|It's so bad.|
Let's square away the obvious right away. “Code of Honor” is catastrophically, disgustingly and inexcusably racist. I don't think anyone disputes that. Jonathan Frakes describes it bluntly as a “racist piece of shit”, and his castmates emphatically agree: Michael Dorn calls it “the worst episode of Star Trek ever filmed” while Brent Spiner muses that “It was the third episode so it was fortuitous that we did our worst that early on and it never got quite that bad again”. Somewhere along the way, somebody, most likely an assistant casting director or wardrobe designer, made the absolutely unthinkable decision to make the Ligonians an entire culture of space Africans, when they had never once been specified as such in the original script, and on top of that has them kidnap a white woman. Story editor Tracy Tormé points out the obvious, saying “Code of Honor” features a “1940s tribal Africa” depiction of Africans. Even Gene Roddenberry, a man not always known for his enlightened and progressive view of nonwestern, nonwhite societies, fired the director halfway through filming for being racist to the cast, although he was apparently fine with the rest of the episode.
The bottom line is nobody important wanted this episode to happen, and indeed *everyone* important was trying desperately to ensure that it didn't happen. So let's take it as read that “Code of Honor” is utterly abominable at a conceptual level, try to forgive the people we'll be spending the next seven years with (because it really wasn't their fault) and take a look at everything else that sucks about this repulsive train wreck. The first thing we notice after stripping away the most obvious hideousness is that the plot is basically an apathetic retread of “Amok Time”, with a member of the Enterprise forced to fight in ritual combat, with the clandestine administration of a neurosuppressor agent to one of the combatants a key part of the battle. Not only does it eschew absolutely all of the complex sexual and world-building themes of “Amok Time” in lieu of fantastically shitty and racist ones, as Wil Wheaton points out, “Code of Honor” aired the week after “The Naked Now”...Which was another twelfth-rate rehash of an Original Series episode. Not exactly the message the all-new Star Trek striving to stand apart from its iconic forebearer wants to be sending three weeks into its run.
But for me the worst part of all of this is that this is an episode I once actively sought out and looked forward to seeing. Let me, uh, try to explain: I was badly, badly mislead by Starlog magazine in this case, and I don't think I've quite gotten over that even now. “Code of Honor” was not an episode I saw when I was first introduced to Star Trek: The Next Generation. I didn't watch it when originally aired, or even during the syndicated reruns various networks would often run in later years. It just never happened to come up when I was watching (thankfully). I first learned about its existence a few years after the series went off the air during a period when I was still interested enough in Star Trek to want to fill in any gaps I noticed I had. I had a Starlog-published episode guide that was my first physical reference for every Star Trek: The Next Generation episode and was an invaluable resource for me until I got the Internet. It was this book that helped me reacquaint myself with the show's earliest years, which, apart from a handful of vividly memorable moments I barely remembered, and in particular a character I seemed to have completely forgotten: Tasha Yar.
Rediscovering Tasha's existence marked a turning point in my relationship with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I was kicking myself for not having remembered her. Jadzia Dax and Kira Nerys from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had long since established themselves as two of my absolute favourite characters in the entire franchise for being tough, whip-smart and hyper-competent women who overtly and flamboyantly rejected traditional gender roles and stereotypes. I looked up to them tremendously, especially Dax, and I was ecstatic to discover that someone who looked to be the same type of character existed on Star Trek: The Next Generation too, as that show meant even more to me. Tasha was described as just the most fascinating and badass character, what with her backstory as the survivor of a failed Federation colony, her no-nonsense approach to running security on the Enterprise and tough, commanding personality Starlog described as “hot blooded”.
The magazine editors made Tasha Yar out to seem like just *the coolest* person imaginable: She even seemed to like the same sort of chic short, straight and layered hairstyle that was in vogue at the time the show was airing (you can see Chynna Phillips rocking it in the music video to “Hold On”) and that I personally had always admired and thought looked really pretty. The PR still they used for “Skin of Evil” has her defiantly out front, heroically putting herself between Armus and the rest of the away team, which is a scene I don't even think happens in the actual episode. I was already feeling more than a little nostalgic, and naturally I couldn't wait to go back and find out more about who was surely going to be my new favourite Star Trek character. According to what I could gather from Starlog, her big episode, apart from “Skin of Evil” (which I refused to watch just on principle) was “Code of Honor”.
Let me try and articulate the way the magazine described this episode. I'm doing this from memory because I don't have the actual book with me (I mean I'm sure it's somewhere in the house, I just don't know where offhand. I don't throw anything away, certainly not something like this), so bear with me, and anyway I think this approach is appropriate given my relationship with Star Trek: The Next Generation over the years. Starlog's synopsis went something like this: “Tasha Yar must engage an honour-bound warrior queen in ritualistic combat to secure desperately needed vaccine for a plague-ravaged planet”. Now, I don't know about any of you, but to me that setup sounded awesome. That one sentence conjured up for me images of tense, high-stakes negotiations with a stubborn, yet principled society with very high standards for whom they associate with. I was imagining Tasha passionately debating these people, for the bulk of the episode before heroically agreeing to the queen's stipulations during the climax, as dedicated to risking her life for others as she is honoured to be considered the Enterprise's finest warrior (I mean she had to be, right? the queen wouldn't have chosen her otherwise).
Of course Tasha was the best character to handle this plot. Apart from being the toughest, strongest, most badass character on the ship, her background gave her a deep understanding of both the moral imperative to help the plague victims as quickly as possible, but to also respect and honour the sacred traditions of the Ligonians. I'd always thought Tasha would embody the balance between a weathered, street-honed, hard-knocks style of working class morality with the cosmopolitan philosophy of 24th Century Starfleet. After all, she brings a unique perspective to the table, but she's still security chief of the Starship Enterprise, and she has that post for a reason. Maybe that would be another level to the “honour” theme of this episode: Tasha honours her post, her heritage, her values, the Ligonians and her duty to the mission all at the same time. At this point I was beyond excited to see “Code of Honor”, so I made a special trip to my local video store to rent their copy and discover a whole new way to love my favourite show.
And then I actually watched it. And my reaction was about what you'd expect it would be.
Basically nothing I thought was going to happen happened. Not only is Tasha not in charge of the negotiations, she barely does anything until she gets kidnapped (yes, kidnapped) by the Ligonian chief so he can forcibly marry her. Absolutely everybody else makes decisions for her, the only reason she fights a warrior queen (who is neither a warrior nor a queen) is because the show was paranoid about letting their *female action hero* actually fight people apart from other women, Denise Crosby was, well, Denise Crosby, and just, like, all of the racism. If you look up “racism” in the dictionary, there's no text or examples for any of the definitions, just gifsets from “Code of Honor”.
My god what a shitshow. The only thing I remember, my having blocked out as much of this episode from my memory as I was physically capable of doing, was the scene where Geordi brings Tasha the spiky glove thing. I thought the three or four seconds they talked to each other was kind of nice, especially considering how close they had been in “The Naked Now”. Geordi was concerned about her and Tasha was brave. I thought that was sweet. Then Picard stared out a window for a bit before the show faded to commercial, because everything's gotta be about him all the time. In hindsight, the experience of actually renting “Code of Honor” from the video store might have been part of the reason why I didn't watch Star Trek: The Next Generation again until 2000.
After all that, there are at least two positive things I can say about “Code of Honor”. Firstly, it's a terrible, inconceivably offensive Star Trek episode that actually has that reputation. The Original Series had an uncomfortable amount of episodes that were at the very least broadly similar to the calamity this one turned out to be, but everyone has selective memory when it comes to the Original Series, so that part of the show gets conveniently forgotten. That “Code of Honor” gets (rightfully) pilloried to the extent it does is a sign Star Trek is indeed being held to much higher standards now. And secondly, “Code of Honor” is without question the single worst episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it only gets better from here. But the flipside of that is that audiences' very first impressions of this show were of the two worst, most reprehensible stories in the entire series coming one after another right out of the gate.
Frankly, that there was even a show around to actually get better after this is a goddamn miracle.