Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Star Trek TNG Take Down!

As originally formulated, the Prime Directive was a response to colonialism. It was based on morality and it made sense. But by the 1990s, liberalism had changed, and it was starting to confuse itself as its fascist instincts reappeared in many of its offshoots, like environmentalism. Thus, when Roddenberry got the chance to revisit the Prime Directive, he butchered it. I give you the episode “Pen Pals” from the second season.

The idea behind the original Prime Directive was that it’s not moral for more advanced cultures to impose themselves on less advanced cultures. Thus, we should let places like Africa and Asia and West Virginia develop on their own. . . au natural, as it were.

This point was brought home in the episode “Patterns of Force,” where a well-meaning Federation professor introduces “good Nazism,” in the hopes that a benign dictator can harness the power of fascism to do good things and unite the planet. He ends up almost causing a Holocaust involving aliens from another planet. . . Zeon pigs. And in “A Piece of the Action,” we’re shown how the introduction of the wrong ideas (in this case a book on Chicago gangsters) can seriously damage a culture. We even got a corollary to the Prime Directive in “A Private Little War,” which was a metaphor for Vietnam. In that episode, Kirk must arm an idyllic society because the evil Klingons have started arming neighboring villagers. Here, the Prime Directive is interpreted as allowing interference for the purpose of counteracting another’s interference.

The idea of the Prime Directive proved so powerful that it literally changed the thinking in science fiction, much as Asimov’s robot laws had. Before Star Trek, science fiction was about bringing order to the universe. . . our kind of order. After Star Trek, the idea of imposing our will fell out of favor.

But then came Star Trek TNG. This group was incredibly sanctimonious and they wanted to show they were more morally evolved than the cowboys of Jim Kirk’s era. So they did a heavy smugness-induced refit of the Prime Directive.

Here’s the set up. Data begins communicating with forehead-molding-accident victim Sarjenka who lives on a wondrous planet that is being destroyed by geological incorrectness. So far so good right? WRONG! Data has violated the Prime Directive by exposing himself to the little girl. . . no, not in that way. . . and old man Picard will not stand for it! This could well go on Data’s permanent record!

See, as Picard lectures us, “the Prime Directive is not just a set of rules, it is a philosophy. . .” And no doubt, that philosophy is based on a deep moral principle, right? Tell me more Captain P! “. . . history has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned, the results are invariably disastrous.”

Oh boy.

That’s not a philosophy, that’s a rule of convenience. That’s like saying, “we don’t condone bank robbery because the last five guys who tried it really made a mess of it.” Seriously, when the Federation laid down its laws, was the most convincing reason for noninterference some Scooby Doo-like “we shouldn’t have meddled!” rather than some statement about respecting the dignity of sentient beings?

And it gets worse. Sarjenka’s planet is about to rip itself apart, blowing her culture out the universe’s back door. Yet, Picard sees saving them as a violation of the Prime Directive. Are you kidding me? That means, the Prime Directive has gone from “don’t impose your will on other cultures” to “don’t even save them from extinction because you might affect their development.” Does anyone see a problem with that? Her culture’s natural development ends in about 3 hours! What could Data possibly do that would have a more disastrous effect on her culture than letting it get blown up?

This is smug, squishy liberal thinking at its worst. Kirk’s rule was grounded in morality. This rule is not. This rule is grounded in “it sounds really great to say we should never interfere with another culture.” And I’m sure it made the whole cast feel mighty self-righteous just thinking about how principled they were being. But ask yourself what they would say if you cited their Prime Directive as justification for not send emergency food aid to Africa or Haiti. They would be horrified at your evil philosophy.

In the end, like all liberal “principles,” this sounded great when they said it, but it was unworkable and they never really believed it. What they really believed was: “you shouldn’t interfere with other cultures unless it’s a situation where we like how you interfere,” but that's not a principle and doesn't give you that smug feeling when you say it aloud. So they gluten-free fudged it, so they could have their big, clear moral statement, but not have to live by it. . . just like how they say "equality" but have defined this as “racial/sexual apartheid and race/gender-based privilege.”

And this is why they had such a hard time applying this Directive consistently throughout the series, because they’ve turned it into nonsense. That’s why sometimes the rule applies only to pre-warp species, but at others it’s a general rule of neutrality -- like when Picard wants to pretend he’s acting on principle when he refuses to get involved in the Klingon civil war. And sometimes, they completely forget about it, like when the culture they want to change is sexist, racist, ageist, warlike or supports regressive tax policies.

So keep this in mind the next time you see Picard getting all holier-than-thou about this highest of principles.

Smugness factor four. . . engage.


Tennessee Jed said...

even in the original series, the prime directive drove writers nuts as mentioned in David Gerrold's "The Making of Star Trek." It cut down the number of options available for good stories. But your point is well taken.

Although not germaine to the discussion at hand, I really enjoyed both the firing of the top NPR executive and the testimony of former congressman Isbrook regarding the hidden spending bomb contained in the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I can definitely see how it would limit the options for stories but I also think Roddenberry was trying to make several political points in the old Star Trek, so I understand why he did it and I think it made sense the way he enunciated it back then.

But by the 1990s, this "principle" really became a moving target that was used primarily to act morally superior.

I've been really enjoying the NPR debacle as well! :-)

CrispyRice said...

Oh, a Utopian society that supports regressive tax policies?! Do we dare to dream????


Seriously, this was always a pet peeve of mine. We pull out the old PD when it's convenient and ignore it when it's not.

And I'm with Jed - I'm very much enjoying watching the NPR implosion. Two thumbs up and another box of popcorn, please!

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, Maybe the whole staff and quit in protest? That would be really cool!

Yeah, the Prime Directive seems more like a plot convenience than a firm rule the way they use it.

Joel Farnham said...


I did stay loyal to ST: TNG. Mostly because of the BORG.

Overall, I like the ST: DS-9 episodes better. It's stories were mainly about the human condition.

Quark was far more interesting than Crusher ever could be. Either one.

NPR should just hang it up. They have been pwnd. NPR had the misfortune of doing it while there is a cost cutting mood in the country.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Don't get me wrong, I like TNG and I watch it all the time. I just think it's politics and "philosophy" are entirely ridiculous.

The Borg were great (at least until the movie, which completely changed their nature). I've heard a lot of people say they lived DS-9 better. I think they had better characters and their story arcs were superior, but I still prefer TNG to DS-9... but it's close. The other two never caught my interest though -- Voyager and Enterprise.

I'm betting NPR will eventually give up on pretending to be fair and will become more of an MSNBC. Will that help their ratings? I don't know, it might. I think MSNBC is in for some rough times now without Olbermann.

Anonymous said...

Hard to believe the actress who played Sarjenka turned into this though from looking at some more recent photos of her, I have to ask what the f--- did she do to her face?! (That link is safe for work, by the way - just IMDb.)

For some reason, I had assumed that the next episode you'd write about would've been season 1's "Justice" a.k.a. "Planet of the Scantily-Clad Badly-Permed Hedonists." I haven't seen "Pen Pals" in more than a decade, despite owning the DVD sets. I agree with Jed - this was another one of those Roddenberry things that drove the writers up the wall. Memory Alpha and Wikipedia both have excellent articles on the Prime Directive along with the crew's many violations.

In the Trek movie thread, I know I threw a lot at you but one thing we kinda glossed over was the Prime Directive and Star Trek: Insurrection. As I mentioned the other day, INS is one of the only times I disagreed with the crew's action. And they even threw in the idea that the PD didn't even apply since the hippies they were defending weren't even indigenous to the planet.

Re: Sarjenka's makeup - I do give Michael Westmore credit for creating some genuinely alien-looking characters for the first few year of TNG. By the time we got to the end of Voyager, it was as if they simply drew a few lines on the actors' foreheads with a Sharpie and that was it.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, There are many episodes to pick at. What bothered me so much about this one was the insanely stupid argument that "you can't interfere with the development of someone who will be dead in 3 hours." That's utterly ridiculous, especially for the justification they give -- "you might cause problems for their development."

I've seen all the attempts to define the Prime Directive and I think those attempts are ridiculous -- I understand it now has 43 subparts. This reminds me the million page European constitution, which is more like a grocery list than any set of usable principles.

If you believe in something as a matter of principle, you can state that principle in a sentence. Maybe you need a small corollary to clarify some minor exception, but you never need to start breaking it down into a million parts. The fact that they need to do that to try to justify it, tells me they don't really believe in the principle at all, but they are just trying to come up with some grandiose statement for a bunch of other slightly-related beliefs that they have.

The other thing I think this episode really highlights is how liberalism has changed. In the 1960s, liberals were saying "stop trying to control other cultures, let them develop naturally." But by 1990, they had changed to "let's impose 'good' ideas on them." This new Prime Directive really shows that and the tension. On the one hand, they've taken the old Prime Directive and made it more anal -- "we're not as loose with it as Kirk was, we really believe in no interference at all!" But then they ignore it routinely and they skew it and stretch it to squeeze in the exact opposite of what the directive supposedly stands for.

I think that's really interesting because it shows how liberalism has completely flipped itself around and is now trying to be self-righteous about believing both contradictory positions.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. Scott, on the makeup, I agree entirely. In the first couple seasons, they really did try to come up with aliens. Later in the series, it seems that you became an alien if someone stuck a bump on your forehead or drew some dots on your skin.

What's your beef with Insurrection?

Joel Farnham said...


I can explain some of the thinking with regards to believable alien make-up. It takes time to apply it. It costs more than just some squiggly designs. When the series is obviously winding down, the tendency to cut costs in the make-up department is too tempting. Especially if it was done on one episode to increase the budget of another. All the bean counters see is the price of one episode dramatically dips, and the price of another goes up.

So, their argument goes, "Why do you have to have these pricey shows? See, here you came well under budget? What is wrong with you?" Roddenberry had on going arguments over budget. The least expensive shows were the shipboard ones. Where nothing happens except on-board the ship. Problem is the ship is supposed to be traveling to new worlds. Seek out new civilizations. To boldly go where no one has gone before. (I couldn't resist)

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That's true, it's all about budget rather than desire. You see that in the costuming too, where later in the series, the uniforms stop matching because they don't have the budget to make new uniforms for the extras, so they just give them the old uniforms from the first couple seasons and only give the main characters the new uniforms.

On the point of going to new places, that is my BIGGEST BEEF with TNG. Grrr. When did they EVER go to some new planet? The old Enterprise was truly a ship of exploration. It definitely patrolled a large sector of space, but within that sector, they routinely landed on unexplored planets and ran into new things.

The new Enterprise was more like a cruise ship, which went back and forth between existing Federation worlds. But they kept making such a big deal about being a "ship or exploration" (and denigrating Kirk's era) even though they never went anywhere that a million Federation tourists hadn't already gone!

One of the reasons I had a lot of hope for Voyager was that it was supposed to be a return to the exploration spirit of the show, and it never was -- it just because TNG with a smaller set. Enterprise too promised to go back to the age of recklessly beeming down onto new worlds and checking out the universe.... and it too became the same thing -- a space soap opera with the same aliens, over and over and over.


BevfromNYC said...

****NEWS ALERT******:
The Wisconsin Legislature just voted to end collective bargaining. They took the nuclear option and stripped the financial portion out of the bill and passed the collective bargaining end. Madison has gone berserk!

The Republicans and Gov. Walker warned them then this could happen. The Dems refused to come back, so the Repubs did what they finally had to do. The 14 "Flee-bagging" Dem Senators are NOW rushing back to Madison...

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, That is awesome!! I hope they get it through right away and teach the Democrats a lesson for their childishness.

Anonymous said...

Joel -

Those episodes are referred to as "bottle shows." As for make-up, I agree but "end of Voyager" was just an example. All the Trek series have had both exquisite and cheap make-up effects. But there's a world of difference between this and this. :-)

And if you have time to kill, check out this page and scroll down the list. You'll see photo galleries full of reused make-up, costumes, props, sets, etc.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, 2/3 of your links don't work. Also, you ended up in the spam filter for some reason, which is why your comment didn't appear right away.

Anonymous said...

Andrew -

Hmm... it's a legit Trek fan website. I was attempting to illustrate the difference between good and bad make-up effects.

Re: Insurrection, it's been a while but Picard and Co. end up defending the Ba'ku planet against the So'na and the Federation, both of whom want to harness the planet's regenerative properties. The Starfleet admiral reminds Picard that they're only moving 600 people and it's for the greater good. Picard has a problem with that, even though the Ba'ku aren't even indigenous to the planet and were never meant to be immortal.

Anonymous said...

Okay, let's try this - re: make-up, there's a world of difference between this and this. But some episodes simply cost more than others and studios are always looking for places to trim the fat. The art department is usually one of the first to suffer.

Additionally, re: INS - I was on the side of Starfleet and the So'na on this one. And I'm pretty sure they never explain why they simply can't move the Ba'ku to another part of the planet, versus another one altogether.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I don't get it either? It looks like it's something they've done, maybe to keep their bandwidth use down.

On Insurrection, careful Scott, it sounds like you're dangerously close to becoming a conservative cliche! LOL!

Liberals (who moved the Indians, see, eg. President Jackson) have long argued that it's wrong to force people like the Indians off their land for the good of whitey. In fact, it's a crime against humanity to move people off their land. . .

Well, unless you're planning to build housing for the poor or a hospital or something like that, then it's find to do the same thing to individuals under eminent domain, just so long as the people whose land you take aren't disproportionately from minority races.

AND, if you disagree with either position, i.e. you think it was ok to move the Indians because whitey put the land to better use or you think we shouldn't be allowed to move people without their consent because you believe in private property rights, then you are a conservative racist hatemonger.

So be careful about criticizing Picard, you're walking a fine line there buddy!


AndrewPrice said...

Scott, That works, and you're right -- huge difference.

On Insurrection, I think you've crossed the line. The fact that they could use this planet to heal trillions of people and improve untold numbers of lives is irrelevant... there are 600 peaceful, luddite hippies who don't want to give up their land. It's no contest.

(BTW, in actuality, I think the whole thing is ridiculous. There is no reason they even had to move these people. They could have put a resort or hospital one valley over and there never would have been a problem.)

Anonymous said...

On Insurrection, careful Scott, it sounds like you're dangerously close to becoming a conservative cliche! LOL!

I couldn't find a good enough YouTube clip so this'll have to do. :-)

Besides, considering my views on abortion and gay marriage (though I was impressed with your article on the subject), we both know I'll never be a real conservative. ;-)

All kidding aside, I'll have to take a look at that book I downloaded on the writing process of Insurrection. There might be some nugget of insight in there (which would be one nugget more than the film has!).

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, If you find out anything interesting, let us know. Right now it looks like they just took an old liberal trope about American injustice and jammed it into space without giving the story much thought. In fact, I've got to say that the whole movie feels kind of rushed and like no one really cared all that much.

Thanks for the complement on the gay marriage article. I think my position makes the most sense... but nobody listens to me. Oh no. ;-)

As for calling you a conservative cliche, I don't see you that way, I'm just warning you not to repeat what you've said here in liberal company -- they'll be calling you all kinds of names.... they'll call you and "Uncle Ronnie" (Reagan).

I actually take the position that we should respect property rights and the government should not have the power to seize land. Private companies have found ways to do this for decades. And if they can do it, then the government should be following their methods rather than forcing people off their land.

That said, I do not accept historical grievances. Those were different times in the past, and everyone was an as~hole to someone back then. We need to let that go and move on and realize that whatever your great-grandfather did to my great-grandfather is not relevant to my life or future.

Anonymous said...

Here was Michael Piller's original pitch:

“We open at Starfleet Academy in Picard’s youth,” I told [Rick Berman], “Establishing Picard as a curly-haired, high-spirited cadet. We give him a best friend, another cadet who is as close to Picard as any man has ever been and ever
will be.
“Flash forward to the present day and find adult Picard being given a mission by Starfleet Command. His old friend is now a wanted man -- he’s been attacking ships in an unexplored region of space and no one knows why. Picard has to track him down and if necessary, kill him.
“The Enterprise sets off through this mysterious region and the crew begins to act in unusual ways. We don’t know why yet. After several curious incidents, they finally find the hiding place of Picard’s old friend. Picard transports down to the planet and discovers that he looks exactly the same as he did at the Academy! We ultimately learn that this is a fountain of youth and
somebody is trying to steal it from the people who live there. Picard’s friend has been defending the natives on the planet.”

"We started considering possible villains. The Romulans, an imperialistic, fascist race of aliens, had been long-standing enemies of the United Federation of Planets (the good guys) and had never been used in a movie before. Perhaps the story could be set against the threat of a new outbreak of war with the Romulans.
We also talked about the idea that someone in the Federation itself might be involved with the Romulans in a conspiracy to steal the fountain of youth.
"This was no small matter. As I’ve said, a fundamental part of Gene Roddenberry’s vision is that humanity has evolved as a species by the Twenty-Fourth Century. There might be a bad apple now and then but as a rule, the humans of the Federation were pure and good. Rick and I were very protective of Roddenberry’s vision. But we liked the idea of someone in Starfleet Command sending Picard on a mission without telling him the entire truth. It would provide a continuing subtext of tension and mystery. We spent days delineating a complex web of political intrigue that would support the conspiracy. Perhaps the Federation conspirators could be a cadre of old leaders (we called them the “alter kockers”) who were willing to betray their sacred trust in order to be young again."

And, oddly, there was this idea:
"We came up with a unique way to victory -- the arrival of an unusual cavalry that Picard
befriends earlier in the movie -- made up of all the little ships that populate this area of space, a rag-tag army of Federation mariners. In a Capra-esque way, it’s the people of the Federation who would save the day."

The Mariners sound almost - dare I say it - Tea Party-esque? This would've made an interesting film!

There's more and, per usual, a variety of factors contributed to the what the final film became. Ironically, after Piller handed in the first draft, the head of the studio actually admitted that the villains' argument made sense and Picard could be seen as being on the wrong side of the issue!

Anonymous said...

And it seems my comment ended up in spam again. Probably too long...?

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry about that Scott. I don't know why it's catching you. It was catching Joel for a week.

I've freed it now.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, It sounds like they focused on one idea -- we want someone in the Federation to send Picard on a mission where Picard feels betrayed. And the rest was just window dressing.

That would explain why the plot is the way it is -- they just saw it as an excuse to their betrayal angle, so they just grabbed something very simplistic and melodramatic to give the rest of their story more impact.

That's a pretty weak way to write a story if you ask me, that's like writing a story around a single scene and then not really caring about anything except how that scene turns out.

Anonymous said...

In case you haven't noticed, this stuff fascinates me. :-)

I think the betrayal idea came a little later. At first, Rick Berman suggested that they adapt a public domain story, something like The Prisoner of Zenda. That obviously didn't happen. The Fountain of Youth story came to Mike Piller as he was looking at his bald spot in the mirror one morning: "When was the last time anybody did a Fountain of Youth story?" That was that.

But in reading some of this, I'm starting to get the feeling that the story concept was simply flawed from the start. I think Piller included the Federation betrayal angle because he felt the stakes weren't high enough for Picard in the first place.

For a while, they even moved on without the Fountain of Youth because Berman was afraid Patrick Stewart wouldn't like it (implying the hero is an old man who only gets the swash back in his buckle when he becomes young). They turned the old Academy buddy into Data and proceeded with a "Data as Col. Kurtz" thing, à la Hearts of Darkness.

"Forced relocation became our conspiracy’s goal. The Federation conspirators could believe their plan for relocation would be saving lives, because the Romulans intended to kill the aliens. Moving them would be the act of honorable men, an act that would “serve the greater good.”
"Picard would see that these leaders have chosen to do an end run around the “Prime Directive,” in essence, the Federation’s Constitution. And he knows that this forced relocation will ultimately destroy the alien culture just as it has destroyed cultures throughout history.
"By allowing the Federation conspirators to think their motives are noble, we would be protecting Roddenberry’s vision of 24th century mankind. And besides, I’ve always found villains who thought they were heroes more interesting to write anyway. We were excited about the social issues our film would now be able to explore."

That's all I got for now. :-)

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, In truth, it sounds to me like they were just tacking on ideas as they went with no real framework other than "Picard needs to be the hero and save some people." That strikes me as a hard way to write a good story because it doesn't have any consistency to it -- no themes, no logical flow, no plot-created highs and lows -- just a bunch of stuff jammed in to make each moment interesting.

I personally think the idea of bad guys who think they are heroes is the best way to go. But I don't think Piller really meant that. I think he took the idea that this Admiral thought his ultimate goal was a good one, but beyond that point, he revelled in being evil throughout.

All in all, it sounds to me like they never had a real idea of what they wanted to do with the story. That's a bad start.

T_Rav said...

In case no one's aware yet (actually, I'm probably the last one to hear about it), the WI Assembly voted this evening to strip unions of their collective bargaining rights. The Senate should vote on it tomorrow.

Okay, that's all. Now you can get back to your silly Star Trek.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Bev said that above... seriously, if you can't keep up, take notes! ;-)

So you have nothing to add about Star Trek? Not even a little comment? :-(

T_Rav said...

Hey, hey, hey!! I would've been on it earlier, but Wednesday evenings are busy for me. You have no idea how much schoolwork I'm neglecting by being here.

Star Trek TNG: That's the one with Data, right?

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, School, like work, is no excuse for not spending your day at Commentarama!

As for your question, yep, the one with the robot. He's always walking around going "bee dee bee dee beep Buck!" I think Mel Blanc did his voice. ;-)

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Nice fisking of how ridiculous (and conveniently ever-changing) the Prime Directive became, Andrew!

IMO, they shoulda just made the PD more like the hypocratic oath:
Do no harm.

Basically, I think it was pretty much like that in the beginning, as you mentioned.

The non-interference thing is obviously out the window once the Klingons, or anyone else, gets involved and tries to exploit, enslave, or destroy alien life, or if the aliens are in danger of becoming extinct.

One of the things I despised about TNG was the sanctimonious in-your-face preaching which was never consistantly principled nor logical or rational.

I did enjoy some episodes when they got away from the "let's use STTNG as a platform to spread leftist ideology" stuff and the blatant hypocrisy of many of their "sermons."

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Oh, and WTG! Gov. Walker and WI GOP!
It's good to see conservatives with a backbone actually walking the walk. :^)

AndrewPrice said...

USS Ben, I'm the same way. I enjoyed the episodes except when they tried to turn them into sanctimonious leftist prattle. And what's worse, they weren't even consistent in their "logic" or "principles" they just said whatever sounded the most self-righteous each time.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I agree about Walker. Talk about a conservative hero! :-)

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