I watched a video the other day about Barclay and how he might actually be the greatest hero of Star Trek. The video starts with this line, “You ever notice how emotionally stable most characters on Star Trek shows are?” Now, I don’t know that I think that Barclay or Troi are actually the most important or heroic Star Trek characters (though both are catchy titles, right?) but I do think there is a lot of ground to explore here and it can be related back to gaming – which I’ll get to at the end.
In 1987, rolling toward the end of the Reagan years, with nuclear armageddon still a part of daily dialogue and with a health crisis (AIDS) that showed just how far we were from the ideal world posited by Star Trek. But Next Generation gave us a really clever invention, one that honestly should have been more important, the ship’s counselor. We still can’t talk well about mental health issues in the USA in 2020. But in 1987, the Enterprise got a bridge officer whose responsibility was the mental health of the crew. She was literally an empath.
That piece about Barclay I mentioned before is notable because of the discussion of how Star Trek characters live in a world where every couple of days their ship gets taken over by an AI, everyone gets a novel alien virus, god-tier aliens whisk them away to fantasy realms where they fight alongside Lincoln or get turned into Robin Hood and his merry men. Sometimes they get dropped through holes in time and fight literal Nazis, or evil mirror-universe versions of themselves.
The people aboard a Federation starship are under constant mental siege by a universe that clearly hates them and most of them just take it in stride. Like, “Cool, yeah, the warp drive almost blew up today because Data – our android crewmate – accidentally did some techno-babble thing, but yeah, let’s go play some cards. It’s a Tuesday, am I right?”
Now, Troi – and the role of counselor, as innovative as it was – were criminally underused in the series. Troi was just another character for things to happen to. I mean, in Season One she gets impregnated (raped) by a life form that none of them understands and raises a child in a vastly accelerated timeline and then just kinda… never mentions that again. In another example, in Season One, during the episode where the crew finds three humans from the 20th century who were cryogenically frozen and then revived by Dr. Crusher; Captain Picard doesn’t even ask Troi to be a part of the first meeting with these people. He brings Warf. I mean, this is a situation that screams out for her job description and she’s only involved after one of the characters has a significant breakdown.
But let’s leave aside that Papa Gene may not have had the purest motivations when it came to Troi. I mean, she was originally supposed to have four breasts and be sexy more than smart. It took six seasons before she was given the chance to truly show that she was a better character than that.
Let’s look at the idea of a ship’s counselor and consider how it is a brilliant concept. First, I get it… At its core, Star Trek is pulp adventure about exploration and larger-than-life characters. I don’t want to take that away. But Star Trek is not Star Wars. Star Trek is always at its best when the stories are character-driven and involve dilemmas that touch the people. And Troi could have been a much more poignant part of that experience.
A ship’s counselor is such a novel, intelligent idea. For the very reason that Star Trek characters live in a universe that clearly hates them… they could all benefit from having a trained ship’s counselor who is capable of helping them manage the stresses of their daily lives. We spend a lot of time with ship’s doctors in Star Trek but in a universe of almost daily medical miracles; imagine spending more time with the ship’s counselor – helping people with mental health problems that will always be with us.
Star Trek characters face all kinds of crises, but – again – the best episodes often involve those dilemmas which are more moral in nature. Imagine if a captain – like Picard – who is a thoughtful man had actually spent more time consulting his trained mental health professional in the same way he’d consult his security officer or science officer?
It’s obvious that Star Trek didn’t really know what to do with this concept when it added the character of ship’s counselor. Deep Space 9 didn’t have one (though the concept gets a nod in the final season with Ezri). Voyager doesn’t have one (though, again, who knows – maybe it did before everything went to hell).
In the most recent Star Trek RPG – from Modiphius – there is some discussion of the role of the ship’s counselor in the section describing character options. It is stated there that even though most ships have a counselor, they are not often important members of the bridge crew who are consulted on most things by their captain. I find this odd – in the sense that the Next Gen bridge was clearly laid out to have Troi sitting to Picard’s left in the command chairs – but we’ve already established that despite her presence, it was clear that her reason for being there was still evolving. But the concept is still there. The idea is still that Starfleet values officers who can engage the crew’s mental health and fitness in the same way they have doctors to engage the crew’s physical well-being. And even though Starfleet officers are highly-trained professionals who are probably given multiple tests of their psychological strength before they are ever allowed to serve, it is still disheartening that Reginald Barclay might be the only character who is allowed to acknowledge the truly fucked up nature of the lives they lead.
Of course, gaming has this same problem all the time. Your 9th level wizard is not spending much time worrying about the fact that a village just got sucked through a dimensional rift from the point of view of the villagers. He’s just there to kick in doors and throw some fireballs. That’s oversimplifying, I know. But we often overlook the psychological toll of living when we think about our characters writ large across a campaign. There is no profit in engaging in fear, or guilt, or shame in a gaming context. That would just slow down the action. And mental/social mechanics are notoriously hard to write because they run the risk of taking away the agency of the player by imposing on that space. I’d just submit that much like Star Trek episodes – when it comes to gaming sessions, many of the best ones I’ve been involved in focused more on the inner lives of the characters than whether or not they could take down twenty flesh golems with a bag of kittens.
Some games have taken stabs at it. White Wolf frequently had mechanics that took into account the toll of being a monster (though rarely the corollary of just being a person). Call of Cthulhu’s sanity system – despite being “mental hit points” were actually a powerful creation for a game that early in the development of roleplaying games. Compels are an interesting take on the idea that stem from FATE-style games. Though I always balk at the idea of rewarding the character mechanically for making the decision to play in character; I feel that they are an attempt to allow for an impinging of agency for the sake of legislating character actions. Again – not perfect – but something to applaud in the effort. There are more. If you know of any particularly innovative or successful versions, I’d love to hear about them from you.
I guess, as I’ve been reliving Star Trek during this quarantine, I’m just impressed by the idea of a ship’s counselor showing up on TV in 1987 while I’m also disheartened that the concept got so little traction and that Troi was so disrespected throughout the majority of the series.
As always, thanks for reading and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.