Wil Wheaton, writing for TVSquad in 2006 (later to be reprinted in Memories of the Future), made this comment about “The Last Outpost”:
Data says Ferengi are like traders, and explains this with the most obvious contemporary reference: Yankee traders from 18th century America. This indicates that, in the 24th century, the traditional practice of using 400 year-old comparisons is still in vogue, like when you’re stuck in traffic on the freeway, and you say, “Man, this is just like Vasco de Gama trying to go around the Cape of Good Hope!”
Because of the changing nature of pop culture and fashion, it’s very difficult to include contemporary references in fiction. Some people do it very well — Seth McFarlane, the writers of Psych and Warehouse 13, Joss Whedon — and some don’t. Others just avoid it altogether — for example, Laurell K. Hamilton is very cagey about exactly what type of phone Anita Blake uses. There are positives and negatives to both; catching an old rerun of Family Guy will remind you just what didn’t hold up a mere ten years ago.
But Star Trek pretty much avoided it altogether by focusing on high culture. No one listens to Elvis or Bruce Springsteen; their music of choice is Beethoven or Mozart. No one reads James Patterson or Danielle Steel; it’s always Shakespeare or Conan Doyle. The one time TNG tried to do 21st-century history and fiction, they failed miserably with “The Royale”. The only time we ever heard anything even close to contemporary was in First Contact, because Cochrane liked classic rock. We did occasionally see glimpses of the 40s with Dixon Hill, but that was about it for 20th century fiction.
And then there were the clothes. There’s a particularly-funny piece of Buffy fanfic* called “Stupid Portal” where, after being transported to the Enterprise along with Spike, Buffy comments on the lack of any sort of clothing or media made after 1960 or 1970**, and it’s true. No one ever wore jeans, and shoes were either sandals, slip-ons, or boots. What happened to sneakers (what they call “trainers” in the UK)? What happened to sensible outfits for going to the park? Did you see the ridiculous outfit Deanna wore in “Menage a Troi”? I could buy Riker in a long-sleeved shirt and pants, but that dress? Redonkulous. At least on Risa Picard was able to let his hair down, so to speak, and it was good to see the Ferengi continuing the tradition of horrible Hawaiian-style prints.
I think I’ve put my finger on the problem, mostly by thinking about more recent sci-fi: TNG, as per Roddenberry’s instruction, was supposed to be utopian. Everything had to be good and pleasant and happy. Once he passed on, we got more realistic shows like Deep Space Nine, where things were gritty and dirty and people made mistakes that stayed with them for several episodes, but TNG was overall kind of bland. No one had problems that lasted more than an episode — even shows like “The Bonding”, where a child character’s parent was killed, didn’t go back and revisit said kid. It was just like, oh, okay, we’re done with that storyline now. When you live in a world like that, why would you write music about anger, or pain, or hurt, or love, or lust, or loss? Why would you put together a play with the emotional impact of Les Miserables? Why write a novel about space pirates when you live on a ship so powerful that pirates won’t even bother trying to board your home?
It wasn’t until the later shows — DS9 and Voyager — where people regularly made new media. On TNG, Data tried to write poetry, and Beverly staged plays, but that was about it. Picard learned to play the flute and only played old songs from Kataan or Earth composers. Riker was a jazz trombonist, a style of music that hasn’t changed a ton in the past decade or so. Data played the violin (and I think the guitar, though I’m not sure), but his quartet mostly covered old songs. Beverly could dance, but we never saw her performing; however, I assume she was doing Swan Lake. And Worf, an excellent singer, only sang old-ass Klingon opera. Good old-ass Klingon opera, but old-ass Klingon opera just the same.
And that leads to the problem with the TNG era: creativity, for the most part, was completely stifled. If your life has no conflict, you’re much less likely to create new and amazing pieces of artwork, be they in text, song, film, or dance. Only Data really made new things — his poetry, his paintings, and I’m willing to bet he experimented with creating new music as well. But it wasn’t until Trek became darker, dirtier, and more difficult that we found characters creating things. Jake Sisko became a writer and, through his experiences on DS9 and in the war, wrote several stories and at least one book. Tom Paris wrote and programmed holodeck scenarios. I also seem to remember a scene on Enterprise where Travis played basketball, although I could be conflating.
Which brings up another question: when does the crew of the Enterprise get together to play team sports? Clearly the ship has a few people who play Parisses Squares, judging from “11001001”, but that’s the only time it comes up. Whenever we see people on the ship doing a sport, it’s either solo, duo (fencing), or martial arts. Does no one get together for a pickup game of PS or gravity-ball? On a ship of 1000 people, is everyone really so isolated that there aren’t book clubs or movie-watching clubs or a holodeck murder mystery group that gets together every month to play through the latest scenario?
No conflict. No reason to create more of it. Creativity has been stifled, and with it the need to be with other sentient beings.
The Enterprise must have been a boring place a lot of the time.
* Buffy + Fanfic? I think that qualifies as two drinks in the game.
** I’m not going to reread the entire thing to find the specific reference. But if you like Buffy and Star Trek, you’d probably get a kick out of reading the entire story.