Sunday, November 30, 2014
“Seeking something they have lost”: Where Silence Has Lease
It begins as early as the opening credits. The title sequence is the same as the first season, but the theme song is a new recording that sounds off-puttingly fake to me for some reason. Riker has his beard, but he's still not properly stocky. The uniforms are the same familiar spandex ones, and yet Tasha Yar isn't at the tactical console. Deanna Troi has the hairstyle and uniform she'll sport for the majority of the series, but it's the wrong colour. Geordi is chief engineer, but he's only a lieutenant instead of a lieutenant commander. Worf is security chief and he's got his chain-mail sash, but he lacks the makeup that gives him the iconic and recognisable look I associate with him in that position. Even the new creative team, fresh off the Mass Exodus of the summer, doesn't stick around, so it's hard to get too attached to anyone or anything here. The whole show is at this awkward transitory phase between one incarnation and the next, exhibiting traits I'd associate with both its first season and Micheal Piller-era formes, but never satisfyingly falling into either camp. It's liminal to be sure, but it doesn't feel liminal in a way that embraces the power of liminality: Rather, it comes across more as...immature and underdeveloped.
And then there's Doctor Pulaski.
Probably the definitive embodiment of how “off” Season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation feels to me is that this is the sole season where Gates McFadden does not appear as Beverly Crusher. Gates had been fired abruptly at the end of the first season by Maurice Hurley for unspecified reasons, though it's fairly evident Hurley simply didn't like her very much and decide to act on this by giving her the pink slip. This was probably one of the single dumbest moves in the history of the franchise: Yes, there are conceptual issues with Doctor Crusher as a character, but you'd have to be mad not to see that everything that *was* good about Bev is directly thanks to Gates McFadden, and that as an actor she's one of the show's biggest assets and raw talents. That Hurley felt Gates didn't deserve the same chance to make her character her own that every other actor on the show got is a black mark on his entire tenure as executive producer. Ironically enough, Hurley is a staunch defender of Denise Crosby and Tasha Yar and thought her loss was a shame. I mean it was, but you'd think that would have led him to behave differently.
Regardless, Gates McFadden's exit necessitated creating a new chief medical officer character, and who the producers and the incoming creative team came up with was one Katherine Pulaski, possibly the most contentious and polarizing character in the history of Star Trek. Her ardent defenders adore her firstly because she's not Gates McFadden, who (just as Maurice Hurley did) some people seem to surprisingly resent for some stupefyingly inexplicable reason, but secondly because she's Diana Muldaur, returned to Star Trek for the first time in twenty years. And the thing about Diana Muldaur is that she's Diana Muldaur: A titanically commanding actor with an effortless and innate knack for portraying devastatingly competent female professionals with wry senses of humour. Meanwhile, Data fans hate her with every fiber of their being, because Doctor Pulaski starts out incredibly abusive to Data, and a lot of people have a lot of very strong feelings about and attachments to Data and project a lot of things onto him, in particular *numerous* marginal and oppressed identities. So, unfortunately, there's kind of a bit of a tinderbox under Muldaur right from the start.
I'm going to be taking the ever-unpopular middle path here. I love Beverly and can't ever accept anyone other than her as CMO or science officer of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D or accept any version of Star Trek: The Next Generation that doesn't have her in some capacity. What Maurice Hurley did to Gates McFadden was inconceivably shitty and wrong on pretty much every level, and I'll never forgive him for that. And Doctor Pulaski is pretty transparently nothing more than a genderbent Bones McCoy who doesn't work anywhere near as effectively because casual racism, in particular the sort of racism that prevents a person from acknowledging another person actually counts as living thing, is no longer cool and has absolutely no place in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
However, I'm an admitted huge fan of Diana Muldaur, and can't honestly say I'm not thrilled to have her as a regular (well, in spirit at any rate: Perhaps as a statement against the injustice that had to happen to get her that position, Muldaur refused to be credited as a regular even though she technically was). And what a lot of people fail to remember about Doctor Pulaski is that in spite of how fucking obscene the position she started in was, overcoming her racism was supposed to be part of her character arc, this happens fairly early on in the season and by the end of the year she becomes as close a friend of Data's as anyone else on the Enterprise.
And like so much else about Star Trek, I believe in the potential within Doctor Pulaski: Had she been written as a character who truly played to Muldaur's strengths and was allowed to be her own person instead of just being femme!McCoy, there's absolutely no reason she couldn't have been as successful or effective as anyone else on the show. Indeed, Diana Muldaur circa 1988 is precisely the sort of person who should have gelled perfectly with Star Trek: The Next Generation, and under better circumstances she would have made a wonderful addition to the cast. I just don't think that needed to be done at the expense of Beverly Crusher and Gates McFadden.
(Of course, I'm skipping over the *other* major new cast addition, but she's not in this episode so I'll save her for another couple of essays.)
Yet even I do have memories of Doctor Pulaski, however hazy they may often be, and there are quite a few moments interspersed throughout the year where I find she does work, and works very well. And, just like her, Star Trek: The Next Generation itself certainly works on more than one occasion during this season, writer's guild strike and behind the scenes turmoil be damned. And “Where Silence Has Lease” is absolutely one of those occasions. In fact, of all the second season stories, I think it's this one that consistently stands out to me the most strongly, because it's here a very defining aspect of Star Trek: The Next Generation finally coalesces. Although it ends up as a(n actually relatively well done) musing on mortality and how different people conceptualize death, this is a story first and foremost about exploration and curiosity. I feel like it constantly needs to be stressed that the Enterprise crew are supposed to be explorers and scientists, not diplomats and soldiers. Star Trek's repugnant and inescapable militarism frequently works against this, but to take anything enjoyable or useful out of the franchise this really does have to be the way we read it, especially this show.
In “Where Silence Has Lease”, the Enterprise is on a starmapping mission. They stop to investigate the hole in space, because it's unknown to them and want to learn about it. Up until the end, this is a phenomenally low-key, low-stakes story. You would think then that this would be boring, but I don't find it to be at all for two reasons. One, I happen to really enjoy low-stakes stories personally and am entirely comfortable and content watching a show where “nothing happens”. But that's me and I'm weird. The point that's probably more relevant to my readers is that this episode paces itself really well, and makes its so following along with the crew as they try to solve the mystery is fun and interesting. All kinds of freaky things happen in the hole, from space seeming to curve in on itself and behave in an almost self-aware way to the ghost Romulan warbird and the M.C. Escherprise Worf and Commander Riker poke around on.
(On top of that, this is all really clever usage of stock footage and pre-existing sets, handily disguising the fact this episode was obviously made in deference to both the writer’s guild strike and an overflowing budget.)
It's because of this focus on literal exploration and discovery that the tail end of the episode can do what it does: As thematically incongruous as the juxtaposition my at first seem, Captain Picard and Nagilum's musings on mortality are a logical extension of the sorts of ideas the story is working with elsewhere. We all travel and explore to learn about who and what we are and what our role in life is meant to be. The behavioural science of Nagilum and Doctor Pulaski, the theoretical physics of Data and Worf's warrior's code are all different systems of situated knowledge and thought that people use to help themselves come to terms with this basic, universal sense of curiosity (just incidentally, I love how Captain Picard's conception of death is so manifestly *not* the existentialist-atheist one). And this unites us far more than it drives us apart: Look at how Worf gets a number of scenes where he seemingly acts violently and impulsively, to the point you might think the show is making fun of him, but then *Riker* is the one who starts to lose it after his experiences on the Yamato, to the point Picard gets bemused.
(And after all, Worf did turn out to be right about the giant beast who lives inside a hole in space, didn't he? Note how this exchange happens immediately after Riker and Picard discuss old mariner's tales about World's End.)
I could nitpick some things. Though Diana Muldaur's stage presence is as commanding and likable as ever, Doctor Pulaski does not exactly make an endearing case for herself when she refers to Data as “it” and the “you are of a different construct” scene with Nagilum is problematic on several levels. If nothing else, it's unbelievably embarrassing to watch a stately middle-aged veteran actor having to do bits like that, and once again Star Trek is coming across as pretty damn immature. And we're also once again digging up an irritating trend from the Original Series that should be *long* in the ground by now, namely, the random one-off redshirt death. I mean it even *literally is* a red shirt that guy is wearing, not even taking into account the switch of the operations division uniform to yellow and that command division personnel are traditionally spared this indignity. And one does wonder why Captain Picard is so quick to abandon the hole so a "real science vessel" can be sent to investigate it: So...the Enterprise *isn't* a science vessel then? Isn't this *exactly* the sort of thing it's supposed to be doing?
But even with those comparatively minor annoyances (well, they're minor *for now*. The more this franchise does this kind of thing the less patience I'm going to have with it and it's on thin ice as it is), it's unapologetic focus on exploration and curiosity marks “Where Silence Has Lease” as a key moment in the development of what I want Star Trek: The Next Generation to be. Future episodes I rank among my favourites, like “Cause and Effect” and “Timescape”, will all have the same core conceit of the Enterprise coming upon an uncharted area of space where weird and fun things happen and trying to piece it all together. This to me is the heart and soul of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and I infinitely prefer it to all the Klingon and Romulan realpolitking and Borg scaremongering the show is so beloved for. This is the sort of thing that got me to fall in love with this style of storytelling in the first place.