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Posts Tagged ‘Star Trek: the Next Generation’

In 2002 I created a review website around the actor Christopher Walken, which was also home to some of my writings on science fiction television. I have decided to let this site lapse as it has been languishing for years without updates. I will be reposting some of its content on this blog.

I originally wrote the piece below in 1997 as a favour to a friend, delivering it as a somewhat tongue in cheek talk at a Babylon 5 convention, in the days before the virtual mainstreaming of media fandom. Babylon 5 is an American science fiction TV series set on a space station and featuring political and territorial conflicts between humans and other species. The series ran from 1994 to 1998.

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I will begin by assuming that as avid viewers of the science fiction series Babylon 5 you are all familiar with Commander Sheridan’s dream which is deployed in all its surreal and hitchcockian glory in the third season of the series. In this short article I propose to offer an in depth and definitive interpretation of this symbolic fest.

There are three types of dream interpretation: the traditional psychic and spiritual method, variants of which have been practised by most cultures. In this tradition, dreams are divided into a number of categories, including the prophetic, the predictive, past lives and allegorical. Sheridan’s dream is clearly of the prophetic kind – a foretelling of future destiny and a warning.

The second type of dream interpretation is more modern: this is the Freudian or psychoanalytic method which reduces dream to a pathology, to a revelation of that which has been suppressed and is struggling to emerge as a symptom. In this tradition, a dream does no more than point to a medical and psychological condition. The third type of dream interpretation – also modern – is an uneasy amalgam of the first two methods. This is Jung’s analysis of a collective unconscious, the manifestation of a universal symbolic imaginary. I will ignore these two latecomers in the field of dream interpretation and concentrate solely on the first, which if it lacks the spurious precision of modern science, accumulates the insights of generations lost in the mists of time.

Finally, to get down to the nitty gritty. As I have mentioned Sheridan’s dream is clearly a warning and a prophecy. I will begin by concentrating on the appearance of the birds. There is a crow or raven on Ivanova’s shoulder and an eagle or falcon on Garibaldi’s. The identity of the bird in the latter case has been the subject of some controversy – some viewers perceiving Garibaldi’s bird as a dove. Rather than choosing the wimpy sentimental dove, however, I prefer to see the strong predatory form of an eagle.

Both the crow and the eagle can have multiple meanings in a dream. A crow in Celtic mythology is the messenger who flies between the twilight world of death and this life. To dream of seeing a crow betokens misfortune and grief and in combination with Ivanova’s hushing sound there is a clear warning of betrayal, that enemies will be plotting behind the commander’s back. It is also a warning that he stands in dire need of aid and council. The Irish hero Culchulain died betrayed and strapped to a post in battle with a crow perched on his shoulder. There is a warning that a similar fate awaits Sheridan. The fact that the crow sits on the shoulder of his second in command is significant – someone in his own camp will betray him after he has ignored all the indications that such betrayal was imminent.

The eagle implies that Sheridan will soar far above the ordinary world, struggling fiercely to attain lofty ambitions. It also means that he will make a long voyage to distant and unknown planets in his search for knowledge and wisdom. The eagle is also a sign that he will overcome his enemies and achieve all his dreams. But one must not forget the predatory nature of both the eagle and the crow. The crow feeds off death and the eagle cruelly snatches life at its strongest. The conjunction of the eagle and the crow means that Sheridan will indeed conquer and throw off the trammels of worldly existence but only through death, grief and betrayal and the loss of all that he holds most dear.

The conjunction of the eagle and crow is interesting at another level. The crow represents Celtic Britain and the eagle, America. This is a clear reference to the earlier appearance in the series of King Arthur (in the form of Michael York) or even Jack the Ripper, that English harbinger of death, on what is largely an American space station. And to stray briefly into the arena of Jungian interpretation, it could also be a reference to the American war of independence during which the English and Americans fought – this would clearly be an event deeply rooted in Sheridan’s ancestral memory.

To turn to Kosh’s remarks: their significance is rather obvious. When he intones the phrase ‘you have always been here’ he is talking on a number of levels. First of all, he is referring to a hidden spiritual level of Sheridan’s psyche which has hitherto remained dormant but has nonetheless always been there. And of course it is standard doctrine in writings about the psychic realm that one is more susceptible to prophecy and spiritual insight when the conscious mind is stilled in sleep or unconsciousness. As is written in one of the standard texts: ‘A dream is an event transpiring in that world belonging to the mind when the objective senses have withdrawn into rest or oblivion. Then the spiritual man is living alone in the future or ahead of objective life and consequently lives man’s future first, developing conditions in a way that enable waking man to shape his actions by warnings, so as to make life a perfect existence’. Sheridan’s case is a perfect illustration of this. But Kosh’s statement is perhaps more prophetic than this. When he says ‘you have always been here’ the backdrop is clearly the space station Babylon 5. Sheridan has been destined since the beginning of time to make a messianic stand on Babylon 5 and he has also done some time travelling in the process.

The mystical and faintly Eastern sound of wind chimes or bells that appears in the dream further indicates spiritual attainment and the need to ward off the evils of death and betrayal. The chimes are also a call to spiritual purity. This sound combined with the appearance of the figure standing in judgement means that Sheridan must undertake a journey of spiritual purification where he will be judged according to his merits. He may be found wanting. The figure standing in judgment is also a clear evocation of ‘Q’ the powerful alien being who acts as judge and jury in the first and last episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Babylon 5 would not be complete without a Q figure, no matter how brief his appearance. In fact, this scene could well presage Q’s future appearance in the series. After all, for Q there are no physical boundaries or impossibilities. A transmigration from Star Trek to Babylon 5 is quite within his capability and no doubt he could consort closely with Bester as a kindred spirit in the latter series.

But to move to the next point: the statement ‘you are the hand’ is also clear in its meaning. Ivanova neglects to complete the phrase which in its entirety should read ‘you are the hand of God’ thus completing the link to Islamic and Arabic prophetic traditions. Sheridan is the instrument of Allah, the instrument of a cosmic destiny. As for the man in between , this is both a reference to Lorian and Sheridan himself. Sheridan must encounter both himself and Lorian in between the tick and the tock of eternity, in between life and death, in between the material and spiritual worlds. ‘Between’ has always indicated that twilight zone of possibilities, of openness to mysterious and other worlds. ‘The man in between’ is also the man in between what was and what will be. More tenuously perhaps, ‘the man in between’ is also Q, an entity who, as I have clearly shown, exists in the twilight zone between two series – Star Trek and Babylon 5.

The veiled woman is again a sign that Sheridan will be betrayed and maligned by apparent friends. The mourning veil denotes further grief, distress and trouble, the dark purple lips indicate the vampiric kiss of death. In sum, the whole dream is loaded with dark portents of gloom, betrayal and death but there is also hope that out of this darkness will come victory and spiritual enlightenment.

For another interpretation of this dream sequence see The Lurker’s guide to Babylon 5.

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Ina Rae Hark, Star Trek. London: BFI publishing, 2008.

My rating: ***

Star Trek (BFI TV Classics) Star Trek by Ina Rae Hark

The author of this book, Ina Rae Hark is a long-standing fan of the series, dating back to the original 1960s series. She is currently professor of English and Film Studies at the University of South Carolina. In preparation for writing this short but detailed overview of a huge franchise, the author (re)watched a massive 700 episodes of all the Trek series.

She makes no bones about the fact that her two preferred series are the original and Deep Space 9. She also demytholigises Gene Roddenberry’s role in the series. It appears he was a womanising sex addict who stole other people’s work and was impossible to work with. Other sources indicate that he would change the canon of the series at a whim, at one stage saying that the original series was no longer canon and that Star Trek: The Next Generation was henceforth to be regarded as the true canon cancelling out earlier efforts.

Hark mounts some interesting arguments about some of the fears explored by each series. The original series she says, explored the contrast between embodied emotion and non-embodied intellect, coming squarely down on the side of the former. STNG demonstrated a fear of consciousness being invaded or taken over by another. Deep Space 9 expressed an anxiety about identity and its invasion, takeover or anihilation and the co-existence of multiple identities in one body or even bodies with no fixed identity like the shape changer Odo. Voyager played with themes of death and the afterlife in various guises. Enterprise exhibited fears of being held hostage or prisoner against one’s will. Hark argues that this latter fear may be as much the result of a post 9/11 American paranoia as the result of the writers and others involved in trying to perpetuate the Star Trek franchise under increasing pressure from changes in production companies and ratings requirements. (pp. 147-8).

I will take the opportunity to state my own preferences here. My preferred series is Star Trek: The Next Generation. Its critics lambast it for its too perfect characters, corporate overachievers, who avoid family entanglements and interpersonal conflict. Further, they inhabit a space ship which is always spotlessly clean and always luxurious – like the hotels preferred by the CEOs of 1990s corporations. As for myself, I found the overachieving calm orderliness soothing after a hard day at work. I also enjoyed the intellectual problem solving often presented in the episodes.

If there is one criticism I do agree with in relation to this series it is the use of the ‘reset button’ at the end of each episode. There is rarely any reference to previous episodes and nothing ever changes with a static status quo reigning from one episode to the next. This is obviously an artefact of the need to play the episodes out of order when the series went into American syndication, but it is very tedious for the long-term viewer and was already increasingly out of place in a world where fans could either cheaply tape the series or buy it on video. Incidentally, Hark seems to imply that the term ‘reset button’ was coined in response to Voyager (p. 130), but the context in which I personally first heard it was in relation to STNG. And it is obviously used extensively beyond Star Trek. It was Joss Whedon’s series Buffy: The Vampire Slayer which finally had the courage to adapt to changes in video recording technology and serialise mainstream genre television.

But even STNG is still not sufficient to tempt me to want to own the DVDs. I find I have generally exhausted my interest after one or two viewings of episodes. For all the elegance of the series and its interesting philosophical discussions, the characters are simply too bland and develop too slowly if at all. But I am less keen on the other series. The original I find unwatchably cheesy, and in spite of the mythology surrounding it, I find it too reflective of the imperialist, sexist and racist tropes of its time. The melodramatic acting also becomes tiresome.

As much as I would like to enjoy Deep Space 9, particularly after reading Hark’s account, I always stall in my viewing due to my general lack of interest in political intrigue involving struggles for territory and over the governmental or sovereign rule of populations. When these intrigues involve imaginary alien species my interest is even further diminished. This was also a stumbling block for me (apart from the endless tracts of pompous monologue) in relation to Deep Space 9’s rival space station series Babylon 5.

Voyager is depressing viewing as the lost spaceship becomes more and more isolated in its desperate adherence to Starfleet values at any cost, values which seem out of kilter with its surroundings and ultimately with the natural development of its crew members. Perhaps this feeling is generated by, as Hark interestingly explains, the lack of fit between the Star Trek status quo and the 1990s. She notes ‘The repeated rehearsals of disaster [with reset button at the end of the episodes in question] show a writing staff yearning to explore the grittier and edgier territory of 90s’ science fiction television. The repeated resets show the timidity about altering the status quo that was making the franchise increasingly irrelevant as it entered the twenty-first century.’ (p. 134)

The final series, Enterprise, is a ‘prequel’ to the other series and is notoriously the lowest rating of all the franchise. One of the problems, as Hark observes, was that the writers wanted to return to 1960s basics. She reports commercials for the show ran the line: ‘Experience a future when the Klingons were still bad guys, the women were green and the Captain got all the action’. After the cultural and gender diversity of the later series and their sometimes complex philosophical and ethical argumentation, this was not what the new millennium audience wanted to see. An even bigger mistake, Hark suggests, was turning the Vulcans into devious, manipulative racists (p. 145). Incidentally, this view of the Vulcans seems to have been taken up to some extent in J.J. Abrams 2009 ‘reboot’ film and is perhaps one of my major quibbles (amongst many) with this particular film.

I personally found the first two seasons of Enterprise really interesting, with a strong and charismatic female character in T’Pol performed wonderfully by Jolene Blalock. There were interesting problems on show with translation of the language of other species and procedures for protection against pathogens. The humans were also portrayed as just one species out there exploring the universe, rather than the reigning human (read North American) superiority of earlier series. Unfortunately, all this was undone in Season 3, as the effects of the real life Gulf War kicked in: Captain Jonathan Archer’s character is abruptly changed in response to a terrorist attack on the earth and embarks on a rampaging and morally dubious quest to find and punish the culprits. T’Pol is rewritten as a female victim – making her the subject of an AIDS like illness and of drug addiction and also unexpectedly pairing her up with the Captain’s first mate and then making sure the relationship could never go anywhere. Interestingly, as a long time Trek fan herself, Jolene Blalock voiced her dismay in an interview in The New York Times at some of the un-Trek like aspects of the new series (p. 140).

As a non-American viewer of Enterprise, I found the return to a certain chauvinistic American-ness and maleness rendered the series hard to watch. I have always felt more than a little ambivalent about the military and often imperialist framework of the entire franchise and its often unconscious assumptions of human (read American) colonial superiority in the Trek universe. As the chorus of The Firm’s song ‘Star Trekkin” runs: ‘We come in peace. Shoot to kill. Shoot to kill.’

Enterprise had one of the most criticised endings of all the Trek series with the gratuitous killing off of one of the main characters, a drastic change of moral direction and status for another and the smug framing of the entire story on a future holodeck by two characters from the earlier STNG series. In fact, the series had two effective endings – the second last episode being written by Manny Coto who had been brought in in the last season to save the series – an episode which at least left the possibilities open – and the last by the two original creators which they claimed, rather inexplicably, to be a ‘valentine’ to the fans. One suspects that political struggles were raging behind the scenes.

Much has been made of the ‘optimism’ and ‘utopianism’ of Star Trek, but in my view Voyager and Enterprise are almost unwatchably bleak in their entirety, with endless moral compromises made by the characters while at the same time assuming moral superiority over everybody else, reset buttons in abundance, and dreary militarism all round.

To return to Hark’s book, however: Hark advances a number of interesting ideas and details about Star Trek which fans will no doubt be interested in discussing and picking apart and impressively manages to cram a detailed overview of the entire series into a short space.

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