Friday, October 19, 2012

Star Trek: TNG

But I think The Next Generation's underlying appeal went beyond the image of happy, smart people saving you a seat in Ten Forward. As an example here, think about the Harry Potter series. One of the reasons J.K. Rowling's books exerted such an appeal over every sentient creature on earth is that they resolved, indeed fused, a cultural contradiction. She took the aesthetic of old-fashioned English boarding-school life and placed it at the center of a narrative about political inclusiveness. You get to keep the scarves, the medieval dining hall, the verdant lawns, the sense of privilege (you're a wizard, Harry), while not only losing the snobbery and racism but actually casting them as the villains of the series. It's the Slytherins and Death Eaters who have it in for mudbloods, not Harry and his friends, Hogwarts' true heirs. The result of this, I would argue, is an absolutely bonkers subliminal reconfiguration of basically the entire cultural heritage of England. It's as if Rowling reboots a 1,000-year-old national tradition into something that's (a) totally unearned but (b) also way better than the original. Of course it electrified people.

Star Trek does something similar, though with an American contradiction that's arguably even more fundamental. It was already possible, by the early '90s and actually long before them, to trace the terms of the current partisan divide in America. Conservatives — think in Jonathan Haidt–ish terms here — value tradition, authority, and group identity; liberals value tolerance, fairness, and care. Or whatever; you can draw the distinctions however you'd like. The point is, The Next Generation depicts a strict military hierarchy acting with great moral clarity in the name of civilization, all anti-postmodern, "conservative" stuff — but the values they're so conservatively clear about are ideals like peace and open-mindedness and squishy concern for the perspectives of different cultures. "Liberal" ideals, in other words. You could say, roughly, that the Enterprise crew is conservative as a matter of method and liberal as a matter of goal. They sail through the universe with colonialist confidence sticking up for postcolonial ideals. I mean, Starfleet has a Prime Directive … but it's explicitly non-interventionist! This is so weird that it's almost hard to notice; your mind just sort of slides over it. But it's fascinating in numberless ways. Picard is both indisputably the most patriarchal Star Trek captain and indisputably the least likely to punch anyone in the face. No one is more individualist than the individuals of the Enterprise, but their individualism has led them to reject most forms of private property (because it actually holds them back, they're so boldly individualistic) and embrace ultra-centralized health care. The show is able to indulge a serious jones for the classical Western canon — Shakespeare, Mozart, et al. — without really running against the grain of multiculturalism at all, at least by late-'80s standards. Data will be listing some violinists whose style his programming can mimic, and some of them will be Heifetz and some of them will be aliens a guy just made up for the script. It's totally nuts, but it's also a fantasy of the American psyche that, if you can get into it, makes a lot of fine things suddenly seem possible, and makes some debilitating anxieties just sort of fall away.
Computer Love

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