Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Star Trek Crash Course

Star Trek is great. If you're reading this, you probably already know that. You also probably like roleplaying every setting that inspires you, and if Star Trek does one thing, it's inspire people. The question is this: How do you get your non-Star Trek friends to "get" Star Trek?

Whovians have it easy; the adventures of the good doctor from Gallifrey are fantasy in space. The only rules that apply are those of drama. Similarly, Mass Effect mostly nods to the science requisite to serve its actiony, genre-packed, Tolkienesque setting.

Star Trek was never smart enough to commit to either strict continuity or pure drama. There are hard rules to Trek, but drama, imagination, and morality tales take turns dragging those rules into a corner and working them over violently with spanners.The setting is packed with technologies and ideas that should change the universe's functions fundamentally. In Star Trek, the airplane would have been discovered, used to bomb Washington D.C.,  then thwarted by a sailing vessel and never been explored again in favor of slightly more ergonomic sails. It's a fucking mess.

None the less, dilithium, transporters, phasers, and antimatter form the cornerstones of the setting. There are also a number of principles which separate the citizens of the 24th Century from those of the modern day world.
The best way to tackle this--reasonably--is with a 10-episode crash course which covers the technologies, attitudes, and races of the setting. It sould show the best of Starfleet while not requiring everyone to watch every episode. 

Good episodes don't necessarily count. Fifth season openers with extra drama and no aging lead cast members don't count. I love both halves of Best of Both Worlds, but only the first one covers the analytical nature, interpersonal conflict, and technobabble of the setting. Waltz is clearly, amazingly good, but it doesn't cover the points we need.

Some first-draft thoughts:
City on the Edge of Forever (The Original Series): There are crazy medicines in the future that do whatever the plot needs sometimes. There are also time waves and artifacts from ancient civilizations. There isn't always a happy ending; sometimes a price must be paid. Deal with it.

Errand of Mercy (TOS): It introduces The Romulans and there's significant discussion about Vulcans as well. Errand of Mercy is also about duty and showing that Trek villains can be nuanced people of honor. You can see that humas are still a bit racist, but those guys are generally regarded as crazies.

Peak Performance (The Next Generation): This episode plays well on Starfleet's tendency to dance on the line between being a space military versus a scientific organization who explore some things with photon torpedoes. It also shows how Starfleet officers use ingenuity and almost-but-not-breaking-the-rules to get the job done. Also some pretty straightforward technobabble.

Disaster (TNG): Every member of the crew is thrown out of their comfort zone. Troi has to choose between the safety of some or trusting the lives of the entire ship to the rest of the crew. Generally, it involves more ingenuity and some technical discussion. It's also a hella good episode.

Galileo Seven (TOS): An underrated classic episode, it focuses almost entirely on the Vulcan psyche. There's crew conflict, interactions with native species, discussions about loyalty, and a number of desperate plans to fix a damaged shuttlecraft.

Destiny (Deep Space Nine): While the Defiant tries to work with Cardassians to create a telecommunications array through the wormhole, the Bajorans start freaking out over prophecies. Allies and enemies are oddly swapped and there's technobabble galore, intrigue, and clear conflicts between religion and science that are de rigueur for Deep Space Nine, but also representative of Star Trek's take in general.

Our Man Bashir (DS9): Put down the bottles and chains. A one-off parody episode set on the holodeck isn't the first thing you think of when you think "Essential Star Trek," but hang with me here. Holodeck episodes are a staple. Unless you're going to go with the TNG pilot episode "Encounter at Farpoint" or the one with Moriarty, then you're picking the least sickly of the residents at Madame Soapless' Orphanage and Medical Waste Dump. Second, there's some of the stretchiest stretches of Star Trek science in here, genuine character conflict, and if someone who doesn't like Star Trek watches Our Man Bashir and doesn't like it, then you know they're just being contrary. 

For the Cause (DS9): Integrity. There's nothing else really significant about this episode except that Eddington sacrifices his career in Starfleet for industrial replicators, Sisko orders an investigation into his girlfriend for an unthinkable crime, and when all is said and done, Kassidy Yates turns herself in because it's the right thing to do. People do what is right, and they pay the price for it.

Symbiosis (TNG): An excellent entry for The Index of Star Trek, specifically, "Prime Directive, Workarounds." It is a classic Star Trek allegory, demonstrates the general good will of The Federation, and has a discussion about the principles of The Prime Directive weighed against consequences that affect the lives of millions on principle. Not a great episode on it's own though.

The Omega Directive (Voyager): I haven't seen this episode, but then I haven't seen a lot of Voyager. Apparently, Janeway has a job to do, sacrificing science for the safety of the galaxy. Seven of Nine contradicts her because she believes the science can be controlled. Again, I haven't watched it, but it seems like one of the episodes of Voyager that actually seems to have a good idea buried under all of the excessive amounts of Janeway and Seven, but nestled firmly above the atrophying layers of Torres and Kim. Also, they talk about the Borg, and they're somewhat important to the setting.

Again, this is just a first draft. I haven't seen a lot of Voyager and Enterprise, but I wouldn't be (too terribly, incredibly , unbelievably) surprised if there were some good episodes in there.


SkilTao said...

Whom Gods Destroy (TOS): Kirk visits a war hero in a psych ward, who has secretly taken over the psych ward. It says some things about Federation society, Starfleet integrity, involves techno gimmicks and a "Kirk and Spock get captured" plot, and is generally fun. The ship and crew have only a token presence though.

Conundrum (TNG): The crew lose all self-knowledge and have to discover their talents & responsibilities as they proceed forward on (false) mission orders. Treads some of the same ground as Disaster.

These are two I watched recently (along with the DS9 time-travel ep where Sisko impersonates a historical figure).

DS9 or Voyager don't come to mind easily; Enterprise I'd just use as a back up in case you have a quality you can't find a good enough example of in the other series.

VanVelding said...

Aw man, Whom Gods Destroy was on the short-list but I took it off because I assumed I was fanboying on account of it being Kirk and Spock doing Arkham Asylum. Definitely considering putting it back on. Especially now that you mention the Federation society angle. Just don't know what I'd bump off for it? Galileo Seven? Omega Directive?

Conundrum is another classic. It has a lot more of the natural curiosity of the crew, their desire to understand things, and just where Picard follows the line with regard to his orders. Disaster is probably a better character episode, but Conundrum is probably a better episode for a newbie. Also, you can have the uninitiated watch if first. ;)

The two with Gabriel Bell are pretty great. In researching this, I ended up rewatching the two-parter where Changelings get to Earth and Admiral Leyton plans a coup. Fucking crazy-relevant post-9/11 commentary, written circa 1997.

SkilTao said...

Natch, forgot about the ten-ep limit... yeah, leave Whom Gods Destroy as an alternate, pending how other things shake out.

Have you seen Voyager's 2-part ep The Killing Game? I think it covers multiple bases.

Also, while I like replacing Disaster with Conundrum, the latter lacks turbolift shafts and jeffries tubes. :/

VanVelding said...

"Killing Game" is the one with the Nazis? Actually a pretty good episode.

On the other hand, I don't remember much "Star Trek" about it aside from the holodeck. The mind-control stuff and the "folks die, but get fixed" thing don't work for me.

They're like the brain computer/split personality lady from that episode of DS9 and the transporter rifle. Yeah, sure, why not? But not the norm.

VanVelding said...

And yeah, I know that in The Naked Time, McCoy brings Kirk back from death. The Naked Time is as classic as Star Trek gets before you get to a scene where Spock does the Vulcan mindmeld on a red shirt that died while Kirk was having sex, but with the exception of the aforementioned redshirts, death should carry some weight in Star Trek.

Remember that time Picard gets shot with an arrow and--actually, bad example.

How about Vedic Bareil? When he was dying, they could only prolong it, then maybe upload his brain into a--

What about when Spock died--

Okay, slightly harder than I thought. These guys cheat death all my references are Star Trek references. :(

SkilTao said...

That's the one. I knew it touched a bunch of stuff lightly (Klingons, historical Earth) and was hoping it hit more than it does - I'm trying to think of eps that double up on technologies/attitudes/races, but it's hard going.

Is slice-and-dicing eps an option? A Klingon, Vulcan, Romulan, and Cardassian follow a time-traveled pre-Warp indig into a holosuite...

VanVelding said...

I wish we could mix it up. The goal is for an uninitiated player to watch ten episodes and have a good feel for Trek. Having them jump between would be rough. I guess I could start searching though. ;)

Yeah, the TNG episode Neutral Zone, where they find a bunch of frozen humans from the 21st century while they're facing down resurgent Romulans, is a pretty good one in that it contrasts the philosophies of modern humanity and introduces one of the setting's major powers.

And with all the talk of replicating blankets, plot-related pathology, thumbing their nose up at the letter of law, and Cardassians, Ensign Ro is another strong contender, but then you know I loves me some Ro.