Wednesday, December 27, 2006

CULT TV FLASHBACK #27: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Justice"

There are many, many Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes I could remember and champion today with fondness and appreciation (fine ventures such as "Yesterday's Enterprise," or "The Inner Light."). However, I want to recall a segment that is pretty unsung, and I have my own reasons for hailing it. Primarily, I believe it a critical and unique example of Gene Roddenberry's original vision for the spin-off series (prior to the takeover of the show by Rick Berman, and the introduction of such popular characters as the Borg). Yes, "Justice" might be considered damn cheesy. But that is part of the reason we love Star Trek, isn't it? It wears the heart and emotions on its sleeve. It is unfailingly honest. Some people think that makes the show "cheesy." I find it...delightful.

First, I ask you to remember Star Trek: The Next Generation in its first season. Come on. Think back. Some see this span in the history of Trek as deeply flawed, and they probably have a point. But let me play devil's advocate. On the other hand, one might gaze upon that age (the 1987-1988 season), as the clearest, most distilled example of Gene Roddenberry's true vision, excepting Star Trek: The Motion Picture. To wit: like the original series, the new series back then (1987) seemed bound and determined to set a record for interspecies kinkiness....a Roddenberry fetish. On the original series, Kirk bedded a lot of space chicks (or at least kissed them. Angelique Pettyjohn, where are you?) In the beginning of Next Gen, we had Tasha bedding a "fully functional" Lt. Data in "The Naked Now," Riker donning feathers and earrings (and showing man cleavage!) for the prime minister of a matriarchy in "Angel One," (yeah baby...), and this episode..."Justice." Wherein the natives on an alien world, a sensual sun-tanned lot called "the Edo" (think H.G. Wells' the Eloi, from The Time Machine...) "play at love" and make love at the drop of a hat. "Any hat," as Tasha Yar reminds us. Cue the porno music.

Now think about the rest of Next Generation seasons. Was the show ever this oddly and openly kinky again (besides the androgynous episode, "The Outcast" in Season Five and the one with Riker bedding an alien tabloid fan, "First Contact," I believe). This was indeed part of the original Star Trek vision (and part and parcel of the original series, witness episodes "By Any Other Name," "Gamesters of Triskelion," "Wink of an Eye," and "Conscience of the King..."). This heritage was forsaken in the new series as the seasons continued. I for one miss that spicy and spiky brand of perverse kinkiness. Give me "By Another Name," "Turnabout Intruder," or "Whom Gods Destroy" any day.

Other facets of The Next Gen's first season back in 1987: Roddenberry liked to solve stories without resorting to fights and firing phasers, whenever possible. Witness "Skin of Evil," in which the crew of the Enterprise D outwits the evil oil slick...with talk. Boring you say? Well, yeah sure, but also, in it's own way, quite a courageous and dramatic choice. What fun is it having a Shakespearean actor as a lead actor in your series if he has to resort to phasers all the time? Better to have Patrick Stewart sit down in the sand with the oil slick...and mediate. Remember, this was the age when we were talking to the Soviet Union - in summits in Iceland and elsewhere - not confronting it with missiles and armies. This was the age when it wasn't considered a sign of weakness to engage in diplomacy with enemies. Even if that enemy was a big, malevolent oil slick. Again, most fans of the series probably don't like the first season much; but there's a case to be made that it is the clearest version of Roddenberry's utopia. The downside, as my friend Howard Margolin pointed out? Picard isn't cool. Ever. He surrendered the flagship of the Federation twice in Next Gen's first four episodes. Oopsy. It's hard to get behind this guy the way you would Captain Kirk.

This is also the season that we learn the eating of meat is forbidden (or more appropriately enslaving animals is forbidden...) in "Lonely Among Us." This is the season in which Roddenberry boldly and brilliantly posited the idea that the enemies in space were not the Soviets/Cold War villains of the original series, but us. That's right, "The Last Outpost" introduced the Ferengi as "yankee traders," ravenous capitalists who would do anything for a quick buck. Now, who do you think Roddenberry was referring to there, in the midst of the Reagan eighties? Notice that in later seasons, the Ferengi became a comical threat, rather than the "big bad" they were intended to be (as early references, in episodes such as "Encounter at Farpoint" indicate). Another example of the formula changing to make the series more mainstream. More popular. More acceptable to the masses.

The early programs of Star Trek': The Next Generation's first season also point out the difficulties of strutting nationalism and rah-rah patriotism (John De Lancie's "Q" as an Oliver North figure, replete in U.S. Marine Corps. uniform...). Capitalists (or yuppies) also got a big fat raspberry in the final episode of the season, "The Neutral Zone." Showing how things had changed since the 1960s. Kirk awoke Khan - a genetically engineered superman - from suspended animation in 1967's "Space Seed." Picard awoke a 21st century Ivan Boesky or Gordon Gekko, a corporate raider, in 1987. Again, the fans may blanch at such things, but in some sense, this was fascinating material...a rebuke of the American way of life in the "greed is good" era. Roddenberry is forever and always a clever devil.

But cue the phasers, fans wanted more space battles, less social commentary, and less standing around and talking. I sympathize with this point of view. Totally. I'm an old school original series fan boy. I'm just saying - heck - go back and watch those original 24 shows of Next Gen's first season. Drink some coffee. Take some Vivarin. Then watch - with interest - how they rigorously set up Roddenberry's "new and improved" Trek universe. You may not like it, but this was truly Roddenberry's vision, sans Borg, sans big space battles. The later seasons and Next Gen films never followed up on this vision with any degree of fidelity. They became space opera. Lwaxana Troi came aboard the love boat, I mean Enterprise, how many times? How many holodeck stories were there? Worf had an illegitimate son. Can anyone say...soap opera?

So back to the episode "Justice," which I see as a critical part of that (eventually dropped...) first season vision. It's about the crew of the starship being judged by a superior life form (a big Roddenberry obsession; also in "Encounter at Farpoint"), but it also involves heavily the crew's sense of morality and humanity. Here's the tale, in case you've forgotten: The Enterprise visits the Rubicun system, and finds the Elo to be a sexually free but nonetheless...friendly race. Picard sends an away team down to the surface to assess the planet for a shore leave visit, and Wesley Crusher ends up breaking a law. He steps on some flowers and crushes them, and the Edo laws demand the "death penalty" for his infraction. Wow, so what we have here is a comment about a so-called advanced and "progressive" race which still adopts regressive laws. (The death penalty also came up in "Angel One," by the way, so one might also see that as a Roddenberry obsession too...).

Anyway, Picard just can't beam up Wesley and say "to hell with the Edo," because in orbit hanging like a "nemesis" is the Edo's God - some sort of interdimensional alien space ship that watches silently. Observing. Picard must prove that the Edo's law condemning young Wesley Crusher to death is wrong, and he must do so before this God. Eventually - with wisdom and carefully measured words - he does just that. It's another trial for the crew, yes, but one that proves an essential point about draconian laws. There have to be exceptions, lest a culture unwittingly descend into barbarism. In a country that tries 13-year old minors as adults; in a country that administrates the death penalty on a regular basis for the poorest of the community (who can't afford proper legal representation in some cases), Roddenberry was talking directly to us. "Justice" by Worley Thorne and directed by James L. Conway, handles all these issues superbly. While also being about some very sexually liberated people.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

I like this show, because I remember watching "Justice" and feeling shivers at the set-up and resolution. Shivers of nostalgia. Feeling that this episode was in the best tradition of the original Star Trek. That even though it was an early show in the series, it had gotten the feel of Gene Roddenberry's vision - his world view - absolutely right. Recently I had the opportunity to discuss "Justice" with its director, Mr. Conway.

"I did "Justice," which was the ninth show, and I did the season finale for that show,
"The Neutral Zone," Mr. Conway reminded me as we began. In regards to "Justice" he notes: "That was a lot of fun. That was a classic old-style Star Trek episode. I remember that one of the first things I shot on the show was the scene where we beamed in like nine people at once. It was an unwieldy to try to photograph nine people on one side, and then all the people seeing them on the other side."

"It was fun," he continues. "They spent a lot of time designing the costumes. If you look at the old early Season One of TNG, and you see where it went in seasons three and four when it became such a huge hit, it's a totally different TV show."

"It ["Justice"] was very much a Gene Roddenberry-style show. He was a great guy, by the way. I loved Gene. When he left the show...originally there was no interfering with other cultures, so there were no fights, there was no action to speak of. And frankly I think the show got much better when the Borg showed up and everyone started shooting at each other."

"It was like an updated version of the original series, down to the wardrobe," he concludes. "We had a very sexy actress playing the lead, Brenda Bakke," he also remembers.

So today, for my twenty-sixth cult tv flashback, I recall Star Trek: The Next Generation in its original iteration, as something closer to Gene Roddenberry's vision, perhaps, than any other season of any Trek series. Was it flawed? Yes. Was it sometimes boring? Yes. Were the later seasons superior? Yes, perhaps. But that first season - love it or hate it - was damn interesting. And damn brave to boot. In the age of Stallone, Rambo, Schwarzenneger and Die Hard, Roddenberry created a space show short on action...and long on philosophy. He asked us to think, not pull the trigger. Star Trek isn't just about space battles, it is about the human condition, and I contend (as devil's advocate...) that modern Trek spin-offs were never more so about the "human equation" than in that flawed but fascinating first year.

If you claim to love Gene Roddenberry and honor his beliefs about the future...this is the season of Star Trek: The Next Generation you must reckon with.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, John. I've also been rewatching these recently, as I've started to watch the newly jazzed-up old Trek eps now in syndication. The only thing I really hold against first season Next Gen is the hideously over-the-top version of Deanna Troi in Encounter at Farpoint. "I! SENSE! GREAT! JOY!"

    Have you already mentioned Wil Wheaton's NextGen-blogging on TVSquad? He just covered Justice here. Enjoy, cuz it roxors.

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