Thursday, March 24, 2022

Should I Let My Kids Watch "Star Trek?"

Being a parent in the age of peak television/peak streaming has its positives and negatives. On the one hand, we are no longer beholden to a broadcast schedule, with a limited number of choices being shown only at particular times, which makes homework and after school activities more tricky to navigate. We can choose from hundreds of shows, tailoring our viewing to our preferences, and watch them at exactly the times that work for us!

The problem, then, is that very thing - choosing what to watch, and figuring out our preferences. What should my kids watch? What levels of action, violence, sexuality, and adult themes are appropriate? Should they watch "Star Trek?" 

To explore strange new worlds... to seek out new life and vaporize it in a
bloody cloud when it crosses you.



"Star Trek" is a tricky thing to pin down these days. The people at CBS/Paramount would have you believe that "Star Trek" is a vast, cohesive universe of dazzling variety, and you should subscribe NOW in order to access it!

But this is a lie. "Star Trek" is really two distinct things at a minimum - a vast, cohesive universe of dazzling variety; and whatever the hell they've been doing since 2009.

So we have been watching one of these Star Treks with our boys (who are 10 and 7), but have been shunning the other "Star Trek." I don't think it's a big surprise that we have not watched any Post-2009 "Star Trek" with our kids, given the tone of my own reviews of it. But am I therefore a bad parent? Am I withholding something vital and modern and cool from my children? How can I defend this decision?

Gratuitous, Contextless Violence

Kurtzman Trek is violent (I will hereinafter refer to Post-2009 "Star Trek" this way, because it's easier to type and it identifies the most culpable perpetrator). Characters murder each other, frequently in non-self-defense situations. People break each other's necks. People crush each other's skulls. People decapitate one another, including one instance of an infant being decapitated. People gouge out eyeballs on screen.

But wait, you say, wasn't Star Trek also violent? Didn't people get dissolved with phasers, and didn't Picard and Riker explode the alien-infested Dexter Remmick's head that one time?

Let me explain by defining two concepts: gratuitiousness and context.

What does it mean for something to be gratuitous? It means that it needn't have happened to advance the story. It also has something to do with the way the violence is depicted on screen - did it need to be shown in such gory detail?


Not even the goriest picture from this scene.

Yes, Star Trek is violent at times. Characters have space battles, fire phasers at one another, Tasha Yar got killed by a sentient oil slick, and Remmick's head did go boom. But only very rarely is it ever gratuitous (I'll grant you Remmick). I can think of many examples of non-gratuitous violence. In "Chain of Command," for instance, Gul Madred tortures Captain Picard over an extended period of time to try and extract defensive information from him. But this violence has two important features - it has a specific point in the story (to demonstrate that torture is bad and ineffective, and to show that Cardassian fascism is corrupt), and it is bloodless - only Patrick Stewart's acting shows us that he is in pain.

That brings me to my second point - context. We live in a violent world. Sometimes it is incumbent on our media then to show us this violence, and to place it in context. Why did it happen? Was it right or wrong?

For me, violence in entertainment is something that can be shown to children when it is contextualized. When villainous characters engage in violence, it should be clear that the hero characters, society at large, or at the very least the perspective of the writer/narrator, disapproves of this. If and when hero characters engage in violence, there should be a clearly articulated reason and moral justification. And when either happens, the consequences of that violence should be clear to the viewer - the pain and suffering it causes, both to the victim and to the perpetrator. An example of this sort of context is TNG's "The Wounded." The violence isn't even shown on screen, but we see a Cardassian soldier and Chief O'Brien bonding over the damage that the war's violence inflicted upon each of them. The message is clear: Wars are bad and violence hurts people on both the inside and the outside.


Pictured: "Star Trek" circa 2020

 

Now, don't get me wrong - gratuitous, contextless violence can be entertaining. It can be fun to want a bad guy to get killed in an ironically entertaining way. It can be interesting from a technical perspective to see how an effect simulating such violence is achieved. But I don't let my kids watch the Terminator movies, Robocop, Total Recall, Freddy or Jason, or Game of Thrones. And quite frankly, I think Kurtzman Trek is frequently in that territory of gratuitous, contextless violence. The violence is the entertainment, as opposed to a feature of the story that needs be there, but is treated with the minimum of prurience (Michael Chabon even says as much in this interview, in which he tries to intellectualize the level of violence in the story by cooking up a bunch of thematic justifications that are not actually present in the story on screen).

When Elnor kills person after person in Picard Season 1, it is never indicated that his having decapitated someone or slit their throat is particularly justified by the situation, nor that he really bats an eyelash at it. He never suffers repercussions or emotional consequences. Indeed, by Season 2, he is a happy Starfleet graduate and everyone loves him. If I knew that the student sitting next to me had personally decapitated dozens of living persons, I would be uneasy to the point of dropping the class and complaining to the administration. That's context, and Kurtzman Trek almost entirely lacks it. 

Incoherence

Children are learning. Every day, they will astonish you with what they have gleaned from the world, the thing they listened to you say and internalized, and it's terrifying and wonderful. So in addition to whether or not they should absorb the lessons related to violence, I think there is another thing to be mindful of - the idea of story.

Children are also storytellers. They never stop, really. It's quite entertaining, but it also is an evolving process. Listening to a 2 year-old tell a joke is very different than listening to a 7 year-old or a 12 year-old. It is clearly something they learn and develop over time. And coherence is a main factor in this evolution - a story coheres when it proceeds logically from point A to point B, when the listener can form expectations based on the information presented, and either have those expectations confirmed or become surprised by the outcome. But when a story lacks coherence, when things happen for no apparent reason, when individual portions of the story do not relate to each other, it can be very mentally trying on the listener.

As I have indicated on many occasions, I think Kurtzman Trek stories are often incoherent in this way. Sometimes it's due to "Incompetent Juggler Syndrome," when someone tries to keep too many balls aloft in the air at once. No ball receives enough attention, and then all eventually come crashing to the floor in a heap of incoherence. Discovery is a chief offender with this - I have often lampooned the "Culber/Stamets Minute" portion of an episode, in which their relationship is given 60 seconds or so of screen time, with the expectation that it will engage the viewer and get them to care about the characters. But these scenes were often completely divorced from the plot of the episode they were placed in, which ends up doing a disservice to both stories.

The other major sin of Kurztman Trek in storytelling for me is what I call the "Story Blender." It seems as if there was a planning session for the season, which in the age of "peak TV" can only mean a season-long arc. In this planning session, people threw out ideas and someone wrote them onto a whiteboard. Everybody agreed to them and congratulated each other on their cleverness. They were incorporated into a pilot episode, which promised the viewer explorations of half a dozen themes. Then... nothing. Incoherent, drip... drip.... drip storytelling (in which characters allude to something Deep and Dark and Terrifying but always end the conversation before revealing it to the viewer) and gratuitous action scenes take up all the time of a 10-13 episode season. Then, in either the penultimate or final episode, someone remembers the whiteboard. "Oh, crap!" someone on the writing staff yells. "We have to wrap up all these stories!" And so a finale episode is hastily slapped together, in which half of the story ideas are completely ignored (for instance, the refugee crisis in Picard Season 1), while the other half are "explained" by making them the paper-thin justification for this or that event in a previous episode (for instance, the Kelpiens learning to fly spaceships off screen and coming to the rescue at the end of Discovery Season 2). Frequently, character beats will be added to make us feel things - Seven and Raffi hold hands at the end of the Season 1 finale of Picard... why? They had no scenes together at any point prior. Ariam sacrifices herself and everyone has an extended funeral for her... but we the viewers don't know her and thus have a hard time caring. It's like taking ten pages of notes and blending them together into a fine paste. Maybe a few pieces still stick out, but they're not in an order that renders them sensible or effective. Other ideas disappear into the mush entirely. 

 

Pictured: Space Mush Pew Pew!


TNG focused on character stories, too. But there, a character would get a whole episode to solve the problem of the plot, learn a lesson along the way, and grow as a person. It was really gratifying to see Data learn how to use persuasion in "The Ensigns of Command," or to watch Counselor Troi coming to understand the difficult aspects of command in "Thine Own Self." By late in the series run, you could point to practically any given show and say "this is a Geordi episode" or "this is a Crusher story." Stories had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and demonstrable character growth and learning occurred.

I think children need this sort of structure to help them order the world. The world is chaotic and messy some times, but we all need to find the moral of the story, the takeaway lesson, or we risk becoming depressed and angry about our state of affairs. Stories can offer us that sort of narrative structure, which is what makes them so powerful and transporting. Kurtzman Trek lacks this. If anything, it's just as if not more chaotic and messy than the real world, and transports us nowhere.

Lack of Idea Content 

In addition to being character stories, the best Classic Star Trek frequently featured interesting moral quandaries, allegorical portrayals of current concerns, and heady science fiction ideas. For instance: "Pen Pals" gave the "non interference" directive a humanoid face. "The High Ground" humanized the people using terrorism to fight an oppressive regime. "A Taste of Armageddon" showed the absurdity of the nuclear arms race and Mutually Assured Destruction. "Ethics" tackled the morality of assisted suicide and cultural relativism. "The Cloud Minders" investigated the class system and income inequality. "The Quality of Life" asked tough questions about the moral agency of artificial intelligence. "11001001" showed us how dependence upon technology could become a fatal weakness. "Hollow Pursuits" and "The Game" showed us how modern technology could lead to addictive, antisocial behaviors. "Homefront" and "Paradise Lost" showed us how a liberal society could be subverted into a repressive one due to its fear of attack from the outside. "Force of Nature" showed us how modern transportation technology might degrade the environment.

 And they didn't even have to gouge his eyeballs out to do it.

 

What do all of these have in common? Ideas. A central idea motivates each story, is investigated over the course of 45 minutes, and gives the viewer food for thought. One of my favorite things about growing up with Star Trek was watching it with my family, and then talking about what the episode was about and where we stood on it.

What is Kurtzman Trek about? As indicated above, frequent allusions are made to Big Ideas, like War or Refugees or Slavery, but these ideas are given precious little chance to breathe in the plot of the seasons themselves. Too much time is given over to big, dumb action scenes or incoherent plot twists (the hero you liked is actually an ALIEN VILLAIN!!!) For example, take the tardigrade creature in Discovery Season 1. This creature was captured and used to navigate the mycelial network of the universe (which... yeah). For about 3 minutes of one episode, someone showed concern about it. But that scene abruptly ended, the Discovery Crew used the creature's DNA (or something) to successfully steer the ship thereafter, and it was never mentioned again. It was all over before I could feel anything about the creature, and neither viewpoint as to justifying the creature's use was fleshed out in a complete and charitable way. I don't know who to agree with, because I was never presented with either case!

Swearing

Obviously, people in our world swear. It is a part of our current culture. There used to be stronger social inhibitions about it, but these have fallen by the wayside as a more permissive culture has taken hold. Now, I'm not entirely against this. Allowing for differences in speech, expression, and lifestyle can help a society remain vital and evolving. 

But just like gratuitous violence, gratuitous swearing doesn't do any of these good things, and probably leads to bad things. What is the point of Tilly saying "that's really fucking cool" in Engineering? Was anything added to her character or to our appreciation of science beyond her simply saying "that's really cool?" In Picard, we have every character, including Picard himself, sprinkling their speech with "bullshits" and "goddamns" after the prior season of "shut the fuck ups" from the Admiral. 

 

Pictured: Strong Female Role Model

And so we have choices to make. Children emulate what they hear. Are these stories worth putting up with and trying to correct the sorts of examples they will be exposed to?

See above for the answer to that.

The Problem of Time 

There is so much television. There is enough TV to fill every evening and weekend of every child's formative years, and then to have twice that left over. So what should we choose to spend that time on?

I am very happy to have watched TOS, TNG, VOY and DS9 with my family as a kid. It was a show that a child could be thrilled by but that an adult could find completely engaging. It edified, challenged, and entertained us, while still leaving me enough time to do other things with my day.

Kurtzman Trek is a waste of that precious, limited commodity. It doesn't teach lessons, it doesn't inform. It lacks imagination and positive role models. It doesn't spark the imagination so mach as it pummels it into an insensate pulp. It valorizes murderers and psychopaths. It pumps gratuitous, contextless violence at us, numbing us to its horrors. It is loaded with pointless profanity.  

So the answer for me and my family is yes, we should watch Star Trek, but no, we should not watch Kurtzman Trek.

The Exception

Prodigy is delightful, has complete and coherent stories with character development, lacks gratuitous violence and swearing, and even sprinkles in a few big ideas here and there. Why is it that the only current show that feels like Classic Star Trek is a Y7-rated children's show?

Pictured: Nice People Trying To Do Good Things

3 comments:

  1. I don't have kids, but I agree with everything you say. The swearing I agree with for a different reason: It loses its impact when it's everywhere.

    When Picard takes a moment to be petty to the Sheliak in Ensigns of Command, he celebrates it afterwards with a 'goddamned right!' It shows us that the stoic Picard is just as frustrated with the Sheliak as we have been, and projects another depth of his character. And it only works because Picard is not given to these outbursts, and is usually so logical and fair-minded.

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    1. Indeed, I wouldn't let other adults watch Kurtzman Trek if I could prevent it ;-)

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  2. Star Trek The Next Generation on Blu-ray is like going to a favourite restaurant that's been around for thirty years. They have new drapes, carpets, table cloths and plates. Though it still looks a bit old fashioned at times. Then they bring you a meal and it's the most succulent amazing food you have ever tasted. Perhaps not every single dish on the menu is to your favourite, though usually still decent. But when you order a favourite meal it really knocks your socks off.

    Star Trek Discovery or Picard is like going to a brand newly built restaurant. The insides are spacious and the decor is stunning. You recognise so many wonderful things you like in the new designs. Everything looks so beautiful, you want to be swept up by it all. Then they bring you half a bowl of stale cornflakes. The milk is past its use-by date. Still hungry when you get up to leave, you glance at the kitchen and see the chefs are trying over and over again to make a piece of toast without burning it.

    The toast is a new dish they want to serve you next time called Strange New Worlds. My expectations are extremely low. But a well made piece of toast can sometimes be quite nice. I can't believe it's come down to just hoping for a decent piece of toast.

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