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L.I. Underhill is a media critic and historian specializing in pop culture, with a focus on science fiction (especially Star Trek) and video games. Their projects include a critical history of Star Trek told through the narrative of a war in time, a “heretical” history of The Legend of Zelda series and a literary postmodern reading of Jim Davis' Garfield.

5 Comments

  1. Jack Graham
    September 21, 2014 @ 11:00 pm

    You could choose to look at it this way: Star Trek TNG is a utopian for people to escape to… but escape depends upon your position. The Traveller has, in a sense, escaped his 'higher plane' by coming to TNG. He has – like the Doctor – felt the need to reject, or at least leave, his 'higher plane' to get involved in the strife and struggle and striving of the rest of the universe, of the ostensible lesser-beings. Inomplicitly, he rejects the notion of higher and lower… there are just degrees of sympathy with the universe. But even then, being in greater sympathy with the universe implies no superiority, only a greater privilege in going further forward. Meanwhile, utopia is always in the future, somewhere else. Always to be aimed at, never to be arrived at. Not because improvement, even optimisation, are impossible, but because to be content with Things As They Are is always, in some sense, to stop trying. Even in Paradise, you want more. That's the whole basis of Trek actually. Humans have a utopian society but still want to leave it to see what lies outside it. That's what the Traveller did after all. This nicely decouples the idea of utopia from the idea of 'progress' in any simplistic, stageist or culturally supremacist form.

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  2. Adam Riggio
    September 22, 2014 @ 5:55 am

    I find your comments about Wesley Crusher particularly curious. When I first watched TNG as a child, I found him tremendously irritating, especially during the streak of episodes where he arrogantly saved the ship on multiple occasions while the other characters smacked him in the mouth for 40 minutes. I exaggerate for crude humour, of course, but that's also what I wanted to do to Wesley for many of these episodes, watching the show at age 6.

    You're right that Nerd Culture has turned out to be the worst place to invest our dreams or a more open, progressive society, as it's developed into an echo chamber of bigotry and small-minded insularity. But in 1987, the idealism that originally motivated so many of the dreams of Nerd Culture was still in evidence. That potential was in the community, in the original dreams of the first internet pioneers and the wider hacker community, who built websites like Wikipedia and Reddit. Those sites, in their original conception, were places of freedom, where, as John Stuart Mill conceived of free public spaces, the best ideas could engage each other and improve.

    Just because they've actually become places of petty backroom recriminations and unbridled racism and sexism in the name of free speech, it doesn't deny the validity of the dream. It just points to the fragility of the dream, and indicates a new set of dangers our idealisms face.

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  3. K. Jones
    September 22, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

    Interestingly, another TOS retread. Episodes which push the limits of the narrative like this always fascinate me in that nitpicky technical level – why is Traveler a cipher for Troi, but she can detect a presence as immense and non-humanoid as Q? How have they not invented psychic circuits yet that can link up thoughts to the ship's "take you anywhere" system? Why isn't the ship sentient? The breadth and scope of a Whovian is pretty well spoiled with a lack of these implemented limitations and restrictions, but at the same time I understand it – the illusion of "realism" or "groundedness" fools the Hard Sci-Fi or less spiritual/philosophical fan when you tell them that the "Milky Way is huge enough, let's just explore that".

    Even the Kelvans, Lovecraftian horrors from Andromeda, couldn't warp their way here – they traveled for centuries. But the Traveler can phase the ship, ride the Time Vortex to the here and there, basically. Q can snap his fingers and fling the ship across the Milky Way. Our arcane cthonic entities have given way to the computer age, information at the speed of light. (And yet here we are 30 years later and the show can be criticized coldly as being a bit plodding and slow by today's standards)

    I always like when a mega-thematic trope or "effect" is utilized to give backstory about characters. I appreciate efficiency a good deal.

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  4. Prankster
    September 24, 2014 @ 3:49 am

    It's definitely a shame that, as TNG matured from a character and thematic perspective, it left behind the ability to be really wildly imaginative and trippily psychedelic. That was something that afflicted not just the writing but even the production design, though I'm hesitant to fault them as it seems to have been more the result of the showrunners "thinking small" and the designers following suit. TNG season 1 is loaded with lots of awe-inspiring or imaginative imagery–heck, some of their best alien designs are in this season–that the more fundamentally solid scripts of the later seasons could have used. The few later examples of the writers really stretching and letting the designers run amok tend to produce some real winners in terms of iconic imagery (the Borg, the Bajoran wormhole and DS9 station, even some stuff on Voyager and Enterprise). But I think TNG-era Trek would have been helped in later years by retaining the bold, heavily visual style of the early years. The irony here is that TOS, with it's teensy budget, was usually much better at thinking in these terms, they just rarely had the ability to execute as well as TNG could.

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  5. Daru
    October 21, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

    "In spite of Star Trek having a reputation for being “realistic” and the archetypical materialist Hard SF action series, The Next Generation's sojourns into the staunchly immaterial are just as real and important to me, despite this aspect of the show constantly being glossed over. Of course, they are real, because there's no difference between the spiritual world and the physical one and nothing exists which is not divine."

    This is what I love about Star Trek and TNG at its best. I have always been less interested in the hardware and battle action stuff – but the the magical worlds hinted at, the doorways to spiritual realms, the journeys that the characters take within were all the elements that captured my imagination as a teen with this show. It mirrored my inner search to understand the wider worlds and cosmos around me, as well as my own journey to discover more of myself.

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