In the beginning, there were space jellyfish (pilot/S01:E01)

The introduction to this series can be seen here.

Encounter At Farpoint

Premise: The new crew of the Enterprise-D assembles, and travels to Farpoint Station to find a mystery there. En route, an immensely powerful and capricious entity places the crew on trial for all the savageries of the human race, and challenges them to prove their superiority to their ancestors while solving the Farpoint mystery – or face grave consequences.

One of the great strengths of science fiction is its capacity for social commentary. And the commentary certainly starts quick and thick here, as Picard is explicitly ordered to demonstrate how he is less savage than the human society the viewer finds hirself in. At thirteen, I had already experienced a lot of isolation, because of my own differentness, and because of some harmful mental illness present in my family. At that age I was collecting the earliest observations of what I would later turn into a worldview of linked systemic oppressions and stories of liberation from them. And at that point I felt completely alone in what I was seeing. So, when the protagonists of the show flat out agreed that 20th century patriotism (as one example given by the powerful Q) was something savage and brutal, I began connecting with them quickly.

There’s obviously a new kind of authority on this Enterprise. While Picard wasn’t a popular captain at first, I immediately took to him. He has more for me to admire in him than Kirk’s cowboy style ever did. He’s more diplomatic, more vulnerable, and more willing to reason than Kirk. In this episode, he specifically and repeatedly outsmarts a Loki-type trickster character. And he leads the team that very purposely liberates a strange entity brutally held captive; even without an adult’s understanding of the depth of value of liberation, that’s still a powerful theme from a child’s point of view. (Yes, the entity was a space jellyfish with a cheesy soundtrack behind it. But still!) I immediately admired him as an intelligent, compassionate and ethical man. Granted, Picard was aloof, especially at the start. But even that I could relate to more than Kirk’s brashness and womanizing.

As far as gender issues, what I saw then was a kickass female security chief, a close advisor to the captain that was female, and a female chief medical officer who was the only other person besides the villain who stood her ground thoroughly with the intimidating captain. What I wasn’t consciously aware of but would be influenced by is that fact that all three women are thoroughly normative in their femininity. They’re thin and buxom, mostly thirtyish with delicate features (though Doctor Crusher is the mother of a teenager and is slightly pushing the age envelope). There’s even vague elements of tokenism present, with one of the trio being blond, one brunette, and one a redhead. This episode had one small element of edgy gender-bending in it: an extra in the crew presented as male and wore a uniform that included a short skirt and bare legs (a nearly identical uniform to the one the exotic counselor wears this episode). The designers felt this clothing choice would be a “logical development, given the total equality between the sexes presumed to exist in the 24th century.”1 This one flash of nonconformity added to a sense of home-ness about the series for me, though I wasn’t consciously aware. (That uniform became known as the “space cheerleader look.” It was unpopular with fans and actors and was discontinued after a few episodes.)

In other diversity news, I also saw one major character with a disability: pilot Geordi LaForge was born blind and sees beyond human visual abilities through the use of a prosthetic device. It’s mentioned in this episode that Geordi has constant pain from using it, but I don’t recall them ever exploring the narrative potential of a contributing crew member living with chronic pain. Everyone else is conventionally able-bodied.

Of course, as an adult with anarchist and intersectional leanings, the roots of progressive liberalism in the show – perhaps the roots of my own progressive liberalism – become clear. The limitations I find in progressivism are embedded here; the creators, for example, presume we can and will have progressed past all sexism everywhere (even though it will become clear that they can’t come close to eliminating it in their writing). The complete invisibility of many populations is an issue. As one example, everyone I see – with the exception of the space-dwelling creatures revealed at the end of the episode – has a clear and distinct binary cissexuality. Even the creatures hint at a bonded heterosexual dyad, one colored pink and one blue. While Geordi is biologically blind, his Visor precludes any need for apparent adaptation, and in fact the crew use his special abilities to their advantage much more often than they are confronted with any unique needs on his part. They are still all immersed in a seeing world. Picard speaks of how they are no longer a savage race, eliciting the very imperial dichotomy of the savages and the enlightened ones. This enlightened culture is awash in militarism. As Captain Pike mentioned in the Trek reboot film, Starfleet is “a peacekeeping armada.”3 Authority is top-down, and while some of their values may (or may not) mitigate their imperialism, they are still a privileged culture traversing the universe and playing by their own (benevolent) rules.

1. Reeves-Stevens, Judith and Garfield, The Art of Star Trek, New York : Pocket Books, 1995.
2. Thanks to Memory Alpha for the photo.
3. It’s scientific fact that Star Trek (2009) kicks ass for fan and non-fan alike.

Published in: on May 24, 2012 at 1:05 am  Comments (2)  

Enterprise Theology

Edit: Episode Index here!!

I vividly remember watching the two-hour premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation when I was 13 years old. It was a Wednesday.

I had already begun an emotional investment in the series before that night. My dad had shown me some of the original series and movies; I enjoyed the universe and wanted to see more that wasn’t so “old”. I had also passionately followed news of the developing show long before the first episode aired. Fan mags (I believe my favorite was called Starlog) had been giving us production memos, casting updates and official announcements many months before the show premeired (it was the 1987 version of livetweeting its creation!). I remember first hearing there would be an android in the crew, and that we had made peace with our mortal enemies, the Klingons; one Klingon had even entered Starfleet! I remember taking in the riskiness and newness of the endeavor too. This was long before reboots and multi-series franchises became popular. It was, in fact, ST:TNG that helped blaze that trail. Grafting a new story onto an old one like this hadn’t been tried on this scale in mainstream entertainment before. It was a huge gamble.

I watched the first episode, and every one after it, for seven years. That’s age 13 until age 20 – a profoundly formative time. I fell in love with some characters, overidentified with other characters, and I really couldn’t begin to imagine how very different I might be as a person if I hadn’t adopted Jean-Luc Picard as a powerful role model and surrogate father (a choice I’m still quite thankful to my adolescent self for; my family of origin was an utter mess during my formation, and I could do a lot worse than aim for pleasing Picard). The crew felt like family.

For being a rerun whore, I’ve seen shockingly little of the show since it went off the air. I caught a few reruns perhaps ten years ago now, but at that point in my life I got entirely preoccupied with, well… some quality control hiccups I hadn’t noticed first time around. It’s possible – perhaps just a smidge possible – that there’s some wooden acting here or there. It may be true that a special effect or two might not have come together just right. Aaaand there might be a wrinkle or two in dialogue. Or plot holes the size of your average Klingon Bird of Prey. After 4 or 5 episodes of being distracted by those, my self of ten years ago stopped watching, chalking the series up to a child’s pleasure that didn’t hold up well. It felt a lot like how my honey describes his experience of the A-Team.

But I stumbled onto the show again just a couple of months ago (thank you, BBC America!). And what I’m struck by this time is the show’s heart, and what hidden gifts it gave me. I’ve been amazed by the depth of its reflections of my own journey and my own ethics over the years. I see just how formative the show was for me, how profoundly it has shaped my theology and politics. Some influences I have eventually rejected, but others are still there, as important anchor points.

I would really like to know more about how this show shaped me.

To that end, I’m about to take a journey. I’ll switch from the seemingly randomly ordered episodes broadcast on a cable channel to a chronological run-through of the whole series (thanks, Netflix!), starting at that fateful Wednesday-night encounter at Farpoint Station. I suspect that I’ll be writing here on the experience, but I don’t expect to focus on the plots, details or quality of the show. I want to explore the memories of my adolescent self, through a lens of narrative theology. I want to unpack the theological problems and social critique presented in the stories, and see how those themes have echoed through my own journey, over the 16 years since the show ended and left an impact on me.

Hopefully some elements of this exploration are compelling to you too, whether you’re a Trekkie, a Trekker, or don’t know a tribble from a tachyon emitter. I believe there are deep commonalities to be found in how our sacred stories can shape each of us. Please join me if you can.

Edit: Episode Index here!!

Further edit: Star Trek: The Next Generation and all images from the series are copyright Paramount Pictures. My footnotes on images serve to highlight multiple fansites and databases of Trek lore. I’m making no money off of this website.

Published in: on May 22, 2012 at 3:26 am  Leave a Comment