It’s hard to remember exactly, but I think I first noticed it back in the days of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It’s even possible it really started in the earlier series, Star Trek: The Next Generation. By the time of the final series, Star Trek: Enterprise, it was definitely a thing, and by then it went way too far.
In the original Star Trek series, Gene Roddenberry gave us Vulcans. They were, in many ways, better than humans. They lived longer, they were stronger and smarter, and — crucially — they were, in some ways, wiser than us. Rick Berman, Roddenberry’s heir apparent, re-wrote that vision to make them conniving, lying, self-interested bastards. In other words, he made them more human.
My question here is: Why did our heroes turn into such assholes?
If we set the Way Back machine to 1966, when the original Star Trek first aired, we find the ever-fascinating triumvirate of Captain James Kirk, Doctor “Bones” McCoy and First Officer Mr. Spock (whose first name is supposedly unpronounceable by humans).
What made them so fascinating was how Dr. McCoy represented the compassionate loving heart, Mr. Spock represented the dispassionate logical mind, and Captain Kirk combined those qualities into rational and balanced leadership.
Part of the point of Spock — and the episode The Galileo Seven shows this explicitly — was that dispassionate logic is not always sufficient. Compassion, empathy, even wild leaps of faith are sometimes necessary.
Spock, and Vulcans in general, represented something crucial. In being better than us they represented ideals. According to canon, Vulcans were once a barbaric race constantly at war. They saved themselves by learning to suppress their aggressive emotions and to replace them with logic.
[The mistake the Vulcans made is that logical thinking, critical thinking and rational thinking are all separate things.]
Roddenberry’s idea here is clear. The Vietnam War was in full swing when Star Trek first aired. John Kennedy had been dead three years, and we were in the first stages of losing faith in our government. (Richard Nixon, in 1994, ensured we would never view our politicians quite the same again.)
In an era of growing disillusionment, Vulcans represented a noble goal. They’d brought themselves up from self-destructive barbarism. Could we not aspire to find a way — a human way — to do likewise?
One of our greatest and most well-known heroic icons, Superman, represented a similar impossibly idealistic goal (or at least he used to). We could never be Superman, but we could aspire to be like him in holding high ideals and in always trying to do the right thing.
But there are those who found Superman a little on the dull side. In contrast, the heroes in Marvel comics had a bit more edge, more real grit, than most of the heroes in DC comics. (DC’s Batman was a darker, much more human, superhero, but unlike some Marvel heroes, he never killed people!)
And while I agree that a bit of darkness makes a character more interesting (that’s Storytelling 101), we seem to have pegged the needle on reprehensible and thrown idealism out the window (if you’re forgive a mixed metaphor).
As the Star Trek franchise developed, Vulcans became more human, more emotional, and more devious. When we finally get to Enterprise, we learn that they covertly use an important Vulcan religious shrine to spy on their neighbors. The idea of a noble people had all but vanished.
What concerns me is two things. Firstly that we seem to have a need to sully nobility. It’s almost as if someone with high goals or abilities puts into stark contrast our own failures of heart, soul and mind. We seem to take comfort in the idea that, yeah, everyone else is an asshole, so it’s okay that I am, too.
Secondly that the assholic characters of today reflect our own increasingly broken moral compass. I am astonished at the moral repugnance of far too many of today’s protagonists.
I am dismayed at how wrong behavior no longer seems to get the comeuppance it once deserved. Heroes do bad things and not only don’t suffer for them, but are rewarded. The lesson seems to be that bad in the service of good is a-okay.
You may disagree with my premise that our media affects us. You may disagree that the violence and immoral choices and despicable roles models prevalent today affect our own choices and views. But I think it’s much harder to disagree that our media reflects our choices and views.
There was a time when TV, movies and even comics reflected the kind of people we wanted to be, the kind of world we wanted to live in. Those days presented a picture that was impossibly sanitized and benign. It didn’t reflect reality so much as what reality could be. It reflected our hopes, dreams and ideals.
What do we see reflected in the media mirror today? I watched Game of Thrones for a couple of seasons, but finally couldn’t take it anymore. The violence is one thing, but the awfulness of the characters was too much. Not one of them, save perhaps Tyrion, was worth knowing.
[To me that makes them not worth watching. I need a story to have characters I like and would like to know. An interesting exception there is Seinfeld. I disliked every one of those characters, but the writing was brilliant and ground-breaking, so the show gets a free pass. GoT isn’t brilliant and doesn’t.]
I filed the show under “Vile Filth” and moved on. Then I found a show so morally repugnant, so utterly vile and despicable, that it makes GoT look like Lord of the Rings. That show is Scandal. Its creator, Shonda Rhimes, has a new show out, How To Get Away With Murder, and that show is just as ugly and reprehensible in its nature and characters.
[I don’t know who watches this seriously fucked up shit, but if you do, I don’t want to know you. Far as I’m concerned, it’s inexcusable and you should be ashamed to allow it into your life.]
These kinds of shows are why Madam Secretary is like a beam of sunshine through the clouds. A show in which people discuss ethical issues and strive to do the right thing. Not the legal thing or the permitted thing, but the right thing.
The main character’s husband is an ethics professor! I loved the episode where Madam Secretary needs her husband to compromise his values in order to save the life of an imprisoned CIA agent. The husband refuses, and by the end of their discussion about values and ethics, she agrees she was wrong to ask.
What’s so refreshing is avoiding the tired cliché of a character first doing the wrong thing, getting burned and then learning an important life lesson about doing the right thing. That’s stuff you should have learned in Kindergarten (or by watching Star Trek in the 1960s).
Madam Secretary is not alone — there are other shows with characters who strive to operate with good values. To me, it does seem to stand a little above the crowd in having such clearly high values. Its idealism is what reminds me of The West Wing, a show many still revere exactly because of the high values espoused by its characters.
One reason I love NCIS is the values of its main character, Jethro Gibbs, and how he lives those values and expects them in others (I also love it ’cause it’s really good).
The shame, at least to my eyes, is that so few of our heroes seem to share those values. What worries me is the perception that we’ve given up on idealism, that we’ve given up on high goals.
Maybe that’s a mountain peak we can never quite reach, but isn’t climbing it a worthy effort?