Sunday, September 21, 2014
“To Boldly Go” Where No One Has Gone Before
The blurb for “Where No One Has Gone Before” describes the plot as “A warp drive experiment transports the Enterprise to a region of space where thought becomes reality”. Except, that's not true, is it? On multiple levels. Kosiniski's experiments are nothing but, as he does nothing except unwittingly take credit for the work The Traveler surreptitiously does and there's no actual theory to test here as it's all common knowledge to him. But more relevantly, it's The Traveler's contention that there's really no difference between time, space and thought. It's merely the *acknowledgment* of such that allows the Enterprise to do the seemingly impossible things it does in this story. M33, that is, Messier 33, is a real place: It's a spiral galaxy that's the third largest in our local group, after the Andromeda Galaxy and the Milky Way. There's no evidence that, if you were able to go there, it would appear any different than our own galaxy does, yet alone the indescribably beautiful psychedelic mindscape Rob Legato dreamed up for this episode. The reason it looks the way it does is because The Traveler helped the Enterprise attain a higher state of consciousness in order to comprehend reality. The world and the dream are one.
And it's a captivating dream to be sure. There are a handful of images from the first season that are truly iconic, transcending the episodes they were apart of to become larger signifiers for the series on the whole. The M33 of “Where No One Has Gone Before” is one of them, the second of the year for me (the first being Q's crackling energy net from “Encounter at Farpoint”). And yet while a few of them will take on lives of their own such that the stories they hail from seem middling and forgettable by comparison, these first two are equally as powerful as those episode they represent. Much of what I remember about Star Trek: The Next Generation is intensely surreal and abstract, especially in later seasons that deal quite explicitly with darkly psychological and speculative elements. In spite of Star Trek having a reputation for being “realistic” and the archetypical materialist Hard SF action series, The Next Generation's sojourns into the staunchly immaterial are just as real and important to me, despite this aspect of the show constantly being glossed over. Of course, they are real, because there's no difference between the spiritual world and the physical one and nothing exists which is not divine.
And “Where No One Has Gone Before” is the first time in the series I start to get that same feeling. Apart from the shots of the galaxy itself, the show's cinematography and visual effects perfectly capture how the Enterprise's own history plays out upon it. This time, the images that manifest themselves are all aspects of specific characters' pasts and personalities, as one would expect from a script this early in the show's run. The particular favourite of mine is when Tasha and Worf start talking about their pets from their homeworlds, only to see visions of them appear before them on the bridge. Tasha's in particular is memorable and well-done for what it is: While she's still portrayed as far more vulnerable than what I'd like, it's a nice touch to have Geordi comfort her at the end, a sweet extension of the relationship they've been building over the past few episodes. Perhaps even more evocative for me though is Picard stepping out of the turbolift to see the expanse of deep space before him: It's right up there with the best moments of surrealism from later years in my opinion. The episode itself is still a little rough around the edges (and we'll talk a bit about how), but nevertheless, this is the moment where Star Trek: The Next Generation finally becomes the show I remember.
There is of course Wesley Crusher, who I suppose I must talk about. He is, admittedly, the weak link in the production (and once again I'll stress *Wesley*, not Wil Wheaton) and most of the criticisms that get leveled at him here are more or less valid. Yes, it stretches credulity that Captain Picard and Commander Riker would be so cruel and dismissive of him, and it's pretty dumb how the teenage boy outsmarts and outhinks an entire ship of highly trained scientists, especially when the ruse is this bloody obvious. Picard's uncomfortableness around children has snowballed to full-bore cartoonishly irrational hatred, and he ends up looking rather bad across the board here. I do love how Riker conveniently happens to never be looking at The Traveler whenever he phase-shifts, though: That's pretty funny. But all that said, the team is genuinely trying to make something out of the fundamentally unworkable brief they have in Wesley, and they go with the most tenable track with him they possibly could here. And that's turning him into a Doctor Who companion.
The Traveler seems straightforwardly like an analogue for The Doctor, and The Traveler might well be an even more powerful figure as he diegetically recognises the link between thought and reality. He's a visitor from someplace far outside the narrative, and is immediately taken in by the potential he sees in Wesley, whom he treats as his young protege. He even tells Picard Wesley is a special person destined for great things, and the way he describes it sounds genuinely tantalizing: Apparently, Wesley is ahead of his time, understanding a latent spiritual power that's beyond even the humans of the 24th Century. This really must be seen as a continuation and echo of the themes of “Haven”, and this would put Wesley in the same category of people like Wyatt and Ariana. The only reason Wesley doesn't run off with The Traveler to explore time and space (...yet) is because he's a regular (although it is on some level worrying that the team seems to be turning to Adric from the Eric Saward era for inspiration here, though I guess they didn't have much of a choice).
The problem with this is that it leaves Star Trek: The Next Generation in a deeply unstable position. It's supposed to be the utopia people escape to, not run away from. These are supposed to be the people we look up to and aspire to be, the gods we identify with and take into ourselves. Just last year, Gillian Taylor was hitching a ride with Admiral Kirk to escape to Star Trek, and now we have The Traveler telling us Wesley Crusher is too good for Star Trek and setting him on a path to leave it behind. This comes a week after Lwaxana Troi showed everyone on the Enterprise up, and four weeks after the show imploded in on itself with “The Naked Now”. One becomes skeptical that Star Trek: The Next Generation is actually sustainable as a utopia, which recall is, disquietingly, the very thing Q charged it with proving. Furthermore, as much as Wesley's gifts are supposed to be transcendent, they manifest in very materialistic, technofetishistic ways: In hindsight, Nerd Culture was probably far from the ideal group of people we should have been entrusting our spiritual health and well-being to, though perhaps some of this was a holdover from the days where the hippies were very strongly associated with the emerging personal computer movement, even if by 1987 that was no longer the case.
But then again, maybe it's telling that The Traveler conveys his magick through propulsion, that is, the science of going forward. Star Trek: The Next Generation is nothing if not committed to constantly improving itself, understanding that sublimating the mundane is the ultimate form of enlightenment and liberation. And the core idea remains: A utopia is something to aspire to, and dreaming about it makes it real, literally and metaphorically. Ideas and symbols gain their power when we collectively project it onto them, and Alan Moore gives us the concept of the Ideaspace, a shared divinity in which beliefs and fiction are real. Because they are: Our understanding of the world is limited to our perception of it, and we dream it together. If we're going to do that, let's endeavour to make it a utopia we can worship as one among many...dreaming as one.