Saturday, October 2, 2010

ST Top 10 Redux – The Next Next Generation

OK last one on this topic for a while. It's going to be time for "South Park Week" soon, so...

Today we’re talking about “TNG’s” legacy – or rather the way subsequent sci-fi shoes have followed in its footsteps by wearing a completely different pair of shoes. The imprint is so strong that you have to defy that standard or you're "doomed to repeat it." For the last 15 years there has been a tendency whenever a spaceship show -- EVEN A PRE-EXISTING ONE is unsure what do to, they default to a "TNG" mindset. Take the Star Wars prequels:
  • The ships were too clean and sleek. Queen Amidala's ship in "Phantom Menace" felt more like the Enterprise-D than the Millenium Falcon.
  • Techno-babble about "meta-chlorines"? Yeah, that's "TNG" speak right there.
  • Endless space politics? Remember "if this is a consular ship where is the Ambassador" ... sessions of Congress are not exciting.
We can summarize it with the following chart. A “win” means the show defied the unsuccessful “TNG” paradigms listed across the top, a “fail” means it didn’t.

There are a couple notes to make on this chart. One is that the least-loved of these seven shows is the one with no anti-“TNG” “wins” – “Voyager.” The show’s concept was cleverly designed to conform to Roddenberry’s “vision” while correcting the problems of limited resources and conflict among characters: strand the ship 70 years away from the rest of the fleet and make one-third of the crew terrorists.

While there are a few key episodes that kept this premise, most of the show did not.

This episode shows actual conflict between crew members, legitimate to the show's premise.

If anything, "Voyager" was even more touchy-feely than "TNG," and the level of technology displayed surpassed even that on the NCC-1701-D. Ron Moore – who wrote masterpieces for “TNG” and “DS9” – was inspired to reimagine “BSG” because of how far “Voyager” fell short of its basic premise. He said:

“Voyager is not true. If it were true, the ship would not look spic-and-span every week, after all these battles it goes through. How many times has the bridge been destroyed? How many shuttlecrafts have vanished, and another one just comes out of the oven? That kind of bullshitting the audience I think takes its toll.”

The kid-sister show of “TNG,” “Deep Space 9,” made as radical departures as they could, not only from the failed “TNG” paradigms, but from other key Roddenberry concepts:

Holodeck: The “DS9” holosuite is not a technology that’s simultaneously omnipotent and utterly unreliable (O’Brien jokes that the Enterprise crew could do anything “except keep the holodeck working”). It’s main use is for simple recreation and (ahem) personal indulgence.

Ferengi: Ira Steven Behr on “DS9” realized that no one took seriously an alien that looked like a mutant monkey and wanted money, not conquest. They were much better suited as comic relief, and as the occasional sarcastic jibe against the Roddenberrian standard of “All praise humanity!”
"Farscape’s” greatest success was with the presentation of aliens – they all look truly alien, and some were created by Jim Henson’s creature shop. Way better than goop on the forehead. And “Babylon 5” was good too, beating “DS9” for a make-up Emmy in 1995.

The shows that do the best along this spectrum are the ones that were most critically/commercially successful (“BSG”) and most devotedly beloved (“Firefly”). On the DVD, Joss Whedon names the failures of “TNG” (without naming “TNG”) as the source of “Firefly’s” strengths: he said real people don’t ever deal with ambassadors; real people worry about getting a job. Characters on “Firefly” are openly religious (one of them is a preacher), and the constructed religion of the “Lords of Kobol” on “BSG” is an integral part of the show.

But the most profound factor is the “homogenous characters who are never in conflict with each other” – every one of these shows avoided that problem. The characters argue with each other, sometimes even coming to violence. “Voyager” tried the whole Marquis-vs-Starfleet idea, and that was OK, but at its best it felt like a ho-hum “DS9” episode. Then they added Seven and she helped.

So then wait: if everyone’s did the opposite of “TNG,” maybe it actually sucked?

The answer to this is easy. No one (including “TOS”) can really compare to “TNG” on its strengths – writing, acting, directing, production values – so they go after its weaknesses. If you have to compete against Michael Jordan, challenge him to a game of darts not basketball.

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