"When you've gone, will this world continue to exist? Will my wife and kids still be waiting for me at home?" Lt. McNary to Captain Picard in "The Big Goodbye."
Stories need conflict, the tension between what might and might not occur. Some conflicts are immediate and visceral, others are abstract and harder to quantify. Different genres seem to reflexively reach for certain conflicts, certain stereotypical problems. Horror and suspense stories are about danger, unseen threats and fight/flight responses. Romance stories often explore the tension between interpersonal love and societal expectations. People read thrillers and fantasy novels to see super-competent people struggle through unbelievable adversity, their hair consistently un-mussed.
Science Fiction, set on alien worlds, surrounded by mind-bending technology, is well positioned to handle questions of transcendence and the limits of human potential.
Abraham Maslow coined the term self-actualization as part of his Hierarchy of Needs, a sort of linear organization of the motivations behind people's actions. Maslow arranged his system so that each level of the hierarchy needs to be resolved before an individual moves on to confronting issues in the next highest level. So once an individual has enough to eat and drink, is secure in his or her environment, feels love and acceptance from others and is able to excel work and life, Maslow felt he or her might still need to confront larger, transpersonal considerations such as morality, self-fulfillment and problem-solving. Leaving aside questions of whether Maslow's assertions are supported by research, I've been using this model to organize my own examination of conflicts in the first season of Star Trek The Next Generation.
In particular, I like using this model to explain why Star Trek TNG, compared to other television shows, focuses so much on the abstract. Whether debating the morality of terraforming, the possibility of interfering with an alien culture, or the nature of reality itself, the standard view we have of the show isn't a star ship swooping through a star field, or an away team firing phasers or even bizarre alien costumes (although each of these appear, obviously) but rather a group of people sitting around a conference table, hashing out problems in a meeting. One of the episode recap websites I enjoy even keeps a running count of how long it takes each episode to get to a "meeting scene;" spoiler alert: it's never very long.
Why meetings? Why so much talking? The short answer, probably one of the best, is that's what the writers wanted. At its best, Star Trek exists to debate and consider weighty issues. Ultimately, TNG would find a comfortable groove, balancing action and philosophy within a single episode, but the 'head' of the first season is still very much at war with its 'heart' and 'gut.' The writers can't seem to figure out how the most powerful starship in the sector can be the setting for interesting stories once deprived of phaser fire and interpersonal conflict. Hence, lots of episodes about god-like beings and technologically backwards aliens where the resolution revolves around a deus ex machina.
That said, the first season does offer some stand-out episodes concerning morality and self-fulfillment and even the shoddier episodes strive to work out the implications of Roddenberry's philosophy.
"Symbiosis" is one such flawed episode. The Enterprise rescues the crew of a decrepit space ship before it disintegrates in the atmosphere of alien world. What they find are two separate species engaged in a conflict over a shipment of medical supplies, a drug called felicium. The Omaran need the medicine to treat a fatal plague on their world, but the Brekkians refuse to give them the supplies because the payment was lost in the destruction of the space ship. The twist is that the Omarans are not actually suffering from a plague but rather withdrawal symptoms from felicium, which is actually a powerful narcotic. The Brekkians are essentially interplanetary drug dealers, the Omarans their only market. This is a rather clumsy allegory and the episode thuds through a rote series of conversations until Picard finally solves the problem by doing what he always intended to do anyway: follow the Prime Directive and not interfere. However that does pass over a fine debate between Picard and Crusher over the Prime Directive. It's a somewhat lop-sided argument but still manages to prefigure the better explorations later in the show. Crusher represents the natural disgust the audience might feel for the Omarans' exploitation, while Picard is the rationalist voice of experience. "The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous." Picard allows the Omarans their narcotics but not the engine repairs that would sustain their economic system into perpetuity.
Picard, himself, often serves as an example of what Maslow might term a self-actualized individual. While he is certainly a flawed character, the focus is on enlightened problem-solving. He might not always be correct, but he nearly always expounds an upbeat and optimistic course within the stories. He is a pragmatist and a realist about the capabilities of his crew. He seems to seek out solitude and quiet contemplation but is also capable of appreciating new experiences simply for the opportunities for learning they represent. A good example of this happens in "The Big Goodbye," an episode referenced above. Looking for a respite from the arduous task of memorizing a complex greeting to the Haradans, Picard enters into a Holodeck simulation based around a Chandler-esque detective mystery. He is fascinated by the automobiles outside the windows of his office, exchanges quick banter about his incongruous Starfleet uniform and is so enchanted by the whole scenario he can't help but talk it up at the next staff meeting. But Picard is not without the ability to appraise the ethical concerns of a simulated reality. After McNary's plaintive question, Picard answers only with what he is certain: "I don't know…"
This phrase is echoed later in the season when the crew is confronted with a life form radically different from any they had encountered before, "Home Soil." While investigating the death of a terraformer engineer, Data and LaForge discover a tiny blinking substance. They return with it to the lab and go through a series of tests to figure out if it fits the criteria of life. What makes this interesting is the sincere approach to this question. They ask computer what it makes of the phenomena, they ask each other, and finally make a reasoned deduction. This is life, albeit one different from one they have encountered before. While the episode eventually becomes a rather generic (for Star Trek anyway) higher power versus the Enterprise conflict, this is one moment of pure scientific tension. Here is a mystery and a puzzle, how might a genuinely curious investigator resolve it?
There is a cost to such commitment to enlightened exploration, however, one that serves as the subtext to "We'll Always Have Paris." Picard is troubled to learn a distress signal comes from a renowned physicist Paul Manheim, revealing only reluctantly that his wife is an old flame he had stood up a long time before, while waiting for his first Star Fleet posting. Confronted with Jenice Manheim and the consequences of a decision from his youth, Picard immediately becomes nostalgic and wistful. Jenice asks him why he never showed up and Picard says with candor, "because I was afraid." Jenice doesn't want candor however and first has him try a few of the conventional excuses, 'it was raining,' 'I forgot what day it was.' Why does this moment happen? I think to highlight the age and experience of both characters. It would be one thing if Picard was a much younger man, facing events only a few years previous, but he is not a young man. As we already know from "The Battle," Picard is already nearly a legend, with a battle maneuver named after him. So for a man obviously in the prime of his life, confident of his abilities and outlook, it is all too easy for him to look back at his younger self and admit failings. Picard never claims to be a perfect person, but he does center his self-esteem on the wisdom he's acquired over time. So what is he afraid of? Eventually Picard admits to the fear he still struggles with, his terror of an ordinary life: a wife, children and a sedentary life. The show doesn't really resolve the question of whether or not Picard made the right choice at the cafe. Paul Manheim is famous is his own right, sees beyond the confines of this dimension, and yet spends his life at the center of a barren planetoid. Would that have been Picard's fate? Would that have been a bad choice? What's important to understand here is that the story isn't a conventional love story. Picard doesn't rekindle anything with Jenice by the end of the show, the tension revolves around a smaller issue of whether or not Picard can escape the regrets of his own actions. Because he's Picard, even as he bids goodbye to his old flame, we sense genuine ambivalence. On one hand he has deprived himself of the love of an obvious partner and companion, on the other, his position as captain and problem-solver allowed him to save both Jenice and her husband.
Relevance to Craft:
Of all the conflicts I've outlined this week, I believe this is the hardest to pull off effectively. Putting characters into danger or having them wrestle with personal demons are fairly immediate sources of drama. Making an intellectual debate over a cluster of blinking lights compelling is tougher. So do these shows offer any suggestions for doing it successfully? Or do they only serve as cautionary examples of what not to do?
Let's concentrate on the positive. When considering whether or not to include moralistic conflicts in a story it's probably good to remember a few obvious pointers from the examples above:
- Do make sure the conflict is genuine and immediate. Having characters debate the nature of reality in an episode works a lot better when the episode is set inside of a holographic virtual reality. The action of the story should reinforce, not distract from the debate.
- Do handle the conflict with sincerity and transparency. What makes the inquiry scene in "Home Soil" work is the tone: the characters are invested in the mystery, the process they used deftly detailed, and the end result doesn't seem preordained.
- Do aspire for the unexpected. If you put two characters with a previous romantic history in the same room, and your reader expects them to fall back in love. In "We'll Always Have Paris," that doesn't happen. Both Picard and Jenice are secure in their own identities and their own lives what's really important is whether they can make peace with that fact. This might not be as satisfying a conclusion to the episode, but it's fresher and more honest to the characters.
In a broader sense, this advice is true for any conflicts. Conflict works when it works in the story. The most exciting gun battle, debate or seduction is meaningless unless it serves the story. The story is all, conflict is a tool to that end.