Archive for July, 2009

The week of September 28, 1987, the Star Trek franchise boldly took its next step into a new world when Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) premiered in the United States.  It was a television show set in the 24th century, approximately 70 years after the original Star Trek series took place.  It featured a new Enterprise ship, a new crew, and was phenomenally popular.  The show’s style and rhythm was shaped by the operation of two sets of binary themes present throughout the duration of the show.  The show puts a scientific approach to the world in opposition to another approach to the world—belief and emotion.  While belief and emotion are admittedly quite different, the show tends to use them in similar ways, often grouping them together as oppositional (though not necessarily incongruous) to science. TNG posits the known value system (science) with unknown value systems (belief/emotion), creating situations of conflict that must be resolved by the Enterprise crew, not through fighting their way through, but rather by making an attempt to understand otherness.


Star Trek is, of course, science-fiction, and as such it is not surprising at all that one of the bedrock themes of TNG is the importance and prominence of science.  Computers and futuristic technology are so much a part of the show that they are not explained; rather, the fact that the setting is full of advanced technology and scientific situations is simply taken for granted.  The Enterprise itself is presented not as a warship but as a vessel of exploration.  Almost every episode begins with a voiceover of the log entry of one of the officers, usually the captain, explaining that they have been sent to some unknown area of space to do some kind of scientific mission.  Science pervades the entire series like dye does yarn.

While science has perhaps the largest role as a theme and is always presented positively, it is often present with an oppositional theme of emotion or belief.  Often a resolution must occur not through scientific tools, but rather through intuition, the grasp of an emotional truth, or the acceptance of a belief.  The relationship between the two binaries is very like the relationship between melody and harmony, the science theme serving as the base element or the setting of the series, and the belief/emotion theme serving as the harmonic which, through its contrast to science, contributes to the series’ style.

These two binaries exist on multiple levels through the film, from the characters themselves to the structures of each episode.  The show has an ensemble cast: the senior officers of the Enterprise, and these characters are representative of the range between the scientific and the emotion/belief binary.  The character that most emulates science is the android Data.  He serves, not surprisingly, as science officer of the vessel and is the exemplary scientific character—systematic, logical, and powerful, both mentally and physically.  Significantly, he is incapable of feeling emotion, a fact which plays a recurring part throughout the series.  Most of the characters are a mix of the two elements, like Will Riker, the first officer, who is a passionate man with a strong work ethic and one of the most reliable characters on the show.  Captain Jean-Luc Picard is a mix of both science and emotion/belief, serving as the voice of reason and command in many situations, but often also presented as a man of passion and strong beliefs.  Moving more towards the emotion/belief side is Worf, a Klingon with a wild, barely-contained vitality and a robust grasp of his Klingon beliefs.  Often he is put in oppositional situations with a more scientific character as he was in the seventh-season episode called “Gambit”.  In this episode, Data reprimands Worf for inappropriately verbalizing his frustration with Data’s command decisions, presenting yet another instance of the oppositional binary at work through the two characters themselves.  The character that is associated most strongly with the emotion/belief theme is Troi, the ship’s counselor.  Like Data, she has an innate characteristic that allows her to be representative of the theme: she is empathic and is almost always the one to represent emotion or belief.

This oppositional binary, as a structuring element, is present on multiple levels in the series, not merely in the characters themselves.  Almost every episode in the seven-season series, with few exceptions, puts science (the familiar value system) in opposition to any other unknown value system (emotion/belief).  This often occurs through the Enterprise exploring some unknown area of space and encountering unknown life forms with new and different value systems.  This forces the Enterprise’s crew to negotiate between two value and arrive at some kind of (often uneasy) compromise or understanding.  Another way the show puts an unknown value system in contrast to the known value system of science is through plots that focus not on contact with unknown aliens, but rather on the diversity of belief within the coalition of species and races that make up the United Federation of Planets, the organization that represents civilization in the series, and the institution to which the Enterprise and her crew belong.

In a first-season episode called “Heart of Glory,” the show explores Klingon beliefs and values.  The main source of conflict in the episode comes from the Enterprise crew being forced to interact with people who hold values very different to their own, and as the episode progresses, two Klingons who have come on board attempt to hijack the ship.  Worf serves as a focal point for the episode and as the primary point of translation between the known value system of the Federation, representing exploration and systematic, logical inquiry, and the outside value system of the Klingons that emphasizes violence, passion, and honor.  Through the course of the episode the two value systems are put in tension, finally finding an uneasy negotiation through the resolution of the primary conflict: the attempted (and failed) hijacking of the ship and the restoration of order.  Most episodes in the series have a similar pattern of encountering a new life form or a known life form with a different value system, and the episode develops around the attempt to negotiate one value system with the other.

Significantly, most of the time the resolution occurs not through the direct use of science, the application of the known value system, but rather through an empathic leap of understanding of “the other” and an attempt to find common ground between the two binaries.  The fourth season episode “First Contact” is representative of this pattern.  When the Enterprise makes the first contact with a planet called Malcor III on the verge of discovering interstellar warp travel, the planet struggles to negotiate two factions of their population: those who would welcome visitors from space and those who are afraid of them and wish to take a violent posture against them based on the fear of Malcorian civilization changing unalterably as a result of the visitors’ presence.  As captain Picard talks with the Malcorian chancellor, he explains the Enterprise’s purpose in visiting the planet and offers that if the Malcorians wish them to leave, they will leave.  Ultimately, the chancellor decides that the Malcorian civilization is not ready for contact with interstellar peoples, and asks the Enterprise to leave.  It is at this point when the empathic leap of understanding is required to negotiate “the other.”  This occurs in Picard’s acquiescence to the chancellor’s wishes, despite his disappointment.  The Enterprise leaves and does not pursue relations with the planet, and negotiation between the two value systems is achieved.

The thematic binary opposition found in TNG  was and continues to be a vehicle for the culture to process and investigate the values that it holds.  Ambiguous ethical situations, moral dilemmas, and difficult interactions with “the other” are dealt with each week in new episodes, and the success of the TNG series attests to the elemental significance of the themes explored throughout the show.  Star Trek as a franchise has always contained the thematic element of stretching humanity’s capacity for understanding, and TNG is certainly aware of its thematic lineage and responsibility to maintain the same thematic patterns of the television show that came before it.  This is most evident at the beginning of every episode, when the disembodied voice of Patrick Stewart (Picard) speaks the Star Trek philosophy over the opening montage of swirling galaxies and planets, perfectly blending emotional music and imagery with the scientific setting of the series: “These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise.  It’s continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”


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