A disclaimer – my first exposure to “Star Trek” was Star Trek: The Next Generation (which I shall abbreviate as “TNG” because I am lazy and don’t want to write out the full name). I saw the original series (hereinafter abbreviated as “TOS” because I am again, lazy) after TNG, so I probably view it in a slightly different way than those for whom TOS is the original. I enjoyed TNG, but I’ll opine the first season was pretty painful. That was TNG’s puberty – awkwardly trying out different looks and ideas to find its voice. The second season was rocky but better, and by the middle of the third season I think the show found its groove.
TNG was a drama, but it wasn’t a serial drama. It was, to me, an episodic morality play. Obviously it was shown in episodes, but by “episodic” I mean that by and large the episodes were disconnected from each other. The episodes featured the same cast, but I’d estimate at least 75% of the show could be watched in any order and still make sense as long as the viewer was familiar with the premise and main characters. Strictly speaking, the show wasn’t a morality play by the Medieval definition; however, I call it a morality play because I think the purpose was to explore the consequences of the characters’ actions and philosophies and morality rather than explore the characters’ relationships, which is usually the subject of a drama (I also think Law & Order also fits into my idea of a morality play).
I base this theory on both the characters of the main crew and the alien species they ran across. Some episodes were morality plays that had the set dressing of science fiction but really could have worked equally well with some other set dressing (I’ll provide examples).
The characters of the main crew were so perfect as to be beyond paragons and almost archetypes, which works well for a morality play and less for a relationship-driven drama. The characters were in fact so perfect there was little room for development for any of them, which is part of the reason most of the episodes could be shown in any order and still make sense.
1) Captain Jean-luc Picard – the consummate diplomat (very good with speeches), the wise father-figure, the patient, dignified gentleman who on rare occasions when roused to anger proved himself a capable warrior as well. His only flaw was that he did not get along well with children, but his reasons were pretty understandable (he thought it irresponsible to expose them to the danger that life on the Enterprise entailed).
2) Commander William T. Riker – Kirk 2.0, if you will. Confident, capable, but occasionally reckless and easily had his head turned by women. He was meant as a foil to the ever-dignified and patient Picard.
3) Lt. Commander Data – Pinocchio (the show got better once they stopped pointing that out). The android who is superior to biological beings in pretty much every way (to the point he stole the whole damn ship himself) and yet wants nothing more than to be human. Serves occasionally as comic relief when his efforts to be more human don’t quite work out because he just doesn’t understand humans very well.
4) Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge – The Engineer. That’s it. He’s named “the forge” for crying out loud. Genius in engineering and all around nice guy. Also serves as Data’s main guide to humanity. A rather underdeveloped archetype as I can’t even remember what hobbies he had outside of engineering, if any.
5) Lt. Worf – the warrior learning the way of peace (who paradoxically got beat up a lot), and also fish out of water. He was Klingon but raised by human parents and devoted himself to learning the ways of the Klingons. Another character (like Data) trying to find his place in the world.
6) Lt. Deanna Troi – The counselor. That was her entire role. She was nice. She was empathic (half alien). One of the least developed of the archetypes, sadly. Sometimes a damsel in distress, and sometimes her good advice was completely ignored because she wasn’t a more traditional warrior/officer. I also can’t remember any hobbies she had.
7) Dr. Beverly Crusher – The doctor and the mother. Again, her role was basically to be the consummate, capable, patient doctor. She also had the secondary role of the mother and would often break the rules because of her son. She also occasionally served as a love-interest to Picard due to their obligatory will-they-won’t-they get together thing (although that was thankfully not played up very much). She, at least, was shown to have hobbies outside of medicine.
Also, this is why art and culture in the show seemed to be frozen in the 20th century. Not just because it’s really hard to imagine art and fashion in the future, but because using culture and art that were recognizable by the 20th century viewing audience made a handy shortcut to their characters. For example, Picard, the consummate diplomat, always listened to classical music. But Riker, his younger and brash foil, was into jazz. Their musical tastes served to reinforce their archetypical nature.
These were actually often my favorite characters. The main characters were so rigid in many ways and so perfect it was nice to see characters that had some flaws.
1) Lt. Tasha Yar – Tasha was killed in the middle of the first season, so it’s hard to judge her character very well. However, one of the episodes featured a flashback to the planet where she grew up, and it appeared to be a little slice of Hell. She was aggressive, violent, and temperamental, but I believe she was meant as a foil to the rest of the crew who came from rather privileged backgrounds (or at least not a Hell-planet).
2) Dr. Katherine Pulaski – Leonard “Bones” McCoy’s distaff counterpart. Highly competent but with an unreasonable bias against the emotionless Data (instead of an unreasonable bias against the emotionless Spock). There was very little else to her character, but she was only there for the second season.
3) Lwaxana Troi – Ambassador from the planet Betazed, full telepath, Troi’s mother, and someone who did not in any way understand the word “boundary.” In some ways the very stereotypical meddling mother overly concerned with getting her daughter married (Troi’s father had been in Starfleet) and always looking for a new man herself. The Federation was so stiff and rigid in sensibility and fashion and pretty much everything else, her over the top manner was always welcome by me, even if she was in many ways so stereotypical. For all that, her character was allowed to develop and mellow to some degree, and we the audience learned about some of the terrible tragedies that had occurred in her otherwise privileged life.
4) Lt. Reginald Barclay – An engineer who was first introduced as one of Troi’s patients. I liked him immediately because he was the only person shown who used the Holodeck exactly the way 95% of people would use the Holodeck – for personal fantasies. However, his very human nature was somewhat vilified because the very perfect crew never would even consider using the Holodeck for such crass endeavors. Barclay was human. A very neurotic human, but it was nice to see that not everyone in Starfleet was such a paragon of virtue as the main crew.
5) Alexander – Worf’s son, who was three-quarters Klingon. He was not as developed as other side characters, however, and served mostly to soften Worf, who never expected to be a father and had a hard time coping with the lack of discipline that pretty much characterizes all children ever.
6) Chief Miles O’Brien – O’Brien first served as the transporter operator and then later was given a bit more screen time. Sometimes he was literally a plot point, but his developing relationship with Keiko (I’m afraid I forget her last name) was a welcome human addition to the typical morality play. Miles and Keiko also served to show what family life was really like on a ship that was exploring strange new worlds.
7) Ensign Ro Laren – This was the character that introduced us to the oppressed Bajorans, and honestly the crew were kind of mean to Ro for no good reason. First she was told she couldn’t wear her traditional earring and second they were just shocked beyond all reason when she told them her family name was first and her given name last so she should be address as Ensign Ro, not Ensign Laren (as though no one in the history of humanity had ever used that type of naming convention). She (although a few seasons later) stepped into Tasha’s role in many ways as an aggressive and often violent person coping with her own bleak past.
8) Guinan – the magical Negro. There’s really no other way to put it. She ran a bar and she listened and she advised and kind of made Troi unnecessary. There was only one instance where she was absolutely angry and bordered on unreasonable, and that actually bolstered her character a great deal.
9) Wesley Crusher – Oy. He was so obviously the Author Avatar that it’s hard to judge his character outside of that. He rapidly became the Scrappy Doo of the show because let’s face it, when Starfleet is supposed to be made up of the best and brightest and they are continually getting saved by a kid, that’s not going to endear that kid to anyone. He was the former trope namer for the Creator’s Pet. However, even he was so perfect that the episode in which he is covering up for his friends in Starfleet Academy seemed pretty forced and out of character. He was finally put on a bus and became a god or something.
In a morality play, the protagonist meets up with personifications of concepts in order to cause him to choose a Godly life. Broadly speaking, many of the alien species encountered by the Enterprise (and even the Federation itself), are if not personifications but representations of concepts or philosophies or thinly disguised modern-day political powers.
1) The Federation – Human utopia and probably a very idealized version of the United States with liberty and justice for all unless you don’t have warp technology. I never quite understood the purpose of the Prime Directive. No, I understood the purpose of it but given all the Federation’s advanced technology, it seemed to me there were sneaky ways of saving sentient species without accidentally causing them to worship the Enterprise as a god. In fact, there were a few episodes about this and frankly the Federation seemed pretty bad at it. On the other hand, there is no drama in which everything goes according to plan.
2) The Vulcans – The Vulcans had mastered their baser impulses and turned their energies into developing technology and ridding their world of poverty. The Vulcans represented everything humans could be if we’d just stop getting angry and killing each other all the time. I think, though, all lack of emotion was meant to be shown as bad, but that learning to cope with emotion in constructive ways was really humanity’s only way of moving past our inherently savage nature.
3) The Klingons – Speaking of humanity’s savage nature, we have the Klingons, which are Vikings with a hefty dose of Samauri honor layered on top. They brawl, they fight, they live to die but always with honor, and the main plot point the Klingons served was this – how does a society of war cope with peace? Typically in TNG the answer to this was to dishonor Worf (and I’m only half-joking about that).
4) The Romulan Star Empire – Obviously the Roman Empire. The Romulans were really the Federation’s nemesis. They were organized, powerful, dangerous, and they wanted to conquer everything. In a meta-universe were the point of many shows was to explore how black and white really weren’t, the Romulans typically were clearly in the black.
5) The Ferengi – A late-comer to the Trek universe, and after a bit of a false start making them just another savage, discriminatory species, they became the ultimate capitalists and proponents of a free market system (i.e., Wall Street). The plot point they served was to demonstrate that free-market capitalism run amok was not a good thing (sometimes the morality was really heavy-handed).
6) The Cardassians – Another late-coming race to the scene. The Cardassians were very clearly (to me) Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. They had been a big power in the universe, and now they were less so thanks to the Federation, who also told them they had to free the Eastern Soviet Bloc countries, I mean, their Imperial territories. Their purpose was to show the fallout of that kind of loss of power, which often involved various Cardassian officials trying to get it back.
7) The Bajorans – Hey, so you know those Eastern Soviet Bloc countries, I mean, former Cardassian territories, and wonder how freedom worked out for them? Meet the Bajorans! A formerly oppressed people coping not only with learning the way of peace after a long war, but also curbing their desire for vengeance against their former oppressors.
8) Q – So you know how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely? Yeah, but he was one of my favorite characters anyway.
9) The Borg – Conformity is very powerful, but conformity is very bad. When everyone is expendable and no one matters except the end goal, you get the Borg. All individuality is completely lost to the greater hive mind and the end goal.
10) The Maquis – not technically a race but a group of Starfleet officers (by and large) and other defectors from the Federation who banded together to help the Bajorans fight off the Cardassians’ efforts to reclaim their Empire because the Federation wouldn’t help enough. The Maquis served to show that not everyone agreed with the Federation, and that an ex-world power couldn’t be trusted to keep their world. On a smaller scale, they showed that power corrupts and bureaucracy bloats to the point of being ineffective, even in a utopia like the Federation.
Again, the culture of the Federation being frozen in the 20th century was used as shortcuts to compare the Federation against other cultures. As mentioned before, Picard listened to classical and Riker to jazz, but in one episode Picard had a teenage boy on the ship from a very war-oriented culture and that planet’s native music could best be described as “death metal.”
Pretty much any show about the Federation vs. the Romulans was really about how conquest for conquest’s sake is bad. Pretty much any show about the Federation vs. the Klingons was how a) war for war’s sake is bad or b) peace is harder to achieve than war. Pretty much any show involving the Bajorans was to point out that oppression is bad, but becoming the oppressor is worse.
Because of the morality play structure of the show, there were many episodes I wouldn’t even consider science fiction. For example, many of the shows that were the Federation vs. the Romulans would have worked equally well had the set dressing been the High Elves vs. the Drow. Or the shows with the Cardassians and the Bajorans would have worked equally well in a drama set in 1992 with the U.S. State Department fighting with their Russian counterparts over secret Russian military operations in the Ukraine. When the show really did delve into sci-fi, it often fell into the same traps most sci-fi falls into (inventing technology that is never used again, time travel, technobabble, etc.), but it usually did a pretty good job with it.
None of this, to me, is bad, although I think with the way television has changed, there are people who wouldn’t like the structure very much. Nearly all shows are now serialized, even sitcoms to some degree, or at least follow an arc for the season. And some of the morality plays in TNG are really heavy-handed (why don’t the Cardassians realize it’s bad to oppress other races?). And in the later seasons it kind of became the Worf and Data show. Still, I accept these things like I accept the painful first season. There’s still a lot of good television there. I think the crew didn’t really boldly go where no one had gone before, but they gave it a good try.