Naturally, my fancy lightly turned to thoughts of television.
But I don’t have a TV, haven’t had a working numbness-box for 15 years now. So I went online to seek old and vaguely familiar television.
Perhaps I had been thinking again of my late brother and of the years we lived together (with TV) in Park Slope back in the late 80’s – early 90’s. Perhaps amid my suffering my unconscious mind had sought out old fantasies, such as the one involving a connubial life with a fellow inter-galactic psychotherapist who was also our galaxy’s most torrid babe.
So during the two weeks of my illness, I watched, fascinated both by the silliness and the marvelous quality of that program.
Most Trek fans compare it to the original, and there is, obviously, no comparison. The production, direction, sets, writing, and overall art of TNG took Star Trek into a realm of art generally unknown to the original series; even as it drew on much of Roddenberry’s primordial concepts. The acting of TNG is also on a different level than the original: to set Shatner beside Stewart (the original and next-gen captains of the Enterprise) is to place the proverbial candle beside the sun.
But I was more interested in TNG on its own merits. I noticed that whenever TNG attempted to be merely an adventure show like its predecessor, it stumbled hilariously, evoking The Three Stooges more than the four dimensions. Yet when it stayed true to its unique mission as metaphysics and metaphor, it occasionally touched the sublime.
As I watched episode after episode, the metaphysical dimensions of this program enveloped me. In the original Star Trek, space may indeed have been the “final frontier”; in TNG, that frontier is Time.
The series (seven years long) begins and ends under the guidance of the same surreal vision of a panoramic universe or mini-verse, which struggles and sways under the ministrations of a God named Q, who manipulates and challenges his humanoid subjects in the field of time rather than space.
Q is perhaps the most delightful, precise, incisive, and metaphysically satisfying image of an external, omnipotent God that I have ever encountered over decades of studying religions, the history of philosophy, and cultures of spirituality. He is, in brief, a nearly-perfect God for the human race.
In the opening of the series, Q takes our heroes of the Enterprise into the past, where he appears as a judge who is trying humanity for being an incurably “dangerous and savage child-race.” By the end of the series, in the final episode, Q pulls the objects of his psycho-spiritual ambivalence through three separate instances of a temporal distortion (within the “neutral zone” that separates warring worlds), both destroying and affirming them completely within each. The trial begun 7 years earlier is completed; sentence is passed and executed; and the illusion of both individual and species extinction is revealed.
Yet as Q reminds the Captain at the end, “the trial never ends,” and the search is not for external discovery but for something else — something that is not out-there amid the stars of battle, struggle, conflict, and scientific inquiry. Q bends to whisper The Answer into the pitiful human’s ear, pauses, and then separates wordlessly. He retreats and disappears. It is as good as television can probably get.*
Granted, there is no present or future space-art that will ever match that of Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey); and TNG is no exception. But that comparison would be as unfair to the creators of TNG as the weighing of the various incarnations of Star Trek itself. The success of TNG was that it got the utmost of its genre; it gave television a sparkle, a glimmer of life, of true art.
How it succeeded is obvious to me: instead of adopting a conceptual copy-and-paste of the original series, TNG actually kicked Star Trek onto its backside, produced a knife of Art, and sliced unmercifully into its thick body of superficiality, revealing the secret depth that lay hidden within. Again, as action-adventure and faux-science, TNG is just as silly and clumsy as the original. There is often much of the same multi-syllabic gibberish and conceptual nonsense as we had heard in the first series.
Thankfully, however, the characters of TNG are unique, memorable, and true to themselves and to one another. The humor is also much better done, and this is nowhere more evident than in the characters of Q and the humanoid robot, Data, who is delivered with an astonishing depth and versatility by the amazing Brent Spiner. Data reveals some of the multi-dimensionality of Shakespearian characters, a few of whom he actually reproduces in the episodes where he rehearses King Henry or Prospero.
This brings up another point about TNG: at its best, it is as intelligent as it is funny. When music is played, it is Chopin, Bach, Mozart, or New Orleans jazz. When there is drama, it is Shakespeare, Rostand, or the imaginary psycho-play of Frame of Mind. There is a cameo appearance from Stephen Hawking; imaginary conversations with Einstein, Newton, and other legendary real and invented scientists.
But what appealed to me most about the show, as I watched it under the influence of influenza and physical exhaustion, is its psychological depth. This focus centers around, but is not limited to, the heart-stopping beauty pictured above (Marina Sirtis).
I had not seen TNG or the character of Deanna Troi since having had my own experience with an empath, so this fresh view of the series was intriguing. Oh yes, they’re real, but not in the way you might expect.
My own experience with one had come about a decade ago in my counseling practice. The lesson I eventually learned from this experience was that the empath’s way is not special or strange or insular, but actually very ordinary and universal. At least it is meant to be.
Perceiving the emotions and even thoughts of others is not the stuff of science fiction; certainly not in the sense that subspace communication and warp travel are to we puny 21st century earthlings. For whether or not empathic reception is validated by double-blind research studies (and I again remind readers that the scientific basis of probability theory is barely a century old and considerably weak); both common and clinical experience persistently support its presence. Our problem as a society is that we haven’t correctly or completely defined it; yet that is no reason to deny it.
The psychological depth of TNG is entwined amid the depth of its characters — even Data, Q, and the Enterprise itself are given their unique psychologies. And very often, the time-travel aspects of many episodes of TNG are the threads of its psychological tapestry — whether in the “holodeck” playground of the ship’s internal fantasy environment or out there in space amid quantum distortions and interstellar fissures.
What was really impressive about this was the centrality of psychology, not merely to the program’s stories but to its message, its cultural milieu. Mental health is, even in this quasi-military environment with the familiar hierarchical ordering of ranks, with its uniforms, regulations, and martial language, a focal point of orientation and meaning. Not only that: this focus on mental health and the primacy of the individual human mind, even in a military culture, is specifically highlighted as the reflection of an evolution of both human society and the military — Picard points this out to Q in the very first episode, during the “trial” of humanity.
I also discovered a refreshing para-political topicality and currency to TNG. The program was warning us about the dangers of climate change, the malignant folly of torture, the hideous costs of competing tribal religious superstitions, and the imperial hubris of nationalism — a decade before 9/11; in the relative infancy of the science of global warming; and amid the reign of Reagan and Bush 1. Jean-Luc Picard and his “administration” aboard the Enterprise saw further and more deeply into their society than any president or politician has within ours.
As I watched it this time, I sensed the direction of the metaphor of what is perhaps TNG’s most famous symbol, The Borg. This “character” is the Orwellian collectivist organization that lives in a giant cube of wires and darkness and ignorance. There is a daring genius to this image: the program was exposing the insanity of its own genre, television. It is holding up the great mirror of Art to the very thing that gave it life. Wow.
Anyway. I have recovered from the flu, and am actually grateful for its visit. Had I remained healthy, I would probably not have bothered to go back to this extraordinary program of a quarter-century ago. But now, armed with its insight and perspective, I can return to my tiny presence within the 21st century, and set my course with some help from its light. Engage.
*I haven’t read any existing literature on the philosophy of ST (I bet there’s plenty of it, though); so I’m not sure if anyone has already made this point, but the meaning of Q’s name is clear to me. In several moments during the series, he seems on the verge of revealing The Answer to Picard, and always refrains. Thus, he is “the Q” who never quite delivers “the A.” This is, to me, an essential trait of any God worth the name.