Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Basic Questions of Survival


Yesterday I talked up the idea of 'need-based' conflicts in stories, including Maslow's Hierarchy of Need. The few examples I gave of each level up on the pyramid strike me as inadequate so I'm going to explore each in more detail.

Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season has a reputation for being conflict free, and therefore boring. As I've rewatched the series, slowly making my way through the episodes, I don't think I agree with that entirely. Even early TNG has plenty of conflict but most of it is higher up on the pyramid and is, frankly, not well executed. I see no need to do an episode by episode review, plenty fine surveys exist online, try Jammer's for sober, nicely executed write-ups. Instead, I'm going to bend a fairly mediocre run of shows to a hopefully higher purpose, namely how can a show set in a nearly Utopian future feature compelling, strong conflicts?

I'll start by unearthing the rarest form of conflict in TNG: physiological conflicts revolving on basic questions of survival: not enough food, water, air, etc. This is different from the need of safety, or the removal of threat, which appears in this series all the time. The whole point of Roddenberry's form of Space Opera is this is a world free of material wants and diseases. Technology doesn't always work perfectly in this universe but for the most part it's malfunctions are the exceptions, not the rule. Early on in the first season, the Enterprise's chief doctor, Beverly Crusher casually informs Picard that even headaches have been banished by the 24th century. Picard's ship is equipped with holodecks and replicators able to recreate nearly any desired object. This is a post-scarcity economy.

And yet, stories where the conflict centers around basic survival do appear. Restricted to moments where the characters are not just under threat, but actually dying or dehabilitated in some fashion three episodes contain central conflicts revolving around whether or not the character can survive.

For example, in "The Last Outpost," the Enterprise confronts a Ferengi ship that had stolen some piece of Federation technology. The Ferengi prove fairly ridiculous from the first lash of their neon foam whips, draining the episode of most of its tension. However, both the Ferengi and the Enterprise have been seized by an energy draining force field controlled by an ancient intelligence on a planet  below the ships. As the power dies aboard the Enterprise, the crew is forced to huddle together and survive as best they can while waiting for the away team to resolve the situation. This conflict would be better if the crew still had some agency in the conflict. Held as virtual hostages by the fate of the away team, they make do with flimsy looking blankets and lots of shivering. Not very compelling television.



A slightly better example appears in "The Battle," the first of many episodes revolving around some hasty action Picard made earlier in his career. The father of a Ferengi Picard had killed in a desperate maneuver comes looking for revenge. Not content with simply shooting Picard while he was on shore leave, the vengeful father inflicts mental torture through an illegal piece of technology that always looked to me like a demonic lava lamp. The combination of headaches and insomnia eventually drive Picard a little nuts and he ends up attempting to destroy the Enterprise while captaining his former command, the Stargazer. Patrick Steward is an phenomenal actor, and he's able to rise above the unintentional comedy to give genuine life to a person agonized by the past. What makes this a better example of physiological conflict is that pain from the alien technology mirrors the unresolved tension of a nearly-forgotten firefight. And, far from being helpless within its grip, Picard is ultimately able to shake off the torment and clear his head for just long enough to destroy the device. It's a very simple kill or be killed situation but it works for this episode.



My last example is taken from one of the only other actiony episodes in the first season, "Arsenal of Freedom." For the most part this episode revolves around a safety conflict, an automated weapon appears again and again, adapting with each generation as it strives to wipe out an away team. Because the weapon doesn't actually kill anyone, the tension comes from the suggestion of harm, not actual danger. However, after Picard and Crusher beam down to the planet and fall into a pit, the tension shifts. Crusher is badly injured in the fall and begins to slip into shock. Here at last is a truly visceral physiological conflict, made all the better because both characters involved in the scene, Picard and Crusher, have an active role in resolving it. Crusher talks Picard through finding medicinal roots, and Picard, rooting around in the cave, makes an important discovery. The moment reveals aspects of both characters in a believable way and still feels fresh and compelling a quarter century later.



Conflicts around basic survival appear throughout the series, but for a variety of reasons they are very rare in the first season. The lack of physiological conflicts actually goes a long way to setting the tone of the show. Star Trek TNG, from the beginning, was meant to scale loftier heights than questions of simple survival. The relative absence suggests a show eager to tackle more rarified questions. I just don't think the first season writer's had it quite worked out how to finesse Roddenberry's aspirations with the needs of compelling drama. Most of these episodes are god-awful, but they had just enough promise to keep the series chugging forward.



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