Thursday, April 07, 2005

Set phasers on "bullshit"

About nine years ago, the creators of the various Star Trek incarnations gave the most blatant example I know of something that, in superhero comics as well as popular sci-fi, has become the writer’s most successful tool as well as the writer’s most tired crutch: time travel overkill.

In November 1996, Star Trek: The Next Generation was over, while ST: Voyager and ST: Deep Space Nine were still going strong. Star Trek: First Contact, the TNG cast’s first shot at their own film, was released. It featured, among other things, a trip back to a war-torn, pre-Federation Earth. The same month, Voyager gave us the two-part "Future’s End," in which the Voyager crew traveled to present day Earth, while in "Trials and Tribble-ations," the heroes of Deep Space Nine went back to the "Troubles With Tribbles" episode of the original series.

I’ve never been a huge Trek fan. I’ve always felt, particularly with TNG, there were a lot of moments where the creators came close to greatness but fell flat in execution. When I consider my favorite TNG episodes, the only two examples that spring to mind are time-travel stories: "Yesterday’s End," featuring an alternate universe where the Federation was locked in a desperate war with the Romulans, and "All Good Things...," the two-part series finale in which Picard’s consciousness jumped back and forth between three separate time lines.

I think the reason those episodes stick out in my mind is pretty obvious. In Star Trek, time travel had become the only solution to the problem of stale characterization. There’s only so many times you can beat the audience over the head with "oh he wants so much to be human" Data stories or "he’s so mean yet he’s so nice, oh the inner conflict" Worf stories before everyone but the most loyal fans scream "We get the idea!" and start flipping through TV Guide for Babylon 5 air times. Rather than trying something a little daring, something that might provoke anger from the fans who resist the notion that their favorite characters––like real people––could be vulnerable to change, the Trek Powers That Be opted to reserve the more provocative character exploration for one-shot deals; giving the audience a new, fresh look at the objects of their interest, while at the same time assuring them that the safe, stale bastards would be back the next week in usual form.

What happened with Data is a perfect example. Unlike just about every hardcore Trek fan I’ve spoken to either in person or on the Internet, I actually thought Star Trek: Generations was one of the better TNG films, much better story-wise than either First Contact or Insurrection (though, even Generations utilized time travel). One of the more interesting aspects of Generations was Data’s conflict with his new emotion chip. We’d been given seven years of the same “Data wants to be human, Data tries to be human, Data gets close but is never really human, boo hoo, wah wah” bullshit, and finally the emotion chip gave the character a new direction. Instead of the old reliable tin man, we had a supercomputer on legs with the emotional maturity of a toddler. Rather than explore this further, Trek creators retreated from the new, promising concept faster than their fans could run from conversations with women. With First Contact, it was revealed that Data could switch back and forth from “emotional” to “unleaded” with a little spastic neck twitch. Trekkies everywhere sighed in relief. The same old comfortable horseshit was back.

And if you look at superhero comics–at least in the case of the Big Two’s enduring franchises–for the most part it’s the same deal. Time travel and alternate realities are the easiest roads to critical acclaim. Of course, I don’t mean just stories where characters actually get in time machines and zip to the future or the past. I’m talking about DKR, Batman: Year One, Daredevil: Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue, JLA: Earth 2, Earth X and its various sequels, and Kingdom Come. Young Avengers seems to be getting some good mileage from it, as well as Strange. It’s the entire basis of Marvel’s various “The End” titles as well as the whole “Age of Apocalypse” thing. Supreme Power, its predecessor Squadron Supreme, 1602, Planetary, Astro City, The Authority, What If...?, Marvel’s entire “Ultimate” line, and DC’s “Elseworlds” stories to some extent (some more than others) are giving us alternate versions of old characters. Ask any fan of Peter David’s run on The Incredible Hulk for a list of his favorite Hulk stories and Future Imperfect is bound to be there somewhere (as well as, perhaps, The Incredible Hulk: The End), just as Avengers Forever and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes would be found on most Avengers-fans’ lists (for favorite Avengers stories, not Hulk stories, that’d be dumb).

This isn’t a blast against time travel/alternate reality stories (unless, of course, it comes in the form of Sliders) or stories looking into the future or past of a particular character. Many of the stories I just mentioned are favorites of mine, too. I guess I just question why it’s necessary to traverse all these alternate worlds in order to get the creative freedom necessary to write something refreshing, innovative, and just plain fucking GOOD. Is it just inevitable that any ongoing superhero title must eventually find time-shifting and alternate worlds as its only oasis for provocative change? And if it is, is it the fans’ fault for refusing to swallow something that looks too different from what they’ve been ingesting for years, or the creators’ fault for being too chickenshit to inject the regular monthlies with something new and saying, “This is change. It’s good. Deal with it?”

P.S. I hope readers appreciate how hard I resisted the urge to end this with “or the creators’ fault for being too chickenshit to go where no man has gone before?”

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