Thursday, October 9, 2014
“Fallacies and falsehoods there were from time immemorial”: Justice, Angel One, When The Bough Breaks
Traditions are only worth holding onto if they make sense.
Today marks a turning point for Vaka Rangi, at least in terms of its structure. With Star Trek: The Next Generation, we've entered the longest and most monolithic stretch of the entire Star Trek franchise. There is no point between 1987 and 2005 where Star Trek is not airing new episodes in some form or another, and this makes analysing and historicizing it the way I've been approaching it up 'till now unfeasibly difficult in any reasonable amount of time. Especially considering the fact that, to be brutally honest, not every episode of Star Trek from here on out is a historical milestone, and not every one really needs to be treated as such. Actually, I don't even consider that to be true of the Original Series, but you could at least craft a somewhat compelling argument that this might have been true in this instance. For these shows, however, three of which were comprised of seven seasons of thirty episodes each and one of which was comprised of four, it's really not plausible for me to tackle them episode by episode and expect to be done with all of this before Vaka Rangi itself becomes a historical relic.
So from now on, I'm going to start looking at whole sections of a season together in one essay instead of one at a time. I'll group the episodes together around a central theme that I think characterizes each of them and, instead of going into elabourate detail for all of them, I'll pull examples that support my thesis from each of them. Not every post will be like this; there are still a fair few episodes that I think warrant posts all to themselves, but this is going to become a regular feature from here on out. In particular, I simply can't conceive of any other way to sanely cover the byzantine complexity of the Dominion War's stubborn fixation on serialization *while also* writing about Star Trek Voyager at the same time. Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 1 is the first moment I think the time is right to approach the critique this way because there's a noticeable chunk of the year that's quite frankly completely superfluous, mediocre and eminently passable. And, er, I'm afraid it's this one. It wouldn't feel right for me to skip over these episodes entirely, but there's simply no way I can squeeze 1.5-2,000 words out of any of them, and I don't want to waste your time with an entire day's post that's just like 500 words or so.
It's not that any of these episodes are reprehensibly terrible; there's nothing in any of them quite as ghastly as “The Naked Now” or “Code of Honor” (although “Justice” and “Angel One” have moments that push it). What they all are, however, is rote and forgettable, and in a very particular way. I have a distinct suspicion that when people malign the first season, it's probably this crop of episodes they're thinking of, and I've personally skipped over these episodes so many times during my past revisits of this year I actually barley remember them. I know there's a lot of vitriol leveled at the earlier episodes too, and while I do grant they have their issues, I think the majority of the criticism of stories like “Where No One Has Gone Before”, “The Last Outpost” and “Lonely Among Us” is misplaced and unfounded and mostly stems from frustrated confusion that the show under Gene Roddenberry, Maurice Hurley and D.C. Fontana isn't what it's going to be under Michael Piller or Jeri Taylor. And yeah, “Hide and Q” and “Datalore” were both pretty excruciating, and don't get me going on “The Naked Now” and “Code of Honor” again. However, “Encounter at Farpoint”, “Haven”, “Too Short A Season” and “The Big Goodbye” were all magnificent and nobody can convince me otherwise.
These three episodes we're looking at today though...I pretty much concede every single criticism of them that's ever been made. They're all boring and work in very questionable ways, if at all, and more than anything else feel like the show is going through the motions. And disappointingly, “going through the motions” for the Star Trek: The Next Generation production team midway through its first season is apparently “halfheartedly reiterating the Original Series”. “Justice” is a bog standard Prime Directive story, which means it sucks by default without even getting into its worriesome situational politics, “Angel One” is another in a long line of ham-fisted TOS-style allegories that handles feminism with the same care and nuance Dave Gerrold gave homosexuality in “Blood and Fire” and “When The Bough Breaks” is basically a less-interesting “Wink of an Eye”. Every single one of these stories would have felt right at home on Captain Kirk's bridge, and not a single one needs the resources and potential of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It almost feels like the team honestly didn't care what they were making, dug up a bunch of old scripts and did a find-replace on all the names. You know, just like how they'll literally do that exact thing about eight months from now.
(I am, of course, well aware of the extenuating circumstances that led to exhuming “The Child”. This does not change the fact it was a somewhat ill-advised move, or assuage concerns that the production team thinks Star Trek Phase II and Star Trek: The Next Generation are interchangeable.)
I mean honestly, you'd think by now they would have figured things out: It's an oft-repeated and misleading myth, stemming from this show actually (we'll talk more about it once Michael Piller comes aboard) that any television series needs between one to three seasons to figure itself out before it settles into a groove. This is, bluntly put, both a presumptuous and false belief held only by people who have no experience with or understanding of TV that's not Star Trek. A television show is lucky if it lives long enough to get a second season, let alone three. The only reason Star Trek has historically had room to drag its feet is because it was made for syndication and doesn't have the same expectations hoisted onto it. There are plenty of shows that aren't Star Trek that storm right out of the gate confident in their own identity and proudly making their presence known (Dirty Pair, Miami Vice...) and even some that *are* Star Trek (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's first two seasons are quite honestly shamefully undervalued). Not everything has the luxury of a guaranteed episode count to slack off with.
One aspect of this that is true, however, is the fact that Star Trek *is* incredibly difficult to write for. It's unlike any other television show not because, as is often claimed, it's VFX-heavy science fiction, but because not only does it not play by the same rulebook as every other scripted drama on the air, it's not even playing the same game. Standard rules about plot, character development and conflict simply *do not apply* to Star Trek: The Next Generation, and that confounds people who aren't used to it. Not only that, but people who *are* versed in Star Trek have their own set of problems, namely they're so entrenched in their comfort zones and standard ways of approaching things (especially if they came up through or were fans of the Original Series, both of which is true of the current production team) they can't quite wrap their head around the fact it's not 1967 anymore. In the case of all of these parties, the default reaction to being confounded by Star Trek: The Next Generation is “do what the Original Series did”. And that gives you stories like these.
By virtue of inheriting the Original Series' narrative structure, these three episodes also inherit its ethical problems, because the Original Series wasn't always (read “was hardly ever”) the forward-thinking shows people like to think it was. And, like clockwork, each of these three episodes has at least one major cratering ethical failing: While not as stupefyingly abhorrent as “Are Unheard Memories Sweet?”, it's nearest Original Series/Phase II analog, “Angel One” attempts to Say Something Important about feminism by imagining a planet where men are held as slaves by a ruling class of dominatrices and asking its male viewers how they would like it if they had to live like that. While it's thankfully at least on the correct side of the issue this time, “Angel One” almost comically fails as social commentary because it doesn't realise its embarrassingly simple act of turnabout completely neglects to address the underlying social mores and power structures that dictate why women and women in particular, are treated as a hated underclass on contemporary Earth. Furthermore, it's sad how the show seems to think it needs to go to all this trouble when it already depicts a feminist and progressive world *by default*. The crew are obviously meant to be sympathetic, and they're trying mightily to prove to us they're ideals worth invoking. This just feels, redundant, unnecessary and as if the show is trying too hard.
“Justice” and “When The Bough Breaks”, meanwhile, both essentially drift around aimlessly and without a purpose, aside from the aforementioned Prime Directive hand-wringing, so all the same critiques I leveled against things like “The Return of the Archons” and “The Apple” still apply. I'm not going to reiterate my steadfast rejection of the Prime Directive every single time we get another episode about it: It simply doesn't work because there is no conception of reality where it would be possible to hold onto it from an anthropological perspective, and that's before getting at the rather loaded and reactionary subtexts that underwrite this kind of story. “Justice” at least has been read as a critique of unattainable, conventional “fit” standards of beauty and the oppression and stigma this forces onto those who don't conform, but I don't really buy that argument because A. the Enterprise crew are all supposed to be at the peak of physical health and fitness, B., Edo as depicted is pretty indistinguishable from any number of “close-minded” Original Series planetary societies that just follow rules and orders blindly and without question and C. I don't see anything wrong with advocating being as healthy and active as you can be within your means and as is appropriate to your specific body type. “Conventional standards of beauty” and “fitness” are not the same thing; in fact, the former tends to preclude the latter.
As is often the case with Star Trek: The Next Generation, at least at this point in time, the most noteworthy things on display here are visual aesthetics and hints at hidden stories that could have been told. In that regard, “Angel One” has a bizarre, half-baked C-plot about Romulan mobilization near the Neutral Zone that's supposed to set in motion a story arc, but it's entirely superfluous, it's dealt with far better in the episode “The Neutral Zone” and you miss absolutely nothing by waiting until then. I like how Geordi gets to command the Enterprise and Tasha gets to lead the away team, but that's all handled better in “The Arsenal of Freedom” and it really should have been Beverly in the captain's chair here instead. The matte painting and set from this episode, meanwhile, are definitely a step up for the show, and they both go on to be re-used with success in future episodes. Also, the central computer core from “When The Bough Breaks” is one of the most striking and memorable images from the first season, and the process of bringing the shot to life was covered in LeVar Burton's Star Trek: The Next Generation Reading Rainbow episode. As for “Justice”...well...
Look. As you've probably ascertained by now, I'm very forgiving of the visual style of this series. I *love* the Enterprise sets, the lighting, the Okudagrams, Andy Probert's elegant organic curves, everything. I love the uniforms, though I prefer the two-piece suit variants we start seeing in the third season, because just looking at those spandex jumpsuits makes my back hurt knowing what havoc they wreaked with the actors' spinal columns. I mentioned in the “Haven” essay how much I adore Ariana, her style, and how Danitza Kingsley could convey so much with just a look. Even her people's ship was fairly evocative. But “Justice” is where I finally draw the line. This episode, from beginning to end, is an aesthetic car fire. The Edosians look like William Ware Theiss didn't know what a 1980s was and tried to design something “hip” and “trendy” based on already dated Olivia Newton John music videos and half-overheard watercooler grumblings from his co-workers about “the kids these days”. The set doesn't help matters at all, and looks just as cringe-inducingly gauche as everything else about this episode does. The fact that it's actually a real place, the C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in the San Fernando Valley, is just even more deeply unfortunate.
In the end, I can't decide what's worse: A bunch of out-of-touch TV veterans from the 1960s trying to be relevant and contemporary or simply not even bothering. “Angel One” and “When The Bough Breaks” feel like retrograde throwbacks, but “Justice” looks like your dad trying to breakdance in a suit and tie. It's not awkwardly dated because it's of the 1980s, that's just it: It's not of the 1980s. It's some old person's idea of what the 1980s were about. The real works of the period are the ones that transcend themselves to reach metafictional nirvana and can never look out of place because they were never trying to fit in to begin with. No matter which angle they were approached from, not a single one of “Justice”, “Angel One” or “When The Bough Breaks” should be here. They're all the work of burned out talent who have lost their game and who are unable to recapture their moment in the sun. They're a clear a sign as any that Star Trek: The Next Generation needs to clean house if it wants to have a legacy worth talking about.