Politics & Policy

A Pre-Kirkian Try

It's back to basics with the new Enterprise.

Editor’s Note: This column is reccomended for Star Trek geeks and similarly interested parties only.

Okay, the Vulcan chick is over the top.

By now, anyone who cares (if you don’t, you shouldn’t be reading this anyway) has seen or heard that the new Trek series, Enterprise, has a Vulcan sexpot named T’Pol. The producers learned their lesson from Voyager’s 7-of-9, and have concluded they will never again be caught without a silicone-enhanced chick in a spackled-on uniform. It is cool that they’ve chosen a Vulcan to be the sex symbol, since Vulcans — while superior to humans in so many ways — have “not tonight, dear” headaches that last in roughly seven-year stretches (prediction: T’Pol will hear the Vulcan call of the birds and the bees, the Pon Farr, the moment the ratings dip).

With her over-the-top bitchiness and her under-her-top augmentation, T’Pol reminds me of that old Robin Williams joke about how he wanted sex to become an Olympic sport, just so we could see what the East Germans would come up with.

But before we smash our church-lady tea sets at the sight of rich unguents being smeared over that Vulcan torso, let’s not forget that the original Trek (cue harp music) was never above a little T&A — or a lot of it. The Federation memo requiring all female officers to wear miniskirts (officially, they were called “skorts”) was hardly a nod to their ergonomic benefits. Hell, Yeoman Rand was essentially a clipboard with blonde hair and long legs.

I bring all this up for two reasons. First, because the topic of the Vulcan chick dominated the e-mail I received from (male) Trekkie readers (no surprise there).

Second, and more to the point, because providing eye candy isn’t so much something new as a sign that the producers of Trek really are getting back to basics.

The new series takes place 150 years before the Kirkian Era (KE). Humanity is only two generations into its post-Historical Golden Age. Poverty, disease, and war have reportedly been conquered, and the Enterprise is the first honest-to-goodness starship to go poking around where no man has gone before. The crew has a sense of excitement not seen since the original series (and perhaps not even then). The machines don’t always work, the sensors aren’t great, and the idea of being “beamed” around space still scares the bejeebers out of people.

And this is good news. I made the case here a few months ago that Trek had lost its way over the last few years. As anyone who’s tuned in knows, much of Next Generation and all of Voyager were suffused with touchy-feely environmental and sexual themes; an emphasis on diplomacy over self-confident unilateralism; too much character development and too little exploration; and various potshots at American culture, particularly capitalism. As even Branan Braga, the series’ cocreator, admitted, “We had moved away from the essence of Star Trek.”

The hope — and it is still a hope — is that Enterprise will bring back a little explicitly pro-human and implicitly pro-American attitude. The first episode, “Broken Bow,” was a good start, introducing us to Scott Bakula as Captain Archer. He’s not perfect, because Bakula has a tendency to be a little goofy. But he’s not bad at all. He definitely has a Kirkian approach to things. Voyager’s Captain Janeway was a scientist first and foremost, and — no offense to scientists — that made her very boring. Captain Picard, while well-rounded, seemed to want a job as the director of some intergalactic UNESCO. Avery Brooks, though certainly cool, just seemed pissed off all the time. But Bakula’s Archer has a mix of Midwestern morality and American can-do-ness that’s obviously inspired by Captain Kirk (and the producers freely admit it).

One really interesting twist is that the Vulcans are a pain in the ass. I mean, we always knew this. But, all of a sudden, Dr. McCoy’s full-throated bigotry in the original series (“Why you green-blooded, pointy-eared, inhuman…!”) suddenly has a context.

Enterprise picks up on the storyline from the movie First Contact. The Vulcans have been tutoring us in how to be galactic grown-ups. This has bred a lot of anti-Vulcan sentiment among us humans, because the Vulcans haven’t shared their knowledge and scientific know-how with the immature earthlings (one aside: judging from the first two episodes, the writers will have to be very careful not to make the Vulcans into incurious Luddites rather than paternalistic know-it-alls).

Captain Archer is especially pissed because his dad invented the Warp 5 engine, but the Vulcans kept the earthlings from using it until after poppa Archer died. This has the potential to be a great plot device. It turns out the Federation didn’t actually invent the Prime Directive after all. We got the idea from the paternalistic pointy-ears who held us back for so long. Putting Vulcans in the position humans hold in the Kirkian Era is a brilliant trick — if handled right. Human resentment against the Vulcans can be likened to, among other things, Third World anger toward Americans today. This would pick up on the grand tradition of the original series, which cast the Federation as the Americans dealing with the Third World in a Cold War-style environment.

Even more fun — and more central to the Trek tradition — would be to see how it happened that the humans came to dominate the Federation. This would provide an opportunity to show that the human (i.e., American) values of merit, civility, morality, curiosity, etc., not only are superior to others, but are — in the most literal sense of the word — universal. The Vulcans can be the British and the humans the Americans. We stand on the shoulders of their culture and conquer the universe. If the producers pull that off, I will take back every harsh word I ever said about them.

Now, I’m not holding my breath. The first two episodes were only okay. But the first episodes of all the shows were subpar, so it’s not fair to judge too harshly.

Still, my chief criticism of and concern with all modern Treks seems to already have some merit. Perhaps it’s the nature of TV today generally; perhaps it’s because of the power actors and their agents have over writers and producers; perhaps it has to do with the need to market the shows and their stuff; but I, for one, do not care for the all-consuming concern with character development.

By the end of Next Generation, the producers had fully dedicated themselves to the idea that almost every show had to be about a single character and his or her struggle with some problem better hashed out on Oprah. (The worst examples involved Dr. Crusher or Counselor Troy dealing with their need to be “leaders” in a male environmentzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Sorry, I just fell asleep thinking about it.)

TV shows used to balance plot against character better. (I locate the beginning of disequilibrium with the fourth or fifth season of M*A*S*H. The only show around today which is almost entirely about story is Law and Order.) The original Trek offered us very little on the internal workings of the crew. “What is Sulu’s emotional state?” was not a particularly interesting question. Hell, Abraham Lincoln called Lieutenant Uhuru a “charming Negress” and her whole “no-harm-no-foul” response lasted about 15 seconds.

The old Trek was story driven, pure and simple. We learned only enough of the characters to drive the story, and that’s what made it great. The new series instead often — but not always — gave us just enough story to justify telling us about Deanna Troy’s tempestuous relationship with her mother.

Judging from the first two episodes (I’m not bothering with the plots, if you haven’t noticed), it seems the producers can’t let go of the idea that stories should take a backseat to the characters in them. If the show doesn’t overcome this bias, it will be doomed to Star Drek status.

In the meantime, I’m keeping hope alive. That’s what Trekkers, by definition, do anyway.

(If you would like to read my syndicated column dealing with a different aspect of Enterprise, click here.)


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