Monday, April 11, 2005

Of Sharks and Whales: The Battle for Star Trek's Soul

by William S. Kowinski

The blood is in the water, and the sharks are circling. Star Trek:Enterprise has been ignominiously cancelled, and Star Trek has been shut down.

But Sci Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" is a hit, at least in cable terms, anchoring the Friday night lineup that contributed to sinking the rescheduled "Enterprise." So it's natural that some of the sharks come from those waters. Two former DS9 writers who few seem to have heard of before, Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, now write for BSG, and gave an interview about how much they learned from working on a Trek series, and how glad they aren't doing that anymore. Because now they can "bring sci fi back into the realm of a place that might actually exist, with people like us in it."

To be fair, this is just one line in a long interview. And others are saying similar things. Even Rick Berman expressed doubts in his February interview with TV Week: "We made a great effort to keep Roddenberry's vision of the future in mind. Has that attitude played itself out? It could very well be true." And it was this BSG's creator and former Trek writer, Ronald Moore who said in the same article that Trek doesn't need to become BSG, that it can remain a hopeful vision of the future.

But we are in dangerous waters right now. Everything about Star Trek is seemingly vulnerable. So this is the time to be as clear as possible about what we believe Star Trek is, so that its next incarnation is not simply as another space-based action series trading on the Star Trek name.

The line of attack represented by the Thompson & Weedle statements is familiar, and has been uttered in various ways by other former Trek writers and producers: the people in Roddenberry's future were too "perfect." They weren't like us.

It seemed to me that a lot of DS9 reflected this view. But it always puzzled me. Especially since this complaint seemed to come from people who understood that this is precisely what Star Trek is about, and in fact wrote great scenes illustrating it: It is about how people change, not just how technology changes. And about how the future cannot be better unless we do change.

As people with an interest in the future, who perhaps have or look forward to having children and grandchildren, I assume they are interested in promoting that future. But they are also TV writers.

So let's take a closer look at that sentence, because it reflects one particularly seductive line of thinking. The writers in question have been liberated to "bring sci fi back into the realm of a place that might actually exist, with people like us in it."

Who are these "people like us?" They are people with raw passions, who kill out of fear and hatred, who betray one another from jealousy and envy and greed. They lie, double-deal and double-cross, and seem to enjoy it. No doubt there are people like that, and that these are all human emotions and human behaviors. We are probably all pretty familiar with betrayal, and have seen or experienced some dirty deeds based on any number of the seven deadly sins.

But there are several relevant points here. And the first and most obvious to me is: mostly they aren't actually talking about "people like us." Most people don't behave that way, on that scale. They are talking about people like the people you usually see on television action shows, and in action movies. They are people who act violently whenever possible. And it is usually very possible, because somebody just dripping with evil is inevitably attacking somebody who is violently good. They're involved in non-stop violence on "24." People like us don't actually kill that many people before dinner.

And even among the good guys on most TV and in movies, there are violent arguments, violent jealousies, outsized greed and incomparable betrayal. All passions are uncontrollable, and all emotions and certainly all conflicts are acted out. The truth is, we aren't any more like these people than we are like Captain Picard or Dr. Phlox.

Moreover, the basic conflict is always a fight for survival, involving a fight to the death, and it is so intense that it couldn't possibly be slowed down for much in the way of variation, and certainly not evaluation or second thoughts, except the tortured kind, under incredible pressures that are stacked so they lead to the same conclusion: us or them.

Yes, it turns out that these kind of "people like us" are a lot easier to write for. They practically write themselves.

In fact these perfectly violent, often one-dimensional characters are no more real than the "perfect" crew of the starship Enterprise (and incidentally, they weren't ever really perfect, in any century.)

But even if the characters are more complicated, more dimensional, what's the point? Every war story is basically the same. How many repetitions of it do we need? Many of the emotions of war are endemic to the situation; the challenge is to not get into the situation, or to handle it differently, to handle yourself differently.

But war and violence are gripping. They go past our thinking brains to fight-or-flight responses, to visceral reactions. Sure, that's part of life, and storytelling. But it's not all of it. And more to the point, it's the easiest to write, and the easiest to evoke a guaranteed response. People will watch, because some survival instinct has been engaged. Glands call to glands.

I am not describing characters specifically in BSG, which I haven't yet seen much of. I am drawing a contrast that may be exaggerated but is quite functional.

These writers want to "bring sci-fi back to a place that might actually exist." A very interesting proposition. First, there's the apparent contradiction of sci-fi and realism. It's not really a contradiction, but this does suggest something that is true: a lot of sci-fi creates plausible worlds in order to test a proposition, an idea. It doesn't matter if H.G. Wells' time machine could exist in 1890; what matters is the story he told about a very unlikely future that made enormously rich metaphorical sense. So a place that might actually exist is not necessarily a virtue in science fiction. If it's too close to the present, what's the point? It's just a costume drama, where the costumes excuse the implausible.

But what constitutes a future that might actually exist? Is it necessarily a future in which everything changes except us? Hasn't anything about human thought, feeling and behavior changed? To believe it hasn't is to be enormously shortsighted. We have examples within our own lifetimes. To think that people of a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years ago are pretty much just like us, may be an understandable Hollywood convention, but it's more than just unlikely. If you believe it, you probably believe that ancient Romans all had British accents.

A little study of indigenous peoples, either from anthropological work or through living descendants today, will illuminate you: "people like us" then were very different in very important ways from "people like us" now. And that's just if you mean "people like us" in urban North America, or the cities of the West.

Of course, much human behavior seems stuck in the same repeating and often self-destructive patterns. It's depressing, and it makes people cynical. But those aren't the only possible reactions.

For a much more salient point is this: if people of that recognizable future are too much "just like us," we are unlikely to have a future at all. Which a lot of people were saying in particular in the 1960s, and one of them was Gene Roddenberry.

Star Trek began in the shadow of thermonuclear holocaust, and despite more novel problems, we aren't out of that shadow yet. Some experts believe we are more in danger of accidental nuclear attack now than in the Cold War. There are STILL more than enough nuclear warheads on working missiles to destroy civilization in a matter of hours.

And that isn't even our biggest threat anymore. Assuming we manage to not set off a nuclear Armageddon, we are in the very early stages of a climate crisis which will challenge human civilization for at least the next century, and especially if we continue ignoring it, it could end life as we know it on this planet.

All we have to do is keep on being "people like us."

The people like us many of these characters are like, are soldiers, in an exceedingly artificial (though all too common) situation called modern warfare. It was a situation a lot of us were supposed to naturally become part of in the Vietnam era, because (everything told us) we had no choice. Those were enemies and they were evil. But it was a situation that people involved in Star Trek, including actual veterans like Roddenberry, wanted to portray alternatives to.

I am continually impressed and inspired by how many people articulate the basic Star Trek vision with such clarity, variety and even poetry. An amazing proportion of the people who worked on Trek can do it, even if they wrote some music once or acted in a single movie. But fans often are eloquent on the subject, too. The most appropriate statement that comes to mind right now is something Mike Malotte, Commander of Starfleet (or president of the International Star Trek Fan Association) said to me in a phone interview last summer: "Gene's Star Trek was really the first science fiction show of its time that showed a future where we actually learn from our mistakes, and we bettered ourselves, and we banded together and we headed out for the stars..."

What Star Trek is largely about---what it embodies, what it models, what it is-- is the process of how we learn, how we become better.

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