Dr. Pulaski Might Have Worked on Star Trek--Maybe Not

I am currently rewatching Season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I own Seasons 3-6, but I decided to start from the beginning. Season 1 is eh, okay. Season 2, however, is surprisingly strong, having some solid, well-written episodes.

In Season 2, Gates McFadden (Dr. Crusher) left. I don't know if she left planning to come back or left, then realized, "Hey, that was a good gig!" In any case, Diana Muldur as Dr. Pulaski took over as the ship's doctor for that season.

Diana Muldur is an okay actress, and the character of Dr. Pulaski had a lot to offer the show. Smart, opinionated, pushy, a little dogmatic, she brought good conflict and inter-character tension to the episodes.

And yet, she's kind of awful.

I think the problem with Dr. Pulaski comes down to her condescension. One of her given traits or dogmas is her belief that Data is just a machine: he doesn't feel; therefore, he isn't really sentient.

In some ways, her argument is not that dissimilar to Dr. McCoy's defense of emotion against Spock's logic. Of course, Dr. McCoy never questions Spock's sentience (and Spock argues back). Still, Dr. Pulaski's questioning had potential!

The problem: she is SO dogmatic. I don't know how much of this is the dialog and how much the actress, but after awhile, Dr. Pulaski's needling of Data just grates. Every time he shows up in a scene, she makes some negative condescending comment about, "But of course, you can't understand that because you're a machine" even if the issue du jour has nothing to do with Data. Even if he is just standing there. Since Data never gets mad--and everybody else is too nice to get mad--she's never called out. Nobody ever says, "Look, Woman, I know he can't feel emotion, but he is the second officer on this ship, so try just being polite, okay?"

When Gates McFadden returned, Dr. Crusher took on many of Dr. Pulaski's characteristics--except the getting-on-Data's-case trait. What a relief.


Joe said...

You can't write smarter than you are. The writers could conceive of no legitimate arguments, so they resorted to dogma, which isn't at all unusual.

* * *

After about the fifth season, TNG exceeded my patience. I stuck it out from due to pure stubbornness. The few times I've seen repeats since then, they've been rather intolerable. The problem being that that good episodes were surrounded by astonishingly crappy ones. Even within that context, Muldur/Pulaski was terrible.

a calvinist preacher... said...

I watched a couple shows of TNG. Several things made it impossible for me to suspend disbelief.

1. The kid officer. There is no way the commanding officer of a naval vessel, now or any time in the foreseeable future would ever take the kind of junk from a subordinate that Picard took from this kid. This is a warship, not a cruise boat, and there is no way they would ever give him a commission, no matter how brilliant his test scores might show him to be.
2. Trying to get in touch with the feelings of a giant space amoeba.
3. Data. I think Asimov is much more astute in his thinking about how people will respond to robots through most of his short stories. The Bicentennial Man does get at this question of artificial sentience a bit, but notice that the price in that story of being accepted as sentient is to also accept the imposition of death. Even to the extent a grudging acceptance of a robot's sentience might be granted, I do not see human beings as a whole granting anything approaching equality to artifacts of their own creation and Data is not merely granted equality. He is granted authority - he's a commissioned officer in Starfleet, in the line of command, and able to give others orders which they are obligated to obey. I don't see very many people willing to accept that.

I also thought the writers of the episodes I saw were too busy trying to push a point (and often a poorly thought out point) instead of trying to tell a good story. Half of the first season was all I managed.

Kate Woodbury said...

I think the ST:TNG seasons do improve after Season 1 (even the Season 2 episodes are better plotted). Season 3 contains some of the best episodes--"Deja Q," "The Offspring," "Matter of Perspective," "Yesterday's Enterprise," "Hollow Pursuits," "The Most Toys," "Sarek," "Best of Both Worlds I." (In terms of phenomenal acting, "Sarek" holds all the cards with Mark Lenard and Patrick Stewart stealing all the scenes.)

Having said that, I've come to the conclusion that ST:TNG is a kind of gauge for the problem of suspension of disbelief: what people are willing to accept versus what they aren't. I have almost no trouble with ST:TNG because I accept the underlying unbelievable premise that this happy-go-lucky crew/ship is, well, a cruise ship wending its way through the galaxy, occasionally shooting off photon torpedoes (even though it supposedly isn't a military ship or at least, not until an episode requires it to be). As I mentioned in my post "Creating a World, Part 1", setting is far less important to me than story, so I'm willing to put up with quite a bit for the sake of the story, i.e. accept the unbelievable premise (and unbelievably perfect future) for the sake of a neatly plotted episode about, well, anything.

So, for instance, I just watched one of my favorites from Season 4, "Data's Day." In it, Data records everything that happens throughout the episode from O'Brien & Keiko's wedding to the discovery of a Romulan spy to a great tap-dancing scene. The episode is very cute, mostly because it is really just the story of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. Data thinks he doesn't have a heart, but his reaction to different events indicates that he actually has more of a heart than he thinks. Brent Spiner does an excellent job conveying the android and the Tin Man at the same time.

But it isn't really science (and I agree that Asimov set the bar pretty high here). It's The Wizard of Oz in space.

Take the others:

"Deja Q" is a Greek-god-becomes-mortal story
Likewise, "The Offspring" is the story of Pygmalion.
"The Vengeance Factor" (not exceptional but I like it) is a revenge story.
"Matter of Perspective" is a murder mystery.
"Yesterday's Enterprise" is actual sci-fi.
"Hollow Pursuits" is about learning to live in the real world rather than a dream (a Lt. Barclay story).
"Captain's Holiday" (not one of my favorites but a Season 3 episode) is an Indiana Jones tale.
"The Most Toys" is a kidnapping/captivity story (a great one with Data which gets a lot closer to determining what is sentience than earlier episodes).
"Sarek" is a dealing-with-old-age story.
"Best of Both Worlds I" is sci-fi (the Borg).

That's 20% sci-fi to 80% stories in space. I love it! But ratios like this don't work for everyone.

a calvinist preacher said...

I suspect some of my inability to accept the setting comes from having been a naval officer (chaplain), the son of a naval officer, and the father of a soon-to-be naval officer. I've seen how such officers conduct themselves (in the U.S. and U.K./Commonwealth navies, anyway), and this was so very different as to be utterly implausible to me.

It's probably similar to people who are really familiar with the pianos of different eras seeing Marianne sit down to a small piano forte and the sound being a modern grand (Sense and Sensibility - Emma Thompson). I saw some comments on a blog somewhere - that just ruined the whole scene for them.

Kate Woodbury said...

I think knowledge/experience is a big part of suspension of disbelief (how much does House bother doctors, for example?). I come away from Law & Order with an enhanced grasp of courtroom procedure and the concept of "fruit of the poisonous tree," but I suppose the show drives lawyers crazy--although not as crazy as Matlock!

Of course, there is the point-of-no-return, like in Matlock where courtroom procedure becomes so ridiculous, it ceases to matter as a reality. That's when I turn off my brain completely (otherwise, I'd spend every episode going, "Why is the judge letting Matlock grill his own witness? That makes no sense.")

On the other side--it is a pity when writers fail to recognize the possible conflict/potential of utilizing the real thing/following the rules. In his Star Trek Nitpickers Guides, Phil Farrand points out that Troi, the counselor, becomes a much more viable crew-member, someone others take seriously, when she begins to wear the regulation uniform. Likewise, I think many of the Prime Directive episodes would have been enhanced if the equivalent of a JAG officer had been on the ship to point out exactly what constitutes interference; the crew would then have had to figure out a way to help while staying within the rules: instant plot conflict!

Perhaps a scriptwriter's mantra should be, "Keep it real (as long as it helps the story)."