Sunday, January 15, 2006

Captains of Soul

Captain Kirk’s character arc was perhaps less dramatic, if it’s possible to say that anything Shatner played was “less dramatic.” Mostly it seemed to be a kind of mellowing, of gaining complexity and self-knowledge through experience and the insults of aging, manifesting as a world-weary humor, the distinct irony that characterizes the latter movies, without completely losing the exuberance that was always the anchor of Kirk’s character. He dies trying to make a difference, doing so partly because "it was fun." (So maybe it could be summed up with the Shatner joke that didn't make it into Generations---from Captain on the bridge, to the bridge on the Captain.)

Captain Picard’s arc was probably also partly planned from the beginning, in the somewhat superficial way of his being a bit remote and uncomfortable with informal personal contact (especially children) in the beginning, and gradually warming and loosening up. This apparently mirrored Patrick Stewart’s attitude as an actor, when his British discipline and reserve met with the rest of the riot-prone cast. However, Stewart’s attitude changed perhaps even faster than Picard’s.

But when I think of Picard’s character arc, I think immediately of the impact on him of events in stories that, not just coincidentally, are among the best TNG episodes.

Throughout Star Trek and other TV and film science fiction, earthlings are forever being “taken over” by aliens, and when the alien influence is purged, they go back to normal as if nothing had happened to them. At least in the case of Picard, this doesn’t happen. The effects of his assimilation by the Borg are explored immediately in “Family.” In that story, he is humbled (“or humiliated” as his brother says) and hurt. In this story his youth is established as demonstrating a will to excel, and he did excel. But it was a lonely struggle---his father opposed his dreams of a Starfleet career, and his older brother resented and bullied him. (Patrick Stewart’s relationship with his own father was reputedly difficult.)

The effect of assimilation arises in a different way in the TNG feature “First Contact.” There we see the buried anger, the cold drive for vengeance, with its thinly veiled component of fear. Again, Picard is trying to impose his will---as he willed himself to win the Starfleet Academy marathon, he wills himself to defeat the Borg, no matter the cost to others.

Between the two Borg encounters, he had passed up on the opportunity to end the Borg threat by using the rescued Borg Hugh to infect the collective with a destructive virus. After being upbraided for this by an Admiral, he begins to doubt this decision. His dogged obsession with the Borg, and especially his residual contact with the collective, allows him to defeat a Borg incursion in the 24th century, and eventually to save the future by defeating the Borg in the 21st century. But other aspects of his character and its arc come into play when he is reminded of an archetype he is unconsciously acting out: that of Ahab, the whaling ship captain obsessed with revenge in Melville’s Moby Dick.

By now we know from earlier in his history that he is particularly aware of literary and historical precedents and meaning. Partly through that, and partly through his tutelage by Counsellor Troi, he has learned the benefits of being conscious of his own motivations, and in this case, of his own “shadow,” or the unconscious motives that masquerade as perfectly reasonable, leading to deliberately chosen behavior. All that makes his instant recognition of the truth of this archetype, and his instant change of behavior, very plausible for the Captain Picard we have come to know.

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