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Immersive Media in Star Trek

by Jesse MacKinnon

    Science fiction has frequently taken a skeptical stance on immersive media.  In the halcyon days of the genre, such statements were not particularly bold; after all, such technologies were purely speculative for the majority of the twentieth century, and such narratives were more focused on the nature of reality than the implications for technology itself.  Yet in the last few decades, technology has started to catch up to the storytelling.
    I select the Star Trek franchise in this posting (and likely in for subsequent ones) because it has been such a trendsetter in the genre.  The Trek spinoffs, as well as other popular televised science fiction series such as Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, tend to fail to adequately address the virtual.  Fictional futures are postulated which completely ignore cultural and practical realities of the modern world, such as contemporary music or the internet.  We are led to believe that in the future, communication over a networked system will be rare, and everyone will listen to classical music.
    The holodeck has been the locus for Trek’s discussion of new technology and new media.  The spinoffs utilize it for whatever purpose is needed for a particular episode.  If Worf needs to be doing “calisthenics”, into the double doors he goes; if Picard needs to ride a horse or Data study Shakespeare, there is a visually compelling outlet for these activities.  At the end of the day, it gives the production design team something to do other than craft featureless gray panels week after week.
    Yet in drafting holodeck themed episodes, the writers tend to make value judgments, both implicit and explicit, surrounding the uses that the space is put.  If rooted in a leisure activity from our past, such as vintage literature, characters embrace its use without reservation.  However new narrative content is treated with a large degree of skepticism.
    In Hollow Pursuits, Lt. Barclay relieves his social anxiety by using the holodeck.  In the attached clip, he is discovered by his superior and chastised for his indulgence.  However, this is nominally the first time in the series a character is shown participating in an interactive narrative that is nominally original.  All other depictions in the series are rooted in some cultural form that predates 1950.  True, the characters are in seventeenth century garb, but the story was written by a contemporary character.  This demonstrates a cultural conservatism that belies the ostensibly liberal political outlook of the franchise.  In addition, when La Forge questions the ethical implications of creating avatars of real people, a contemporary viewer might think how this is now common practice in Second Life or The Sims.
    The second clip is from a later episode, The Game, in which the crew of the Enterprise literally becomes addicted to a small electronic device, using it everywhere they go.  Of course it turns out to be a megalomaniacal alien scheme to conquer the galaxy.  Try to tell me that this isn’t really happening now with smart phones.  My curmudgeonly nature aside, the episode still offers a fairly severe indictment of any media that does not involve a violin or a book written before 1950.  In other scenes, the crew is shown in psychotropic rapture over its effects, vastly overstating the case against such media.
    The final clip, It’s Only a Paper Moon, jumps series, but was written and produced largely by the same creative team.   This is the furthest that the series goes in defending immersive media.  After not responding to traditional therapy, friends and family discuss his choice in using the—you guessed it—holodeck to escape from the world.  This kind of media is portrayed in very polar extremes: Nog’s immersion and Bashir’s childish fantasies as opposed to Sisko’s vintage baseball games and Worf’s exercise regimen.
    The point of critiquing these clips is not necessarily criticizing their conclusions.  When characters in Star Trek—or many other television series, for that matter—are shown participating in immersive or interactive media, it is often in a negative context, emphasizing the addictive aspects of that media.  Yet when a character (or a person in the real world) immerses themselves in an established (dare I say elitist) form of media such as Jazz or Literature, they are being dedicated and cultured.  This trend reveals itself most profoundly on Star Trek: a franchise that seeks to be politically progressive, yet culturally remains rooted in the fifty year old mindset that spawned it.

--Jesse MacKinnon

TNG S5E06: The Game

The prescience of Star Trek: predicting the "smart phone."

from The Game (1991)
Creator: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Posted by Survey of Interactive Media
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