Sunday, April 11, 2004

The Prophets have spoken

Spike TV just wrapped up a "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" marathon, which makes this as good a time as any to comment on the program. "Star Trek" reflects Gene Roddenberry's insistence that, by the time of its setting, humans have learned to get along peacefully and that therefore, in Star Trek, there would therefore be no conflict between humans. By the time of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," humans have expanded their circle of moral consideration to include alien species. Gone are the anti-Vulcan (Vulcanophobic?) ethnic slurs that Dr. McCoy cast in Spock's direction. (Were Vulcans an officially recognized oppressed group, McCoy's remarks would see him quickly denounced as a racist and xenophobe on a contemporary university campus.) Original series antagonists the Klingons were now Federation allies. Even the Borg, the most menacing and formidable villains of TNG, were ultimately deemed worthy of understanding. (I'll do a post on the subtext of the Borg someday.) Coupled with the moral relativism that permeates Star Trek, the resulting subtext reads, The good guys are good, the bad guys misunderstood and the best outcome is understanding between the two. The Star Trek universe seemed subject to a relentless dialectic where people get along better and better as time goes on.

The moral of the first two programs, TNG in particular, seems to be, "Stick to the ethical high ground and things will work out satisfactorily in the end." Conflict results from the unwillingness of otherwise good people to resolve their differences. Suffering only continues to exist for lack of the will to end it. Star Trek under Roddenberry bore the imprint of an idealism forged in the '60s.1

The end of the Cold War was taken by many for the end of history. Roddenberry's faith that humanity would leave conflict behind as an obsolete relic seemed well-placed. TOS and TNG envisioned the future as the brightly lit, harmoniously multicultural, ergonomically designed interior of a Starfleet vessel; DS9 rendered a different version of that future, exploring its dark and murky backwaters at a time when many expected that the former would come to pass.2 Roddenberry had no direct input into DS9, which was produced after his death, and it shows. On DS9, the ethical high ground is slippery and quickly subsides into a steep ravine. This being Star Trek and all, conflict still resulted from a failure of inherently good people to overcome their differences, but DS9 presented the struggle to rise above the selfishness and fear that divides people as far more difficult than TOS or TNG ever did. On TOS and TNG, the continued existence of suffering resulted from the unwillingness to pursue the solutions which would end that suffering; the heroes of DS9 aren't as certain as their comrades that they even have those solutions but, like good Starfleet officers, retain a faith in their existence.

DS9 upheld the Star Trek tradition of political allegory; however, rarely was DS9 as unsubtle and heavy-handed as "Are you blind, Commander Spock? I am black on the right side; it should be obvious to the most simple-minded that Lokai is of an inferior breed because he is white on the right!" [add more lines here from the more crudely fabulist episodes, see: "Angel One" and "The Outcast"], "Past Tense" excepted. ("Past Tense" was two interminable hours of clunky, obvious, mindlessly idealistic, economically illiterate propaganda for the Federal Employment Act.) Neither the Bajorans nor the Maquis are an obvious analogue for a specific group of people, such as Jews or Palestinians; the subtlety of DS9's allegory is such that each could be read as both simultaneously, which is a testimony to the talent and skill of DS9's writers. DS9 articulated the conflict between a posthistorical Federation and those who didn't share in its prosperity and security, taking up themes only hinted at on TNG by evaluating the Federation as a homogenizing, hegemonic force.

"Star Trek: The Next Generation" is the future we wanted; "Deep Space Nine" is the future we received. [disclaimer]I would normally resist linking sensitive historical events to fictional works, especially those of genre fiction, but I shall do so here.[/disclaimer] In its most ominously prescient moment, DS9 simultaneously honors and breaks established iconography. The second season ender features a ship named the USS Odyssey. Like The Next Generation's Enterprise-D, the Odyssey is a capital ship of the Galaxy-class, the Federation's most powerful, a fond and familiar sight to the Star Trek audience. The episode climaxes with a furious battle between the Odyssey and two smaller, lighter "Runabouts" on the Federation side and three ships comparable to the Runabouts in size and maneuverability on the other. The enemy vessels quickly establish and maintain dominance, giving Starfleet's nose a good bloodying. Upon completing their mission, the Starfleet vessels retreat, but before they can escape, one of the enemy vessels flies into the Odyssey, resulting in the total destruction of this vessel of Federation power.3 The lead character comments, "They're showing us how far they're willing to go."

There is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window and you see paradise - well, it's easy to be a saint in paradise.

1I understand the attraction Star Trek holds for left-liberals. What mystifies me is what draws those of a capitalist-libertarian bent, such as Newt Gingrich or Johan Norberg (card-carrying member of the Stockholm Trekkers), to a program that often portrays entrepreneurs (e.g. the Ferengi) in a less-than-heroic light and envisions a supraplanetary (let alone supranational) state with a thriving society in which money doesn't exist and "the acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in [people's] lives."

2DS9 seemed to run deliberately counter to Star Trek convention. TOS and TNG featured bright, shiny visuals; DS9 exhibited a dark, tarnished look. TOS and TNG exhibited Roddenberry's faith in humanity; DS9 took a more cynical stance on human behavior. TOS and TNG, set on ships, went from planet to planet; DS9 was rooted on a space station. I would argue that many of DS9's characteristics are the result of the decision to have a recurrent setting. The planet-of-the-week model often encourages quick-fix resolutions because the constant roaming entails a different locale next episode. Fixing the action to a single location allows the narrative to track the long-term consequences of characters' decisions. DS9 took this idea to its logical conclusion when the consequences of the TNG crew's shortsightedness lands in the DS9 crew's lap. Instead of carrying out orders to forcibly remove Federation settlers from territory ceded by a new treaty, the TNG crew instead allows them to remain in their new home on the understanding that they are no longer under Federation jurisdiction or protection. Sure enough, their new rulers begin persecuting them. Bound by the treaty, the Federation proves unwilling to endanger the peace by intervening. In desperation, the settlers turn to terrorist tactics, which they employ against both their oppressive new rulers and the Federation that refused them.

3Maybe not that prescient. The emphasis on spectacle and maximum emotional impact that (along with multiple simultaneous strikes) are the hallmarks of an attack by al-Qa'ida suggests that its planners have watched a lot of television or seen one too many movies, probably "Independence Day" or another film from the Devlin/Emmerich or Bruckheimer oeuvres - which should in no way be interpreted as blaming Hollywood for al-Qa'ida. As the RIAA could tell you, preventing the theft of something as immaterial as an idea is nigh impossible in this day and age.

UPDATE: DS9 also deserves credit for featuring a character with an Arabic name (Dr. Julian Bashir, played by the Anglo-Sudanese Siddig El Fadil, later Alexander Siddig) who was sophisticated, debonair yet somehow still naïve, at least at the start of the program. However, this raises the question of what kind of Arab or Muslim parents would saddle their poor kid with a prissy Western given name like Julian.