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The West Wing and Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Star Trek: Voyager

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Review after review touts The West Wing as a kind of wish fulfillment, where the people at the top of the executive branch actually believe in what they're doing and work on principle.

NBC and Various Networks

Reviewed by Jonathan Sterne

Thursday, July 5 2001, 9:18 PM


Let's get this out of the way. I'm a fan of the The West Wing. I watch it regularly and will even make allowances in my Wednesday night schedule so I don't miss a new episode (though I'll tape if I have to). It's probably my favorite show on television right now. But I have some nagging suspicions I'd like to share.

West Wing has received lots of attention from critics and reporters. This is in part because it is a pretty well-made show and has won some rewards. But if you do a quick search of the archives of the entertainment reporting in the mainstream media, you'll find any number of writers repeating the same bland insight: The West Wing is a kind of fantasy-play, where we get to have a really liberal president. Review after review touts the show as a kind of wish fulfillment, where the people at the top of the executive branch actually believe in what they're doing and work on principle. All this may be true, but I have another reading of the show I'd like to offer.

West Wing is Star Trek in the White House. I don't know about other markets, but in Pittsburgh, the two shows are right up against each other: at 10pm on Wednesdays I can watch Captain Janeway or President Bartlett, but I can't watch them both. It's probably not a conspiracy, but it's a hell of a coincidence. Let's review the evidence.

The West Wing is a show about a small group of largely white professionals who run America's executive branch.

Star Trek (pick any one: the original, the Next Generation, or Voyager � I concede that Deep Space Nine doesn't fit the model as well) is a show about a small group of largely white professionals who run the most powerful starship in the sector.

All of the major characters work in leadership roles.

Both shows have ensemble casts, which means that different characters can be featured in different episodes. Both shows are heavy on dialogue.

Both shows deal with thinly veiled versions of contemporary social problems. Often these issues are resolved through interpersonal interactions among the characters.

If an episode introduces a new character, that person will either become a part of the main cast for some time or be killed in short order.

Major characters go through life-threatening situations. In our enlightened age, they will occasionally show psychic distress, but only when it moves the plot in a useful direction.

Both shows present diplomacy as a fraught enterprise. They want you to believe that they are presenting a humane, nonmilitaristic vision of international or intergalactic relations, but somehow the Marines or the photon torpedos get deployed when the going gets tough. Captains Kirk, Picard, and Janeway and President Bartlett are peace loving, but they kick some ass once in awhile so you know they're tough.

I will grant that there may be other shows that fit this model. But there's something about the affinity between Star Trek and The West Wing. Or maybe it's just because I like to watch both. These shows are stories about the ambitions of the professional-managerial class. On board the starship or in the White House, it's always other people who do the gruntwork. Other people clean out the warp cells and carry out the policy decisions. Meanwhile, the main characters deal with the weight of the world, wrestling with the great problems of our age and overcoming adversity to master the world. To these characters, their jobs are like religious callings. They really believe in what they're doing, and the things they do make a difference in the world, whether we're talking about altering the past or passing stricter gun control laws. Best of all, we've got a menu of main characters with whom we can identify.

This is a classic middle-class fantasy, updated for modern times. The 'great man' version of world history has been updated to include a few women and people of color, but history is still driven by the great individual, standing on the shoulders of the laboring masses. If you don't directly identify with people in positions to make history, at least you'll feel good watching them.

Copyright © 2001 by Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.
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