We know that the original series of Star Trek has something of a reputation for arrogance, with its brash, commanding, womanising Captain Kirk who always wants “answers” rather than “questions” and “solutions” rather than “problems”, and always “now!”. Grrrr. Kirk boldly goes into the great unknown of the unexplored regions of our galaxy, mucking about with alien cultures, ending wars, mooning the prime directive, smashing through that damned split infinitive with manly vigor. By contrast, the crew of TNG seem comparatively impotent, heroically leaving everyone well alone, carefully avoiding conflict while Deanna Troi nurtures the feelings of everyone both on and off the ship. On the surface, TNG appears as the compassionate and more enlightened successor of TOS, with its scholarly captain (played by a Shakespearean actor, just to ram home the point), packed full of philosophical, historical and artistic knowledge. This makes him an ideal emissary for a new humanities infused vision of mankind’s future galactic presence as liberal, cautious and deeply politically correct. As a result, the show isn’t so much a Star Trek, as it is a Star tip-toe through space. TOS was originally marketed as “a wagon train to the stars”, where TNG’s adventurous spirit – though still there somewhere – is dramatically reigned in by incessant moralising and personal sub-plots: Worf is having another Klingon problem, Wesley can’t talk to girls, Deanna’s mother is back to make the Captain feel awkward – oh heavens!
These are only glancing observations, but they are ones that have come to define both Star Trek installments in ways that are very culturally important. Both TOS and TNG are, after all, products of the times in which they were written: TOS is a heavily theatrical, bombastic display of a 1960s ideal of humanity. Many of these ideals have fallen away by the late 1980s when TNG was first aired, and a much more cautious approach to politics and philosophy became considered morally superior. The masculine energy which characterised TOS was now starting to be condemned as toxic, and admiration for human resilience, creativity and capacity for greatness had fallen out of fashion – and this has never been truer today. The traits of TOS have been replaced in popular culture by a sheepish sense of complacency, an apologetic backwards step out of the spotlight for humanity and all its past evils, a constant silent admission of nebulous guilt that has come to define the nature of human being in certain areas of modern philosophical thought that have become pervasive as they filtered into the sphere of popular culture.
While I do not believe that TNG is completely smothered by this infusion of liberal political ideals into Star Trek as a whole, it is plain that the transition marks the series as a kind of melancholy spectre. TOS is often criticised by modern viewers for the number of times that Kirk quite clearly breaks the prime directive – in other words, interferes with pre-warp societies. In the episode “The Apple”, the enterprise encounters a planet where the inhabitants are a child-like people, cared for by a machine entity in an Eden-like setting (hence the title of the episode). The machine entity regulates the atmosphere and composition of the planet so that the humanoids it serves are prevented from aging or getting sick. They are also prevented from procreating. In short they are a completely stagnant society, protected and yet imprisoned by the machine. As Spock points out, the society does “seem to work” and the people are happy. However, Kirk decides this is not enough and that they have a right to be free.
The decision is helpfully (and this often happens in TOS) made for Kirk and the rest of the away team when it turns out the machine is also threatening the Enterprise, and Kirk must therefore destroy the entity in order to save his crew. This might seem, by modern standards – or by TNG standards – a rash move (though possibly necessary): one cannot imagine Picard making what he would undoubtedly consider such an arrogant and anthropocentric decision: assuming that the same standards of freedom, happiness etc that apply to humans must apply to all humanoid races. Picard would probably find a third option, involving copious amounts of technobabble, helpfully supplied by Data or Geordi that would allow him and the plot to helpfully avoid all responsibility for this difficult situation while ensuring that the Enterprise crew maintained their sense of moral superiority. Oh, and Deanna would say something obvious about the way the people of the planet feel, and then everyone would get transported back to the Enterprise in time for tea and crumpets. The bureaucratic smugness that Kirk despised (as so often evidenced by the irritating manner in which Starfleet officials would often blunder about on board his ship, making terrible command decisions) is alive and well in TNG, and is embodied in many ways by Picard.
While Kirk’s method of dealing with alien cultures may seem arrogant, I am often compelled to agree with his decisions. The situation in “The Apple” episode is of course deliberately ambiguous and sparks healthy debate between Spock, Kirk and McCoy. It is unclear what the ‘right’ course of action really is, and Kirk doesn’t ever pretend he has a direct line to absolute moral authority – though this is frequently the implication when Picard starts waxing philosophical. What Kirk does do in every episode is make the best decision he can based on the information available to him. He knows that the people of this planet are humanoid and, without the available time to study their culture, physiology, psychology etc, he has to make a snap decision. Therefore he assumes that their, shall we say, ‘spiritual’ needs are reasonably similar to human ones and frees them from what appears to be a tyrannical machine-god. He may not be unquestionably making the ‘right’ decision (whatever that is) but he is making the best one he can and takes ownership of this.
Let us compare this to a similarly ambiguous ethical quandary in the TNG episode, “Penpals”. Here, Data accidentally encounters a communications signal from a little girl from an alien pre-warp society, on a planet beset by sudden constant natural disasters. Data becomes friends with the child and, when he learns of the danger she is in, requests Picard’s help. At first he orders Data to end all communication with the little girl; it is only when he hears her plea for help transmitted over the communications channel that he relents and agrees to intervene. His response is not logical, not based on the tenets of the prime directive, but rather on an emotional response to a child’s desperate cry. It is not his reason but his emotion he employs in order to make the ‘right’ decision. In the end they predictably use “science”, to fix the little girl’s planet and all is well – they even wipe her memories of her contact with Data and the Enterprise. While Kirk made an anthropocentric choice in “The Apple” in deciding to treat the alien people as if they were basically humans, he does make a moral decision based on reason and (although limited) evidence. Picard, on the other hand, refuses to take any responsibility at all in ‘Penpals’, first planning to ignore the destruction of the alien planet and the deaths of many billions of people. While one might be able to make an argument for this being a moral decision, simply changing his attitude because he suddenly felt emotionally moved by the frightened tones of a child in danger is not a morally defensible position.
Despite such ethical failings, TNG is often considered the more nuanced, reverent and intellectual out of the two first Star Trek installments, whereas TOS is mostly remembered for what would now be considered a woefully underdeveloped, almost endearing lack of ethical sophistication – propelled by an outdated ethos of objective rights and wrongs and a clear philosophical vision that now seems as kitsch as TOS’s low-budget sets and campy costumes. TOS was far from perfect, the sexism on the show was rampant (let’s not even start on the final episode of the last season *facepalm*) and do I detect more than a little racism on McCoy’s part toward Spock? However, TOS it did grapple with equally complex ethical dilemmas as TNG. The difference is that in TOS the dilemmas were resolved, a judgement was made for better or worse, and a philosophy of freedom and justice for all beings was resolutely espoused. In TNG, there is no philosophy accept that of non-interference, of capitulation to the differences of other cultures, a fear of where no man has gone before and a none-too-pleased feeling about where man has already been. This is shown in “Q Who”, where the omnipotent being, Q, transports the Enterprise to the Delta Quadrant where they encounter the seemingly indestructible Borg for the first time. The ensuing battle gives Picard a “kick in [his] complacency”, and the exprience once again reinforces the message that humanity really ought to leave well alone (though they seem to be doing a pretty good job of that already).
If we examine TNG closely we see that this apparent attempt at moral superiority through inaction and constant self-reproach comes across as far more smug and self-centred than TOS ever did. While TOS’s Kirk certainly broke the prime directive several times, TNG’s Picard seems overly, unhealthily invested in this bureaucratic scheme, valuing the directive in and of itself rather than its relative use in certain situations – Picard seems almost incapable of thinking for himself. His refusal to get involved in alien situations and disputes seems to come down to a form of virtue signalling. At the moment in ‘Penpals’ where the little girl cries for help in her transmission to data, Picard’s whole staff hears it. In the midst of a rational philosophical debate about the ethics of the situation, Picard is defeated by a plea to emotion. The moment she spoke he lost the battle and had to capitulate to the emotional sensibilities of all those in the room, or risk appearing as a monster. For me, the TNG crew of the 24th century carries a pious conceit far more egotistical than any view the crew of TOS ever voiced. However, where TOS shouted philosophy from the rooftops, TNG thinly concealed their self-righteousness under a veneer of virtuous self-denigration, a pompous self-assurance based on their resolute lack of self-assurance, revelling in their inability to take responsibility for their own moral beliefs and commit to their consequences.
There are constant references in TNG to mankind’s “arrogance”, to the failings and disadvantages of human vigor; bizarrely, the show regularly disparages the human capacity for which TNG’s (and TOS’s) ship is named: Enterprise. In TOS, frequently mankind is criticised by “superior” glowy, floaty, transcendental aliens that look like levitating jelly for its barbarous or savage nature, but Kirk always replies by admitting that this may indeed be true, happy to grant that humans have a lot to learn. Never once did this make Kirk or his crew timid, however, never did they stop trying, though knowing they would make mistakes. Without this admission of imperfection and without the combined will to attempt and possibly fail then the true spirit on which Star Trek is based disappears. With due understanding of mankind’s failures must come also the ardent desire to boldly go, without any half measures. It was TOS’s philosophy that humanity should not shy away from challenge and that is hopefully the message that still endures in the Star Trek franchise even if TNG suppressed this sentiment. Captain Kirk’s words sum up the value of Star Trek and indeed, I believe the central nature of its appeal, its optimistic core that inspires the mighty and the bold in all of us: “They used to say that if Man was meant to fly he’d have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to.”