Literary Moments in Star Trek: The Next Generation
Who would have thought that a television show dedicated to imagining “new worlds and new civilizations” and featuring advanced technology would be ALL KINDS OF BOOKISH? And I’m not just talking references and even holodeck simulations, but actual physical books. Because apparently, in the 24th century, some people are still holding on to print books, despite having a massive database filled with literature at their fingertips.
Books and reading are at the very foundation of Star Trek: The Next Generation. From Shakespeare to Sherlock Holmes (the two most popular literary references), and from plays to poetry, Star Trek underscores the continuing relevance of literature to the human species, especially as it moves among the stars.
So with the help of my fellow Rioters, I’ve put together a list of bookish moments in Star Trek: TNG. If we’ve missed any, let us know in the comments! And tell us which are your favorites.
“The Big Goodbye” (season 1, episode 11, Stardate: 41997.7)
As lovers of crime fiction and noir would immediately recognize, this episode’s title is a combination of two of that genre’s classics by Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep (1939) and The Long Goodbye (1953). In this episode, Data, Picard, and Dr. Crusher are trapped on the holodeck, where they are acting out a 20th-century crime-fiction storyline.
“Elementary, Dear Data” (season 2, episode 3, Stardate: 42286.3)
You guessed it: the holodeck again. This time, armed with the complete works of Sherlock Holmes in his positronic brain, Data sets out to solve some mysteries, but when Geordi asks the ship’s computer to create an opponent who could defeat Data, things get tricky. Next thing you know, Professor Moriarty is self-aware and making demands. And yes, he’s just as dastardly and brilliant here as on paper.
“The Royale” (season 2, episode 12, Stardate: 42625.4)
I found this to be one of the most fascinating literarily-inclined episodes. When the crew of the Enterprise discover a piece of metal bearing a U.S Airforce insignia, they investigate a nearby planet and find something…very strange. Aliens have recreated the “Hotel Royale” based on the book of the same name that they found on the Airforce pilot who crashed on the planet centuries before. Riker, Data, and Worf must act out the events in the story in order to escape the casino in which they’re trapped. And by the way, the book is supposedly very very bad.
“The Defector” (season 3, episode 10, Stardate: 43462.5)
This episode of treachery, betrayal, and lies opens with Captain Picard coaching Data on acting in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act 4, Scene I. Patrick Stewart is himself a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, so this confluence of Stewart’s real- and Star Trek lives is so much fun.
“The Most Toys” (season 3, episode 22, Stardate: 43872.2)
When Data is kidnapped by an obsessed collector determined to install an android in his eclectic “museum,” Picard reads from Hamlet (from the works of Shakespeare that he had given to Data): “He was a man, take him for all in all./I shall not look upon his like again.” (Act I, sc.2).
“Devil’s Due” (season 4, episode 13, Stardate: 44474.5)
Once again, Picard is giving Data some acting tips- this time the text is A Christmas Carol. In both the episode proper and Dickens’s text, the concept of fear is explored as a method of control and of liberation.
“Darmok” (season 5, episode 2, Stardate: 45047.2)
I’ve seen this episode about four times now over a period of twenty years (!), and each time I fall more in love with it. “Darmok” takes on one of the most basic problems we would face if confronted with an alien species: communication. In the case of the Tamarians, language is based on their rich stock of myths, which they draw on to refer to present-day events. Captain Picard recognizes the ways in which humans, too, use myths and ancient stories to make sense of and describe the world. References to Gilgamesh run throughout the episode- and no wonder.
“Cause and Effect” (season 5, episode 18, Stardate: 45652.1)
This is the episode in which the crew of the Enterprise is caught in a causality loop. Each time events repeat themselves, we see Captain Picard reading a (print) book (we’re not told what it is). Only after many loops does he realize that…well…he’s been reading the same page for weeks. Ooops.
“Time’s Arrow” (season 5 [ep 26] – 6 [ep 1])
Brace yourselves- I’m going to get all wistful here. I clearly remember a day when I was about 9 years old, hanging out in the living room while my brothers watched TNG. I had never had any interest in that show, having only seen bits and pieces of it, but the episode on that day was “Time’s Arrow,” and something clicked in my brain. I was HOOKED. I already loved reading, and seeing how TNG included famous writers in its episodes, and moved back and forth through time- well, this just transfixed me. I was an avid TNG-watcher from that moment on. “Time’s Arrow” features Mark Twain as his usual curious, determined, brilliant self, and Jack London, just starting out in 19th-century San Francisco and thinking about becoming a writer. Doesn’t get a whole lot more literary than that!
“Ship in a Bottle” (season 6, episode 12, Stardate: 46424.1)
Yep, Professor Moriarty is back, and this time he’s really mad. Captain Picard had promised to find a way to let him leave the holodeck, but that never materialized (ohhhh that was SO bad, I’m sorry). Anyway, with some deft maneuvering on their part, Picard, Data, and Barclay figure out how to make Moriarty think they’ve given him what he wants. Moriarty’s insistence on bringing the love of his life along with him into the real world is reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster demanding a mate in Shelley’s novel.
“Emergence” (season 7, episode 23, Stardate: 47869.2)
Once again, we see Captain Picard and Data working on a scene from Shakespeare- this time, it’s The Tempest. The play’s concern with the “soul” and diverse forms of life informs the episode’s exploration of the emergence of a new life-form and the philosophical and moral questions that go along with it.
Star Trek: First Contact (1996 film)
Picard gets all Ahab-y in this film about the Borg’s attempt to rewrite Earth’s history. Like that other captain, who works himself into a frenzy chasing down the whale that snatched his leg, Captain Picard becomes so wrapped up in his desire for vengeance that he nearly makes the same mistake Ahab did. Because Melville, you guys- MELVILLE makes everything better.