What is it that I so love about Shakespearean actors playing somewhat unconventional roles, i.e. being cast as non-Shakespearean characters?
This was one of the first questions to arise as I began to contemplate the similarities and differences between two of my favorites: (1) David Suchet as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot; and (2) Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
My love affair with Star Trek TNG began some twenty-five years ago. I’ve seen all of the episodes three or four times at least; and many of them several dozens of times. In other words, this series – and in particular Patrick Stewart’s rendering of Jean-Luc Picard – has passed the test of time, remaining thoroughly inspirational.
Agatha Christie’s Poirot, on the other hand, has been a more recent find. And though I’ve now viewed most of the episodes – and greatly enjoyed David Suchet’s playing of the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot — I doubt I’ll return to any of them; and if I do, certainly not more than once or twice. But why?
Who Done It?
First of all, the pleasure in viewing a detective show such as Agatha Christie’s Poirot is in trying to figure out, along the way: “who done it?” The dramatic tension mounts in two phases. As viewers, first we wonder: who is it that is going to be killed (and along the way deviously manipulated, lied to and cheated)? Once this – through the portrayal of the crime(s) that will be the focal point for Poirot’s efforts — has been established, we then join with our protagonist in gathering clues, sifting through evidence, and ultimately seeing through the deception and deceit to unveil the truth of the matter.
On The (Limited) Pleasure Of Solving A (Limited) Puzzle
And once we have the answer to this puzzle – once we know “who done it” — what would be the point of viewing the episode again? Now of course we might simply wish to appreciate David Suchet’s masterful acting; or enjoy more thoroughly the cinematography or other aspects of an episode’s technical production – but the narrative itself is likely to be a good 95% “spent” of its pleasure, after the first viewing. Why? Because the puzzle that is its dramatic fulcrum (i.e. the murder or other crime) has, in our minds, been solved. We’ve answered the relevant question, and so – in relation to this particular scenario – are fully satisfied.
Also, for all of Hercule Poirot’s moral sensitivity, psychological subtlety and sleuthing genius, rarely do his insights break through to something we might call a “transcendent” realm. Rarely do they point to a dimension beyond name and form. Rarely do they challenge our conventional notions of space and time. Rarely do the solutions to the puzzle take us beyond the context in which they were cast. Rarely do they provide anything like a “final answer.”
Even Poirot’s sublimely knowing glance, subtle smile or twinkling eyes in large part remain tethered to a relative context. Every now and again we’re invited to consider this or that moral dilemma – to consider the meaning of true justice. Every now and again we’re invited to resonate with the tenderness of Poirot’s (oft-guarded) heart – to consider the meaning of true love.
Comedy & Tragedy
But the general milieu within which the stories unfold might best be described as: caricatures of highly neurotic behavior rooted in dualistic ignorance. While this can be instructive to observe, and even funny — in a comedic-tragedy kind of way — it rather quickly becomes tedious and boring. Pretty much every episode of Poirot unfolds around some combination of: suspicion, jealousy and hatred within a love triangle; relatives of a wealthy magnate plot and scheme to receive his/her inheritance; theft of jewels or famous paintings; and assassination attempts on important military or political leaders.
Now of course each scenario has its own uniqueness – and Agatha Christie’s imagination spun out some truly brilliant variations on the ubiquitous themes of “thirst for money, sex and power gone horribly wrong” or, more generally, “drastically misguided recipes for happiness.” But all such portrayals – if not inherently toxic – are by nature utterly lacking in inspirational value. Even when Poirot by the end of the episode sets it all straight, by unraveling the mystery – and even when the acting and cinematography are brilliant — such portrayals tend to leave a nasty aftertaste, along with the promise of: more of the same, to come. At least this is my experience of it.
Going To Warp Speed
Now, contrast this with Patrick Stewart playing Jean-Luc Picard – captain of the Starship Enterprise. Instead of Poirot’s historical crime fiction, the genre here is futuristic if not downright utopian sci-fi. Instead of England in 1936, the setting is the 24th century Milky Way galaxy, and beyond. While the social settings Hercule Poirot finds himself in highlight human dysfunction, the crew of the Enterprise (as part of the United Federation of Planets) aspires to something akin to an enlightened society.
While Star Trek TNG is not without its “bad guys,” and not without its epic battle-filled adventures, the at-home vibe – within the curved corridors of the Enterprise — is basically an uplifted one. In fact, dialogue frequently includes references to how humans have now (i.e. in the 24th century) thankfully outgrown various forms of deluded behavior that earlier Earth inhabitants had to suffer through (such as that portrayed in Agatha Christie’s Poirot!)
And Star Trek TNG – with Jean-Luc Picard at the helm – often takes on deep moral, philosophical and spiritual issues, inviting viewers to participate fully in the conversation. Not to mention all the fun playing with our conventional notions of time and space. (See, for instance, the episodes Cause & Effect and Inner Light – for just two of numerous examples). And because the issues it addresses are the kind of “big issues” that don’t have easy answers, each viewing of an episode can feel quite fresh, in the sense of exploring a given issue from a new angle. (See, for instance, The Measure of a Man, which poses the question: what is sentience?)
Questions, Questions & Questions
The central question in each and every Poirot episode is: who done it? And once the bad guys (or gals) have been identified, this question is fully answered: the case is closed. Yet the satisfaction is a relatively superficial one — since we know that there’s another crime, just waiting to happen.
The questions posed in Star Trek TNG are the kind that aren’t so easily answered – so easily accommodate multiple viewings – similar to how one might reread the dialogues of Plato, many times, with each reading revealing something deeper.
And then there are the questions (or perhaps it’s just one question) – appearing every now and again in Star Trek TNG; and pretty much never in Poirot – which open us to receiving the final (non-conceptual) answer, which has the power to satisfy us completely.
Hidden In Plain Sight
In terms of plot, one of my favorite Poirot moments is when the detective is ensconced high in the Swiss Alps, in a hotel whose overall elegance is marred by the presence of relatively tacky and amateurish paintings, hanging on its walls. What Poirot discovers – and with characteristic flourish reveals to us, by applying a turpentine-soaked sponge to one of their surfaces – is that beneath these uninspired paintings lie a series of previously-stolen masterpieces.
In this way the stolen paintings could be “hidden in plain sight” – there for all to see while simultaneously non-seeing, i.e. not recognizing for what they truly were.
And so it is, the spiritual masters tell us, with our Buddha-Nature, our True-Self: a treasure, a masterpiece, that’s always here, in plain sight – yet frequently not recognized. It’s an open secret — a mystery whose solution is infinitely closer than we think — if only we had eyes to see it.
Dreams & Residues
But what hangs in museums is, of course, the Rembrandts and Picassos fully revealed – and not the Rembrandts and Picassos painted over for the purpose of concealing their true identity. What inspires us most deeply is the painting in its original purity.
So I guess it’s not surprising, also, the difference that I notice – in my dreamtime experience – after viewing an episode of Agatha Christie’s Poirot vs. after viewing an episode of Star Trek TNG.
While I rather enjoy the remnants of Hercule Poirot’s voice weaving through my dreamtime landscapes (“Mon ami …”) – the overall vibe tends to be a bit dark, infused with negativity. There’s a residue, a flavor of unease that colors, soaks into, becomes the tenor of my dream-scenarios. I suppose this isn’t too surprising – though I’ve found it interesting to notice.
Star Trek TNG, on the other hand, tends to send forth a more neutral or positive energy into the fabric of dreamtime – even when the episode includes battles and so-forth. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen the episodes multiple times, so by now they’re fully digested, i.e. they leave no trace, no residue upon my mental continuum?
Or perhaps it’s because the Star Trek series as a whole is something akin to a Picasso fully unveiled – while Poirot is more like a Picasso painted over with something much less agreeable?
Who knows …..
(and to be continued)