There’s no doubt Gene Roddenberry was a kook with bizarre ideas about the future of humanity. One only has to read his novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (and you really should) to get a glimpse of concepts like evolved humans forming empathic communes, Starfleet being made up of barbarous, primitive throwbacks, and teenage “love instructors”. And that’s just the prologue.
But the most talked about aspect of Gene’s crazy future people is the “no conflict” rule he imposed on the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This rule has been reported multiple times by various people who worked on the show, like David Gerrold, Rick Berman, Maurice Hurley, and Ira Steven Behr. The latter even proposed Deep Space Nine specifically as a way to get around the rule. The oft repeated story goes that Gene thought 24th century humans were so evolved they didn’t fight amongst themselves. This meant no disagreements or incompatible personalities. All conflict had to come from outside the ship.
The “no conflict” rule gets lots of play in the media and was talked about quite a bit when Star Trek: Discovery came out. Some journalists accused the rule of stifling the older shows. Some used it as a way to prove Discovery was not real Star Trek. How could they have interpersonal disagreements on that show? Gene was against that! The problem with all this editorial hand wringing was that any one who actually watched early Next Generation at the height of Gene’s control over the series could easily see there was no such rule. At least not in the form that is constantly reported. The 24th century was brimming with human-on-human conflict.
Many of you know I spent a year chronicling Gene’s non-Star Trek work in 1970’s and how they influenced and, at times, directly fed into The Next Generation. One thing that became undeniable was Gene’s expert ability to create conflict through contrasting personalities whether it’s the wily Dylan Hunt butting heads with the pragmatic PAX in Genesis II, the robotic Questor grating on the all too human Jerry Robinson in The Questor Tapes, or the X-Files prototype of superstitious William Sebastian and his skeptic partner Amos Hamilton in Spectre. The stories may be of varying quality, but the drama between characters was always a joy. This was something Gene loved to do. He knew good television depended on it. There was no way his new Star Trek show would lack it.
If we go by The Next Generation’s first two seasons and, especially, the pilot we can find a lot of interpersonal conflict baked right in:
This is the biggest one and caused such an uproar in the fan community at the time due to its break with The Original Series’s captain-at-the-center dynamic that it’s a wonder we all forgot about it. The Enterprise D is less the Original Enterprise and more a traditional imperial naval ship. The old man stays up in the command center while the XO goes out in the field and gets into trouble. Riker was constantly described in promotional materials and interviews as believing the Enterprise was his ship. He just let Picard steer it from time to time. This was a constant source of annoyance for Picard who was, until recently, the swashbuckler of his own tin can of a ship. He often had to force himself into the center of things, much to Riker’s dismay. Riker was also very personable, while Picard was mostly an aloof jerk who literally muttered “shit” to himself when things didn’t go his way.
The concept of bringing families on a space voyage didn’t make sense to a lot of fans and writers because the show totally went off the rails concerning it’s original “generation ship” concept right after the pilot. Families on a ship doing routine patrol not far outside known space is stupid, but a city ship bound for a twenty year mission in the “great unexplored mass of the galaxy” is another thing. Picard was the ultimate confirmed bachelor. He didn’t understand families and resented their presence on his ship. This put him at odds with Dr. Crusher and her kid, whom he referred to as “the boy” and even told to “shut up” once. Riker was asked to be a mediator between him and the civilian crew so he could avoid them altogether.
Besides the fact that Beverly was a breeder, these two had quite a bit to enrage each other over. First there was their immediate sexual chemistry which butted against the fact that Picard practically left her possibly hysterical husband, Jack, to die on a mission. Weasley Crusher took two seasons to fully get over his resentment of the captain. Picard’s callous utilitarianism was also the cause of quite a few heated ethical disputes with the fiery redheaded doctor who was always keen to deliver aid and comfort in even the most hostile environments and sticky situations.
Before Worf wanted to shoot everything, Tasha Yar wanted to shoot everything. Quick on the trigger, Yar’s violent tendencies were constantly being shot down and soothed over by Picard and even Riker.
Data annoyed everyone in the first two seasons, rambling off facts and minutia until he received many a disgruntled outburst. Telling Data to shut up in one way or another was a more frequent event than it was with “the boy”. Riker’s initial mistrust of Data’s artificiality in the pilot is so strong Data actually calls him a bigot. “Prejudice is very human,” he tells the commander, flying in the face of everything we’ve been told Roddenberry felt about his crew.
It’s clear the moment these two meet that they have a troubled history. Troi speaks to Riker telepathically in a way we’re all sure he can hear, but he refuses to respond. She’s down for being friends with crazy benefits. He wants the loving intimacy a ship’s captain can never know. This is made even more obvious in D.C. Fontana’s “Encounter at Farpoint” plot outline, but the bones of it still linger through episodes like “Haven”.
Troi’s original concept and the way the character was mostly written in the first season was to be the new Spock. Even though she could read and parse other people’s feelings she didn’t care much about them nor did she have many of her own. Troi was blunt with her advice and would often call out fellow crew members on how their words contradicted their hidden emotions right to their faces. And she often did it in front of an audience. At one point she tells everyone Yar wants to bone a world leader leaving the tactical officer stammering to qualify her unprofessional horn dogging.
Picard never gets along with his medical officers. He either wants to pound them or pound their faces. Pulaski was exclusively the latter. While she sneakingly admired Picard and requested the Enterprise as an assignment, she goes out of her way to test his authority.
Pulaski doesn’t trust technology, so, obviously, she hates Data on first contact. While her respect for him grows a bit over the course of the second season, she’s his biggest foil most likely taking on the role Riker would have played if he had stayed true to character. Pulaski is interesting in that she was created specifically by Roddenberry for a specific actress he’d worked with twice before making the ruckus she causes a direct result of Gene. It’s also interesting that the character who brought the most amount of oh-so-coveted conflict to the show is the most polarizing among fans. (I love her, so nyah!)
“Arsenal of Freedom” introduces a trope The Next Generation used a couple of times: that of the higher ranking but less talented officer trying to wrest control from the spunky greenhorn who was placed in command in a crisis. If you want an example of full blown hostility among the Enterprise crew Geordi telling Engineer Gumby #10 to step off is one of the most blatant.
Tasha Yar may love the Federation so much she’ll kick you in the face over it, but she’s a constant reminder of it’s failures. At some point the modern, perfect humans of Turkana IV descended into a mass of roving gang rapists that this poor kid and her cat had to escape from. And, to top it off, the enlightened Federation didn’t do a thing about it even though the Prime Directive probably doesn’t apply to its own colonies.
Proving even Starfleet types outside of the Enterprise were not above squabbling, Remmick was a JAG officer brought in to interrogate the Enterprise crew about all the weirdness they experienced over the course of the first season. Never in the history of the show have so many wanted to punch one single nose. Well, maybe Barclay.
So, there was conflict on The Next Generation. Lots of it. And all of it was put there directly by Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana. Looking at the 1987 writer’s guide Gene stated not only that his crew was made up of flawed humans, but that stories should be writen with a personal aspect that could be based on the nature of the characters. Somehow we’ve been told that it wasn’t the case and it was Gene’s fault so often we started ignoring our own eyes. There’s a moment on the documentary Chaos on the Bridge where Maurice Hurley blusters that Gene had handcuffed him with this very “no conflict” rule and then wasn’t as committed to it as Hurley himself was. This comment baffles me. Hurley complains he wanted to write conflict. He says Gene wanted conflict. Why were they not happily creating conflict?
If we go back to the ’87 writer’s guide there is a section on “no melodrama”. This means “no petty conflict”: no fighting over money or personal gain, no soap opera type love triangles, and no bickering over how someone cut in front of you in line to the replicator. Arguments between the crew needed to be believable, because to Gene believability was everything. How in the world this got conflated into an all powerful “no one disagrees ever” dictum is beyond me.
It’s also interesting to note that as Gene’s control waned on the franchise the no conflict rule just got stronger and stronger. Many of the above dynamics disappeared, making the crew more and more bland with each passing season. Picard lost his irritable edge. Riker lost all his ambition. Troi became a sad chocolate monster. Both of them stopped wanting to screw each other. Data became lovable. Only traces of Picard and Crusher’s professional antagonism remained.
One of the things people complain about most with Voyager is the missed opportunity for conflict. Combining Starfleet officers with a bunch of rag-tag freedom fighters, an ex-con, and two alien stowaways on a ship in the middle of nowhere was supposed to breed lots of conflict without breaking the sacred rule. And, yet, by the end of the pilot they were all in uniform and most of them were getting along fine. What conflict did get into later day Trek was exactly the kind of of stuff Gene’s edict sought to avoid. Whether it was Troi/Worf/Riker, Bashir/Dax/Worf, Odo/Kira/Bareil, or Neelix/Paris/Kes, soapy, melodramatic love triangles were embedded into the franchise. Gene had nothing to do with that mess.
The “no conflict” rule is a myth. If it ever existed it wasn’t what it became after Gene lost control of the show. It couldn’t have been. There’s no reason Gene Roddenberry would abandon his greatest writing strength no matter how cockamamy his vision of perfected humanity became. It’s time to put this myth to bed.