Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Star Trek The Next Generation (Season 5b)

<--Season 5a Season 6a-->

In the second half of the fifth season, STNG strung together several episodes that could be argued to be the best among the franchise. There are stories here that do what all great Sci-fi tries to do—use the artificiality as a buffer to enable us to consider truly important issues without our preconceptions or bias. Well, almost. It is hard to have a completely fresh perspective on these things. And, in the case of Star Trek, one issue they always wanted to address finally gets shoe-horned in but it is too forced to really work:

Episode 14: “Conundrum” 

This is a fairly entertaining “puzzle” of a story, but a bit too obvious to be considered one of the greats. We know what is going on very early, and we question the way the aliens encountered can be so advanced in some ways while being underdeveloped in others.

Episode 15: “Power Play” 

This episode teases us with exploring the interesting (and according to this episode, universal) topic of demon possession and the spirit world in general, but it doesn’t actually do so. Humanism usually tries to explain such phenomenon away; this episode does not and instead simply uses it as a device to serve the plot.

Episode 16: “Ethics” 

The ethics of the title are medical ethics—what doctors are allowed and not allowed to do in the course of research. How much risk is acceptable for saving potential lives in the future? This episode does a pretty good job of defending the obvious, traditional interpretation.

Where it is more interesting is in its exploration of assisted suicide. As is often the case with Star Trek, it comes down on a less “liberal” side of the position than one would expect, but it still explores both sides enough to cause everyone to think. It makes a pretty good argument that life is always valuable and that those who seek “death on their own terms” are often acting selfishly. Life is about more than individual desires. Humans exist in community and “less desirable” lives still make valuable contributions. Worf’s aversion to life with a handicap is selfish and fearful, but Riker is not let off the hook having simply a superior moral stance. He has to consider friendship and his own selfishness. In the end, as is often the case with television, everyone is let off the hook with a return to the status quo.

Episode 17: “The Outcast” 

This is Trek’s first attempt at a LGBT story. They had tried before but never could make it work. The fact is it doesn’t really work this time either.

Homosexuality is a tough nut for Trek to crack. Not simply because it is a controversial subject in our culture either. It is tough to project a couple centuries into the future. It partially goes back to the “nature or nurture” aspect of homosexuality. If it is genetic, then it is problematic from the secular humanist perspective of Trek. How do those genes survive the next few centuries or how does it play a role in the evolutionary progression of humanity? On the other hand, if it is simply a cultural phenomenon, one would imagine that the fad would come and go repeatedly and that in a couple hundred years it would have largely played itself out and would be a non-issue for story purposes. In any case, it is more of an “our times” issue than the universal topics Trek usually plays with.

The way they set up the scenario so that it would work for Trek caused more problems, especially for the community demanding this sort of story. In trying to create a culture that truly had evolved beyond gender, the writers set up a scenario where the “curing” of the female-leaning alien was valid and even positive. Add to that the whole “Prime Directive” form of tolerance and the story is forced into supporting the very outcome that the writers wanted the viewers to struggle against. (This is often the case with tolerance and cultural diversity run amok; you force yourself into supporting things like domestic abuse, child exploitation and other nonsensical things like… intolerance!)

Episode 18: “Cause and Effect” 

This is a surprisingly entertaining episode. Surprising because these sorts of stories are common in science fiction and they are very gimmicky and inconsequential.

Episode 19: “The First Duty” 

This is one of the most nuanced, thoughtful episodes of Trek. Just when you think you have the characters or the moral implications all figured out, they surprise you. The decision that Wes makes in the end is the right one, but it is not an easy, TV choice. He suffers tremendous consequences. Frankly, you can imagine most people now coming up with another solution involving compromise and a sacrifice of the truth. We no longer believe in allowing young people to suffer the consequences of their decisions or learn anything generally.

Episode 20: “Cost of Living” 

Coming on the heels of “The First Duty,” this episode is strange and out of place. Unless you consider that, even twenty years ago, people had a hard time dealing with what Wes went through. It is as if the writers had to wash their mouths out after all that tough love. In any case what we have here is a mediocre argument for life being about doing whatever you want and never making tough decisions.

Episode 21: “The Perfect Mate” 

Here we have another perfect setup for an internal struggle. A woman is born and raised to be the perfect mate for one man. The concept is offensive, and yet from her perspective things are so simple. She knows her purpose and she is perfectly equipped to fulfill it. Still it goes against our individualistic values—cult even. It is a wonderful picture, however, of love. Real love is not selfish or individualistic. It lives to serve another. It derives all joy from meeting the needs and desires of another.

Where this story achieves tragedy is in the response of Picard. Any other man encountering the perfect mate would have selfishly taken advantage of her. Instead, he understands his duty and behaves correctly. More than that, though, he responds in the most loving way possible. He is genuinely concerned for her well being and needs. It is the dream come true for the perfect mate to find someone capable of truly loving her in return. That they can never end up together is tragic but the only outcome possible.

Episode 22: “Imaginary Friend” 

All in all this is a rather standard story about how misunderstood children feel, or perhaps about how misunderstood they really are as adults tend to be too preoccupied with “important” things. Other than that, it feels a bit recycled from other episodes.

Episode 23: “I, Borg” 

This is a compelling look at the ideas of animosity and mutual understanding that are even more relevant in today’s world than they were 20 years ago. The Borg represent the closest thing to pure evil in the Trek universe. They were introduced almost as a natural evil—something like a volcanic eruption or an earthquake. You could not reason with this enemy. When Picard is given the opportunity to possibly eradicate this particular threat, he jumps at it. The problem is that once the crew gets a chance to see the Borg up close and unthreateningly, they begin to empathize with it. And, the empathy begins to go both ways. The reality of evil is not called into question. The Borg at large still seek to eradicate all other forms of life in the universe. They are still a threat to the best qualities of humanity, but those qualities of goodness are seen to have an influence. Perhaps rather than face the evil of the Borg with a similar evil, good should be allowed to overcome.

Episode 24: “The Next Phase” 

An enjoyable and intense “countdown” episode, where Geordi and Ro are apparently killed but have to let the Enterprise know they are alive before the ship is destroyed. There are some thoughtful moments as well: about celebrating a life, the questions about what happens after death, and the humility to admit we don’t know everything.

Episode 25: “Inner Light” 

One of the most moving episodes of the Star Trek franchise has Picard experiencing decades—a whole life—as a way of carrying forward the memory of a lost and dead planet. The importance of cherishing life is strongly invoked. It is surprising how much they can convey in so little time, but that is largely due to the fact that we have all lived, loved and lost in our own lives. It is important to always remember what is important in life and to devote ourselves to those things. Chief among the many possible candidates, one that is universal, is the relationships we are blessed to have.

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