Saturday, March 16, 2013

Thirty-six views of a starship

Katsushika Hokusai, a ukiyo-e  painter in 19th century Japan created a series of intensely detailed and colorful prints collectively titled the "Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji." From either near or far, each print showed some view of that volcano from a variety of angles and distances. Mount Fuji,  serving as a symbol of immortality and divinity, had a profound spiritual significance in Japanese culture. By placing the mountain in the background of every image, the painter seemed to suggest that the mountain was too big, too complicated, to ever be captured from one single perspective.

After completing seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation, wading through the good, bad, and ugly, following the Enterprise and her crew from one end of the universe to the other, I have a similar reaction. This was the first time I've ever watched the show from start to finish and I have to say, the experience really affected me. More than I thought it would.

This was my show when I was growing up, the first one that really seemed to belong to me, rather than to my parents. Parts of this show sunk deep within my subconscious, leaving permanent marks on my expectation of what science fiction should look like and how the people of the future should behave. This was hard for me to understand until I'd read enough science fiction on my own to appreciate just what a particular vision Star Trek represented.

As a utopian statement, the show gave us a ship and crew produced by a society we're informed is largely free of disease, poverty, and mental pathologies. This is a society of clear hierarchies, Picard the captain, Riker the "number one," everyone else's place as easy to discern as counting the number pips on a collar. And yet, Star Trek spends an inordinate amount of time following the crew members on their less structured pursuits. Data gradually learns painting and poetry, Riker practices jazz, and Dr. Crusher directs community plays. Even in a society as structured and ordered as a quasi military star ship, the overall story of the community couldn't be told without checking in with all of the other crew members. I'm not sure if everyone had this reaction growing up with this show, but honestly I assumed that this was what the future would be like. The purpose of life would be joining a community of talented individuals committed to the explorations of the possible.

Does that sound hopelessly naive? Perhaps, but maybe that's the real charm of this show. Sentiments that seem daft or impractical when written down felt inevitable, even when filtered through the waves of static on Fox Channel 31. Even when I accepted the implausibility of warp drives, teleporters and replicators, it's still hard to shake the authority of the show's perspective.

If you want good, perceptive reviews of each Next Gen episode, I'd suggest either Keith DiCandido's exhaustive Tor rewatch notes or  Jammer's somewhat more thematic reviews. I will spotlight a handful of episodes that particularly stuck with me for good, bad, or as examples of an major theme of the show or a reason why I think the show, even a quarter of a century later, remains relevant.

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