Monday, August 22, 2011

Will Riker Syndrome and its discontents

Although most of the civilized world is still mad at Netflix for their ill-considered pricing changes, they're still coasting down a mountain of positive karma in my book for adding the entire catalog of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes for online streaming as of July 1st. Like many a geek from my demographic, the Trek relaunch in 1987 provided some serious formative stuff for my late teen and early adult years, its archetypes and tropes hammered home again and again with every rerun thanks to television stations such as Boston's WQTV (which showed five hours of Trek-- classic and TNG-- every night starting at midnight, a young nerd's dream come true!). Indeed, it wasn't until recently, when I started re-watching some of my favorite episodes on Netflix, that I realized how deep an imprint that Trek had left on my psyche.

When I was younger, I had always fashioned myself after Wesley Crusher; I imagine that many brainy kids my age did the same. Ensign Crusher was a rare thing in the late 80's popular culture landscape: an unambiguously positive nerd archetype. While movies such as Revenge of the Nerds (1984) had begun to point in the direction of a cultural paradigm where the freaks and geeks would in fact inherit the earth (see also any movie from this decade directed by John Hughes or starring John Cusack), it wasn't until TNG that we received our first "post-stereotype" nerd, a kid from the future who presumably didn't get slammed into so much as one locker for being smarter than everyone else in his Area Code. To get a sense of just how revolutionary this was to the children of the 80's, compare Wesley Crusher to Steve Urkel, who was on the air at the same time.

(Okay, in the Ugly Sweater category, it was pretty much a draw!)

If it weren't for Ensign Crusher, I would never have applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I know it sounds stupid, but Wesley Crusher made me believe that I was special like him, a boy genius with a whitebread haircut and a very sad wardrobe. Like Wes, it was just a matter of time before someone recognized my singular talents (like the Traveler did in Episode 1x06, "Where No One Has Gone Before") and whisked me away from this painfully mundane world where kids like me got randomly beaten up in the boys' locker room at high school. If only I had known though that MIT was populated entirely by Wesley Crushers-- not boy genius wannabes like yours truly, mind you, but real live socially-challenged misfits who placed out of all of their prereqs in Junior High and solve quadratic equations in their sleep-- I probably would have run screaming for my parents' basement.

Somewhere along the line, though, I realized that I had more in common with the First Officer of the Enterprise-D than I did with its resident geek. Will Riker seemed to me to be an unlikely role model until I found myself more or less in his shoes (and sporting a beard, no less!)-- a young and ambitious professional whom Fortune had favored with a position aboard one of the most respected institutions of its class. Whereas Commander Riker had ended up on the Enterprise, flagship of the Federation's Starfleet, I landed my first job as a librarian working in one of the largest university library collection in the world. A dream come true, right? Absolutely, yes. But just as Riker struggled with leaving to take his own command, when the time comes to take the next step in one's career, exiting the nest can be a daunting proposition.

I'm trying to remember how many times Will Riker was offered his own commission during The Next Generation's 7-year run, but it was enough that even by halfway through the series his obstinate refusal to leave the Enterprise for the captain's chair elsewhere was raising eyebrows in the ranks of Starfleet (as well as becoming a running joke for the character). I can all too keenly appreciate Will's predicament, however. How do I leave my dream job in order to start from scratch somewhere else? If Commander Riker had his druthers, he would have happily sat on the right-hand side of Captain Picard until he retired... just as would I here at the Big Library. But as Picard himself points out-- in some of the series' finest writing-- that's no way to learn how to be a leader. On the eve of receiving yet another commission (Episode 2x14, "The Icarus Factor"), Riker receives the following advice from his Captain:

I can spell out for you, albeit crudely, what you're choosing between. As the First Officer of the Enterprise, you have a position of distinction, prestige, even... glamor of a sort. You are the second in command of Starfleet's flagship; but still second in command. Your promotion will transfer you to a relatively insignificant ship in an obscure corner of the galaxy. But it will be your ship; and, being who you are, it will... soon be vibrant with your authority, your style... your vision. You know... there really is no substitute for holding the reins.

At the end of the episode Riker decides he's going to stay on the Enterprise after all-- when the Captain asks him why, he responds: "Motivated self-interest. For now the best place for me to be is here." But is it, really? This, folks, is Will Riker Syndrome in a nutshell. To be sure, it's the Mother of All First World Problems (tm), but I can't help but feel Number One's pain. I mean, not only does the guy have to constantly agonize about whether or not he should leave the Enterprise, but even when he is finally handed the Captain's chair (in Episode 3x26/4x01, "The Best of Both Worlds"), his first serious order is to try and destroy his Borgified former boss. Talk about a total mind job!

Lately, however, I've found that I'm making peace with my internal Will Riker. In fact, as soon as Netflix started streaming TNG the first episode I watched was not any of the above but Episode 6x15, "Tapestry," in which a dying Captain Picard is given a chance by the omnipotent trickster Q to relive a fateful moment in his life and perhaps make a different decision than the one he'd actually made as a brash young Starfleet cadet. But when he does end up choosing a wiser and safer path, Picard learns to his dismay that by doing so he had unwittingly deprived himself of learning from one of his greatest failures, with the result that when Q magically transports him back to the present day the Captain finds that he is no longer a Starfleet Captain at all, but a rather shiftless Ensign with little if any prospect for advancement.

It's a fantastic episode, one which I seem to get more out of with repeated viewings. I suppose as one gets older, it becomes tempting to second-guess the decisions which have determined the course of one's career and/or life-- I know that I increasingly feel this way myself. "Tapestry" challenges this impulse, suggesting that we are shaped as much by our failures as we are by our successes (perhaps even more so), and that any attempt to tease the one out of the other nullifies what made us who we are in the first place. For if ultimately we are defined by that which we fall short of, maybe the real problem is that we are not aiming high enough.

So keep your eyes on the stars, my fellow Trekkies/Trekkers! Ugly sweaters optional.

1 comment:

Jessica Olin said...

I struggle with it, too. I was a horrible fast food manager, back in another lifetime, and sometimes I think about that when I think about my next career step. Then again, I've grown up a lot since then. I've been running my own classroom successfully and have chaired committees and lead projects... ad infinitum. This is my second professional librarian position and it's a half step up from my previous (coordinating instruction, but not really in charge of people). It's all a jumble for me now as I enter my 4th year at this place (!!!). I'm letting it stew in the back of my mind for now, since it's the beginning of a new semester, but who knows what will happen.

(Also, as a grown-up I want to be Guinan. She was always so zen about things. Besides - fab hats.)