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Point/Counterpoint:
Voyager's Non-Removable Discontinuities

by David E. Sluss

23 July 2000

 
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Point

by Dr. Thomas Bieske
Mathematics Department, University of Michigan

Up to the early 1990's, television shows had a subtle dichotomy that has all but disappeared in today's television programming. In yesteryear, a program basically could be classified as one of the two following ways: a show was either a soap opera, or it was not. That is, a program either had continuing stories, or the characters experienced "episodic amnesia". (This is not my term, I read it somewhere many, many years ago, but don't recall where.) A soap opera was marked, at first, not only by continuing storylines, but by its daytime airing.

As television progressed into the 1980's, anomalies such as Peyton Place became commonplace as Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, et al became primetime soaps. Then, the distinction became that shows were either soaps (continuity) or episodic amnesia. It should be noted that episodic amnesia is not a full reset at every episode, for any change in premise was still carried through and that recurring characters were evident, but rather events, feelings, situations and their consequences are forgotten one week to the next as problems are solved and consequences paid in one hour (drama) or half hour (comedy). (During sweeps, special problems could take longer). This is reflected in shows such as A-Team, MacGyver, Little House on the Prairie, Dukes of Hazzard, Six Million Dollar Man, MASH, et al up through the 1990s. Characters would find their soulmate, suffer injury, experience pain, or meet new friends, all of which was forgotten in the next week. In particular, it is easily seen to be part of the original Star Trek; "City on the Edge of Forever" is a classic example; no one ever (to my knowledge) brings up losing the love of  Kirk's life.

By the 1990's, there developed a blurring of the distinction, and now many "non-soap" shows have arcing storylines, long lasting consequences and continuous conflicts, even Saturday morning cartoons. X-Men, Spiderman, ER, West Wing (good show, on opposite Voyager), Law & Order, Newsradio, to name a few have all done this. this relates to Voyager this way: Voyager writers are writing with episodic amnesia for some reason (e.g., they were taught that way, the original series did it, etc) in an era when it is out of style for most TV shows. It is not that the writers are incompetent or hacks, but rather that they are like Bjorn Borg refusing to give up his wooden racket--painfully out of touch with the modern era. they are rotary phones, CB radios, and typewriters, products of a bygone era who cant or wont grasp their lack of functionality in the modern era of television. That is why any Trek series will be doomed to fail and never match the expectations of the public.

Now, to those who say "What about the quality of TNG?" I say, recall TNG aired 1987-1994(?) and their stories had sufficient continuity to fit the era. Except for the Borg episodes, many episodes are self-contained, even when they beg for follow-ups (Picard's son, the alien creatures infesting humans and sending a signal to their home planet, to name a few). In the modern era, there would be subsequent updates of these storylines, with the consequences of these episodes appearing throughout the series. However, notice the major breakdowns occurred in the later DS9 and Voyager, as the television culture not only (generally) dumped episodic amnesia, but enough time had elapsed so that a whole generation of TV viewers has matured has grown up without expecting it, making it much more obvious, especially when compared to Babylon 5.

In short, the problem with Star Trek is not the writing quality, but rather the writing culture. Until this culture in brought into the modern era, a Star Trek series will only be a poor substitute for good science fiction for the viewing public.


Counterpoint

by David E. Sluss
The Cynic, Recovering Mathematician

I agree with much of what Dr. Bieske has written (which may make this a poor choice for the inaugural Point/Counterpoint feature, but I digress). Storytelling on television has indeed evolved, and Star Trek has not evolved with it. I touched on this issue in my "Franchise's Future" article, posted last year at Trek Nation, noting that "Today's Star Trek, despite the sci-fi look and feel, appears stodgy and pedestrian, and is about as ground-breaking as Murder, She Wrote." Continuity is only one problem, but it's the one that we're addressing here.

There are two types of continuity that of concern here, in my opinion: continuity of story and continuity of character. Voyager is failing on both counts. In terms of continuity of story, well, the numerous lapses are pretty well documented in three years worth of Cynics Corner Reviews. A lot of them, admittedly, are pretty trivial, and much of Voyager can and does succeed as episodic television. But Voyager, despite the comments of some True Believers and even Executive Producer Brannon Braga, is a series that demands story continuity at a certain level. The most grievous mistakes in this regard have been the various "New Geography of the Week" errors that I've documented over the years. The reason is that they are in direct contradiction to what should be Voyager's overall story, namely the attempt to make it back to Earth. Episodes that ignore the amount of distance Voyager has traveled and past accomplishments in that regard are offensive because they essentially destroy the series' very reason for existing.

In terms of continuity of character, when was the last time anything happened to a Voyager crew member, and it actually made them change or evolve? With the Doctor and Seven of Nine as notable exceptions, no one ever seems affected by the things that happen, no matter how significant or traumatic.

Dr. Bieske mentions The Next Generation, and cites it as a product of its time, in which episodic television was the norm. That's true to a certain extent, but even before TNG, the writing was on the wall for episodic television, with "arcing" shows such as Hill St. Blues and L. A. Law already having changed the way people write (and watch) television. Even at that, TNG did better at continuity that Voyager does, and Dr. Bieske underestimates this, I think. It's not just the Borg, but The Klingon civil war, Worf's saga, Data's evolution, Picard's growing humanity, and other storylines showed that TNG could and often did use continuity (of story and character) when it was necessary. It's ironic, considering that TNG's premise ("Seek out new life," etc.) didn't demand continuity the way Voyager's does. TNG's continuity wasn't perfect, of course, nor is any series' (my beloved Law & Order, for example, botched it royally with the Jamie Ross character; one season she's for the death penalty, the next, she flip-flops for no reason), but I can respect the attempt.

I disagree with the notion that Voyager's writers can't do continuity (and also with the idea that they aren't "incompetent or hacks," but that's not the point here). Their comments make it clear that they have an active disdain for even attempting continuity and that they simply won't do it (as opposed to DS9's writers, who seem to have really wanted to do arcs, but were vetoed at almost every turn by Rick Berman and various Paramount Suits). Why they have this attitude, when it is so out of touch with the reality of television today, is inexplicable, and reflects a disdain that the writers have for the viewers; Star Trek viewers, more than viewers of virtually any other series, care a lot about continuity, and yet the writers blithely ignore it.

I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Bieske's comments about Star Trek's writing culture, and I think that the "writer inbreeding" theory that I cited in the "Franchise's Future" article feeds into this as well. I also agree that if Star Trek's writers don't "get with the program" soon that the next series and the Franchise itself may very well fade into obscurity.

  

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