Thursday, September 30, 2010

ST Top 10 Redux – Why No Love For “TNG”?

So let’s talk about “TNG.” With the benefit of history and the context of so much other content (notably the recent reboot), we can ask the question: why is there so little love for the franchise’s best installment? Only about half the episodes for “The Original Series” are watchable, and only about half of those are truly great – so just about 15 to 20 remarkable episodes. Season 3 of “TNG” alone has that many fantastic episodes. (Now you’re going to ask me to compile a list. I will. Eventually. Probably tomorrow.)

I think someone designed this after watching "Superman"...

Regardless of this fact, people are endlessly nostalgic about “TOS” and somewhat aloof toward “TNG.” While the explanation for the former is simple, the latter is more complicated.

People love “TOS” because the movies were so good. Those movies that boiled down the essence of the show and told their own story were beloved (2, 3, 4), while those that were most like “TOS” were despised (1, 5). “ST6” is well thought of, but it’s not really about “TOS” – it’s really a “TNG” movie with the original cast. (Given how poorly No. 5 did at the box office, No. 6 would likely not have been made were “TNG” not so popular at the time.)

Moreover, per our discussion that Star Trek fans don’t really like William Shatner, they adore Patrick Stewart.

This is my friend Olivia in New York ... with Patrick Stewart. (Sigh.)

He brought unforeseen gravitas to the franchise, and was even voted the "Sexiest Man on Television" by TV Guide in 1992. Plus he embiggened his nerd street cred with his cromulent performance in the X-Men franchise, and he has always been humble about his relationship to “TNG.” He once said:

“The fact is all of those years in Royal Shakespeare Company -- playing all those kings, emperors, princes and tragic heroes -- were nothing but preparation for sitting in the captain's chair of the Enterprise.”

Stewart infused his love of Shakespeare into the Picard character. He’s said he appreciates having introduced so many Trek fans to the Bard, and is grateful there’s always a contingent of (non-uniform wearing) Trek fans to support him at his plays.

I didn’t realize it until yesterday, but General Chang in “Undiscovered Country” is intended to be a Klingon Picard: he’s bald, speaks with an English accent, and quotes Shakespeare. They needed a Klingon rival for Kirk who wasn’t pure evil (like Kruge) or totally mindless (like Klaa), so who did they use as their model? The other captain of the Enterprise. (Note: Chang's name is also one letter away from "change," because that's what the movie is about -- changing from a Cold War to no war, and from one generation to the next.)

OK so then why is there so little nostalgia for “TNG”? (I have pondered this greatly given that “TNG” is the only part of my childhood for which I am nostalgic.) The people who are nostalgic for “TOS” didn’t see it when it first aired 45 years ago. The easy answer is because the “TNG” movies were so bad – and that is certainly true, but it’s more than that. The other easy answer is that the market was over-saturated by three inferior spin-offs – and that’s mostly true (certainly where “Voyager” is concerned), but “Enterprise” was explicitly intended as a nostalgia piece for “TOS” – with all its Vulcans and Andorians and Tellarites – not as a continuation of “TNG.”

Shran was an old-school alien with a new-school look.

The more complicated answer, and ultimately most comprehensive one, is that “TNG’s” legacy was a victim of its creator: Gene Roddenberry. Returning to yesterday’s post, this can be summarized by reviewing the following:
a) A money-less economy because of “technology unchained”
b) Homogenous heroes that are never in conflict with each other
c) Starfleet is not a military organization and too much space politics
d) Goop-on-the-forehead aliens
e) Total religious secularization
So the problem with these three points is that they robbed the show of drama. You couldn’t have any conflict related to a lack of resources, because no one “needed” money (though it was then never explained how society operated or how humans bartered with species that did use money) and their technology (replicators, holodecks) could solve so many problems so effortlessly. The lack of appropriate militarization made it difficult to do action pieces. On “TNG,” ever week we met a new alien only different from last week’s by the design of make-up on his forehead – in “TOS” you either looked like a human or you were a damn Gorn. And the secularization left everyone thinking that Roddenberry’s utopia was one in which religious people were not welcome: so much for all that tolerant embrace of humanities differences!

Then the most salient point – main characters who never disagree with each other – removed another source of potential conflict and therefore storytelling. There wasn't a lot of this kind of scene in "TNG":

And the main reason that “TNG” generates so little nostalgia is its influence on these four points. EVERY science fiction show about a spaceship since “TNG” has defined itself by defying these resoundingly unsuccessful, yet integral, aspects of an otherwise successful experiment, as we’ll see tomorrow.

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