Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Day 6, No. 6 ... and heresy!

We’re through about 60 percent of the list here, and those familiar with the franchise have probably already figured out which movies I’m not going to include, speculation turns to the various series. There have been only 11 movies, but there have been 40 two-parters, and many more multiple story arcs. Which of these will make the Whitleypedia cut?

I’m going to reveal now that nothing from “Voyager” met the cut. I do not feel bad about this. Nothing from “Enterprise” is on the list either. I feel slightly worse about this.


The challenge of an ongoing franchise like Star Trek is the demand from the fans for something that is both the same and different at the same time. This is remarkably difficult to pull off, particularly given the precise memories of Star Trek fans. “TNG” made conscious efforts to be the same as its predecessor in key areas while radically different in others. For example, the basic premise is identical: a ship named Enterprise explores the galaxy boldly, encountering dilemmas that serve as thinly veiled commentary on social issues of the day, particularly as seen through the eyes of a tangentially human “mascot” (Data instead of Spock).

But key details of “TNG” were significant departures from “TOS,” such as

1) The presence of families and children on the ship, including a teenage main character
2) A more mature, dispassionate captain (who was also not an American)
3) Protocol that the captain should not lead dangerous away missions
4) An absence of Vulcans
5) Klingons are our friends now, and one serves among us
6) A security chief who didn’t die every episode
7) An onboard therapist

In brief, I believe all of these changes worked well, except No. 7. The idea of a “ship’s counselor” was a great one, and Marina Sirtis has oodles of charm (yes, I have seen her at a convention), but they never used her character as well as they could have as a therapist. If you don’t think a therapy session can help the drama of a show, you need to watch “The Sopranos.” But the problem is when Guinan was introduced in the second season, she became the defacto counselor and got all the good scenes that could have been Troi’s.



But largely the “TNG” experiment was a success. However, as the franchise progressed, the challenge to be the same but different increased. This was the fundamental problem of “VOY.” It’s fundamental character dynamic (a non-Starfleet crew working with a Starfleet crew) was basically a less-effective copy of “Deep Space Nine,” and its signature characters (Janeway, Neelix, The Doctor/Seven of Nine) were basically less-effective copies of those on “TNG” (Picard, Guinan, Data). At its best “VOY” was watered-down version of its progenitors; at its worst it was a sci-fi “Gilligan’s Island.”

“Enterprise” suffered unavoidably from the “same but different” conundrum, although it turned into a much better show than anyone gave it credit – mainly because everyone had stopped watching. Despite the show’s selling points (heavy intertextuality, strong story arcs, Linda Park’s midriff), it didn’t capture people’s hearts like “Firefly,” nor their minds like “Battlestar Galactica.”

SO having said all that, let me make the second-most heretical statement I’ll make in this series:

My favorite Star Trek is “Deep Space Nine.”

“DS9” mastered the art of delivering the “same but different.” It kept true to its roots of Roddenberry’s peaceful vision of the future without feeling like a Hallmark Card the way “TNG” sometimes did. They could do stories that were “about something” without coming off as heavy handed as “TOS” did. Their action-heavy episodes didn’t sacrifice character or story, and they pulled off extended story arcs with a large supporting cast in a way “Babylon 5” could only dream.

Also, I appreciated that on “DS9” people had relationships rather than interstellar one-night stands. Through the whole series, Captain Sisko only sleeps with two women – his wife (who died) and his second wife. He and several other characters also had children they were raising rather than just shooting through space as carefree bachelor(ette)s. Distinct characters, Quark and Garak in particular, allowed for different kinds of stories than we’d seen before but that still fit into nicely into the Star Trek mythos.

Then the question is which “DS9” two-parter to feature. Most of the show’s actual two-parters weren’t that notable (“The Marquis,” that “we have to ruin paradise to save it!” one), but its ongoing storylines were innovative and well done. So, having said that, the “DS9” episode on my list is the eight-parter that started the Dominion War, which is No. 6 on my list.





The “same but different” factor for all of “DS9,” and this sequence particularly, was off the space-charts. Each of the three Dominion races was a super-charged version of a previous Star Trek villain: the Jem’Hadar were tougher than Klingons, the Vorta were more cunning than Romulans, and the changelings were more insidious than the Borg. By making the villain archtypes similar we felt we were in familiar space, but by making them different we didn’t feel like our legacy was being flouted. Klingons were Kirk’s bad guys, the Borg were Picard’s bad guys. This is another reason “VOY” failed – they co-opted “TNG’s” signature villains in a way that trivialized some of the best installments in the franchise.

My favorite episode of this was “Rocks and Shoals,” where the Defiant and a bunch of Jem’Hadar are marooned on a planet and have a fight to the death. There’s a scene where the crew is debating the ethics of wiping out their enemies and Sisko says something beautifully Republican: “In the choice between them and us, there is no them.” They never would have said that on “TNG.”


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