Character Flaws and the “Final Frontier”

How Star Trek dropped the ball by making its characters a little too perfect.
Star Trek: TNG Crew

When I was in junior high and high school, my world was basically dominated by Star Trek: The Next Generation. I watched the show religiously, and my classmates and fellow nerds would often discuss — in our physics class, natch — the series and especially its myriad technologies, e.g., warp drives, photon torpedoes, and transporters. I would create and draw up my own starships, dream up my own storylines… Lord only knows what access to the Web circa 1992 would’ve done to my Trekkie-ness, which was at its zenith at that time.

I haven’t watched The Next Generation regularly in a long time, though I still look back on it with a great deal of fondness, if only because it marked my first experience with the all-consuming passion and drive of true fandom and nerdery. (That, and Data is still pretty cool.) That being said, there’s no denying that significant portions of the series haven’t aged all too well, something I’ve been reminded of every time I’ve come across an episode (particularly from the earlier seasons).

All of these thoughts came rushing back thanks to an article that I recently read titled, rather cheekily, “10 Things To Hate About Star Trek: The Next Generation.” And in spite of whatever remaining fondness I have for the series, I have to agree with nearly every single one of the author’s points. One point in particular, though, really jumped out at me:

The Show Was Offensively Inoffensive (1) By the 24th Century, interpersonal conflict was a thing of the past in Gene Rodenberry’s mind… which makes for some appallingly dull viewing, when all of the regular cast is just one big happy family, getting along except for when one or more of them gets possessed by some alien that, more likely than not, was just looking for understanding all along. TNG is an amazingly therapist-friendly show, refusing to cast blame in almost any direction, which probably would make for a Utopian society in which to live, but not one to set a drama in.

Here, we’re not talking about dated special effects or bad costume designs — which the early seasons of The Next Generation certainly had in abundance. Rather, we’re talking about a core component of the show’s underlying philosophy regarding human nature. Back in 1992, I was blissfully unaware of such things as character development and flaws: I was more fascinated by the gleaming examples of 24th century technology. But looking back, it’s true: none of the major characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation had any significant flaws. They were paragons, idyllic examples of an evolved humanity.

This approach to the characters was deeply rooted in Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s atheism/humanism and his belief that humanity can and would eventually overcome its flaws, failings, and petty differences. As Brannon Braga, a long-time Star Trek producer and writer, describes it:

Star Trek, as conceived by Gene Roddenberry, portrays the epic saga of humanity’s exploration of space and, in turn, their own struggles as a species. Every episode and movie of Star Trek is a morality tale in which human beings find solutions to conflict through enlightenment and reason. Through science. Through wit and intellect. Through a belief in our potential as animals that can supercede our baser instincts. In Gene Roddenberry’s imagining of the future (in this case the 23rd century), Earth is a paradise where we have solved all of our problems with technology, ingenuity, and compassion.

Roddenberry believed in a bright future for humanity so much that he actually forbade the show’s writers from giving the characters any failings — that would indicate a less-evolved humanity — and would even have episodes rewritten that didn’t match up with this vision.

A great example of this comes from an episode of the original Star Trek series titled “The City on the Edge of Forever,” considered by many to be one of the best Star Trek episodes of all time, if not the best. The episode’s original draft, written by Harlan Ellison, had details — e.g., a subplot about Enterprise crewmembers engaged in drug trafficking — that were considered distasteful and inconsistent with Star Trek’s vision of humanity. Subsequently, the script underwent several rewrites by numerous individuals, including Roddenberry. Some rewrites were meant to bring the episode under budget, but others were meant to remove those elements that were deemed out of step with Star Trek’s philosophy.

There is certainly something very uplifting and inspiring about Roddenberry’s vision. After all, who doesn’t want to believe that humanity can and will improve itself — that we can make war, crime, and prejudice things of the past through the power of our own reason and willpower? Indeed, there are moments in real life when it seems like humanity is moving in that direction, when scientific, technological, and medical breakthroughs seem to be bringing us closer to that idyllic future. In those moments, reason and intellect do seem like the path to our salvation. But then something goes wrong; something always goes wrong. As Philip Yancey writes in Reaching for the Invisible God:

We master the atom and nearly obliterate ourselves. We learn the secrets of life only to develop techniques to destroy the unborn and the aging. We unlock the genetic code and open a Pandora’s box of ethics. We tame the Great Plains with agriculture and cause dust bowls, harvest rain forests and create floods, harness internal combustion and melt the icecaps. We link the world on an Internet only to find that the most downloaded items are pornographic. Every advance introduces yet another fall.

Primo Levi wrote that “it is not given to man to enjoy uncontaminated happiness.” A utopian view of humanity’s future may certainly be inspiring but it can also be hopelessly naïve and strikingly out of touch if it downplays and even ignores the reality that we see before us every day — not just in the headlines that are all too often a record of humanity’s crimes and abuses, but also in the mirror. One cannot have drama without conflict, nor character development without demons — be they internal or external — that require vanquishing… and we all have demons aplenty.

Not surprisingly, Star Trek took a different turn after Roddenberry retired. Freed, in a sense, from Roddenberry’s vision, Star Trek’s writers gave subsequent incarnations like Deep Space Nine a darker, more complicated view of human nature, something that many Trekkies and even former cast members took offense with even as it garnered acclaim.

This is also why I ultimately found myself drawn away from the Trek fold and to other spacefaring series. Babylon 5 has aged even more poorly than Star Trek: The Next Generation — nearly everything about its production, from the special effects to the costumes, screams early ’90s, and not in a good way — but its epic storyline was populated with flawed, compelling characters who struggled with everything from drug addiction to political corruption to crises of faith and religion. Firefly, whose cancellation is one of the great television tragedies of recent memory, was memorable because of its crew, which often functioned more like a dysfunctional family than shipmates, and for which the word “motley” only scratched the surface. And again, we see flawed characters, the most notable being Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a man heavily defined by failure and defeat.

And of course, there’s the recent re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, which was created by former Trek writer Ronald D. Moore. In many ways, Battlestar Galactica is the anti-Star Trek — and not just because of its almost complete lack of technobabble. Nearly all of the series’ characters were deeply flawed and wrestled some demon or another. Characters hurt and betrayed each other, went through spiritual/existential crises, engaged in political machinations and backstabbing, tortured their enemies, and even stole each other’s children.

Compared to Star Trek’s optimism, Battlestar Galactica’s vision of humanity was grim to say the least, even borderline nihilistic at times. But the latter’s vision was not only more plausible and realistic, but in a curious way, more hopeful. In Star Trek, there was never any real sense of threat to our heroes, no sense of real danger, even when faced with capricious demi-gods and extra-dimensional entities. We knew on an almost instinctual level that any threat to our intrepid crew would be handily wrapped up by the episode’s end, usually with the aid of some last minute invention involving one of those aforementioned subatomic particles. (Never underestimate the value of a good tachyon pulse or tetryon beam.) There was rarely any real sacrifice or loss, aside from the occasional red shirt.

With a series like Battlestar Galactica, however, it was often the case that our protagonists’ very souls were what’s at stake. Real damage was done, real demons fought. As such, any victory — and sometimes the victories were quite small — mattered in a way that the victories of the Enterprise and her crew did not, because they involved sacrifice, required loss. Victory was never achieved without paying some price, be it in trust or in blood.

I don’t mean to imply that Battlestar Galactica was the zenith of television sci-fi (it wasn’t), or that Star Trek was completely naïve (ditto). My point is that, in part by plumbing the depths of human depravity and not whitewashing characters’ flaws but rather, exposing, exploring, and using them (sometimes too much so, admittedly), a series like Battlestar Galactica allows its characters to be better examples of humanity, and certainly more realistic ones, than those walking the corridors of the Enterprise. They may not be as iconic as, say, Captain Picard or Lieutenant Worf, but they are more recognizable, for they honestly portray both the best and the worst that lies within the hearts of mankind.

This entry was originally published on Christ and Pop Culture on .