Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Re(tele)vision 1: Star Trek: TOS

This post's title is just hideous. I love it.

I had a thought in relation to yesterday's post about revision in various media while I was watching Star Trek and eating lunch today. I've been a Trek fan for years, although my particular brand of fandom is extremely selective and fussy where this franchise is concerned. I enjoy Star Trek: The Next Generation more out of a sense of nostalgia than anything else, except for the occasional awesome Data-centric episode. I liked Deep Space 9 at the time but I haven't been able to get into re-watching it. Like all decent people, I hated Voyager and found Enterprise pathetically boring (it was, as far as I could tell, a show designed to revive popular interest in the franchise by filling an entire starship with bland white guys, the way God [apparently] intended). Where Star Trek is concerned, as in The Original Series, so far I'm just watching for laughs.

The laughs are pretty good! Gene Roddenberry was by all accounts a fairly decent human being for his time who wanted people to be happy and kind to each other. He imagined one of the better utopias out there (Star Trek: TNG being a very optimistic vision of our brave Communist future) and at least there are women at work on the ship. But on the other hand, they're wearing those tiny skirts, and the pilot makes a point of establishing that Kirk (before he was actually Kirk) could fuck anybody on the ship if he wanted to, 'cause apparently any woman that comes within ten feet of his sexy body is immediately conquered by his virility. In a relatively benign, well-meaning package like the Trek universe, that sort of sexism is pretty hilarious.

I'm about five episodes in now, and the show has had a weirdly specific formula thus far. Every week the ship runs into an alien that is pretty close to omnipotent and also probably wants to have sex with at least one member of the crew, possibly all of them. Another element in the formula: the ship's crew behaves weirdly. They slowly lose their minds, they are replaced by shapeshifters who are just plain weird, they become like unto gods and go weird in the process, or they pick up a disease that brings to the surface the person they fundamentally are. Here, it turns out, is who Sulu fundamentally is:

And it's that last convention, the convention of Ominously Weird Behavior, that got me thinking. It's consistently the worst part of the show, but it's also one of the primary elements that has survived into every entry in the Trek franchise since -- and I think it has a lot to do with the way classic television serials dealt with characterization and revision.

We should begin by agreeing that the above clip is some of the best television ever. But then we should ask ourselves why, because that's what we do here, and there are two answers: 1) George Takei is a comic genius. He's having a great time chewing the scenery and his enthusiasm is infectious. 2) Sulu is a character with we know. In other words, we have a baseline for his behavior. The gap between that and this is what makes the episode such great fun, even (especially) if it is schlock.

Most of the scenes about PEOPLE GOING CRAZY aren't nearly as much fun, probably because most of them feature characters we've never seen before. Much of this same episode is given to an Irish crewman we'll never see again who is, apparently, deep down, really freaking proud of being Irish. Once he gets the disease and starts acting out, it's like traveling through time to witness a brand of racism that hasn't really existed in decades. It's really obnoxious. But it's not worse-written or less convincing than the Sulu stuff, it's just that we've never seen him before. We've got no baseline for this guy. As far as we know he might always be a jerk. Sulu was still being established as a character at this point and hadn't done much -- one of the weird things about old Trek is how long it takes them to establish what I think of as the core cast and relationships -- but we knew him enough to take an interest in what his deeper self might be like.

This sort of scenario became a Trek convention because the show focuses on ensemble casts (which, along with the special effects budget [such as it was], makes it difficult to afford additional good actors for individual episodes) and because, really, it makes explicit what old-school television has always been about.

I said before that TV offers very little opportunity for revision, and in the literal sense that's true, but then there is the way we see each character anew in each episode. I love Data-centric episodes in TNG precisely because they consistently offer me a new but somehow familiar angle on a beloved character. Often a new writer is working with a character for the first time, or we have a new director, and always the situation is designed to show us some aspect of a character we hadn't seen before. We can see this as an act of continual revision. And certainly shows like the Treks are prime examples: every Star Trek sucks for a while, years even, and then gradually finds its voice (or does not). The universe changes, the rules shift, the characters transform, until the right formula is discovered. Variations on this formula are explored until the show dies, whether by cancellation or collective exhaustion.

The shift toward continuity-oriented storytelling has in some ways diminished this strength of television, which may be its greatest. A lot of the new continuity-oriented shows are impoverished: their characters are not grand enough to sustain the sort of continual revision the best Trek characters have thrived in. The best continuity-oriented shows (Deadwood, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica) have always done their best work when they embraced their episodic nature, when they remembered that each episode was a reiteration and a variation of the last. A great television character should be iconic enough, should have a strong enough core, to sustain weekly explorations, iterations, and revisions over the course of years. That's what television does best, I think.

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