Tag Archives: tropes

Let’s Talk About First Officers

This month’s Star Trek post is a collaboration with fellow contributor Rose B. Fischer. We’ve seen a lot of misinformation floating around about Starfleet’s first officers, so we’re here to spread some knowledge!

Space operas like Star Trek are drawn from westerns, swashbucklers, and naval/maritime epics. So the captain is a combination of tropes from those genres. Usually, it’s one part maverick, one part wandering hero, and one part charismatic leader. Star Trek adds a heavy dose of diplomat, since Starfleet is committed to peaceful exploration rather than conquest, intractable optimism and strong humanistic values. Those are Star Trek‘s defining characteristics and the captain is the show’s mouthpiece, so it makes sense that the character would also be the embodiment of the Federation’s mores. The captain’s first love is the ship, and every relationship is either built around or overshadowed by the siren song of space.

Headshots of Kirk and Picard.

The first officer shares the captain’s love of space, and is a composite of the same tropes as the captain. The first officer is supposed to be qualified to command to ship in the event that the captain is unfit for duty, and has the potential to be captain in their own right, so the two characters will have a lot of similarities in terms of skills sets, moral composition, and affinity for space. They’re meant to be complementary opposites, so their personalities and skills will usually mesh well and benefit the crew as a whole.

The captain’s personality informs the shipwide culture while the first officer’s function is usually to provide balance by meeting the needs of the ship and crew where the captain is less proficient. In TOS, Spock’s knowledge of science and ability to process information are assets to Kirk when the Enterprise encounters new life forms. His adherence to Vulcan logic makes him more apt to advise drastic action when the lives of the crew are at stake, while Kirk’s reluctance to engage in violence usually means the ship gets drawn further and further into trouble. In the end, it’s almost always a scientific edge that helps the crew out of hot water, and a lot of the solutions are facilitated by a combination of Spock’s knowledge and Kirk’s stubborn ingenuity.

"Insufficient facts always invite danger." -Spock

“Insufficient facts always invite danger.” -Spock

I see a lot of TNG critics (and fans) saying that Picard and Riker amount to nothing but a role reversed version of Kirk and Spock. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Riker was meant to be the more physically active of the pair, leading away teams and generally being in the position of the young, handsome hero, but his role is pretty different from both Kirk and Spock. Aside from leading away teams and a tendency to romance alien women, Riker is about as similar to Captain Kirk as I am to a sponge. He’s often shown managing crew assignments, is more approachable, and has a more casual way of interacting with subordinates than Kirk does. His job is as much to relate to the Enterprise crew and manage day to day operations as it is to lead away missions. Captain Picard has the crew’s respect as a leader, but it’s often clear that Picard himself isn’t comfortable with personal interactions where Riker excels. The TOS crew may not have always understood or related to Spock, but unlike Picard, Spock was not shown to be reluctant or uncomfortable with the crew. He related to them on his own terms, as a Vulcan.

"Maybe if we felt any loss as keenly as we felt the death of one close to us, human history would be a lot less bloody." -Riker

“Maybe if we felt any loss as keenly as we felt the death of one close to us, human history would be a lot less bloody.” -Riker

The contrast between Spock and Riker especially stood out to me (Hannah) in my grand rewatch, because it’s such a distinct change. They’re very different characters — like Spock and Data are very different, despite constant comparisons — but they also show the transition between TOS and TNG. TOS was more conceptual, and there was less interest in showing a spaceship’s daily operations. Spock’s job as first officer was essentially to advise Kirk. He was technically second in command, but most of the time they were off on the same missions anyway. His role as science officer was much more important, and correlated to his role as the intellectual part of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy soul-mind-heart trio.

When TNG came along, narrative styles were changing, and the show was more interested in daily life. I love the more stylized TOS characters, but this step toward more-realistic ones is a huge factor in why Star Trek has had such longevity. Riker balances Picard’s skills, but he also seems to have a distinct function on the ship as first officer. He doesn’t have an additional role like science officer or anything else. The most obvious thing is that he leads away missions instead of the captain and first officer both endangering themselves, and he advises Picard as needed, but especially in the first season, the captain and first officer almost function like two departments of the ship. They’re advisory to each other, with the captain in charge of decisions, but the first officer in charge of personnel and planning. It makes the ship seem bigger, and gives them both something to do in these stories that include logistics as well as moral dilemmas.

Still of Ferengi and Captain Picard from "The Battle."

“The Battle” is a great episode for captains and first officers.

Most episodes understandably focus on ideas and characters over explaining the finer details of how Starfleet works, but it’s really super impressive how well they balance those story roles with ship functions as the show progresses. Plus the role of first officer is about to get even more interesting, since the main protagonist of Star Trek: Discovery is going to be the first officer. But no matter which show, keep an eye out next time you watch, and let us know what you think!


Competence in Comedy

As I mentioned yesterday, we’ve been watching Parks & Rec again, and it’s reminded me of something I observed the first time we were watching it. And it’s that you can still be funny while being competent.

I mean, I feel like this is something that we used to see a lot in comedies. Thinking of the 80s comedies we grew up with and love. Take a movie like Ghostbusters, made by a Saturday Night Live troupe, and if you had to pick a genre they were working in (which is hard with that movie), it’s comedy. But a competent one – they are right about the ghosts in the face of others disbelieving them. They successfully build the things they need to stop them. And yes, throughout, there are things we get to laugh at them about.

And it’s cool. Last year’s Ghostbusters was also a comedy, but it was a comedy that’s come after all these years in between…

Because I think for quite a while, incompetent was the thing in comedy. I’m thinking the 90s and beyond, with leads like Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler and Will Ferrell. Or in ongoing series like the Scary Movie films and other (bad) parodies like that. I tended not to like these comedies (having not even seen several that are deemed the “best”), but it’s only in hindsight looking at them like this that it makes sense, that they make sense as a group.

Laughing at incompetence, at failure and things not going the right way, can be funny. But only for so long, only so much of it. It becomes the repeat gags, and that worked for, say, the Three Stooges or Abbott and Costello. They created or worked within the world of slapstick gags and the tropes of the genre. But I would also say that they did this so much better than these more recent comedies.

Finding funny situations in the middle of things going well, or people trying to have them go well – I feel like there’s so much more room there.

Let’s look at something that’s full of both – Looney Tunes. Many of the tropes of the comedies that came before made there way in. However, the joy of Bugs Bunny is how completely competent he is, and it plays beautifully off of characters like Daffy Duck (nearly as competent), or Elmer Fudd (nowhere near as competent). Some of the best moments are when Bugs ends up outplayed or outclassed – because it upset our expectation that Bugs always had the upper hand.

These moments or episodes are funny because they upset our expectations. The reverse, when it comes to incompetence comedy, is basically the idiot savant – a common enough character.

Bringing us first back around to the new Ghostbusters. The movie had an idiot (Chris Hemsworth), but he wasn’t a savant! Our savant sort of character was Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann, with her quirks and crazy inventions. We had scientists who, like in the original, were right about the ghosts despite society not believing them. And Leslie Jones, whose character in the trailers just seemed like a caricature, was actually good at her job and very knowledgeable about New York – which was what they needed.

But the movie also had a more modern feel to it, as a movie coming after this modern run of incompetent comedies. They made the two main male characters (Hemsworth, and the main villain) the main incompetents, which played into an entirely different narrative and isn’t my point here… And even the main villain pulls off most of his plan, despite generally being considered a bad villain.

Anyway, let’s round back to Parks & Rec. The show is funny but the characters are also all good at their jobs, like what they are doing, and live in a place that seems just utterly ridiculous. Nonetheless, their descriptions of Pawnee are generally much worse than the Pawnee we actually see in the episodes. It’s a group of normal-ish people with a slightly askew absurd bent. And it’s great.

Sure, the show also has a couple of incompetent characters – one close to the idiot savant trope, although mostly just idiot, in Andy Dwyer; the other being Gary/Jerry/Larry, who we find out just plays along and is clumsy perhaps, but is really just there for the paycheck and benefits, a commitment to public service, and to have time with his picturesque family. And with the 4th-wall breaking stares into the camera, or the overblown reactions to these characters, we just get to laugh along.

Do you like competence in comedy? Incompetence? What are your favorite examples of either? Let me know in the comments below!

Could Charlie Brown Grow Up To Be Captain Picard?


Last week’s post about Charlie Brown as Superboy got me thinking about other fun AU possibilities.  Charlie Brown as Captain Jean Luc Picard, for example.  That one seems like more of a stretch to me.  Despite the obvious physical similarities, Charlie Brown is just no Picard.  Perhaps he’s the kind of man that Charlie hopes to be one day.  Or maybe Peanuts Picard is a bit more like the “steady, reliable… punctual” Lieutenant Picard in the alternate timeline episode “Tapestry.”

Continue reading

Problematic Romance Tropes

Throughout many stories there have been a variety of situations where people get together that tends to be problematic. We often love these stories that tell of two people getting together and we watch enthralled sometimes as we watch them unfold. At the same time they are often unrealistic or unattainable goals for a relationship. It makes sense because simple romance is not as interesting and we love to watch the drama, but we also need to recognize when what is presented demonstrates potential problematic ideas.

The problem can be that if we don’t recognize the problematic elements then we can fall into a trap of thinking that it is realistic or having expectations that don’t line up. Now some of these are borderline problematic, which is some of the issue because they can go either way. Continue reading

American Gothic – First Impressions

American Gothic premiered last night on CBS, and after seeing a bit about it I decided to give it a shot. I’ve been watching Parks and Rec and Archer on Netflix a lot lately, and wanted something fresh. It looked intriguing, and so I figured, why not? The worst part would be the commercials, since I haven’t watched a show play live on TV in ages.

American Gothic centers on the well-to-do Hawthorne family, and begins its introduction to the family members in the midst of getting ready for the eldest sister’s family portrait and interview. She is running for office, and is already an established and well-liked city councilor. As the youngest sister, Tess, and her husband are heading to the family home, part of a tunnel collapses behind them on top of a car. As we are introduced to the other family members, we see that in the debris of the tunnel a belt is found, which it is discovered is linked to a notorious serial killer. The Silver Bell Killer, who was never apprehended and who left behind no evidence, except for a silver hand bell, strangled his victims, and it is believed the belt may have been a murder weapon. It is found in concrete supplied by the Hawthorne family.

Continue reading