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The (Too) Long Goodbye

Mark Whittington notes that the new Battlestar Galactica has been picked up for another season, while Star Trek: Enterprise has been canned.

The former development is most welcome. Having had no access to SciFi Channel at the time, I missed the original miniseries, and was somewhat lost when the series started up last month. Nonetheless, I was hooked on it from the first episode and have watched it religiously since (and have also now watched the miniseries on DVD). To say that it is better than the original series from the 1970s (which is presently running on SciFi on weekday mornings) would be a great understatement, but in watching bits and pieces of the old series, one can see that they have not only adopted the principal characters (though in some cases heavily altered) and the overall premise, but also some of the special-effects camera angles and other small touches of the “look-feel” of the old series. In watching the miniseries, I couldn’t help but laugh at the use of the old show’s theme song as the background music for the decommissioning ceremony (a scene which also featured visual elements from the old series as part of a “museum display”). While the old series seems to be “juvenile” (ie: directed at kids), the new series is clearly directed at an adult audience — not just in the risque nature of some of the scenes (specifically those involving Cylon fembot Number Six…rowrrr), but in the sophistication of the overall themes and in the fact that the writers endeavor to follow those themes and their interweaving in a consistent manner.

Which brings us to the latter development, the cancellation of the latest product from the Star Trek franchise. I’ve never been a strong fan of the various Trek series, at least not to the degree I was with, say, Babylon 5. Partly this is due to the preachy utopian moralizing exhibited throughout the franchise’s incarnations, a legacy of its formation in the late 1960’s when it was actually “cutting edge” and topical to deal in such things, and partly to the thoroughly lousy storytelling exhibited throughout the franchise’s run.

I’ve always been struck by how the Star Trek universe reflects a prepubescent idea of what adult life is like. No one important dies — unless they want off the show, and even then they invariably come back from the dead from time to time. Romance is of the shallow “playing house” variety…the roles are there, but there is rarely any indication of anything deeper or of serious, long-term commitments. Within the ensemble, there is no real conflict, as though it is an idealized family where everyone gets along. Any material wants are fulfilled instantly, just for the asking. Life is a game — no consequences for mistakes or failures, every problem has a simple answer, and after each episode life goes back to “square one”.

The problem with depicting a shiny happy future where everyone gets along and no one suffers any material want or oppression and any seemingly insurmountable problem can be conquered in forty-five minutes with a deus ex machina stream of technobabble is that…it’s just plain bad fiction. The knowledge that the characters and their situation will never change in any significant way destroys any dramatic tension the premise of the episode might create. After a while it becomes clear that there will never be any consequences to the events of a given episode — none of the ensemble cast will ever be put in jeopardy, and after the technobabble has saved the day, the fictional universe resets to zero for the next episode, as if nothing had happened. Who cares if so-and-so faces some ostensibly life-threatening situation, when they will come up with some half-baked way out of it at the last minute, emerging unscathed by the experience and promptly forgetting it ever happened? For the characters, the situation is the flip-side of Groundhog Day — the situation of each episode may be different, but the people and the parameters of their existence and interaction are exactly the same, as if they are unaware of anything that has happened prior to the teaser segment. (The one series which is an exception to this particular complaint is Deep Space Nine, which did at least attempt to break out of the range-of-the-moment episodic format of the other Trek incarnations.)

Worse, the miraculous new science or engineering whipped up in the final act of each episode is itself forgotten the next week, and is rarely recalled when a later situation clearly cries out for its use — never mind that such developments in the real world would have profound effects and wide-ranging applications, and wouldn’t be so casually tossed aside. There is also no consistency among the technobabble interventions — each seems to come out of nowhere, unconnected with previous applications of what one would expect to be related technologies (to the extent that one is even able to decipher the ludicrous gobbledegook being slung around by the characters).

While the non-TOS series are to be commended for their production values, the music throughout these four series has always been bad…nowhere more noticeably than in Enterprise itself (other than, perhaps, the martial-themed music of the notoriously awful first season of Next Generation). In TV and film, the music should reinforce the mood of the action, but in the Trek franchise, the music seems determined to drive the mood. There is rarely a quiet moment, free of intrusive and bombastic “background” music, and the music often seems to be a substitute for good acting, good characterization, and good writing (which should set the mood).

It’s not a fair comparison to put Enterprise or Voyager up against Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5, however, as the latter two are not episodic. A more fair comparison would be between the episodic Trek series and Stargate SG-1, a show I have taken a wholly unexpected liking to. SG-1 is episodic, but the characters have grown over the run of the series and actually seem to be changed by their life-changing experiences from week to week. Plus, the show stays fairly consistent with its fictional technology — technology-driven plot resolutions follow from the descriptions and applications of the relevant technologies used in previous episodes. Over the run of the series the technologies discovered along the way have seen new applications and elaborations…the advanced hardware available to the characters in season 8, for example, is very much different from that of season 1, having in between followed a natural development path one might expect to see in an analogous real-world situation (complete with industrial espionage).

Suffice to say that I won’t be all that disappointed to see the Trek franchise without a vehicle for the first time in eighteen years. Whatever virtues the franchise ever had have long been spent, or have been rendered obsolete by the march of history. As with any television series, there comes a time when the creative well goes dry and it’s time to bring things to a close, and the Trek franchise passed that point many, many years ago.

UPDATE: Mark, I might have mentioned Firefly too, but sadly I know of it by name only. Judging from the lamentations over its cancellation, it must have been pretty good.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Stephen Green posts on the same topic…with priceless suggestions for ways to revive the Trek franchise.

1 comment to The (Too) Long Goodbye

  • Rich W.

    I saw the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries last year, and was immediately hoping it would get picked up as a series. After B5, there really hasn’t been very much interesting for science fiction, and I had lost interest in trek way back when they started arguing it was better to let people die than challenge their beliefs.

    The most interesting thing about the new Battlestar Glactica is how it isn’t pulling any punches, and forces its characters and the audience to face the worst. For example, when the fleet’s FTL capable ships jump to save themselves- leaving everyone else to die. There is no last-minute save. Their president is trying to lead through the utlimate calamiity- while cancer is taking her life. Then the NCOIC on the flight deck is compromised by his personal weakness.

    And the plot appears to be part of a continuum, and it is going somewhere. If it stays this interesting, it’ll be a keeper.