Star Trek: The Next Generation is too straight (and racist)

As a relatively new fan to Star Trek, I’ve been playfully admonished for enjoying the camp and queer-baiting The Original Series (never mind the primitive shaky-cam special effects); I’ve also been told that I would much prefer Patrick Stewart’s Captain Picard to William Shatner’s over-acted Captain Kirk, and that The Next Generation did a much better job of representing minority characters.

I wanted to love TNG as much as I did TOS, but after watching its first 4 episodes, I’m quitting.

“Encounter At Farpoint”

The double-length S01E01–02 “Encounter At Farpoint” was a strange beginning. The plot centers around the Enterprise’s diplomatic mission to secure Starfleet use of the base at Farpoint, while an omnipotent alien called Q threatens to prosecute the Enterprise crew for the crimes humanity committed in then-antiquity.

It is set 100 years after TOS. The original Enterprise’s 3rd successor, the Enterprise-D, is captained by Jean-Luc Picard. The Klingons are apparently friendly with the Federation, judging by the presence of Lieutenant Worf on the bridge. DeForest Kelley makes a guest appearance as Dr Leonard McCoy—now an Admiral—to enthuse the audience. There are more women and not all of them wear short skirts; in fact, in one scene some masculine extras are seen wearing dresses on the Farpoint base. It was the highlight of the episode.

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 If you look closely, you can almost see a non-normative gender expression

We’re introduced to the new characters, who seem quite one-dimensional. The Chief Medical Officer is widowed Dr Beverley Crusher, and her tween son tries to set her up with First Officer William Riker, who does take a liking to the boy. Dr Crusher’s entire characterization is centered around the tragic death of her late husband; she is lonely but competent in her job, a strong single mother yet flustered at her boy’s attempts to stimulate her personal life. We also meet Geordi La Forge, the token black and disabled character, who doesn’t get much characterization beyond being blind-yet-extra-able, able to sense a larger light spectrum than sighted people with the aid of his VISOR. He describes a constant pain caused by the VISOR to Dr Crusher who, with little knowledge of the VISOR, recommends exploratory surgery; La Forge declines. For anyone who’s been to a GP about a ‘specialist’ issue, this scene is too real.

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But Wesley’s sweater game is on point.

The plot is disjointed, jumping between the Farpoint base and the trial of humanity. It transpires that the base at Farpoint is actually a giant shapeshifting jellyfish alien who has been trapped there by the Bandi people who occupy it. Picard proves humanity’s newfound peaceful nature by refusing to resort to force when the captive alien’s “mate” shoots tentacle-lasers at the Bandi.

It ends with the ‘base’ being liberated, joining its mate. They are monogamous. They are color-coded pink and blue, so you can feel comfortable about the normative genders and sexuality of these telepathic jellyfish aliens.

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Verdict: Messy, but I’m willing to give it some time to grow into itself; 2/5 stars

“The Naked Now”

S01E03, “The Naked Now”, is a throwback to TOS S01E04 “The Naked Time”. TNG Enterprise falls victim to the same disease which plagued TOS Enterprise 100 years prior, which removes their inhibitions and makes the crew act intoxicated. In TOS, the crew’s altered state of mind is used to develop their characterizations: Sulu is an adventure-seeking swash-buckling pirate, Nurse Chaplin confesses her tender and quiet love for Spock, and Spock is an emotionally constipated mess who (when not lacking inhibitions) only keeps himself under control through extreme force of will.

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Aggressive heterosexuality

Just like in TOS episode where Lieutenant Riley takes control of the ship, Engineering is commandeered by a drunk young Wesley Crusher who refuses to yield control or let anyone in. In TNG, the intoxication device is used to throw every character with a plot-line into a heterosexual romance: Picard and CMO Crusher; 1st Officer Riker and Counselor Troi; and Chief of Security Tasha Yar and Data (aside: that Data has a gender at all is contentious).

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Troi immediately before Riker literally sweeps her off her feet and brings her to sick bay

Unsurprisingly, given his parallels with Spock, Data saves the day; surprisingly, Wesley is instrumental, guiding the show toward the child prodigy trope. At the end, Yar blushes when she spots Data on the bridge and harshly whispers to him, “It never happened”, as though their world is a dull sitcom. Data is a promising character: pure, curious, and nonjudgemental. Yar’s dismissal of their shared intimacy was unnecessary and weak, and made me despise her.

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Verdict: Heteronormative sitcom trash; 2/5 stars

“Code of Honor”

S01E04, “Code Of Honor”, was the third strike. The plot: an alien race, the Lagonians, has a vaccine desperately needed by Starfleet, but their diplomatic customs require absolute deference on the part of the Captain and Enterprise crew. Ligonians are played entirely by black actors, wearing ‘African’-coded clothing. They are extremely proud despite only having primitive technology and culture compared to 2360s Earth: Ligonians regard women as only useful as keepers of wealth and property (passive), while men defend and uphold their honor (active); and their weapons are poison-laced axes and spiked clubs.

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The Ligonian leader Lutan kidnaps Tasha Yar, Chief of Security and white woman, in a display of dominance—the King Kong trope is impossible to ignore. The entirely non-black rescue party (Picard and Troi, and later Data) juxtaposes the entirely-black Ligonians.

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Lutan declares that Yar will be his “first one” (primary partner), prompting his current first one Yareena to challenge Yar to a duel to the death. Yar, rational and peaceful, meets with Yareena to dissuade her, but Yareena is an Angry Black Woman, unreasonable and blinded by her competitive drive to win the man. Lutan has a potent animalistic sexual attraction that even Yar cannot ignore, though she is able to differentiate between lust and love unlike Lutan who claims to love Yar despite having just met her.

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The battle is long and boring. Lutan watches with pleasure, his male gaze strong. An audience member falls victim to a stray spiked glove and dies. Picard is visibly distraught but the crowd claps, reminding us of their savage nature. Yar eventually defeats Yareena with a fatal blow; both are immediately transported to the Enterprise, and CMO Crusher provides an antidote which “brings her back from the dead”. Lutan decries this as “witchcraft” before he concedes and offers Picard the vaccine.

Why couldn’t the Enterprise reproduce the sample vaccine that Lutan gifted them at the beginning of the episode? Why didn’t Yar refuse to fight?

I could forgive the episode for falling back on a tired TOS storyline, but the racist depictions of black culture as primitive, unreasonable, driven by lust, undeservedly proud, and dangerous to white people is both unforgivable and extremely boring. Perhaps the producers and writers thought that the portrayal of black characters was balanced out by the sympathetic La Forge, but having a token ‘good’ black character only creates the distinction between acceptable blackness and unacceptable blackness. The only decent part of the episode was the allusion to the sexually tense fight between Kirk and Spock in TOS “Amok Time”.

Verdict: Racist tropes and tired plot; 1/5 stars

Abandonment

TNG is so assertively cis-heteronormative that I don’t feel like it’s made for me. Its characters seem like reboots from TOS: Data as the new Spock; Geordie as Uhura (the token black character); Riker as Kirk. Geordie and Data and Wesley’s sweaters just aren’t enough reason to watch the remaining 172 episodes. It doesn’t help that I know that there is not a single canon depiction of queerness in all its 7 seasons—literally no one, human or alien, in TNG universe is anything other than cisgender and heterosexual. These days I’m simply not interested in cishet media.

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Subtext

TOS is by no means perfect: it’s portrayal of POC characters is stiff and tropey, American imperialism is often aggrandized, and some episodes even feature white actors in brown/red face. Maybe the problems with TOS are easier to swallow because they seem more removed from modern social dialogues; brown face is so widely unacceptable today that it’s almost laughable instead of deplorable, but the implied racism in TNG is too similar to today’s problematic media. Even with its problems, I loved TOS: space exploration with a lot of subtext to fuel queer!Kirk/Spock speculation.

One comment

  1. You should note that the first two seasons were almost entirely written by Gene Roddenberry.
    Several writers quit over the ‘straight-jacket’ approach that Gene was taking. Even the music in these episodes was reminiscent of TOS.
    Anyways, by season 3 the remaining writers basically told the network “it’s either him or us”
    Even Patrick Stewart was quoted as having said that he did not unpack his bags during shooting as he believed the writing would ensure that the program lasted only 1-2 seasons.

    Thankfully, the other writers eventually got more input than Roddenbury, with him dropping away from the show, apparently due to health related issues.
    All of the characters were then given their own stories which transformed the show from Roddenberry’s one-dimensional approach.

    All of the hype that people go on about with Star Trek : The Next Generation, is based after the first two seasons. Die hard fans generally gloss over seasons one and two.

    If you think S01ep4 is racist, wait until you watch the episode with the Irish!!!

    Stick with the show. It definitely gets better and more satisfying.

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