Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Star Drek: On the nature of change

Prompted by my son, who seems to have a never-ending appetite for goofy science fiction flicks, we started a while back rewatching the original Star Trek series on Netflix.  I remember these well from watching them when I was a kid, first as a regular series when I was about seven years old, and then in (seemingly infinite) reruns.  I also remember loving them.  For the record, I never was a "Trekkie," filling my room with memorabilia, action figures, "Making Of" books, posters, and the like, but I did find the show a lot of fun.  Like many boys my age, I liked Mr. Spock best of all -- with his super-human strength, faster-than-light brain, and ability to subdue an opponent with a well-aimed shoulder pinch.

Watching them again forty years later, however, I was immediately struck with how poorly the show has aged.  Shatner's overacting is painful to watch; the plots are contrived and predictable; and the portrayal of women -- which, I suppose, was fairly progressive when the show was filmed, back in the late 60s -- is cringe-worthy.  Even some of the little touches -- Yeoman Rand's miniskirt and conehead-combover hair style, for example -- are more funny than futuristic.

So, this has me wondering about our perceptions of media, and why shows like Star Trek have not held up so well against the ravages of time.   On the surface, the aforementioned highly dated treatment of women pegs it as a product of the Cold War era.  The "technology," too, is fairly amusing in its attempts to be "24th century."  The communicators look like cellphones (Nathan commented that when Kirk flipped his open, he kept expecting the Captain to type in "kthxbai.")  On one episode we watched, "Bones" McCoy was repairing a patient's abdominal wound with what appeared to be a crème brûlée torch.

But I think it's more than that.  I think our expectations have changed.  When you compare some of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation with the old classic version, it's evident that we don't see drama in the same way. The old Star Trek, even the better episodes (and there were a few that weren't too bad) were moralistic, giving you an answer to the crew's ethical-dilemma-of-the-week that in the end was virtually rammed down your throat.  The ship's crew provided a touchstone for ethical purity -- Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock and the rest were never in the wrong, were always on the side of Truth, Justice, and The American Way.  (And in a few, completely ridiculous episodes, they really were fighting for the American Way, out there in space.)

Contrast The Next Generation.  That series was full of ethical gray areas, questions without answers, clashes between cultures in which there was no clear Good Side and Bad Side.  Captain Picard wasn't always the hero figure -- he had weaknesses, made wrong decisions, was forced to take the lesser of two evils.  Even the Federation -- the stand-in in the original series for the American Government -- sometimes acted immorally.

I wonder if this is a reflection of our view of reality.  Art, after all, usually mirrors life.  In the 60s, most of us were heavily invested in seeing our government as the arbiter of morality in a dangerous world, filled with Bad Guys who were determined to do us (the Good Guys, of course) in.  When it became obvious -- although the transition was gradual, over the next two decades -- that our own beloved American government had done some things that would put the purported Bad Guys to shame, we were left anchorless.  Most of us have by now accustomed ourselves to the thought that governments in general are no better than the people we elect to run them, and that the world is really one gigantic gray area, but that was not the view of the majority in the 60s.

So The Next Generation, no less than the original series, is a product of its time -- filled with conspiracies, alliances that form and then dissolve through treachery, and moral ambiguity.  I suspect that its view of life in general is more realistic than that of the old series -- myself, I tend to think the world is fairly absurd and confusing, and that there really isn't a single, comprehensible pattern that will make sense of it all -- but who knows?  It would be interesting to fast forward (through a rip in the space-time continuum, no doubt) to 2050 and see the series through the eyes of someone from that time period.  They might well view it as being as ridiculous as we now see Captain Kirk's patriarchal, Federation Über Alles universe.

Time marches on. As Scotty has been known to point out, ye canna alter the laws of physics. Nor, it seems, can you stop change in its tracks. We like to think that our generation has a bead on reality, but I doubt this is true, any more than it has ever been true, back to the earliest times our ancestors pondered such notions.


  1. TOS was broadcasting in 1968. That same year was big in the areas of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; there were riots at the DNC. That was the year of the Prague Spring. The anti-Vietnam war movement was in full swing. Black Power was an issue. The women’s movement got started.
    Playwrights and novelists were producing works of subtlety and social awareness. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was published that year. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was produced. And of course, that didn't start in the 60s. Drama had been sophisticated for centuries.
    The problem was TV, and the fact that there were only three big networks. You could be ham-handed there and succeed; in fact, it was practically a requirement because you had to satisfy the advertisers, the FCC, and a host of semi-official censors. There weren't a lot of other choices for the viewer who wanted SF. People watching it at the time were conscious that a lot of the episodes were rather lame (well, people older than 14). It was just the best they could expect given the level of control the government and corporate culture had over the media.
    With the introduction of cable, viewers had many more choices. The content providers now had to please the audience much more so than the sponsors.
    At the same time, it was getting harder for governments to keep secrets. With the aid of technology, individuals have increasingly become empowered to share information about what's really going on, instead of depending only on official channels and gatekeepers. Almost all information about current events is available online for anyone who cares to search. It costs very little these days to build a movement if you have a persuasive case to make. There is such a thing as moral progress. Sometimes it's two steps forward, one back, but lies will always out -- from now on -- and injustice will not be able to continue for decade after decade. Things are changing, in a good way.

  2. Great post and excellent comment!

    I just wrote a long one and Word Press blew it to smithereens (got lost in the ether!!) I'll try it again.

    I had said how much I agree with Tyler. When I watched Star Trek back in the 1960s, I was already an adult and I thought it was a fun show but pretty poor. A bubble of soap! The real interesting stuff happened in NY theaters (I was a Columbia U. student)

    Which brings me to the point I was trying to make (until it all blew away!) TV in those days was constrained and you couldn't expect a show since it had to appeal across all types of audiences certainly did not appeal to the so called elite (like college kids and university professors. I know Americans don't like to think of their society as having "classes" - let's just say there were "layers", i.e. vast communities held together by common interests. And TV shows like Star Trek did not appeal to the top layers. It's a little like when you talk about restaurants: Star Trek was viewed as McDonald fare, fun and tasty if you will, good for the kids, but not sophisticated food by any means!

    Now, with the digital revolution and social media, barriers between layers are breaking down. You now have Wikileaks. And consider Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring. Such movements could not have happened back in the 1960s - at least not on that scale (except for Woodstock - but that was strictly a concert, all music and fun. What's interesting is that the political motives - freedom and justice for all - are exactly the same as those held by the Hippies...Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose as the French say (the more it changes, the more it is the same...)

    But the thing to understand is that "layers" are breaking down and moral values AND the art that reflects them are spreading down throughout society, both in America and elsewhere...I live in Italy, and I can tell you it's happening here too!