Story Pile: Star Trek: The Next Generation

At the start of this year I was in a really weird space when it came to free time. I was at the time, technically unemployed, because I had work contract coming, with the next semester, but at the same time, I didn’t have a job (or my PhD project yet). This meant that I has an absolute void of free time, and I sought things to fill it up.

And let me tell you.

There’s a lot of Star Trek.

Well, first up, I liked it. It has good episodes and bad episodes, but bad episodes don’t generally drag and the good episodes have that smiling sort of smug ‘oh hey, I enjoyed a smart thing’ feeling to them. Almost all episodes have something silly in them, just out of context, but the science in this series is softer than goose down, even when it doesn’t want to be. Science in this series is more about setups for outcomes than it is about whether or not you, the audience, can accurately predict the way the story should go, or uncover some secret truth.

It’s actually kinda interesting how many times you’ll see a story just rip along through its idea – often a few episodes will feature a story element you might think needs to come up two or three times before it’s used as a focus, like a particular holodeck arrangement or a parasite that controls brains. This series hasn’t got the time for that so it burns through it fast.

Star Trek: The Next Generation is a little arch when you watch it now. There’s this thing where two people talk at the same time, or cut each other off, or talk just as another person finishes – this is known as crosstalk in radio and it’s also kind of fundamental to naturalistic dialogue. It’s also nowhere in this series. Everyone here waits patiently for people to finish and you rarely see anyone cut off. Sometimes it happens, sure, but it’s like, once or twice an episode.

At first this made me feel weird about it but it eventually became part of the aesthetic of the series. This is the future. This is a better future. People expect whole thoughts, coherent thoughts, they expect to be able to wait out what you have to say and they expect to be heard. It’s a little theatrical, but I am very fond of watching the way that even Wesley Crusher can say what he has to say to an authority without being cut off.

Wesley’s almost unremarkable, too. Episodes that focus on him tend to be annoying, but they also don’t matter. Just let ’em roll on by.

The thing that’s really interesting to me as I watched this show, with my notepad in hand, as I slowly chewed through episodes, I realised that you could do entire articles about each episode. That this show wasn’t like the X-Files model monster-of-the-week narratives I’d grown up with like Buffy, where the scenario was usually so static variations on the themes tended to play within a small space. It wasn’t like Scrubs, where the show would repeatedly hammer back and forth between two wildly contradictory ideas.

Now I’ve seen even a bit of Star Trek in the earlier moulds, I’m stunned this kind of TV ever got made. It didn’t have the cheapness of sitcoms or your punch-clock cop shows – not the basic repetitive structure of shows like Magnum PI or Starsky and Hutch. Those shows were mostly about tuning in each week and having a small story in a space you liked with characters you liked.

Star Trek could just do a series of short stories with characters you could know and the very nature of the series meant they could constantly strive for totally different and weird places to be. The rules of the universe themselves could be shifted around, planet could have atmospheres or cultures that set all the rules they needed for whatever narrative you wanted.

I’ve sometimes used the idea of middle space describing stories, with the notion of big space and small space on either side. Some stories are small space stories. This isn’t to say a story that’s about and stuck in a small space – you could do a story of two characters trapped in a room and still have it be about big, grand concepts like the nature of life or the safety of the world. Most small space stories don’t want to do that in visual media, though, because if you’ve got a bomb that can blow up the world, telling someone about it is an ineffective use of the medium compared to showing it. Big stories are things like your The Avengers, which you’ll see a lot of – when you’re making a movie for a significant fraction of a billion dollars, you’re going to have some obligation to make that movie seem ‘big.’

Big-space stories tend to be the kind where the rules of the world are shown or changed; whether that’s the way organised crime work or the very nature of the game tournament system. Breaking Bad is a good example of a big-space story that isn’t actually about anything unnatural. Most wrestling arcs tend towards being big stories, for example, because they have to fill months of time between major events. Small stories are often about events and ideas that might never miss or change the world, but change the lives of the people involved.

By putting their anthology in the middle space, Star Trek: The Next Generation can do both. Normally when a small story tries to bring in something big, it gets silly; when a big story tries to shrink down, it feels weird because don’t these people have something much more important to care about?

Star Trek: The Next Generation is goldilocks. It can go just right on that. It can tell a small story about an individual character behaving oddly thanks to moon beams or they can tell a story about literally playing dice for the fate of humanity. That kind of range is really hard to do in most stories – fantasy stories almost never have the ability to do it without becoming urban fantasy sludge. Heck, the Enterprise serves as a really useful device here – it can be a vehicle for stories on the run, a home to return to, a boat for naval styled problems and even a city for stories that require that.

The other thing that kept this article from getting done though is that Star Trek is one of the most comprehensively documented series I’ve ever seen. Not just in the wiki sense either, where every last detail in this fantasy-science land of prancing gods with Mariachi bands and Sherlock Holmes space robots is cooked down to the least humourless details you can cross-reference in an online encyclopedia, no.

There’s also a huge number of podcasts that take up the storytelling mantle, talking as much about the precise details as they are about the storytelling machinery, the histories of the actors, the history of the history of the actors. One of my favourite streamers can cite episode-and-name-and-incident by lines of dialogue as a party trick because his head got to be encoded with a television show he loved rather than doctrinal apocalyptica I hate.

I’ve talked about how I just wasn’t into Star Trek in my childhood, in the past. I watched Star Trek Discovery and it was cool, and that encouraged me to look at previous Stek Trars. Then I watched some of TNG, and thought Oh I should Story Pile About This, and started taking notes on recurrent themes. Then I took notes on specific episodes.

Then as I did my readings, I saw a book: Hamlet on the Holodeck, by Janet Murray, in 1997. I haven’t read this book, only listened to talks by people who have. It’s an interesting, optimistic book and talks about a literary engagement axis for games. It may be an axis you don’t like or don’t want to pursue, but it’s a full-fledged, actualised theory about videogames that is itself a foundational critical text of the modern study. It’s twenty years old.

It’s twenty years old and its title references Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Look, about the time a twenty year old academic text about cyberculture can dive in on a subject, just how much do I think I’m going to contribute.

I think of Story Pile entries as both documentations of how things made me feel and ideas I (and you!) can use for telling stories. I think the main thing I’d recommend is that Star Trek: The Next Generation is an extremely rare series composed almost entirely of many, many short stories worth consideration in and of themselves, as a gem of what was being done in the 80s and 90s. You could literally be a scholar of this subject.

That’s pretty cool.