Saturday, August 14, 2010

Star Trek: These Captains Are Too Damn Good

Yes, I'm bashing on Captain Picard.

You're a madman, Kelley! You'll kill us all!

Yes, very likely, but that's not the subject of this post. My complaint about Star Trek is that their characters are too perfect in a military sense. Starfleet doesn't make any mediocre captains. The institution is a complete meritocracy. Anyone in command has fully and completely earned the right to be there.

This is incredibly unrealistic, and can give readers very unrealistic expectations.

Now, you may think I'm complaining about a lack of realism in a science fiction franchise. No, no. I'm complaining about a lack of realism in these characters. We humans are broken things. The dictionary is filled with words to describe our negative character traits. In a captain (the position of ultimate authority in an isolated community) these traits magnify, create conflict, create interest in a story, and Star Trek robs us of that.

A vain captain may require more effort put into the appearance of his ship than in her functionality. A tyrannical captain creates a sluggish, mutinous crew. A grasping or ambitious captain can create an atmosphere of destructive competition.

Yet, we've all grown up watching Star Trek. The captains we've seen have no significant flaws. Captain Picard is the very Avatar of Command. He never loses his temper. He never reaches for glory. He's not shy about combat. He never blames others for his mistakes. For that matter, he almost never makes a mistake. Seriously, can you think of any? I can't. He's an exceptional officer, and we're all quite familiar with him and his habits.

And the other two captains are no better. Sisko hates to lose. In fact, his personality fractures when he starts to lose. But, that sort of flaw works out pretty well when you're fighting a war. Janeway demonstrates obsessive single-minded pursuit of a goal. Well, that's okay if you're millions of light years from home and your task is the safe return of ship and crew. That's like saying in a job interview that you 'work too hard'.

Now let's take your scifi reader. Odds are good they're thoroughly familiar with these characters. These perfect characters. A captain who abuses his authority, even trivially, begs the question from the reader: Who would put this person in command? Without an answer, you run afoul of the reader's suspension of disbelief, and it's all Star Trek's fault.


  1. Oh, had to go there.

    Okay, first off, Picard is hideously flawed. He can't stand children. He's unable to reconcile his feelings and hides behind his work. He has struggled with his brother for his entire life and it took the events of Wolf 359 for him to reconcile his flaws internally and admit that he needed help.

    His refusal to acknowledge his feelings for Dr. Crusher, the guilt of allowing her husband to be killed on his watch, and his inability to come clean with Wesley about this turmoil, despite behaving in an entirely unprofessional manner when it comes to Wesley, outline a complex character worthy of at least a little discussion. He falls for one woman, hard, during the show's lifespan, and she's a criminal!

    So, say what you will, but I have to disagree with your "Starfleet makes perfect captains" comment.

    In the final analysis, give me Picard over Kirk any day. I like this guy.

  2. Nerds.


    I'm sorry, I meant to say...


    Hehe, but this is awesome. Now I wish I had bothered to stay awake to watch Star Trek when my dad did. Sigh. I'll put in my two cents that I liked Kirk better as a child. Seemed more likeable to me.

  3. When we were going through our difficult years of adjustment, the missus would say, "You should be more like Captain Picard,"and I'd say, "I'm growing more emotionally distant by the minute and I'm balding as fast as I can. What more do you want?"

  4. Again, Lou, with the exception of the Wesley Phenomenon (whose plotline finally got axed by the beginning of season 4 once Roddenberry started to decline), Picard's flaws don't affect his ability to command.

    His brother isn't an officer. He has an exec to hide from the children. Ignoring feelings towards a subordinate officer is actually a plus. And who doesn't like a bad girl? (especially a smokin' hot bad girl). Who is also not part of his command.

    Perhaps I should have said these captains in their roles as commanding officers are way too perfect, and give unrealistic expectations to readers. And to people in general! I wonder how many Navy personnel came to this rude awakening upon being posted afloat?

    And, yeah, I preferred Picard. I don't suffer the female weakness for perfect smiles and bad boy attitudes. Now, bad girl attitudes...

  5. Sisko was an interesting character, I thought, in the early seasons. When his hatred of losing conflicted with his diplomatic mission he was interesting. Once the war started . . . well, I guess the war itself was interesting, but Sisko no longer was interesting himself because he lacked conflict.

    Also, Eric you're talking about the Star Trek universe, which falls into a specific category of sf where everyone is perfect at their jobs. I think if you write something that, from the get-go, demonstrates that no one in your story is truly perfect at their job, you can avoid this problem. But yes, sf audiences have gotten used to this situation, so you do have to sway their expectations back towards reality a bit. Sounds like a good mission to have!