Subtext and Star Trek

My boyfriend and I are on a quest to watch every episode, in order, of Star Trek: The Next Generation. We have recently finished Season One.

It’s interesting to see the genesis of the characters, to see actors figuring out which gestures and tones to use. Riker doesn’t have a beard, and has a fantastic layer of ADD, wanting always to Do Something. Mr. Data is sweetly annoying, and even the computer interrupts him to say, “enough.”

There’s one character, however, who I have little patience for, and view her presence as not only completely unnecessary, but also as detrimental to the storytelling:

Deanna Troi.

“I’m sensing hostility from this blog post.”

Let’s take, for example, the first season episode “We’ll Always have Paris.”

Picard is practicing his fencing with a partner when a strange time phenomenon occurs.

Random Lieutenant: “Interesting move sir. But what technique was that?”
Picard: “The technique of a desperate man.”

Random Lieutenant: “Interesting move sir. But what technique was that?”
Picard: “The technique of a desperate man.”

Picard confers with Riker via comlink, who says that they have experienced a similar phenomenon on the bridge. Picard runs up to the bridge in his fencing outfit, grabbing his towel and bringing it with him.

They receive an Emergency Transmission from Dr. Paul Manheim, asking for immediate assistance. The Enterprise lays in a course for Pegos Minor and heads off at Warp 8.

After we return from the beginning credits, Mr. Data gives Riker an infodump on Manheim. Picard supplements it, mentioning that Manheim was teaching physics at the university when Picard was in Paris.

As Picard relates this, he twirl-slaps the towel against his legs. This is really weird for Picard. Usually he is very calm and collected, even during the most dangerous assignment. Any viewer is going to pick up on the physical cues, and is going to appreciate the heightened tension from this character action.

Picard abruptly announces that he must change his clothes, and leaves a few acting commands before heading back to the fencing room.

But Deanna Troi can’t let it pass without comment. This is the whole reason she’s there. Her title is Counselor, but her storytelling purpose is to spell out the subtext of the characters’ actions so that everyone, Absolutely Everyone, will be completely sure of what is happening.
She power walks to catch up with Picard before he steps on to the turbolift, and confronts him, saying that he acted very agitated at the news of Manheim, and that it is her duty to remind him that strong emotions can effect judgement.

Picard asks Troi to advise him.

“There are a few hours until we arrive. Perhaps you should use this time to analyze your feelings and put them into perspective.”

Not only has she erased the tension and excitement that Picard’s interesting actions set-up, but she’s also given Picard advice which he was almost certainly going to employ using his own good judgement. He’s heading back to the fencing room to change his clothes and shower. Everything’s taken care of for the moment on the bridge. Why wouldn’t he take a moment to reflect on the emotions bothering him? If Deanna Troi had not been in this scene, it would have moved more concisely and with greater tension.

There’s a tricky balance between clarity and subtext. Your readers need to know what is happening, but they also want to be able to discover pieces of the narratives for themselves. The importance of clarity was one of my first lessons learned at Clarion West. It is, perhaps, the single most important aspect of a story. If you don’t have clarity, then it is hard for others to even know how to help you fix your story.

But subtext mouthpieces are almost unbearable to me in fiction. I would rather be totally lost in a story than to have another character explain to me what is happening. That is one of my killswitches. Voiced subtext? Let’s see what other books I want to read instead.

In order to have clarity in stories, it might be useful to have a Deanna Troi around in an early draft, to make sure a writer knows what the story is trying to say.

And then the writer can delete her in the next draft, long before showing the story to anyone.

I hope Deanna Troi’s character grows stronger in the next season, and that she can help add to the tension of the Enterprise’s adventures. But the other characters are charging ahead, becoming real people, while Troi is stuck as a scribble in the margins, a writer’s Note to the Self. 

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