Wednesday, April 16, 2008

To seek out new life and new civilizations...

I first started watching Star Trek when the second series was on the air, and I was fascinated (as Mr. Spock would say) by the aliens. While a lot of them were what’s sometimes referred to as the Forehead of the Week, many others were genuinely different, and compelling because of it. There were the Borg, which operated like a single superorganism with the single imperative to add the biological distinctiveness of every other species to their own, the petty and powerful Q Continuum, and even the Ferengi. I loved watching the various races and societies coming into conflict with each other, and one of the underlying messages of Star Trek, to me, was that such cultures can be different without necessarily being bad.

Yes, there’s a “but”, as in, “I liked it, but”. I’ll get to that soon.

Then came Star Trek : Deep Space Nine, and I enjoyed that even more. The female members of the DS9 crew were just as smart and tough as the rest of the crew, and not delegated to healer-and-nurturer-and-love-interest roles as they were in The Next Generation. Best of all, DS9 introduced other intriguing races like the symbiotic Trill (I love it when there are actual biological differences between races). There was a certain trend of races slowly being domesticated, fitting in closer to Federation standards, but the extent to which DS9 explored the social differences between aliens made up for it. I especially like this exchange, where Weyoun, who worships the Founders, is commenting on another race’s religion.

Weyoun: All this talk of gods strikes me as nothing more than superstitious nonsense.
Damar: You believe that the Founders are gods, don't you?
Weyoun: That's different.
Damar: In what way?
Weyoun: The Founders ARE gods.

Then along came Star Trek : Voyager. Three seasons later, I stopped watching this series.

To be fair, Voyager had other cards stacked against it besides the lack of aliens. Not only did it suffer from Gilligan’s Island Syndrome – if a show is going to be seven seasons long, obviously they won’t get home in the first six seasons, so why pretend that they can? – but political correctness seemed to be more important than interesting characters. Having a female captain or a Native American first officer does not make a show inherently exciting. But since the ship was stranded in a part of the galaxy that no one had explored before, I hoped the crew would encounter creatures with unusual physiologies and unfamiliar beliefs and non-human societies. Instead, Voyager too often settled either for the familiar, standby aliens of Star Trek or for humans in makeup.

Neelix the Talaxian, one of the regular cast and played by Ethan Phillips, was the best example of the latter. In the three seasons I watched the show, I never saw anything that set his species apart from humans. Sure, the Talaxians have colorful Mohawks, spotted skin and odd-looking clothes, but that doesn’t make them aliens - that makes them humans in clown costumes. I read somewhere that it took hours for poor Ethan Philips’ makeup to be applied; what a waste of time, since he was no more alien after the application than before. I would much, much rather see a human who thinks and behaves differently from me than a blue-skinned, pink-haired, pointy-eared creature who calls his girlfriend “Sweetie” (as Neelix did).

Speaking of Neelix's girlfriend, Kes was an Ocampan and looked like an elf – slim, fair-haired, pointy-eared and with mysterious mental powers. Perhaps that was what made the writers try to science-fictionize her species by giving them a nine-year lifespan. This wasn't a bad idea, but it’s been done before, and better. Ray Bradbury wrote a story about people who live for about nine days, and their lives are characterized by a frenzied speed that really sets them apart from regular humans. Plus, there’s not much point in giving any race a characteristic that doesn’t have much impact on their mentality. Other than celebrating her second birthday, Kes might as well have had a ninety-year lifespan. Though she did break up with Neelix along the way; perhaps she realized that with only seven more years to go, she had to spend them with someone more interesting. And from a biological point of view, the Ocampans were seriously flawed as well, since Voyager made it clear that there is only one fertile period in a female Ocampan’s life. Unless multiple births are common, this means that the population halves with each generation.

The best aliens featured on Voyager – those which hadn’t been seen before in the Alpha Quadrant, anyway – were the Vidiians, who all suffered from a ravaging disease which necessitated their stealing internal organs from other people. Unfortunately the Vidiians only showed up in two or three episodes, and the other major antagonists were the Kazon. Much like the Klingons, the Kazon were a savage warrior race with big hair, though theirs was more like huge tangled gobs of keratin. I suppose if I had hair like that, I’d be permanently angry too, but the Kazon took it a step further by being misogynistic, in contrast to the modern advanced enlightened Federation with their Female Starship Captain. Wasn't it enough to make the enemy race ugly and violent? Did they have to look down on women as well?

I tuned in dutifully until Voyager encountered the Borg, soon turning one of them into a beautiful woman in a tight catsuit who wanted to rediscover her humanity. That wasn't why I watched Star Trek. The previous shows didn't just entertain me, they inspired me. One of my fantasy manuscripts is based on the idea of different races, descended from a common ancestor but diverging widely, struggling against each other for supremacy or at least survival. So I'll remember those aspects of Star Trek... but I won't be going back.

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