Thursday, January 22, 2015

“Adapt to serve nature or become extinct”: Evolution

Natural selection is not teleological. A species does not evolve from an inferior state to a superior one, it changes in response to new environmental circumstances. There are no “higher” forms of life, and to claim otherwise is tantamount to race (and species) essentialism. Species adapt to harmonize better with nature, not to surpass and dominate it.

It's with its third season, fans always claim, that Star Trek: The Next Generation finally got good and started to become the show we know and love. Older accounts would breathlessly emphasize how the show was apparently on the verge of cancellation because of how terrible the first two years were, and it was only “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 1” that saved it and guaranteed it would go on to have a prosperous future. Nowadays, especially with mainline fandom's re-evaluation of the Dominion War arc and the success of Battlestar Galactica, it's become trendy to say that not only was Star Trek: The Next Generation's third season the beginning of “the good part”, it was unambiguously the best year of the entire series *by far* because it was the only time both Ronald D. Moore and Ira Steven Behr (the former being responsible for the reimagined BSG while both helmed the Dominion War) were on staff together. The true story of this fan-favourite run of stories is a bit more complicated then either of those accounts would lead you to believe, however, and there's one very important person whose positionality always seems to get swept up in the torrent of the Master Narrative and overlooked.

Star Trek does not have the patriarchal neo-auteur construction of the “showrunner” that's so common in modern parlance about TV shows: Cult of Gene Roddenberry notwithstanding, there's no one person who it can be even pretended holds ultimate sway over any individual era's look, feel or quality. Although Roddenberry is always keeping watch, always hovering around making sure his specific (though small) set of requirements are being met, his job is and always has been basically that of a sort of quality control analyst-He's not, strictly speaking, an auteur or a creator. But it can be said Star Trek has had, over the years, people whom we might call primary creative figures-A creator or group of creators whose voice was strong and compelling enough that it shaped or facilitated a great deal of the tone of any given period.

To overgeneralize for the sake of argument, during the first two seasons of the Original Series, this was obviously Gene Coon, along with D.C. Fontana and Bob Justman, with John Meredyth Lucas taking over Coon's role for the tail end of the second season. For the final year of OG Trek we had the somewhat infamous duo of Fred Freiberger and Arthur Singer butting heads with Justman, with Fontana coming back to hold the majority of the Animated Series together by herself. The movies, meanwhile, were a confused bundle of fisticuffs with Roddenberry, Nicholas Meyer, Harve Bennett, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner and Paramount corporate all vying for the creative control. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season could have been comparatively more stable thanks to Maurice Hurley and D.C. Fontana restoring a manner of professionalism to things, but Roddenberry's stubbornness drove a wedge between him and the new staff, causing a rift between him and writers like Tracy Tormé, a situation not helped by Hurley's (and, to an extent, Rick Berman's) unwavering loyalty to Roddenberry. And to be blunt, much of this was on the writers, many of whom quite frankly did not know how to write utopian fiction in general, let alone Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that's a problem that is *never* going away. Berman and Hurley were mainly concerned with keeping things above water during the second season, but they certainly had creative aspirations too, even bringing in clearly talented people like Melinda Snodgrass, Rob Bowman and Durinda Rice Wood. They very well might have succeeded were it not for the writer's strike.

But now in September, 1989 all of those people, with the exception of Roddenberry and Berman, are long gone, and even Roddenberry is starting to seriously distance himself from the franchise due to his declining health. And from now all the way until June, 1994, that primary creative figure is unquestionably Michael Piller.

Piller was a veteran of numerous Hollywood odd jobs, working as a writer, producer, network executive and censor at various points during his career, including a noteworthy (from our perspective) stint writing and producing teleplays for Miami Vice. A phone conversation with his friend Maurice Hurley brought Piller to the Star Trek: The Next Generation writer's room in 1989, which he wound up inheriting after everyone else stormed off in frustration. He stayed there for seven years. Piller came in as “head writer”, basically a catch-all term for “guy who vets scripts and makes sure the show has some semblance of aesthetic coherence and also won't make the studio accountants cry”. Though Piller would eventually become executive producer himself, Gene Roddenberry and Rick Berman kept their titles and positions, and he would have an immediate and lasting impact on Berman in particular: The two bonded instantly over their shared passion for baseball, setting the stage for a friendship and a partnership that would last for seven years. Piller was one of those people for whom baseball is almost a spiritual philosophy for life, and nobody who worked with him have memories of him anywhere outside the writer's room or a baseball field.

In “Evolution”, Paul Stubbs is also a major baseball fan. Much like Piller himself did, Stubbs understands his positionality through baseball metaphors and terminology. And yet in doing so he maroons himself in the past, consciously cutting himself off from the march of history. Baseball no longer exists in the 24th century, and in defining his life by it, he is making a deliberate statement that he does not care for the company of his peers and wants no part in the beat of current society. As he tells Wesley here:

“Nobody will say anything at all, Wesley. We will not even be mentioned. I could live with failure. Well, maybe not. But never even to try. To miss your one chance at bat. Do you know baseball?” 
“Yes, my father taught it to me when I was young.” 
“Once, centuries ago, it was the beloved national pastime of the Americas, Wesley. Abandoned by a society that prized fast food and faster games. Lost to impatience. But I have seen the great players make the great plays.” 
“Do you recreate them on a holodeck?” 
“No. In [my mind]. With the knowledge of statistics, runs, hits and errors, times at bat, box scores. Men like us do not need holodecks, Wesley. I have played seasons in my mind. It was my reward to myself for patience. Knowing my turn would come. Call your shot. Point to a star. One great blast and the crowd rises. A brand new era in astrophysics. Postponed one hundred and ninety six years on account of rain.”
Of his friend and colleague, Ira Behr reminisces that he could never understand why the very first thing he did on Star Trek: The Next Generation was to declare that baseball, that which he loved more than anything else, no longer existed in the show's utopia.

If there's one thing that changes for Star Trek: The Next Generation between its second season and its third, it's Michael Piller. He was a steadfast, caring, passionately dedicated working creator possessed with a near-boundless sense of imagination and spirited whimsy. And yet even though he is quite arguably Star Trek's most criminally unsung hero and presided over the single most popular and successful period of the franchise's history, it's no less disingenuous to claim Micheal Piller was the one who singlehandedly pulled Star Trek: The Next Generation out of a slump to become a critical and commercial success. For one thing, Piller was manifestly not inheriting a failing show: A difficult one, certainly, and absolutely one that had driven away lesser creative teams, but the claim that Star Trek: The Next Generation was struggling in the ratings or was somehow irredeemably awful in its first two years is simply wrong. Although syndicated ratings were not measured the same way as those of network shows, if you were to combine the two categories, you'd discover that at no point during its seven year run from 1987 to 1994 was Star Trek: The Next Generation *ever* not somewhere among the top twenty most watched shows on television, and sometimes it even topped that list. To claim otherwise is just Trekkers trying to cling desperately to the comfortable illusion of insular cliquishness in the face of historical record.

As for the quality argument...Well, I hope I've managed to make a compelling case for all of you so far for the merits of the show's early years. At least the first season.

And yet things have most definitely changed. Most obviously, at least from the perspective of us as audience members, the opening credits. The theme song has been entirely re-arranged and re-orchestrated, and Mike Okuda and Dan Curry have created an entirely new intro sequence to go along with it. And it's one of the most breathtakingly, indescribably beautiful moments in television history. I don't believe that anything else put to film, before or sense, captures a feeling of vastness and cosmic wonder the way this two minute sequence of pure resplendence does. Each individual planet, star, comet and nebula latches firm onto the imagination, perfectly complimenting the haunting synthesizer remix that elevates Alexander Courage's “Space...The Final Frontier” piece so far above its origins it essentially transcends itself; musical ego-death. The entire sequence is also a triumph for practical effects: I was stunned, and charmed, to discover Mike Okuda made the nascent solar system structure at the beginning by unwinding a ball of coloured yarn and wrapping it around an overexposed light bulb!

It's a masterful, singular statement of purpose that, as good as it's been so far, Star Trek: The Next Generation has lacked up until this point. Which makes it as fine an introduction to Michael Piller's tenure as any,'s not *quite* the set of visions that have remained with me all these years. Not yet. The little sting the theme closes with as the Enterprise goes to warp that was introduced in the last season and is used again in this one has always rang dissonant with me, if only because I'm not used to it. And, well, honestly, the cast of characters still isn't where I want it.

Speaking of...

One of Michael Piller's biggest innovations as head writer is nailing down a concrete set of guidelines to help new and beginning writers write for Star Trek effectively. Piller would always give notes to his writers that reminded them to, among other things, make sure that their plots in some way or another involved the interiority or positionality of one or more of the main characters. So you could, for example, do some kind of space opera or techno thriller but, *at the same time*, your script would *also* have to be a “Picard Story” or a “Troi Story” or a “Worf Story” and so on. By this lexicon, while it shares the “what measure is a non-human?” plot of “Home Soil” and anticipates the A-story of “Cost of Living”, “Evolution” is also a “Wesley Story”. Piller said that when he looked at the story his friend Michael Wagner gave him to help flesh out, he realised that Wesley and Doctor Stubbs were actually the same person, just at different stages of life. That Wesley, in fact, has not had a healthy childhood and that, were he to continue living his life they way he's been living it, is going to end up as obsessed, empty and sociopathic as Stubbs. This leads into one of the first of many examples of Piller's immaculately passionate and soulful dialog exchanges when Deanna tries to talk to the mad doctor:

“Your self portrait is so practiced, so polished.” 
“Yes. Isn't it though?” 
“It's stretched so tight the tension fills this room. And if you finally fail, I fear it will snap..” 
“A good try counselor...But sometimes, when you reach beneath a man's self portrait-as you so eloquently put it-deep down inside what you nothing at all..”
Now critically, this kind of narrative symmetry is not something Star Trek: The Next Generation didn't know how to do before (look at, just off the top of my head, “Heart of Glory”, “We'll Always Have Paris” or “The Measure of a Man” for example), but Piller's years of experience mean he brings with him an elegance, effortlessness, and an achingly poetic voice that's most prevalent in his dialog and his sense of tone (Guinan in particular just sings under Piller's pen which, in hindsight, of course she would). Being able to pull this sort of thing off regularly and reliably is a sign of talent and professionalism both, and while Star Trek: The Next Generation hasn't ever really lacked it, Michael Piller is going to make sure that it never will because he's such an absolute master of it.

And yet I also immediately have to wonder what the upper limits to this approach are going to be. Piller's strong focus on character interiority and positionality has the potential to make Star Trek: The Next Generation a far richer and more vibrant series, but one also has to remember how easy it is to get lost in this kind of storytelling such that broader themes and ideas are left behind in favour of deeper and deeper voyeuristic probing into the psyche of characters to the point it becomes little more than pointlessly masturbatory navel-gazing. The challenge from here on out is going to be learning how to balance this newfound emphasis on characterization with the show's pre-existing commitment to idealism: How does getting to understand our characters better tie into the show's larger and grander utopian vision? Simply letting them angst and angst about generic and vaguely defined “conflict”, as so many writers would have them do, is plainly going to be unacceptable. What Star Trek: The Next Generation must do now is show how our characters, through the application of their positionalities and relationships to the situation at hand, demonstrate examples of utopian conflict resolution. So the guiding message really hasn't changed all that awfully much, it's just maybe a bit clearer and more explicit now then it used to be.

But ultimately it also has to be said that “Evolution” is a prime case of almost-classic status. Some fans might hold it up as a genuine classic, but I wouldn't agree. It almost gets there, but a few things notably hold it back. Although it's historically important as Michael Piller's debut, the rushed circumstances he was working under mean it's not the most complete nor the most effective showcase of his talents that exists. That alone wouldn't be enough to raise serious concerns for the story, but what really holds “Evolution” back from classic status us, unfortunately (and yet again) its source material: It's a “Wesley Story”. It may be a *good* “Wesley Story” and probably the first sensible thing done with his character since his creation...But it's still a “Wesley Story” and Wesley Crusher still simply does not work. Piller does a heroic job with the show's most problematic character by showing how his touted child prodigy status is actually dangerously unhealthy for him, but Wesley's presence still ends up warping the whole narrative around him, forcing it to become terribly patriarchal; this is, after all, at its heart still a story about the manpain of men who let themselves get buried in their work and neglect the women in their lives. And that *really* leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Here, essentially, is where it finally becomes clear that Wesley's days are now functionally numbered. Even Michael Piller can't make him work.

Though there may be no higher species or life-forms, there perhaps are higher states of being. But such things can only be attained through recognising, understanding, and indeed treasuring, that which binds us to the cosmic oversoul of nature, not presuming we are separate from and superior to it. These are forms we can reach through travel, reflection and meditation, being a kind of generative spiritual evolution through communal sublimation somewhat, though not necessarily completely, distinct from the physical species-wide evolution of natural selection. Humans of course cannot free themselves from natural selection entirely, because to do so would be to cut ourselves off from nature. Perhaps this is something Star Trek: The Next Generation is now trying to tell us it understands, and this is why Nanmo, to date the most openly transhuman character in Dirty Pair, shows up on the Enterprise herself, and as an egg, no less. The one person who did quite literally die and come back in a new form gets reborn once again, as a literal “Next Generation” that allows the Enterprise to ruminate on the Tantric aspect of divine motherhood as it diegetically observes a star that dies and is reborn every 196 years.

I may give birth to myself, just as I may give birth to another.

Rick Sternbach's official concept art of "The Egg".


  1. Natural selection is not teleological. A species does not evolve from an inferior state to a superior one, it changes in response to new environmental circumstances. There are no “higher” forms of life

    This is not a sentence I ever expected anyone to say in the context of Star Trek, what with all the orthogenisis and lamarckism.

  2. Some thoughts on Wesley. As I reflect on the character and how you relate him to the utopianism that is essential to Star Trek, I can see the most significant stumbling block that prevents him from truly entering that vision of progress.

    In simple terms, Wesley Crusher is a dick. And this episode basically says to him, that if he does not curb his dickishness, he will become a terrible arsehole. It strikes me that this is a slightly clichéd way of articulating the same point you've made before, Josh, about Wesley's nature as the distilled essence of Western masculinist entitlement.

    But the desire not to become an incurable dick is just a negative mission, something to run away from. Unless you have something to run toward, or at least some potential to become better within you if you can't identify a specific goal, you will eventually be unable to run anymore. Given this, I think I can say precisely what my own take is on the inherent and inescapable problem of his character.

    He has no character traits of his own that are not somehow dickish. The most he can ever manage for a positive direction for his own character is emulating someone else in the cast. As I recall, he tries to emulate Riker in his personal life, Geordi as an engineer and pilot, and Picard as an ethical role model for the principles of command. But none of these style of existence are available to him from his own nature.

    Wesley is in a utopian project, TNG. But he is forever shut out from his path precisely because of who he is.

    1. Whoops. Wesley is forever shut out from TNG's path because of who he is.

  3. "... but one also has to remember how easy it is to get lost in this kind of storytelling such that broader themes and ideas are left behind in favour of deeper and deeper voyeuristic probing into the psyche of characters to the point it becomes little more than pointlessly masturbatory navel-gazing. The challenge from here on out is going to be learning how to balance this newfound emphasis on characterization with the show's pre-existing commitment to idealism: How does getting to understand our characters better tie into the show's larger and grander utopian vision?"

    Certainly has me thinking. Obviously there's going to be a delicate balance, and obviously no matter how "good" they do at balancing in the future, there does seem to be something of a lean toward that overt, writerly probing of character psyches that is not bad in every case, but is certainly one of the hallmarks of hack writing. We'll get our fair share of it.

    I'm a guy who likes Seasons 1, 2 and 3 the best and feel like as "classic" and enjoyable as they are, the later seasons of TNG lose something. Lose an edge, lose a sense of world-building. Now, world-building is a constant struggle for Star Trek and possibly an understandably difficult one (space is in three dimensions, in constant motion, on a nearly unmappable scale) ... much more on that later, I'm sure.

    But edge, edge comes in a few forms. It often comes from the excitement and newness of properties and writers, but more often than not I think it comes from characters maintaining mystique - even for the actors. You can unwrap a little of the wrapper around "what makes them tick" but once you get into later seasons where you've unwrapped the whole thing, they lose their mystique and edge and become comfortable old shoes who can no longer surprise you or change positionalities or really do anything unexpected. At this point a character becomes "dynamic in name only".

    Of course even this is reflective of the human experience as a whole, and getting to REALLY KNOW somebody, so TNG's hardly not worth the adventure.

    But Star Trek is about exploration, and exploration if it's not going to be about Western imperialist patriarchal capital-hunting expansionism has got to be about discovering things sure, within - the whole "test your mettle against nature and other Man Versus" angles - but also frankly about drawing maps. And then being shocked to find out somebody else has drawn that map and drawn imaginary lines on it indicating conflict.

    Defaulting The Neutral Zone isn't going to cut it.

    This isn't really about Evolution.

    Nor do the nanomachines actually evolve, really, do they? Evolution by way of the guiding hand of a wunderkind human? That's just the Hand of God, isn't it? It's a common literary trap that because nothing in the story is randomly placed there ... nothing in the diagetic narrative is actually random. Destiny alert.

    Bad enough Wesley is a chosen one archetype.

  4. One of the things I loved in this episode (maybe the only one) was the images of the binary stars - beautiful, and they have stayed with me. That opening sequence is pretty wondrous and amazing too and was a huge part of my teens into twenties. Great to hear the discussion about the influence of Michael Piller beginning, and I don't have much more to say about Wesley as it's all been said above.