Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Disgust that Star Trek Characters Have When They Travel Back to Our Time

Now just to warn you, this post will go so deeply into the dorkiest reaches of nerdland, that even seasoned geeks may want to take a pass. But for those of you who have watched basically all the trek shows and have a reasonable comfort level with the characters and storylines - maybe you will be sympathetic to this longstanding annoyance of mine.

Have you ever noticed that in the dozens of times when trek characters have been magically transported to other historical eras, they are always utterly delighted and enchanted by the opportunity to spend a little time in history, EXCEPT when they visit "our" time, in which case they are always filled with contempt and disgust?

It's true! Be it a) a time travel episode, b) a holodeck adventure or even c) just being visited by people from other times - Trek characters are guaranteed to have this over-the-top infatuation for whatever era they're in... unless it's the late 20th century. There's no better way to get Captain Picard giddy as a schoolboy than to put him in Napoleonic France, or Robin Hood England, or some such. You with me? You send Picard to Victorian England and before you can blink an eye he's got a pipe, a deerstalker cap and he's excitedly solving mysteries. But you put him in 1990's California and it's all he can do not to spit on everyone he encounters.

The best example of this that I can think of is the Next Generation episode where three 1980's Americans are unfrozen and end up on the enterprise. Picard is entirely uninterested in them (even though history is his greatest interest). Plus, he's quietly disgusted that they froze themselves in the first place (even though they did so, it is revealed, to save their own lives) and he reacts with pure contempt and hostility when they ask to speak with him.

Do you think for a single moment that he would have reacted the same way to, I don't know, someone from the WWII French resistance? I think we all know he'd have been fawning and drooling all over them and inviting them back to his quarters for high tea.

Why does every historical era generate these warm fuzzies and excited curiosity except our own? Here's my theory. I attribute about 60% of the present-day-disgust thing to the sci-fi convention where the futuristic people have to express amazement at how primitive and backward we are. It's just a convention. So when McCoy calls the 20th century doctors barbarians (or something like that) in Star Trek 4, that's really the only point. We're so used to being the advanced society, that aha! Here's how it feels to be the primitive society! It's drama and pathos on the cheap, but that's TV. Now logically, the disgust should apply doubly to even earlier historical eras, but then there'd be no point. You don't see Picard strutting around Elizabethan England saying "Bows and arrows... How primitive!" because there's no bow-and-arrow wielding audience who will thrill to the idea that hey, maybe we ARE primitive?

And it's not all that realistic, because if I was transported back in time 150 years, I wouldn't strut around main street saying "Hmmph! Horses and carriages. What ignorance!" It would be more like "Horses and carriages! Awesome! Can I have a hay ride?"

So that's about 60% - the need to excite us with the concept that weeeeeeee are the primitive people. But then there's that other 40%. The nasty part. And I think maybe I'm going to have a hard time articulating this, but there's some sort of weird moral-agency/anti-capitalism/anti-American thing going on. I'm serious. Like every human society pre 20th century can be forgiven for their vast sins, but "present day" society cannot. We are guilty. We are culpable. It's moronic.

Look, Roddenberry cooked up an interesting premise for the future of humanity - I'll grant him that - but this over the top disdain for capitalism is uncalled for. Can't anyone from the future acknowledge that just maybe capitalism was a powerful engine of progress? Here's a few bits of dialogue from the episode where the evil 20th century businessman is unfrozen on the Enterprise:

   These are not like any other
humans I have ever encountered.
I find them fascinating.

From what I have already seen
of our "guests", there is very
little to redeem them. In fact,
it makes me wonder, how our
species ever survived the
twenty-first century.

How about this exchange? (Ralph is the
evil 20th century businessman)

   I do not think you are fully aware
of your situation, or the time
which has passed.

Believe me, I'm fully cognizant
of where I am, and when. It is
simply that I have more to protect
than a man in your position could
possibly imagine. No offense,
but a military career has never
been considered upwardly mobile.
I must contact my lawyer.

Your lawyer has been dead for

Yes, of course I know that, but
he was a full partner with a very
important firm. Rest assured the
firm is still operating.

That's what this is all about...
A lot has changed in three hundred
years. People are no longer
obsessed with the accumulation of
"things". We have eliminated hunger,
want, the need for possessions.
We have grown out of our infancy.

You've got it wrong. It's never
been about "possessions" - it's
about power.

Power to do what?

To control your life, your

That kind of control is an

Really -- I'm here aren't I? I
should be dead and I'm not.
That's what money did for me.
That's the kind of power I'm
talking about.

All of this occurs after Picard has already gotten seriously pissed off that the 300 year old people even wanted to talk with him at all. And Ralph, despite being a ridiculous caricature, still gets the better of the exchange.

How about the Voyager episode where the crew is magically transported to Los Angeles in the 1990s? The very existence of earth is threatened! But by who? A hostile alien race? A mad scientist? A sentient blob of antimatter?

No actually, it's this evil corporation:

The CEO, motivated by pure greed, intends to launch a time machine that will cause devastating effects on the environment. Does he care? Of course not. Cue the diminished seventh chords and the mustache twirling.

Where's the boundary between the pure delight time travel, and the "you disgust and offend me" time travel? Is it somewhere around JFK? The World War II episodes are pretty safe. Wasn't there an original series episode where they all become Al Capone era Chicago gangsters? Wasn't there a Voyager holodeck episode about racing drag cars in the 50s? Clearly, there's a little wiggle room in the 20th century. Maybe the hatred and disgust sets in around the Jimmy Carter years.

Man do I hate Picard's moral preening. He'll wax spiteful one minute about the foolishness of humanity in creating nuclear weapons, and then the next minute he's defening his decision not to interfere and stop an alien genocide. (It would taint the purity of their authentic culture, you understand.)

Well get bent, you late 20th century hating, all other historical era loving, prime directive obeying lackey. Go dunk your head in some Earl Grey.

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