To boldly go where no analogy has gone before

I’ve been watching reruns of Classic Trek lately (that’s Star Trek: The Original Series for purists, or The One With Kirk and Spock for those with a non-geek awareness of the show), and it gave me an idea: what if the new wave of Las Vegas casinos and condos is Star Trek: The Next Generation to the existing Strip’s Original Series?

I’m going to have to break out some Trek abbreviation in the course of this piece, so here is some explanation: the 1960s show is “TOS” and the 1980s/1990s one is “TNG.”

Also, I want to make it clear that I’m not making any grand statements about the evolution of casinos on the Strip as objectively considered based on criteria like hotel size and numbers of casinos. I think that the changes we’re seeing today pale in comparison to the birth of the casino resort in the 1940s/early 1950s, the Great Leap Forward in size that followed the International (1969), the growth of the middle market in the 1980s, and the whole Mirage Revolution of the 1990s. I’m talking about perceptions among current visitors to the new casinos coming online–and the renovation of existing ones. If you consider the average tourist probably has a personal memory of the Strip going back to the mid-1990s, I think you can make a case that he or she is seeing something very different now.

Now that I’ve pointed out the flaws inherent in my analysis and bored some of you off this post, let’s have some fun and start analogizing!

TOS was a true product of the 1960s. It’s got a garish color palette, partially because TV execs wanted to make the most of that new innovation, color television. This leads to some interesting design choices: Starflleet officers wear bright, primary colors that look great on TV but probably aren’t what a group of military space explorers would actually wear. The acting was completely over the top. The special effects ranged from cheesy to laughable. Everything about the show was larger than life. But it was a great show that meant something to millions of fans.

How about the Strip circa 2000? It’s garish, brash, and basically larger than life. There’s a lot of kitsch out there, and it’s hard to take much of the place seriously. Still, it’s a lot of fun, and people love it.

Then, you’ve got TNG. The ship is bigger, and family friendly, with much, much more impressive technology. The colors are muted. Instead of boldly charging into space and seducing or being seduced by green chicks, the crew does an awful lot of diplomatic back-and-forth. There’s still lots of cool stuff, but it feels less like a wild adventure.

What about the Strip as it’s currently being reimagined? I think we can date the change precisely: July 10, 2003, when the fun skull and bones sign came down at Treasure Island. In its place we got a snazzier, more sophisticated electronic marquee.

Since then, there’s been a real move away from loud colors and cheesy entertainment on the Strip. Even the casinos that opened in the 1990s have replaced their loud carpet with earth tones. In general, casino interiors are looking much less fanciful and more subdued…almost smaller than life.

That’s just the interior. How about the outside? The casinos that went up in the 1990s looked outrageous: a pastiche of the New York skyline, a giant glass pyramid, a huge medieval castle. Since Wynn, sheer glass towers have dominated. Looking at the new crop, you’ve got City Center’s six-pack, all of which are sheathed in glass; the Fontainebleau, Encore, and the Planet Hollywood timeshare. With the exception of Palazzo and the forthcoming St. Regis, you’ve got a lot of “futuristic” glass buildings going up. And I forgot Trump’s gold glass tower. It’s impressive, but, with the exception of Wynn/Encore, not exactly fanciful.

What does this mean? On on hand, it’s a sign of maturity: Vegas has arrived, and we don’t need exploding volcanoes to get people’s attention. On the other hand, it’s not as exuberant as it once was.

I don’t know what all this means. No, wait. Let me rephrase that: I don’t…KNOW what all this MEANS. OK, I’m done channeling Shatner. Is there a big lesson here? Probably not? Am I trying to be the millionth person to say that Las Vegas used to be more fun? No, that’s not my point. I’m just trying to use an analogy that demonstrate the qualitative shift in Vegas in the past few years.

By most objective measures, TNG was a better show than TOS. It ran more than twice as long. It had a much bigger budget, and a far more consistent set of world-building guidelines. Episodes seem to move much faster–most TNG stories have an A plot, which usually unfolds on the planet’s surface, and a B plot, which more often than not involves Data back on the ship trying to understand what it means to be human, while TOS stories just plug away at a single plot for an hour. The recurring villains were way cooler–Q vs. Harry Mudd. Both shows had bad ideas–Spock’s Brain and the Ferengi stick out–and I don’t want to get into which one had more misfires. But the point is that on paper TNG is clearly the superior show. (Even though, the Clarinet of Spock notwithstanding, TNG could never do humor the way TOS could.)

But there are a lot of people who couldn’t stand TNG when it debuted, and while popular it never achieved the iconic status of TOS. “Beam me up, Scotty” is a phrase that virtually everyone knows. I’m not sure how many people could tell you who Geordi Laforge is, but it’s definitely far, far fewer. Twenty years from now, I doubt Hot Topic will be selling t-shirts with Captain Picard’s picture on them.

Does it come down to technical excellence versus passion? Execution versus imagination?

There are some lessons for casino designers here. Never underestimate the power of fun and creativity. Fans can tolerate cheap sets, ludicrous aliens, and hammy acting if they think there’s a point to it, if its all in good fun. They may be less forgiving of perfection.

P.S.–2 days later, I had another thought. In TOS, the captain usually led the away team, so he was often the first one a planet’s inhabitants got to meet. In TNG, the captain rarely goes on away missions. That’s smart, because I doubt that a real starship would send all of its senior officers into harm’s way routinely, but it means the captain gets less screen time.

Back in “the old days,” casino owners commonly walked the casino floor. Today, Steve Wynn might be the only one who regularly does.

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