Sunday, September 21, 2014

“To Boldly Go” Where No One Has Gone Before

All utopias are, at their most basic levels, ideas. Regardless of whether or not people have felt the need to take physical action to translate it into the material realm, the idea remains and is ultimately what's important.

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.


  1. You could choose to look at it this way: Star Trek TNG *is* a utopian for people to escape to... but escape depends upon your position. The Traveller has, in a sense, escaped his 'higher plane' by coming to TNG. He has - like the Doctor - felt the need to reject, or at least leave, his 'higher plane' to get involved in the strife and struggle and striving of the rest of the universe, of the ostensible lesser-beings. Inomplicitly, he rejects the notion of higher and lower... there are just degrees of sympathy with the universe. But even then, being in greater sympathy with the universe implies no superiority, only a greater privilege in going further forward. Meanwhile, utopia is *always* in the future, somewhere else. Always to be aimed at, never to be arrived at. Not because improvement, even optimisation, are impossible, but because to be content with Things As They Are is always, in some sense, to stop trying. Even in Paradise, you want more. That's the whole basis of Trek actually. Humans have a utopian society but still want to leave it to see what lies outside it. That's what the Traveller did after all. This nicely decouples the idea of utopia from the idea of 'progress' in any simplistic, stageist or culturally supremacist form.

  2. I find your comments about Wesley Crusher particularly curious. When I first watched TNG as a child, I found him tremendously irritating, especially during the streak of episodes where he arrogantly saved the ship on multiple occasions while the other characters smacked him in the mouth for 40 minutes. I exaggerate for crude humour, of course, but that's also what I wanted to do to Wesley for many of these episodes, watching the show at age 6.

    You're right that Nerd Culture has turned out to be the worst place to invest our dreams or a more open, progressive society, as it's developed into an echo chamber of bigotry and small-minded insularity. But in 1987, the idealism that originally motivated so many of the dreams of Nerd Culture was still in evidence. That potential was in the community, in the original dreams of the first internet pioneers and the wider hacker community, who built websites like Wikipedia and Reddit. Those sites, in their original conception, were places of freedom, where, as John Stuart Mill conceived of free public spaces, the best ideas could engage each other and improve.

    Just because they've actually become places of petty backroom recriminations and unbridled racism and sexism in the name of free speech, it doesn't deny the validity of the dream. It just points to the fragility of the dream, and indicates a new set of dangers our idealisms face.

  3. Interestingly, another TOS retread. Episodes which push the limits of the narrative like this always fascinate me in that nitpicky technical level - why is Traveler a cipher for Troi, but she can detect a presence as immense and non-humanoid as Q? How have they not invented psychic circuits yet that can link up thoughts to the ship's "take you anywhere" system? Why isn't the ship sentient? The breadth and scope of a Whovian is pretty well spoiled with a lack of these implemented limitations and restrictions, but at the same time I understand it - the illusion of "realism" or "groundedness" fools the Hard Sci-Fi or less spiritual/philosophical fan when you tell them that the "Milky Way is huge enough, let's just explore that".

    Even the Kelvans, Lovecraftian horrors from Andromeda, couldn't warp their way here - they traveled for centuries. But the Traveler can phase the ship, ride the Time Vortex to the here and there, basically. Q can snap his fingers and fling the ship across the Milky Way. Our arcane cthonic entities have given way to the computer age, information at the speed of light. (And yet here we are 30 years later and the show can be criticized coldly as being a bit plodding and slow by today's standards)

    I always like when a mega-thematic trope or "effect" is utilized to give backstory about characters. I appreciate efficiency a good deal.

  4. It's definitely a shame that, as TNG matured from a character and thematic perspective, it left behind the ability to be really wildly imaginative and trippily psychedelic. That was something that afflicted not just the writing but even the production design, though I'm hesitant to fault them as it seems to have been more the result of the showrunners "thinking small" and the designers following suit. TNG season 1 is loaded with lots of awe-inspiring or imaginative imagery--heck, some of their best alien designs are in this season--that the more fundamentally solid scripts of the later seasons could have used. The few later examples of the writers really stretching and letting the designers run amok tend to produce some real winners in terms of iconic imagery (the Borg, the Bajoran wormhole and DS9 station, even some stuff on Voyager and Enterprise). But I think TNG-era Trek would have been helped in later years by retaining the bold, heavily visual style of the early years. The irony here is that TOS, with it's teensy budget, was usually much better at thinking in these terms, they just rarely had the ability to execute as well as TNG could.

  5. "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."

    *This* is what I love about Star Trek and TNG at its best. I have always been less interested in the hardware and battle action stuff - but the the magical worlds hinted at, the doorways to spiritual realms, the journeys that the characters take within were all the elements that captured my imagination as a teen with this show. It mirrored my inner search to understand the wider worlds and cosmos around me, as well as my own journey to discover more of myself.