Tuesday, June 01, 2010

What I learned from Star Trek TNG

I've been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation lately because it's pretty much always either on BBC America (WTF is with BBCA airing all that non British programming lately?) or SyFy. It used to be on Spike a lot, too. Is it still on Spike? I dunno. But it's on a lot.

ST:TNG was a damn fine show despite its cheesy effects - have you SEEN the pilot? Oi. But one thing that made it brilliant is its constant method of pushing the envelope. They take the one thing a character doesn't want and force him to face it. Usually that character is Picard.

Picard is the most powerful person on the ship, and he's a man so contained and dignified and in complete control of himself at all times. Unlike Kirk's lackadaisical attitude, Picard did not join all the away teams or flirt with hot colorful ladies or shrug his shoulders and dive into danger. Captain Picard was the model of a modern major starship captain.

That's why they were constantly fucking with him. THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS. I am Locutus of Borg. Oh no Q took over my ship! Women keep flirting with me and they won't stop trying to get in my very dignified pants!

They found all kinds of ways to strip Picard of his control and take him to the edge of reason. And just when you thought he would break, that stoic personality took over and saved him, because he is a just man. Flawed, but always with the best intentions.

I feel like the difference between a really good show and one that sucks often comes down to that ability the writers have to push characters to their limits and force them to face the one thing they most fear. The most recent show that disappointed me in this regard was Stargate Atlantis. There was so much potential for that show, but time and time again the writers let their characters take the easy way out. They'd put two characters in a dangerous situation constantly, and then not make them face their fears. Lot of deus ex machina going on there.

But what keeps us coming back week after week is the hope that our favorite character will face those personal challenges again and show us what he's made of. Take Buffy. She can defeat anything, but she can't keep her mom from dying. She must learn to face death whether she likes it or not. The most powerful mortal woman in the world is completely powerless.

I see that problem in a lot of scripts, too: characters not taken to the limits of their fears and desires. I think the best thing any writer could do is think of the one thing your character most wants and deny it to him. Or what is the thing your character is most afraid of, make him face it. Or take the one thing of which the character is certain and take it away. It can never be easy.


  1. Check out RedLetterMedia's reviews of the Star Trek movies on YouTube.

    This is the same guy that did the 90 minute Phantom Menace Review.

    He hits the nail on the head about why Star Trek TNG was so good and contrasts it to the films and what they did wrong.

    Boiled down, the show gets the characters right. And creates plot to push the characters and create conflict within the character. The movies just toss them in action scenarios with very typical formulaic outcomes.

  2. Anonymous9:21 AM

    Can't say I share your opinion. I don't think that TNG has withstood the test of time unlike say, the original series. Granted there were some exceptional episodes (the Borg two-parter, Inner Light, Tapestry, etc). But overall the show lacked any consistency in terms of quality which made it a hit or miss proposition (except for the first season where everything was pretty much execrable). Still I do think TNG has to be credited for showing that science-fiction tv was viable tv and laying the groundwork for a lot of other shows that followed it.

  3. I don't think TNG is any more or less dated than the original series. The 60s show had plenty of dated episodes, such as the "hippie episode." I think there are a fair number of exceptional episodes along with a decent number of clunkers. Seasons 1, 2 and 7 are generally more weak than they are strong, but I think it's got a decent batting average in most of the other seasons. (Years 4 and 6 in particular have a lot of strong episodes.)

    Having said that, I tend to favor DS9 and find that it feels far less dated and more complex than either of its predecessors or successors.

    James - Your last paragraph saved me from having to go to Red Letter Media. After enduring the whine-fest that was his AOTC review I swore I wasn't going back. Shame, because some of his Phantom Menace review was pretty intelligent and on point without descending into nitpicking.

    I think First Contact is the best of the four movies, that Nemesis is somewhat underrated, and that Generations has a few decent moments in spite of flaws that even Moore and Braga own up to. Insurrection is the only one I find completely unwatchable.

  4. Anonymous4:31 PM

    DS9 was a case of ambition outstripping talent. The show became so intent on establishing a mythology, involving Bajorans and the wormhole aliens, that the actual storytelling suffered immensely. At times the show became achingly pretentious with bizarre prophecies, prophets and ludicrous storylines encumbered with religiosity. Admittedly, DS9 didn't go as far as Babylon 5 but they were getting there. Not to say the show didn't have some redeeming features, the introduction of the Founders, the Dominion and their Jem'Hadar warriors was fairly inventive.


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