Star Trek: All about the layers…..
I read somewhere recently that Star Trek, apparently, has no meaning beyond what the most basic level of what you see happening on screen. I would just like to clarify that that is the stupidest fucking thing I have ever heard. The criticism was levelled mainly at Voyager and Deep Space Nine. The latter being criticised for too much religious fluff with no actual meaning behind it, concentrating on being the black sheep of the family so much it forgot to include any subtext. The former was criticised for a lack of provoking subtext, and a lack of extended story arcs, stretching for say 5 or 6 episodes.
Now, I can only speak on behalf of Voyager here, if you’ve read other entries of mine you know I don’t like DS9. If you haven’t here is my opinion for clarification: DS9 is fucking rubbish. Moving on.
I’m not going to list every episode here, I’ve picked three or four good examples from each season, but the examples I will give are more than enough to demonstrate my point that Star Trek DOES have significant levels of meaning, subtext and is master story-telling at its finest. For the record I include all Trek in that sweeping statement, even the shows that I don’t like.
Okay, here we go. Several good examples from each season:
Phage: The dangers of the chaos super-viruses and diseases could so easily wreak upon a society, and a respectful nod to the bravery of organ donors. (Willing organ donors I mean, an important distinction). Also the first chance for Janeway to demonstrate her protective nature, which runs something along the lines of ‘attack me and my crew, you won’t live long enough to regret it.’
Projections: One of the first of a couple episodes where the Doctor has his sense of reality, and therefore the very meaning of his and all existence, thrown into question. What is REALITY? How do you define such a thing? Many people have their favourite Voyager eps, but this one is an often overlooked gem.
State of Flux: Loyalty and betrayal. Simple, effective.
Learning Curve: How two disparate groups can learn to coexist in harmony despite the huge differences between them on paper.
Manoeuvres: A lesson in not shouldering a task that is not yours alone to shoulder, lest you get the people your trying to protect in trouble regardless.
Meld: Ooh, a sticky one involving a motiveless murder on the ship, Tuvok’s inability to comprehend such an act, and some nasty repercussions resulting from an ill-advised mind-meld. Trial and punishment sort of stuff, is eye for an eye justice or more murder.
Death Wish: Suicide, assissted suicide and the right of the state to prevent someone who wishes their life to end from ending it in the manner they please. A contentious issues, very well handled in the form of a courtroom drama.
The Thaw: About fear and its many forms, and how to conquer it. Um, that’s kind of an obvious one. 🙂
Sacred Ground: A religious experience makes a fervent agnostic doubt her lifelong distrust of religion. A Science vs. Faith episode, with both coming out, surprisingly, smelling if not of roses then certainly pretty good.
Fair Trade: A valid lesson in not lying to your friends, even with the best intentions or when driven by a fear of their reactions to whatever secret you keep. The message and subtext of this one is this: The truth will out, and usually for the better.
Darkling: Light side of the personality battles the dark side. Both sides make us what we are, but if the dark and the suppressed suddenly comes to the surface, bad things are going to swiftly follow. (Forgive the Star Wars references, but I love that too.)
Real Life: Dealing with the problems in life, not pushing them under the carpet or ignoring them in the hope they will go away. A nice little moment from Paris explaining family dynamics (and family explosives) to the Doctor.
The Gift: First real contest between humanity and the Borg nature, as Janeway tries to get the newly liberated Borg drone, Seven of Nine, to see the value of her own life as an individual, that she deserves that life and must seize the chance to have it once again.
Scientific Method: When you’re the lab rats, testing on animals suddenly becomes unacceptable, morally corrupt, and worse, sometimes fatal. (Note, in the Trek universe, the Federation does not test on animals. But our society, the viewers society, still does.)
Waking Moments: Whose to say the dream world is not as real to some as the waking world? If you are in their domain, how could you tell you were dreaming, and what could you do about it once you knew? Another of Trek’s (always very well done) ‘nature of existence/reality’ episodes. All the shows have quite a few of these, and I like all of them.
Prey: Is a form of murder, sacrificing a being who wants to live, acceptable when other lives are at stake? Do you give up the life of an innocent, no matter how dangerous they may seem, to save your own lives? At the very least to save yourself a lot of trouble and the threat of destruction? Couple big questions in this ep, and yes, the aforementioned alien does end up dead.
Retrospect: Your own bias and inclination to protect your friends and family can blinker you or even figuratively blind you, leading you to come to completely the wrong conlcusion about someone or something. A lesson in thinking before you point the finger of blame. Once done, there is no going back. Even if you’re wrong. And the consequences can be unpleasant.
Hope and Fear: Read the title please. Obvious yes, self-explanatory, yes. But the interplay and opposition between the hopes and the fears is expertly done, with a great scene between Janeway and Seven in Astrometrics.
Night: Shows how destructive depression can be even to the strongest of individuals. Also a good ep for demonstrating one of the reasons Janeway is the most accessible of the captains. It is she who catches the worst of the depression in this ep, due to the circumstances of the plot. For all her strength and skill, she’s just a woman, just a human being. She’s not a deity or a demigod, she’s fallible, she’s not perfect, and therefore more human than a freak of nature with no quirks or issues whatsoever. But I digress. I simply like my characters to have some rough edges. The episode also deals with ways to cope with such attacks of depression, and how one can come through the other side to begin afresh. All you need is your friends and family to rally around you.
Extreme Risk: A realistic portrayal of the way self-harm is often used as a kind of escape mechanism from real world pain. I had a friend who used to do this for real, and it is an excellent portrayal of the emotional pain and anger that triggers such bouts of self-harming, and how the best way to deal with the source of your pain is to meet it head on. If you need a gentle push or a hard shove in the right direction, so be it. Also a lesson for friends in how to spot the signs of such dangerous destructive intent, ie: Janeway spotting the warning signs, Paris trying to break through to Torres, Chakotay making her face her demons.
Counterpoint: This is about exactly that, counterpoints, contradictions. Trust and distrust. Moments of tender vulnerability followed by bravado and posturing. And a hefty amount of sexual tension thrown in for good measure. 😉
Dark Frontier: Okay, this one is an action, all guns blazing, exploits and adventure ep. However, there is a well crafted subplot which essentially amounts to being a battle for Seven of Nine’s soul which comes to a head in the lair of the Borg Queen. Naturally, where else? Who will she choose, Janeway or the Borg Queen. There is never any real doubt in the viewers mind, but her turmoil is palpable. Seven’s sudden self-doubt and indecision leave her the moment Janeway bursts into the Queen’s lair. One more single moment of hesitation, then Seven makes her choice, Janeway, and never looks back.
Equinox: How passion can quickly become dangerous fanaticism if one is not guarded against it, and how a righteous cause can quickly become a one-way ticket to nothing but destruction. Acts you would not previously have considered suddenly seem acceptable, warranted, even necessary. Also notable for the end scene, the symbolic rehanging of Voyager’s dedication plaque mirroring Janeway stepping back from the brink after seeing what was happening to her. That scene is about as subtle as a smack in the face, but hey, Star Trek isn’t exactly always about the subtle. It can be in your face, straight to the point, no bullshit. Its simply a question of whether that message is delivered as tedious sermonising, or some elegant words and simple yet powerful imagery.
Barge of the Dead: Yay! Nature of existence combined with the eternal ‘is there an afterlife’ debate! In one episode! Hot diggidy daffodils, that’s a tall order, but its done with flair. The ‘afterlife’ question is not really fully explained, were they delusions? Was Torres really seeing her mother? Or was it all some near-death experience? I think the ambiguous ending was intent rather than an oversight. The episode ends abruptly, but the nature of such questions practically demands that the ending be left open to debate.
Alice: The danger of unhealthy obsession graphically portrayed. Portrayed in the form of a sentient, crazed and possibly homicidal ship.
Riddles: Teaches a very important lesson of learning to have patience, tolerance and care for those with a mental illness, no matter how they may try your patience, no matter how debilitating the illness may be.
Repentance: Does repenting a sin make it go away? Does suddenly feeling intense and genuine guilt for a crime you have committed make it less the wrong? Do you deserve a second chance? Is an apology to the victim’s family enough?
Workforce: Is ignorance really bliss? If your memory was wiped and you were placed in a simpler, easier, safer existence, would you be happier, or much less than the person you used to be? If someone tried to ‘rescue’ you from this new existence, would you go without a moments hesitation…or would you stop and think?
Author, Author: Examining the rights of minority groups. Do they have any? Do they deserve them, and if so, how and why?
Friendship One: Demonstrates the dangers of giving a society technology it is not yet mature enough or evolved enough to use safely.
Side note: And, if I’m not mistaken, Voyager never claimed to have connected story arcs. I mean main plots here, not the many interweaving sub-plots that Trek contains. This is not ER for fucks sake, this is a space adventure. New worlds, new locations, new aliens, new action, not one story idea stretched so thin it becomes transparent. Overarching story arcs stretching entire seasons or more work well, Voyager’s battles with the Borg Collective, the Enterprise’s troubles with the Romulans, and of course Voyager’s overall quest to get home, they work, they’re enjoyable.