Sunday, April 27, 2014

“The Immaculate Misconception”: The Child

There are a number of different ways to go about discussing “The Child”. None of them, it should be stressed, posit in any way that this was anything resembling a good idea: It wasn't in 1978, and it flatly isn't in 1988 or 2012 either. But in spite of it ultimately not working in the slightest, this is also something of a deceptive episode: It's not as bad as as its reputation amongst at least the segment of science fiction fandom that I presume reads my blog would suggest (especially this version of it), though it remains so to such an extent the fact nobody at any point over the past thirty-odd years seemed to notice this is considerably worrying. More to the point though, it's also bad in other areas.

It's really not worth going into a lengthy bit of structural experimentalism with this episode as I have with previous Star Trek Phase II stories that have multiple versions: Unlike “In Thy Image” or “Devil's Due” (or, I'm going to hazard a guess, the upcoming “Kitumba”), the 1978 and 2012 versions of “The Child” are essentially identical. There are a few differences: A couple random one-off redshirts are replaced by Peter and Sulu and keeping Star Trek: The Motion Picture canon necessitated swapping Ilia out with a new Deltan character named Icel, but this basically amounts to a name change. Kirk initially had a lot of scenes where he angrily lashed out at people, hurting Ilia and Irska, and these were thankfully cut or toned down considerably to match James Cawley's interpretation. Also, Will Decker was dropped entirely, but what can you do? Other than that this is essentially a word-for-word, shot-for-shot loyal translation, which does make sense as it's written and directed by the original author.

It's the Star Trek: The Next Generation version that's the most different, being more of a separate story loosely based on this one. It does tackle some similar themes to the original story, but they come across as significantly simplified and watered-down. I'll briefly take a look at this a little later on, but the bottom line is the Next Generation version is without question the inferior one and this is the best of the three, in case any of you were really chomping at the bit to learn which version of “The Child” was the definitive one. One thing the 1988 version does get right, however, is the awkward tension between the mother and her co-worker ex: Jonathan Frakes plays his character very terse and uncomfortable, and while this doesn't at all fit the Riker and Troi relationship thanks to Star Trek: The Next Generation's staunch idealism when it comes to interpersonal matters, it definitely fits the Decker and Ilia one, and the original script bewilderingly drops the ball on this: It barely has Decker interact with Ilia or Irska at all, and never once brings up their prior romance.

We must, I suppose, now talk about “The Child” itself. Well, if I have to...

This is an episode that's actually rather important in the history of my association with Star Trek. I never liked it; I recall it making me wince from the minute I saw it, but it's an episode I've spent an inordinate, and frankly inexcusable, amount of time thinking about. For boring and confusing reasons having to due with the scattershot way I was first exposed to Star Trek: The Next Generation, I actually read the original Star Trek Phase II script before I saw the 1988 episode based on it, so to me this has never actually been a Star Trek: The Next Generation story. To the point that, whenever that version comes on, I always skip it because it frankly embarrasses me: Not just because it's bad, it self-evidently is, but because it feels fundamentally wrong to be seeing people like Marina Sirtis and Jonathan Frakes acting out these scenes. I felt embarrassed for them as well as for myself, and from the outset this never felt like a story that belonged to that crew.

But the other thing that struck me about “The Child” is that it was really the first noticeably sexually coded Star Trek episode I think I remember experiencing. Remember, I didn't see the Original Series in full until the late 1990s so I wouldn't have seen “Amok Time” (and I wouldn't have had the same reaction to it that I had to “The Child” anyway), and none of the “Naked Time”/“Mudd's Passion”/“Naked Now”/“Fascination” series count as far as I'm concerned-Those are just dumb (though I will grant “Naked Now” and “Fascination” each one redeeming scene). But the way Ilia is written in this story, and the way Persis Khambatta surely would have played her, simply drips with sensuality and even the stage directions themselves are absolutely loaded up with intriguing sexual imagery and ideas. Given that the rest of this episode is actually terrible, this naturally isn't anywhere near as effective as it could have been, but it does mark the first time, or at least the first time since “Amok Time”, that Star Trek has consciously engaged with sexuality in a manner somewhat resembling intelligence and maturity. Naturally it ultimately screws it up, but it's a step forward nonetheless and this version does a good job highlighting and emphasizing this.

It's the Deltan conception of sexuality and personal bonding that's the key here. Deltan society is built entirely around empathy and communication, which as far as Star Trek hats go is a pretty good one to wear. Deltans have an innate power to immediately understand anyone and anything, place love and intimately knowing each other above all else, and for them any form of interpersonal contact and interaction is explicitly sexual. This marks another difference between the original version of this story and the Star Trek: The Next Generation one: Here, there's a lot of time spent explaining this, fleshing out the details of what this kind of society would look like and the kind of people who would come out of it (and once again the 2012 version comes across as superior, as Icel gets many opportunities to patiently speak for her people and explain how she knows Irska isn't a threat, where in the original draft that was all on Xon).

In the remake, however, this is all left up to Troi's dialogue and Marina Sirtis' acting. Originally, the pregnancy and birth happened essentially during the intro credits, while the remake lingers on it across several acts. This has the effect of shifting the sexual emphasis to an extent: Now it has more to do with the process itself and less to do with the empathy metaphor, which was the more interesting part of it. Also, Marina Siritis is once again not really the person for the task at hand-While she can do intimate sensuality because she's a tremendous actor and can do anything you throw at her, this really isn't what she's strongest at and not the best use of her talents. This is a reoccurring problem for Troi in general, at least under Sirtis: Being a stand-in for Ilia doesn't do any favours for either the actor or the character and it's not until very, very late in the run of Star Trek: The Next Generation that people start to figure out how to actually use them both.

There are, of course, problems with this. Let's address the obvious one before we go any further: The entire plot hinges on something that is manifestly sci-fi rape. That is without question what is going on and it's not really possible to read it as anything else. I guess you could make some argument about how because Deltans are so innately and instinctually sexual the entity and Ilia/Icel were subconsciously drawn to one another, but that doesn't really hold, as the dialogue would seem to indicate Ilia/Icel didn't understand how she was impregnated. That said, this is actually somewhat unclear, as Ilia's stage directions would seem to imply she knew what was happening all along and was happy about it (even going so far as to have her state that she knew from the beginning what's going to happen to Irska), and Persis Khambatta would definitely have picked up on that. Either way, in the 2012 version it's played far more as if Icel is genuinely confused (admittedly mostly only in one scene, but it *is* the key one) and in the Star Trek: The Next Generation one Marina Sirtis does an unsettlingly straight rape scene that casts a dark cloud over the rest of the episode.

The rape is obviously the major problem, but another one that's almost as bad is this script's conception of motherhood, and it's a deal-breaker in every single version of the story. All of that wonderful stuff about Deltan sensuality (including a genuinely tantalizing line the 2012 version adds where Icel explicitly states that for Deltans pregnancy is a sexual experience and childbirth is a kind of orgasm, which is something the original only hinted at) is tossed immediately out the window when it starts talking about the “mysterious”, “intractable” bond between a Deltan mother and child. The original version flat-out compares Ilia to an animal protecting her child with instinctual ferocity and the 2012 version has Icel tell Kirk “the only bond” Deltans feel that's stronger then sexual joining is “that between mother and child”, which is such an utterly wrong statement on so many different levels I don't even want to begin to tabulate them all. The original script also had a scene so ridiculous it would be hilarious if it wasn't offensive, where Ilia and Irska create a mental force-field out of the power of parental love that prevents Kirk and Xon from getting close to them when the latter wanted to try to mind-meld with Irska to discern her connection to the cylinder ship.

As usual, it's the Star Trek: The Next Generation remake that's the worst by far, writing Troi “hysterically” and “irrationally” overprotective and having her go from being explicitly raped and emotionally violated and traumatized to being pregnant and defiantly refusing to even consider an abortion, because mothers are all programmatically protective and nurturing. It is a shocking, appalling moment that not only feeds off of the patriarchal glorification of “mysterious motherhood” the original story played on in droves, but adds in a serving of straightforward rape culture to boot (I mean, as if the actual rape wasn't enough already). This is what kills this episode in all its forms and undoes any of the other potentially intriguing things it could have done, end of discussion. The only reason I'm not going into the same table-flipping rage I did with “Who Mourns for Adonais?” is because it's not exactly the same thing and there are enough other things to talk about to see it as more of an interesting case study overall, but it's still unbelievably distasteful.

The sexism and misogyny is so bad, it's easy to overlook another seriously egregious problem with “The Child”: The character of Irska herself. Or rather, the conception of her character (Oh God, pun not intended): The climax (jeez, I'm really not making a good case for myself here, am I?) reveals that Irska and the cylinder ship are part of the same species, and everything she experienced on the Enterprise (including risking her life to save the crew from the plague) was intended to activate her genetic memory about this phase of evolution. It turns out that Irska belongs to yet another race of hyper-evolved non-corporial life-forms who were once humanoids and Irska wasn't even technically ever born, as her physical birth was simply another stage of embryonic development that she had to go through. This means that Irska, and by association “The Child” itself, is explicitly meant as a musing on Ernst Haeckel's theory of recapitulation.

This widely discredited biological theory states that individual embryonic development was a microcosm of species-wide evolution, and that as embryos develop they go through every single prior phase of the evolution of their species before being born in their current form. Haeckel felt that because mammals evolved from reptiles who evolved from fish, you could seen a human embryo go through stages where it resembles a fish embryo, then a reptile one, then one of a small mammal and so on, and he built his theory by basically eyeballing a bunch of embryos and deciding they all kinda, sorta looked like one another. This is what “The Child” says is happening to Irska: Because her ancestors were once humanoid, one of her embryonic stages resembles a human child (and furthermore, it takes this as an accepted fact about the way things work: Ilia/Icel actually says humans go through the same process).

No reputable biologist would put any stake in recapitulation theory today (though a few try to use it to explain the development of language), so this pushes Star Trek straight into Bad Science territory. I don't like harping on this sort of thing as I typically find it spectacularly uninteresting: Star Trek gets stick from certain quarters for being scientifically inaccurate, but it *is* ultimately sci-fi-fantasy and to be fair most of its technobabble is simply meaningless nonsense made up to flesh out the world enough and can be (and should be) safely ignored. This though is actually wrong to the point of being misleading, and that's a slightly different matter. On top of that, “The Child” also ties its conception (there I go again) of recapitulation theory to a teleological approach to evolution, conflates species-wide evolution with societal evolution and, Deltans notwithstanding, pulls the “Return to Tomorrow” trick of hypothesizing our Final Forms will be hyper-evolved beings of pure thought. The key phrase is even, no kidding, “unnecessary shell”, which is what awakens Irska's genetic memory of who she really is and lets her know what she needs to do to reach the next stage of development.

If you're watching the Star Trek: The Next Generation version, though I don't know why you would be, things are a bit different, and predictably worse. That version pulls the Avengers # 200 trick of having the child and the father be the same person, and has him declare that he wanted to learn what it meant to be human, so he made himself experience “the most human experience of all”, being born, which is frankly bullshit. The original script was bad enough: Of Irska, Ilia/Icel comes right out and says “I was her first womb”, as if that's all she is, a womb, but this version makes it all about Ian. Troi's already been raped, which is fundamentally dehumanizing as is, but now Ian has the nerve to come in and push her even further to the margins of this story. It's taking the silencing and domination inherent in rape culture and writing that back into storytelling structure.

On a different note, the 2012 version of “The Child” is interesting on one other level, namely the fact this was the first proper Star Trek Phase II script James Cawley and his team chose to produce. That it was this one, a script that had technically already been filmed, and not, say, “Tomorrow and the Stars” or “Practice in Waking” or even something like “The War to End All Wars” is fascinating to me, because it technically means that the 1988 version of “The Child” is no longer canon, which I'm perfectly alright with. Just like Cawley's fun double-talk and speaking-between-the-lines in the fallout from “To Serve All My Days”, this is another example of Star Trek Phase II playing fast and loose with Star Trek canon: This version of “The Child” doesn't flat-out contradict anything, but it is tacitly making the claim that it's the definitive version of the story, and it's tough for me to argue that it isn't. This would mean that, I think for the very first time a work of “official” Star Trek has been removed from canon (“Threshold” notwithstanding), and also the first time an Expanded Universe work has taken up its mantle.

But the question for me remains “Did we actually need a definitive, authoritative version of 'The Child' in the first place?”. And my answer is, for now, “no, I don't really think we did”. It's a story that's been a lot of things for me, not many of them good, and in spite of the occasional intriguing exploration into sexuality and empathy the Deltans can provide, this is ultimately a story that's too mired in reactionary attitudes to be everything it needs to be. That said, “The Child” does remain one of the first times Star Trek attempted to seriously engage with sexuality, and as bad as it is perhaps it managed to lay some groundwork. Star Trek has never been really great at this, but it gets some flashes of utter brilliance in the future. Would they have happened without “The Child”? That's the thing-I don't actually know. And that's probably the root of the problem.


  1. I agree with your reading of that scene in TNG. It's about the ostensible biological drive of wimmenz to be nurturing protectors, etc... and yet, there is something to be said for the way the male officers are all debating what's to be done until Troi says "I'm having this baby" and Picard just says, without any hint of being put-out, "Then it would appear that the discussion is over." I like that.

    1. I'd chalk that, as I will most of what makes the first two seasons of The Next Generation worthwhile, to the actors putting in a Herculean effort to redeem middling-to-awful material they're handed. Patrick Stewart said he felt the show in its earliest days was flagrantly sexist and he made it a personal mission to make it less so as much as he could.

    2. Patrick Stewart is a bloody giant.

    3. In more ways than one.

      I'm not kidding, this is a truly special cast on any number of levels.

  2. Also, on the biology... I think you're absolutely right to bring it up, despite the fact that Trek is essentially fantasy and scientific accuracy doesn't generally matter. Your distinction between meaningless technobabble and inaccurate real science is right too, but I'd also add the different political weight attached to biology. Because biology concerns itself with, amongst other things, the human body, it has been politically freighted with all sorts of horrible determinism and reductionism about human social traits being biologically originated. Biology is inherently more political than physics or astronomy. There's no massively funded reactionary effort to undermine the Copernican theory, for instance.

    1. I think you're absolutely correct here, of course. And this also ties into Star Trek's ultimate responsibility to be progressive and promote material social progress, which is a responsibility that is in many ways uniquely its.

    2. There's no massively funded reactionary effort to undermine the Copernican theory, for instance.

      Not yet.

  3. So, so much effort spent on producing various versions of story that really never should have been made. What Star Trek creator types consider worth reviving boggles the mind sometimes.

    You seem to hit all the points as best as I can tell. I'm really only familiar with the TNG version (haven't seen the 2012 version yet - actually, it took me a few entries to catch on that's what was being covered at this point in your blog since the videos don't embed in my RSS reader), but it's easily a low point based on the rape scene alone.

    You're right to point out that there's a fragment of a good exploration here, which seems to be a common refrain in Trek up to this point.

    1. "(haven't seen the 2012 version yet - actually, it took me a few entries to catch on that's what was being covered at this point in your blog since the videos don't embed in my RSS reader)"

      Oh, uh, sorry...

      I hope you get the chance to go back and watch the stuff I've been covering since "Come What May"-There's some genuinely great stuff there. James Cawley is fantastic and his team have done some wonderful things,

    2. I'll tell you what, once I figured out that there were videos to go along with the entries they made a LOT more sense.

      I'm gonna find some weekend to hole up, nerd out and watch all that material, which I had no idea even existed until you started covering it. :-)

    3. If you find you have something to add to the discussion after actually watching the series, even if by that time I'm well into Star Trek: The Next Generation, please don't hesitate to go back and comment on these posts. I'm always willing to entertain discussion on anything here and always make a point keep up with my commenters.

      And anyway, this volume will probably make a ton more sense later on anyway. I've self-consciously been writing it from the perspective of the future. Or rather, from the perspectives of *different* futures.

    4. I can, do some degree, understand why the TNG production team remade The Child, given the relative desperation they were in while preparing their second season in the midst of a writers' strike that hobbled their ability to produce new scripts. In that case, Star Trek Phase II (1978) was a scrapyard for spare parts in times of desperation. The modern Phase II production crew would have raided these old scripts perhaps out of a sense of fealty. I haven't seen this one in particular, but what I took away from watching earlier productions is that the fan love results in a worship of Star Trek's continuity and past above all else. Cawley and the crew took an act of desperation by the TNG production crew and made it an act of fidelity. I'm not sure which is more sad.

    5. Certainly I understand the utter desperation faced by the Star Trek: The Next Generation team in its second and third seasons. I made precisely that point in the "Devil's Due" entry to demonstrate how odd it was for that story to show up in the fourth season.

      My question, then as now, remains why "The Child" *in particular*?

  4. Such a big shame the “Practice in Waking” was not the one they chose in this instance. Perhaps for me that remains to one the best unmade Trek stories.