brusquely telling Geordi to ‘unattach’ himself from the drone.

The heart of the episode is a scene in which Picard interrogates Hugh – Hugh recognises Picard as his Borg persona, Locutus, which the captain adopts (rather chillingly). As Locutus, Picard argues in favour of the assimilation of the Enterprise and its crew, and it’s Hugh who rejects this and resists the idea. Hugh’s rejection of the Borg philosophy is what convinces Picard of his individuality, and the wrongness of the virus plan.

Which leads us to the slightly peculiar ending of the episode, in which Hugh goes back to the Borg Collective, mainly to ensure they don’t hunt down and destroy the Enterprise in the course of retrieving him. But Picard has hopes that Hugh’s sense of individuality will cascade throughout the hive-mind and fundamentally affect the nature of the Borg.

Now, I agree that introducing a hostile pathogen into an entity to utterly destroy it is morally questionable, especially when you use an unwitting sentient creature as your vector of infection. However, I’m not at all sure that this suddenly becomes acceptable when your hostile pathogen is an alien pattern of thought – in this case, the liberal humanistic outlook which is at the heart of Trek‘s philosophy. Does Picard honestly think this concept is going to have pleasant effects on the utterly monolithic and hive-minded Borg Collective? He’s basically still carrying out the same plan, it’s just that his weapon is now philosophical rather than technological in nature. The end result will surely be the same. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Star Trek‘s devotion to liberal humanism is so absolute that the writers find it literally inconceivable that it could in any way be considered in a negative light.

Normally, I would tend to agree, but the episode has made such a fuss about the moral basis of Picard’s actions that this does strike me as a little dubious. I suppose you could argue that Picard’s get-out is that he’s only respecting Hugh’s desires as an individual, and the introduction of the lethal individuality-meme into the Collective is happening naturally and incidentally, rather than as a result of premeditated action by the Enterprise crew. But I still think he’s on unusually thin ice, morally speaking. As I say, an episode with some pleasingly complex and thought-provoking stuff going on under the surface, from a series near the top of its game.

 

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Well, I’ve been a bit poorly recently, and – as you would – I took to my bed with Netflix and ended up watching a bunch of William Shatner movies. Not the Trek ones from the 80s and early 90s, as you might expect, but rather more diverse fare. A friend of mine recommended I try to get hold of White Comanche, a 1968 paella western in which the great man plays good-and-evil twins, but for some inexplicable reason Netflix has decided not to lay out on the rights to this movie (and it’s not on YouTube either). But you can’t have everything.

What Netflix does have is a couple of documentaries Shat (as I fondly think of him) wrote and directed, The Captains (from 2011) and Chaos on the Bridge (from 2015). You may be able to discern a bit of a common theme here, for it appears that Shat, like his castmates, has come to terms with the fact that – regardless of his achievements as a singer, novelist, horse breeder, and guest murderer on Columbo – it is Star Trek for which he will inevitably be remembered.

There is perhaps a certain oddity to Chaos on the Bridge, in that it largely concerns an iteration of Star Trek with which Shatner himself was not directly involved: the formative years of Star Trek: The Next Generation (henceforth Next Gen, to save my aching fingers). This was the first of the comeback TV shows, starting in 1987, also known to the general population as ‘the one with that bald English guy’.

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As all but Next Gen‘s most rabid fans will admit, the first couple of seasons are tough viewing (‘almost unwatchable’ in the words of Ronald Moore, a later participant in the franchise and also the creator of New BSG and Outlander). I myself stuck with it when it eventually turned up on the BBC in 1990 because, well, it was Star Trek, wasn’t it, and there wasn’t any other new SF being made at the time. (I do think the total lack of any competition was a significant factor in Next Gen‘s survival and eventual success. Given that TV is hardly short of SF and fantasy shows nowadays, expectations for Star Trek: Discovery – coming next year – will obviously be significantly higher, and that show may well be in for a rough ride on all fronts.)

Watching Chaos on the Bridge I was kind of struck by the odd notion that while Star Trek may have been created by Gene Roddenberry, its ultimate success was in many ways despite him. A possibly heretical idea in Trekkie circles, but if you look at the dodgiest, stodgiest, least sexy bits of Trek made in Roddenberry’s lifetime, many of them occurred when the Great Bird was at his most hands-on as a producer. There’s an argument to be made that by the time of the late 80s, Roddenberry was more interested in being recognised as a humanist visionary than in actually making good TV, but there are enough horror stories in circulation about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans on Next Gen to suggest that there was a definitely clay-like texture to the great man’s feet.

In terms of actual Roddenberry-bashing, the documentary’s contributors are relatively circumspect – no sign of the ‘goddamned lying, hypocritical, deceiving, thieving, son of a bitch… bullying bastard’ which was writer David Gerrold’s considered opinion in a recent book on Trek‘s production history. Most of the opprobrium is instead directed at the shadowy figure of one Leonard Maizlish, Roddenberry’s lawyer, who took up residence on the show and actually started rewriting the scripts despite having zero experience (this contributed significantly to Dorothy Fontana’s decision to leave the show). Interviewees fondly recall imagining pushing Maizlish out of second storey windows, and so on.

The decision just to cover the early, troubled years of the production is a curious one, mainly because it deprives the narrative of a proper conclusion. Doing the full seven years, over the course of which Next Gen found its identity as a much more consistent and impressive show, would have made for a rather different (and longer) film. It couldn’t just be that Shat only wanted to shine a light on a troubled version of Star Trek in which he had no personal involvement or responsibility? Surely not. Anyway, the film has enough life and inventiveness about it to make up for the fact that there’s probably not much here its target audience doesn’t already know about.

And so to The Captains, an arguably poorly-titled documentary from 2011 in which Shat tracks down his successors as lead actors on Trek and interviews them mano a mano (or mano a womano in the case of Kate Mulgrew from Voyager) about their lives and experiences. I say ‘poorly-titled’ as it is not really about the captains as a group, or indeed as individuals, but mainly creates a suitable venue for everyone involved to talk about Shat, whether directly or indirectly. Shat himself (note to self: awkward phrasing, think about possible alternative) is clearly in his element, and one is ineluctably reminded of Nick Meyer’s assessment of him as ‘all vanity, no ego’.

Various lesser stars from the Trek constellation make appearances – Nana Visitor, Robert Picardo, Jonathan Frakes – along with a fairly substantial interview with Christopher Plummer, there because a) he was the Shakespeare-loving Klingon villain of Star Trek VI and b) he was a mate of Shat’s way back. But the most arresting stuff is the set-piece interviews with the other actors. (The Netflix version of the film, by the way, appears to have been edited down a bit, removing the unauthorised footage of Leonard Nimoy which was the cause of the final estrangement between him and Shatner.)

Shat buzzes around between the different coasts of the US and even over to Oxford to talk to Sir Patrick (apparently ignoring the Keep Off The Grass signs at Christchurch College in one shocking sequence), and it’s fair to say that some of these discussions are more interesting than others. Patrick Stewart is always good value, but some of the other chats can get a bit earnest and are really memorable only for the little stunts Shat contrives: hiding in a cardboard box while waiting for Kate Mulgrew, singing show-tunes on horseback with Scott Bakula, arm-wrestling Chris Pine on the sidewalk outside Paramount Studios, and so on. Most of them are pretty much as you’d expect, with the real exception being Avery Brooks, whose consciousness still appears to be spending some of its time in the Gamma Quadrant. There’s some singing here, too, and at one point Shat asks Brooks if he’s ever thought about life after death, with the one-time Emissary responding by playing the piano and laughing to himself. It is quite magnetic to watch, somehow.

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In a way you can’t help thinking that this would have been a more revealing film if it had been directed by somebody else. Some of the most interesting footage is of Shat appearing at a Trek convention in Vegas and interacting with the fans – ‘a rapturous reception’ and ‘eating out of the palm of his hand’ don’t begin to do justice to how this goes down – and very briefly we see a glimpse of a Shatner who isn’t a tongue-in-cheek self-promoter, but someone rather more thoughtful and human. But then it inevitably occurs to one that we’re just seeing this because Shat let it go past in the editing process, so is it the ‘real’ him?

In the end this is probably more of interest to Shat-watchers than Trekkies generally, but such is its occasional weirdness I can imagine it finding something of an audience amongst people who enjoy watching really, really odd vanity projects, as well. What I suppose it comes down to, ultimately, is that there are two kinds of people in the world – people who can’t get enough of William Shatner and all his works, and the sane ones. The former group at least are well served here.

 

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