Tuesday, January 03, 2012

'It is not linear'

OK, so this is going to be a little geeky.

I have been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation from the start, and I've just started watching Star Trek: Deep Space 9. Very quickly wanted to say that the two-part episode Chain of Command is outstanding still. The dialogue between David Warner and Patrick Stewart is strong enough to stand on its own. In comparison, the rest of the plot is rather light unfortunately, but the end - where Picard confesses that he was on the verge of saying anything when he was finally released (and incidentally, the way that throughout TNG, that Picard is depicted as being vulnerable and (dare I say it?) old, is brave in a franchise that is generally dominated by action) was amazing when I first watched and when I watched it again recently. We are used to seeing Picard as being righteous, upright and uncorruptable and to see him fail shakes this fundamental belief. The refusal to resolve all of the issues in the episode with a comforting (often humourous) wrap-up contributes to the long-range plot arcs and character development, and undermines the characteristic 'reboot' of every episode (satirised in, for example, The Simpsons).

This sort of ending became characteristic of a lot of Deep Space 9, (and seems largely rejected by the writers of Voyager), and I quickly grew to love the show, almost obsessively. Having watched most of it all the way through, I had pretty well established ideas about how the plot worked right from the word go, but I watched the first episode 'Emissary' again yesterday and realised that it wasn't as simple as I thought, but it did give rise to some interesting thoughts about the extra-temporal nature of the Prophets.

When Sisko first encounters the Prophets, they do not understand his linear nature. Until this point, they seem totally incapable of understanding time. By looking through his memories, they learn what time means, and therefore how to assess linear beings. So far this is a basic summary of the episode. What interests me is looking at this in light of later developments in the show, particularly in the final series when Sisko discovers that his mother was a Prophet sent to Earth with the mission of giving birth to him. This presents a paradox. If Sisko is the child of a Prophet, then surely they were aware of temporality and linear beings before this point. There are a couple of possibilities (as far as I can see):
  1. The Prophets had either deliberately forgotten or were dissembling;
  2. Sisko's arrival in the wormhole is what caused the Prophets to intervene in linear time, and to send one of their number to become Sisko's mother.
Dealing with extra-temporal beings is always going to be a major headache for any ongoing narrative, especially as they interact with temporal linear beings. If the beings are outside of time, what happens in the wormhole is happening at all temporal points. When the pah wraiths are at war with the Prophets, they have always been at war with the Prophets. There is no distinction for them between what has happened and what will happen. This explains why the conflict between the two races needs to be resolved by an outside party - Sisko needs to return his mother to the wormhole in order to restore the 'balance' (i.e. the Prophets being in control of the wormhole and capable of casting the pah wraiths out - at which point, they have never been at war with the Prophets).

I think that this poses the possibility that the Sisko who first encounters the Prophets is actually not half-Prophet; he is totally human. At some point between Series 1 and Series 7, the Prophets change linear history and Sisko becomes half-Prophet. So much science fiction is resolutely linear, even when dealing with many-universes ideas, so I'm interested in examples that might mess this up a bit. I rather think that what actually happened was that the writers hadn't planned everything ahead and effectively rebooted Sisko's origin story, but that doesn't stop me thinking.

Which brings me on to the whole idea of canon. This has had a stranglehold on the whole Star Trek franchise and has effectively boxed writers into a corner with regards to the familiar Alpha quadrant races, and in order to write an episode, I'm guessing that writers had to learn the whole back-history of all the characters, all the races and the star maps/star ship specifications to avoid any continuity problems. Big pain in the bum and this is presumably why DS9 and VOY explored the Gamma and Delta quadrants respectively [can't remember any references to the Beta quadrant... is it boring there?] but large sections of Enterprise at times felt like a painful attempt to reconcile elements within the Original Series and the same elements in TNG and beyond (e.g. the cranial ridges on Klingons' foreheads). Canon is something that seems to really bug fans of major sci fi franchises and must make writers' lives a total nightmare. Fans seem totally concerned with the 'real'/'true' story - pinning things down totally and utterly beyond discussion or speculation. I guess this is even more frustrating for writers. The 2009 Star Trek film effectively short-circuits canon by changing history with the intervention of Nero and Spock. This basically means that writers can now choose to totally change aspects of characters' back-stories. Of course, this is now being described as an alternative time-stream (wrong leg of the trousers of time?) rather like the mirror universe that featured so much in DS9 (which, ironically, seems to have developed its own canon).

rhizomatic (had to say it) nature of such narratives. Although it messes with our suspension of disbelief, if we accept that these different writers are (ahem) different writers, telling stories about the same bunch of people, there are surely many productive and exciting approaches to story-telling within the franchise that doesn't involve drastic narrative steps (e.g. relocation to the Delta quadrant or the creation of an alternative time line). I'd also say that there are many races (e.g. the Tholians, and the Breen) who could be explored further by post-VOY Star Trek series without requiring too much research and knowledge, and without violating canon.

I hope that, further down the line, a powerful writing team might write a new Star Trek show within the franchise set in the post-VOY universe. I believe that the hiatus was inevitable following 18 years of continuous broadcast, and it was probably healthy for the franchise. What I would love to see is something as tightly (or even more so) through-composed as the recent Battlestar Galactica reboot but I guess that's the problem with being at the mercy of commissioning. And we're back to the problem of currency and money driving and directing everything. We're all capitalism's bitch.

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