SATURDAY REVIEW: Star Trek – Next Generation, the saga of humans in service to science & society

If I were to choose one thing to define Star Trek – Next Generation by, I wouldn’t hesitate. What, or better said, who else could it be other than the one character who held the news in August 2018 with his return? Obviously, I’m talking about Captain Jean-Luc Picard

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As I have already confessed in my introduction to my writings about sci-fi series, I first became a fan of Star Trek in the early 90’s. With the fall of the dictator, Ceausescu, and the apparent demise of the communist regime, we finally gained unrestricted access to the Western screen culture. All my previous contacts with the genre had been limited to the cinema, mainly Star Wars and Italian sci-fi comedies featuring Bud Spencer. What a crush I developed on the little boy from Uno sceriffo extraterrestre!

The strength of Next Generation stayed with the team

When I started watching TNG, I never missed an episode. Later on though my interest dwindled, due to a number of factors. But as a strong pillar, at the core of the whole team, stood the elegant authority and true leadership of Jean Luc-Picard. Then, his first officer, Cmdr. William Riker, embodied the perfect American hero or American masculinity. It makes me laugh to think I compare him now to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Dick Diver. But I recently re-read (for the first time in English) Tender is the night, and a Wednesday review is due on that too.
Riker possessed that cheeky charm, that restrained sense of adventure, combined with a strong set of moral values. In most teams on screen you will find his type around.

The affable Counselor Deanna Troi brought that drop of feminine principle into the core team. Somebody I also remember, although she did not survive the changes of seasons, Lt. Tasha Yar, embodied the athletic, strong and military authoritative female on board. And, of course, somewhere in between these two ladies, in personality, as well as role on the screen, Dr. Beverly Crusher remains the only medical I remember in the series.
Then, who could forget Lt. Commander Data?

They did not change much through the seasons

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The fact I mostly remember the characters themselves, as they were back then, speaks for itself. Other fans might argue it, but the whole strength of the series laid within Picard & co. I am taking into account even the fact I watched this as a teenager, and my perception back might have been under other viewpoints.

Still, any concepts, political ideas or ethic debates held through the storytelling did not tend to override the main traits of the characters. Nor did it change these standing figures much,  such as Babylon 5 does. We could rely on Picard or Data or Troy to act in accordance with the principle, character traits, personality, qualities they embodied.

Can I remind you how different Michael Garibaldi ends up after the war, compared to the Security Chief we knew to start with? Yes, his demons caught hold of him, but that was never a given. He had the chance of a fair fight in the process.

Strengths & weaknesses of a socialist sci-fi utopia

When I wrote about what sci-fi books captured my imagination & interest, I mentioned how Jules Verne never featured as a favourite. His structures, in my memory, remained too dry, his focus, too bland and directly, obviously, science-orientated. And this applies to TNG too. They approached concepts and debates, and there’s nothing I could reproach the actors. But sometimes it did feel like they just fit a story, and not the other way around. They did not drive the evolution and outcomes themselves. Compared to characters in more recent series, they don’t stand out as possessing a life, a mystery, an unpredictable energy of their own.

Yet, they held very strong personal traits – a little bit of a paradox?
Not quite, it just goes with the story telling techniques.

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Often, the world in Star Trek – Next Generation has been portrayed as a socialist utopia. Quoted in an opinion article published by The New York Times last year, Picard himself described the Federation with the following words:

“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.”

Without going into deeper political debates (we can do this in another article), it means that the storytelling fits the world it describes. Strong characters as they are, they all serve the common good, a common purpose, which moves them on their chosen path.

TNG paradox & best qualities

And what is the biggest paradox of TNG?
For me, it stays with its essence. Being attracted rather to social-democratic solutions for society and politics, I see the Federation as an ideal type of world. If I remember correctly, people living in it benefited from real equal chances, adapted to their needs, skills and aspirations. Also, they took their duty to society and to others seriously. But then, as debated above, in such a world humans seem less surprising, more part of the story, and playing their role.

At the same time though, such a world doesn’t feel beyond threat. It only works when the majority of people believe in it and support it. Also, it will always been threatened from the outside too. While I don’t think this adds as much realism as Iain M. Banks’ pact between sentient machines and humans does, it still keeps the Federation believable.

Then, the actors’ work stands out, with Patrick Stewart again at the core of it all. The Shakespearean quality of his acting, the depths of his voice, the subtlety of his presence will live on in the history of sci-fi series.

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