My Trek

As you previously read, a new Star Trek TV series of some sort is coming to CBS’ new streaming service.

I decided after noticing the length of the earlier post (about the same time as it takes for the Enterprise to get toward the Andromeda galaxy, even with the Kelvans and most of the crew reduced to tetrahedrons) that my thoughts about the next Star Trek should go into another post.

(That, and reading the Washington Post’s post’s comments, which included the unwelcome insertion of politics along with this idiocy: “I’m one to eye-roll at runaway progressivism in 2015 but it’s right at home in Star Trek. In fact, getting rid of firm genders (both physiological and psychological) all together would be a very interesting facet of the future.” The second part of that statement seems to the first assertion.)

What many people with a Star Trek opinion appear to forget is this: This is a TV series viewed by early 21st century people. The original had a ’60s sensibility because … guess what? It was written and performed by late ’60s human beings! Even if Trekkies, or Trekkers, or those who watch Star Trek are more, shall we say, utopian than the median, there are some things that will not cut it in the early 21st century. (See the idiotic statement about gender one paragraph ago.)

There is a valid argument for the Post’s post’s position of setting the new series in the mid-22nd century. Given the connection long-time Trek viewers have to the existing characters (even if it’s impossible to bring them back because the actors are dead), redoing one of the five series seems likely only to alienate Trek fans while not necessarily bringing in new fans. That means a new ship, probably, and definitely new characters. Whatever problems the successors to The Original Series have had, they weren’t really tied to the existence of new characters.

Going to the mid-22nd century, which is the setting of the last Star Trek series, “Enterprise,” would, from what I read online (and yes, we are talking about events written in the past about one or more centuries from now), be about the time the earliest iteration of Starfleet encountered both the Klingons and the Romulans.

The other thing going to the 22nd century would do is get the new series past the excessive utopianism of The Next Generation. That includes, but is not limited to, economics. Jonathan Newman points out:

With the recent successes and announcements of sci-fi movies and TV shows like The MartianInterstellar, and new incarnations of Star Trek and Star Wars, no one can deny that we crave futurism and stretching our imagination on what advanced technology can accomplish. Many look to the example of these fictional worlds as an indication of what life might be like when technology can provide for all of our basic needs, a condition some call “post-scarcity.”

The same people call on dramatic government interventions to make sure everybody can earn a “living wage” when robots and automation do all of the producing. They say that “post-scarcity” conditions will completely overturn economies and even economics itself.

But, scarcity can never be eliminated because our infinite human wants will always outnumber the means available in this finite universe. Scarcity is found even in the shows and movies that supposedly represent worlds without scarcity.

A prime example of what is meant by “post-scarcity” and its contrast to present-day is presented in theStar Trek: The Next Generation series.

In the final episode of the first season, the Enterprise happens upon an “ancient” vessel floating through space. Lt. Commander Data and Security Officer Worf find three humans from Earth, frozen in cryonic chambers for 400 years, which gives the twenty-fourth century crew a chance to interact with people from the viewers’ time period.

One of these late twentieth-century humans, Ralph Offenhouse, was preoccupied with regaining control over what he expected to be a gigantic fortune from a 400-year-old stock portfolio. Indeed, one of the first things he asked for after being thawed and resuscitated was a copy of the Wall Street Journal.

Captain Picard informed him that “A lot has changed in the past three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We’ve eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”

The show paints a Marxist picture of how humans arrived at being able to warp across space with food replicators and beaming devices and all sorts of technology that renders even our early twenty-first-century scramble for scarce resources a mere curiosity.

During centuries that stretch between the crew of the Enterprise and their time capsule visitors, technology changed in such a way to abundantly provide for people’s material needs. Therefore human society phased out of capitalism and trade and into socialism, which Karl Marx predicted in his theory of history. …

Unfortunately for all of us, however, scarcity isn’t going anywhere. And the only way to maximize human want satisfaction with a limited pool of resources is with unhampered markets: private property and prices. Scarcity is a fundamental fact of our universe — we are bound to it by physical laws and logic.

Scarcity is even present in the fictional Star Trek universe, as well as self-ownership and private property. In the very same episode, Captain Picard and the crew have a tense confrontation with the Romulans, who have invaded Federation space. Both parties were investigating the destruction of some of their outposts in the “Neutral Zone.” Space is not only the final frontier, but apparently ownable. The Romulan and Federation outposts are also scarce and owned.

When Ralph Offenhouse wandered onto the main bridge during this confrontation, Captain Picard ordered security officers to “Get him off my bridge!”

We can’t even conceive of a fictional universe with no scarcity. There can be no time, space, or anything that has any limited capabilities in satisfying our desires. Such a universe would be timeless, incorporeal, and all satisfying. It’s hard to imagine a TV show based in such a universe because there could be no conflict for the characters to overcome.

What Manu Saadia and Noah Smith mean by “post-scarcity,” then, is just that some things are more abundant than before. But this prospect does not mean the end of economics, because even today many goods are more abundant than they have been in the past.

No matter what, individuals will still be making choices about how to use the resources that are scarce. We may make things relatively less scarce, but we can never repeal scarcity as a fundamental condition of our universe.

Suppose every household in the world has all of their biological needs abundantly satisfied. Food is provided by replicators like those on the Enterprise. Everybody has as at least as much shelter as they need. Super-medicines and all health services are easily provided with the touch of a button in your own home.

All this means is that people can pursue other ends besides survival, like art, entertainment, learning, or simple relaxation. Our demand for goods and services does not stop once we are at subsistence levels of consumption. This is obviously true for anybody with the means to read this article.

Also, there may be demand for food and other goods specifically made by human hands even when robots or replicators could have made something identical or more precisely machined at a lower cost. We see this today, and we are far from Star Trek.

Sometimes we like knowing something was made in a certain way, and this translates into demand for goods with a specific, usually labor-intensive, production process. Craft and hand-made trade fairs are common, even when many of the items offered are mass-produced elsewhere.

Toward the end of the episode, when Ralph Offenhouse is reeling in an existential crisis, he asks Captain Picard about the purpose of twenty-fourth-century life if it’s not “accumulating wealth”:

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Material needs no longer exist.
Ralph Offenhouse: Then what’s the challenge?
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The challenge, Mr. Offenhouse, is to improve yourself. To enrich yourself. Enjoy it.

What Picard doesn’t realize is that improving and enriching yourself, even with the Enterprise’s mission: “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before” involves the use of scarce, material resources, like starships, starship crews, planets to explore, communicators, teleportation machines, phasers, and warp drives.

Picard also doesn’t realize how wealthy he is. Wealth is the ability to satisfy ends, and his spot on theEnterprise makes him enormously wealthy, with all the replicators and the holodeck (environment simulator) and the instant access to top-notch medical care. For someone who rejects accumulating wealth, he has accumulated a lot of it.

Although biological needs may be abundantly satisfied, human desires outnumber the stars.

Even the Enterprise demonstrates scarcity. Robert P. Murphy demonstrates from episodes:

For example, in “The Galileo Seven,” Spock must make difficult command decisions when the shuttlecraft is stranded on a planet. Yet, the suspense in the episode derives from Galactic High Commissioner Ferris bickering with Kirk over how long they should continue searching for the landing party while the plague-ridden people of Makus III await the medical supplies the Enterprise is delivering. There is obvious conflict because of the trade-off involved: despite the wonderful ship at his command, Kirk (it seems) must choose between his stranded friend and the planet of sick strangers.

Indeed, even though the opening sequence of each episode mentions seeking out new life and civilizations, and of course “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” the Enterprisequite often is tasked with delivering physical supplies to various people. The famous episode, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” with the white/black-faced men, involved a medical mission to decontaminate a planet. In the Next Generation series, the memorable episode “Brothers” involved Lieutenant Commander Data seizing control of the Enterprise when he is summoned by his creator. The situation is dire because a very sick child (accidentally placed in his predicament by his brother) cannot be cured of a parasite while on the Enterprise, and time is running out.

So we see that it is a common theme in Star Trek for people to argue over how the ship should be used, and often people will die from illness depending on whose will prevails. Whether they have a 24th-century version of Obamacare is irrelevant; there is definitely scarcity there, and it operates just like scarcity today.

Even the technology in the Star Trek universe is not a given; it is a response to incentives. For example, in the episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” the crew goes into a different timeline where Lieutenant Tasha Yar is still alive (she had been killed off in the first season when the actress asked to be let out of her contract). In this timeline, the Federation has been at war with the Klingons all along. At one point, Yar says, “Deflector shield technology has advanced considerably during the war. Our heat dissipation rates are probably double those of the Enterprise-C, which means we can hang in a firefight a lot longer.” Thus we see that the capabilities of the Enterprise-D — the ship commanded by Jean-Luc Picard — are themselves dependent on the preferences of the humans who own it and the associated resources.

Economics is one problem, but not the only one, with Star Trek from TNG onward. The TNG producers apparently were convinced by Roddenberry, or something, that there would be no interpersonal conflict either. That is more ridiculous than Trekonomics, for two reasons. First, it’s bad for stories. TOS featured plenty of conflict between Spock and McCoy, or between Kirk and an episode’s antagonists. The Enterprise crew was professional enough to not let the vagaries of interpersonal relations affect ship operations. (As it is, TNG, Deep Space Nine and Voyager had to import conflict from the aliens our heroes encountered.) And, obviously, if humans haven’t really changed in thousands to millions of years (depending on your views of evolution), they’re not going to change significantly in 300 years. (More than the bad economics, the moral preening of many TNG episodes made that series subpar to TOS.)

The problem with setting the new Star Trek in the early Klingon/Romulan conflict days is that it runs the risk of making the series too similar to the rebooted (and hated by Trek fans) movies, which are derided as shoot-em-ups with phasers. Independent of screwing around with what the characters should be like (Kirk was not an immature punk in TOS, and Spock was not unable to control his emotions), the science fiction in the reboot has consisted only of gadgets in the hands of the bad guys (“red matter” in the first movie and the Dreadnought in the second). No exploration, no discovery, no commentary on the human condition.

Two things make any TV series worth watching, or not — characters and stories. One facet of TOS I liked, but was used far too infrequently, was the byplay between Lt. Sulu and Ensign Chekov, who sat next to each other on the bridge. In “Amok Time” they commented on setting, and then unsetting, and then setting again course to Vulcan. In “The Deadly Years” Chekov complains about undergoing every possible medical test because he’s not aging while the rest of the landing party is. It was like watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in “MacBeth.”

More famously, TOS had Spock and Dr. McCoy, who spent three seasons arguing with each other. (TNG tried to duplicate that with second-season Dr. Pulaski and Data, but it didn’t work.) TNG had Data, the android trying to become human, and Geordi LaForge. The quality of the characters and their interrelationships can overcome bad stories (see the third season of TOS); arguably the best thing about TNG, particularly early, was the characters. Even the darker Deep Space 9 featured Odo the shape-shifting security chief and Quark, through whom greed flowed like blood flows through humans.

Others have noted that it was illogical (get it?) for the most valuable officers of a ship to go down to a planet and risk their lives when you’ve got junior officers to do that. Coast Guard cutter captains do not board ships they’re intercepting for whatever reason. But studios didn’t pay William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes and the rest big money to portray someone sitting in a chair while lower-paid actors got to do things, fight and die. (One way to get around that issue is to make the new ship considerably smaller, perhaps like the six-person patrol ship Orion.)

Every Star Trek series to date has been seen through the eyes of its captain, beginning with TOS’ James T. Kirk. The five series have gone through the obvious gamut of diversity, from white males (Kirk and Jonathan Archer of “Enterprise”) to black male (Benjamin Sisko of “Deep Space Nine”) to woman (Kathryn Janeway of “Voyager”) to, well, bald white male with a British accent who is supposedly from France (TNG’s Jean-Luc Picard). It is possible the next captain will be an alien (that is, not from Earth), but for obvious reasons he or she will probably be recognizably human (i.e. Spock the Vulcan).

What are those obvious reasons, you ask? Simple: For the series to succeed, the viewer has to be able to put himself or herself into the shoes of at least one of the major characters. That was, for me, Kirk in TOS, first officer William Riker (because I’m neither bald nor very French) in TNG, Sisko (though, yes, I’m not black) in DS9, and first officer Chakotay (because I’m not female) in Voyager. (For scheduling reasons I didn’t watch that much Star Trek after TNG.) That is probably why the next captain won’t be gay or gender-creative, because as tolerant as someone might be, most people are not gay, and again this series is being viewed by people, some of whom may not be hard-core Trek fans, who see the aforementioned Post comment as just strange.)

Instead of hyphenation diversity, how about we explore intellectual diversity instead? Perhaps the next captain should be, if not an out-and-out cynic, then less of an idealist about the Federation, and a skeptic of whether interstellar democracy can work. (Some have claimed that Star Trek is a lefty’s Utopia in economics, health care for all, gun control, etc. Our captain might point out that there are Federation-member planets where slavery is still legal, and where people are required to commit suicide upon reaching a certain age, as with a TNG episode.) Renegades are more fun to watch if their characters are created carefully.

One reason Kirk was a more appealing captain than Picard was (is? will be?) is that Kirk was a man of action and a man of passion. (I am not referring to Kirk’s alleged womanizing, which in TOS included a woman who tried to kill him, a woman from the 1930s who looked suspiciously like Joan Collins, and two androids.) Picard thought everything through; Kirk did things, whether or not they were always the right things or the wise things. Kirk also didn’t let rules get in the way of doing the right thing, while Picard seemed to do nothing that couldn’t be justified by a Starfleet rule, or violated a Starfleet rule.

Kirk’s character was based in part on British sea captain Horatio Hornblower of C.S. Forester’s novels. (Or perhaps more like the 1952 movie starring Gregory Peck.) An excellent starting point for a new captain would be British sea captain Jack Aubrey of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, similar to Hornblower and Kirk in their ability to compel near-fanatic loyalty among their crew. Wikipedia describes Aubrey (who apparently had a real-life model) and his friend Dr. Stephen Maturin thusly:

Jack Aubrey is a large man (both literally and figuratively) with an energetic, gregarious, cheerful, and relatively simple personality and a deep respect for naval tradition. Remarkable early success earned him the nickname “Lucky Jack Aubrey” and a reputation as a “fighting captain”, a reputation which he sought to retain throughout his career. … Aubrey’s professional life of daring exploits and reverses was inspired by the chequered careers of Thomas Cochrane and other notable captains of the Royal Navy from the period.

Irish-Catalan Dr. Stephen Maturin ostensibly serves as an adept ship’s surgeon on Aubrey’s various commands. … Unlike his action-oriented friend, Maturin is very well educated with several intellectual pursuits. He is passionately fascinated by the natural world,and takes every opportunity to explore the native wildlife of his ships’ ports of call around the world. He is also deeply introspective, and frequently muses on philosophical concepts of identity and self-understanding in his ciphered personal journal. …

Despite their many differences, the pair are invaluable and indispensable companions throughout many years of adventure and danger. Reviewers have compared Aubrey and Maturin to other seemingly mismatched yet inseparable fictional duos such as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in “Don Quixote”, Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories, and Kirk and Spock in the original Star Trek TV series.

Logical (Kirk and Spock predated Aubrey and Maturin, who first appeared on the literary landscape in 1969), except that Trek fans think of the Big Three — Kirk, Spock and McCoy, with Kirk’s decisions informed by Spock’s brain and McCoy’s heart. Good characters can make up for mediocre stories or even dubious premises. Bad characters, bad show.



One thought on “My Trek

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s