The Best of Star Trek: The Next Generation
In a recent Netflix binge, I re-watched the entire series of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). Although I grew up watching this with my family, I was too young to really appreciate Gene Roddenberry's vision. Now as a well-read, science nerd girl in her early thirties (or late twenties), I can fully grasp the genius of Gene's view into the future.
The following "Best of" are episodes from TNG I found to be a poignant and critical commentary of our society. These aren't always highly rated episodes, but I think taken altogether, they sum up the possibilities that are still open to us if we take this opportunity to explore. If we do find ourselves searching the vast unknown of our humanity, we just might be able to create a better future for ourselves. At least, I think that is what Gene was aiming at.
Where the Possibilities Began
In an episode entitled Family (season 4, episode 2), Captain Picard returns to Earth for some much deserved downtime after being assimilated by the Borg. Specifically, he visits his brother, Robert, and sister-in-law in France at the family's vineyard. The reunion is anything but happy. Robert has held onto a grudge over the years because Picard joined Starfleet, neglecting his duties as the head of the family. There's a bit of a tussle early on in the episode where Robert and Picard exchange brotherly blows, and end up rolling around in the mud. Although this makes for a compelling back story for our beloved captain, the most intriguing aspect of this episode is with Picard's nephew, René.
Much to Robert's chagrin, René is just like his uncle, desiring the exploration of space over tending the vineyards. Throughout the episode, Robert is constantly trying to discourage René from his interests in the final frontier while Picard serves as a more understanding and supportive figure. Eventually, Robert forgives Picard. In doing so, he is able to accept his son's choice. At the very end of the episode, Robert and his wife are talking about René. She says, “He's still out there dreaming about starships and adventure. It's getting late.” To which Robert responds, “Yeah, but let him dream.”
The camera then focuses on the young boy, leaning against a tree, staring up into the starry night sky with what I imagine is a look of wonderment and contentment on his face. This was a tribute to Gene Roddenberry's own childhood. I could just picture Gene as a young man, looking up into the blackness of space for the answers to all of our whys. His childish imagination let him see all of the possibilities to which adults are blind. I believe this is where it all began for Gene and where it can all begin for us.
The Measure of a Man
The Measure of a Man (season 2, episode 9) argued the definition of sentience or what it means to be a life form worthy of human rights. In this episode, a scientist wants to dismantle Data and study him. His goal is to create more androids; something which scientists have not been able to replicate since Dr. Soong. Data and his brother, Lore, are the only ones of their kind. Unfortunately, this makes the scientist less skilled than Data would like, especially since he would be putting his life on the line.
When Data refuses to be dismantled, Starfleet orders him to submit, leading him to quit Starfleet. This doesn't stop either the scientist or Starfleet from pushing the matter further. In fact, they claim Data has no legal right to refuse because he is their property. The argument goes: As a machine, created by humans, Data is the property of Starfleet and does not have the same privilege of choice as do humans.
This leads to a trial, where Captain Picard must prove that Data, as an artificial life form, is sentient. When he examines the scientist, he asks him to define sentient. The scientist describes sentient as being intelligent and self-aware or having consciousness. Picard is able to prove that Data is sentient, being both intelligent and self-aware. This meant that Data—and any others like him—could not be forced to do something he did not want to do or be enslaved. I believe this episode does a very good job of proving that we really aren't as capable as we think—or qualified—to judge whether or not a life form is sentient. In fact, we have a long way to go in understanding consciousness. We're learning every day that some animals exhibit the intelligence and self-awareness to qualify as sentient.
What it Means to Love
The Host (season 4, episode 23) introduces us to the Trill, a life form which lives in symbiosis within a host. While Trill can live for a long time, the humanoid host cannot. When a Trill changes from one host to another, it is still the same being. In other words, it carries the essence of itself—its memories, emotions, and ways—to the new host. The Trill in this episode is known as Odan, and Dr. Beverly Crusher falls head over heels in love with him.
Odan is aboard the Enterprise to negotiate a peace treaty between two peoples. During the negotiations, the host becomes injured and dies. Riker (number one) agrees to become a temporary host for the Trill until a new one arrives. This complicates things for Beverly, who can only see her colleague, Will Riker. After struggling with what to do, and with Riker-Odan being very persistent, Beverly gives in to her desires. She maintains her relationship with Odan through Riker.
When the new host arrives, it's quite a shock to Beverly, who must do the operation and successfully transplant Odan into a female host. Afterward, Odan is all too eager to continue with the relationship, being just as much in love with Beverly. This leads to an awkward conversation between the two where Beverly is forced to admit that she cannot proceed with the relationship. She tells Odan, “Perhaps someday our ability to love won't be so limited.” I think Gene Roddenberry would be happy to know we are on the cusp of that “someday.”
The Opposite of Patriarchy
Angel One (season 1, episode 13) is a planet with a matriarchal society and government. The women of this planet are strong and powerful, and they set very strict rules for men. The men must dress in a certain way and serve at the pleasure of the women. The men are also not allowed to hold positions of power because they are deemed not intelligent enough to rule or otherwise make decisions. The governor of Angel One is Mistress Beada, who has one small problem only the Enterprise can resolve.
One of Starfleet's ships (a freighter, no doubt) crash landed on the planet. Inside the ship was a bunch of men not used to being bossed about by women. Some of the women of the planet began believing men should be treated equally as women. Some of the women, including Mistress Beada's number one, had fallen in love with the stranded travelers. There was going to be a revolution/riot unless the Enterprise intervened and removed the men and women spouting blasphemous equality between the sexes.
Of course, they didn't want to leave the planet. Mistress Beada was one the verge of executing them all when she finally saw the light—perhaps it was Riker's steamy stare down. She agreed to keep them alive on the planet, and to start making some real changes. According to her, it would take a long time, but eventually equality was a possibility on Angel One. I, for one, enjoyed the commentary on feminism by reversing the gender roles. On any planet where men and women aren't equal, there's bound to be dysfunction; no matter who's in the superior role. It's the job of feminists everywhere to make sure everyone has equal rights, economic standing, and a voice in government.
Force of Nature
Force of Nature (season 7, episode 9) answers the question, "What should we do when we find out we've been harming our environment?" In this episode, the Enterprise comes across Hekaran scientists who have been doing some pretty interesting research. The brother-sister team have been studying the affects of warp drive on space. Their research concluded that cumulative exposure to warp energy was weakening the fabric of space in a not-so-good way. They believed continuing to use warp would tear a hole into space, causing absolute destruction.
The problem with their research was that there was insufficient data to prove their conclusions. In order for them to prove it conclusively, someone would have to use enough warp energy to cause a reaction. For obvious reasons, no sane scientist would take that approach. After reviewing the Hekarans' research, Captain Picard and Data offered to assist them by sending it to Starfleet's science board for further review. Serova, the sister scientist, was not pleased with this slow-paced plan. After all, every time someone used warp, they put her planet in danger.
Serova decided to prove once and for all her crazy idea was true. She took her spaceship a good distance from the Enterprise, and then caused a massive warp core breach, which tore a hole into space. After saving the Enterprise from the imminent danger of being sucked into a rend in space, Picard spoke to Starfleet about the risk of continuing to use warp energy. Starfleet decided to reduce their usage of warp and start spending money to find an alternative to warp energy. Just replace warp with fossil fuels, and basically you've started solving the problem of Climate Change. Unlike Serova, we have conclusive evidence that we are killing our fool selves. If only we knew what to do...
Capitalizing on Healthcare
In Symbiosis (season 1, episode 21), the Enterprise gets involved with a trade dispute between two planets. The Omarans are from a planet supposedly plagued by a disease for which only the Brekkians can make medicine. The Brekkians offer their medicine at a very high rate, which has impoverished the Omarans. The Enterprise intercedes when an Omaran freighter is in danger. They are able to bring on board two Omarans, two Brekkians, and a shipment of the medicine before the ship explodes.
Picard and crew must resolve the issue of who owns the medicine, since the payment for it was destroyed with the freighter. The Omarans argue they need the medicine or people will surely die on their planet, while the Brekkians argue they have not been paid. Since the Omarans have already gone bankrupt trying to pay for the shipment, they most likely would not be able to come up with suitable payment. In the meantime, Dr. Beverly Crusher tries to figure out what's wrong with the Omarans to perhaps find a cure, which Starfleet would happily supply for free.
What Beverly discovers is a horrible flimflam. The Brekkians have been supplying the Omarans with an addictive drug, which has awful withdrawal symptoms. The Omarans have been mistaking withdrawal for symptoms of an illness, while the Brekkians have been raking in the profits. This episode proved that any civilized society—like Starfleet—would not leave healthcare in the hands of greedy capitalists. Healthcare is a human right, and not a privilege only available to an elite few.
The Power of Storytelling
In Darmok (season 5, episode 2), Captain Picard must successfully make first contact with an alien race known as the Children of Tama. It's not exactly first contact, since previous Starfleet captains had tried and failed to communicate with the Tamarians. Apparently, the Tamarians communicate in a manner humans cannot understand. Picard hopes to make this meeting successful, but upon connecting with them, Picard still doesn't understand what they are saying. The crew of the Enterprise and the aliens struggle for a few minutes trying to understand each other before the Tamarians beam Picard and their own captain down to the planet beneath them.
The Enterprise, commanded by Riker now, is blocked by the Tamarians from beaming Picard back on board. As the tensions rise between the two ships, Picard and the Tamarian captain find themselves alone on a hostile planet. Their only hope is to learn how to communicate with each other. As the Tamarian captain continues speaking in his bizarre language, Picard begins to understand. The Tamarians do not speak literally. They speak in metaphor by telling and remembering stories from their ancestors. This prompted Picard to tell the Tamarian captain the epic of Gilgamesh.
Through the sharing of stories, Picard learns more about the Tamarians and opens up a doorway into future communications with them. This episode highlights the importance of storytelling in revealing truths about life. The way we use language to impart knowledge, especially through stories, has always been important. It's even more essential now that we don't lose our ability to reveal truth through metaphor as our language begins its descent back into guttural noises and clicks.
The Outcast (season 5, episode 17) introduces us to an androgynous alien race. In this culture, all of the people have evolved to be without a gender. There are no females or males, except maybe there are. Riker discovers that one of the aliens, Soren, has fallen for him and that she has identified as female. She explains to him that on her planet, it is forbidden to identify as any gender. Someone who begins to identify as either male or female must undergo psychological behavior modification. Once he or she completes the program, he or she will become androgynous and be a drastically different individual.
For fear of undergoing behavior modification, Soren has hidden her gender identity from everyone. Riker and Soren begin a relationship, but are discovered. This leads to a trial where Riker and Soren try to defend her identity as female. The counsel will not hear any arguments and they condemn Soren to behavior modification. Riker is forced to leave, but eventually returns to take her away. When he finds her, he discovers he's too late. Soren has already been modified and will not go away with Riker.
Soren explains that she is no longer a her and now deplores the relationship she had with Riker. It was devastating for me to see all of the passion and fire completely gone from Soren. This episode speaks volumes of the importance of not trying to modify a human's true self. Who we are and how we identify ourselves is what makes us each unique. There can only be pain and destruction when we try to change what can't be changed. What we have learned of gender is that it is a flexible construct. Any rigidity on our part will only lead to us harming someone else.
Race is Imaginary
The Chase (season 6, episode 20) has one of the biggest reveals of any other episode; it completely blew my mind. At the beginning of the episode, Picard's old archeology professor, Galen, asks Picard to help him with his work. Galen has been finding similar genetic code across the galaxy, which he thinks might spell out a message. Picard refuses to help him, since he it will take him away from the Enterprise for too long. Galen leaves the ship regretfully, but doesn't make it far. Galen soon dies which forces Picard to finish his work.
As Picard begins to unravel the mystery, he's interrupted by the Cardassians and Romulans, who are on Galen's trail. The Cardassians and the Romulans are trying to obtain all of the genetic clues first, which they think will lead to a weapon. As they try to sabotage each other's efforts, Picard realizes that he's going to have to work with enemies of Starfleet in order to figure it all out. He convinces the Klingons to partner with him and work with the Cardassians to figure out the clues. Eventually, they end up on a barren planet where they decide they can't work together anymore.
Before the fighting can begin, Picard and Beverly figure out the last piece of code and trigger a message from a long ago alien race. The alien projected before their eyes spoke, saying, “Our scientists seeded the primordial substance of many worlds where life was in its infancy. The seed codes directed your evolution toward a physical form...There is something of us in each of you, and so something of you in each other.” In other words, humans, Klingons, Romulans (by extension Vulcans), and Cardassians all share the same ancestor. This means, in reality, they weren't different species; they were brothers. Their ancient ancestor hoped that they had learned to cooperate in the spirit of brotherhood. Could we learn to cooperate with each other here on planet Earth? I'm sure Gene was hoping for just that.
Hope in Evolution
In Transfiguration (season 3, episode 25), the Enterprise rescues a dying man from the wreckage of a spaceship. Dr. Beverly Crusher miraculously nurses him back to health, even though she's sure he should have died. When he regains consciousness, he doesn't know who he is, where he came from, or where he was going. They call him John and Beverly takes a strong liking to him. She is really compelled to help him remember. As his health continues to recover, John begins to manifest surprising abilities along with awful lapses of health.
John can heal people from injuries and illnesses. He can even bring people back to life, but he's experiencing painful, maybe life threatening, convulsions. His body begins fluctuating out of existence, and Beverly is afraid she is going to lose him. While they are dealing with his ailments, recovery, and new abilities, they are also trying to figure out his identity. An alien vessel nearby begins acting hostile, while not returning the Enterprise's hails. The ship scans the Enterprise and then opens a line of communication. John knows the captain of that ship.
The Zalkan ship's captain demands Picard return John to them. He says that John is a prisoner and has broken laws on their planet. They try to negotiate with the Zalkans, but the other ship uses a strange weapon to try to kill everyone on board. John uses his abilities to save the Enterprise, and in doing so, remembers who he is. He is a Zalkan on the verge of evolution. He brings the captain of the Zalkan ship over to the Enterprise and explains to everyone what is happening to him. He says that he is moving to a new plane of existence, which he does shortly thereafter. He transfigures into a more evolved being incapable of dying. The hope for humanity is that we eventually evolve into peaceful beings, capable of healing and giving life. Gene's hope for us was to become like John, transfigured into a new plane of existence.
These are the 10 episodes of TNG I thought highlighted Gene Roddenberry's hope for humanity. There's no doubt he believed we could evolve into brighter, kinder, more peaceful people. From looking into the vastness of ourselves and learning to expand our definition of love to becoming more tolerant of our fellow brothers and sisters, Gene saw the the better half of all of us. I believe in time we can all learn to embrace his vision and go where no one has gone before.